Owling: Not the Instagram Fad Kind

By: Kristina Tatusko Henry

Living on Maryland's still-rural Eastern Shore, I see wild animals every day, whether on country roads or in our own backyard. Barred owls, hawks, osprey and herons occasionally make their homes in our neighborhood; after all, our area boasts a major food source (rabbits) and plenty of trees for predator birds. When a friend mentioned that she was tagging saw-whet owls as part of her job, I wished aloud that I could go. 

Flattered by my interest, she invited my husband and me to join her. My friend could not promise anything more than a night in the woods--some nights were more fruitful than others, and she couldn't predict that we would catch anything.

The night of our outing was clear and crisp. When we left the warm ranger station to check the first net, we found walking in complete darkness in the cold night air to be an adventure unto itself. My mind kept reverting to every slasher movie ever made. Watching crazed serial killers chase their prey through dark woods always unnerves me; I yell at the TV screen for the victims to run faster or hide.In real life, simply walking in dark woods is a challenge--flashlights are forbidden on these jaunts, since they can disturb the owls, and running would be out of the question.

My husband and I followed our guides as they chatted and walked as if on city sidewalk in broad daylight. I kept putting my hands in front of me and saw only darkness. A little weird but kind of neat.  

When we got close, we could hear the automated saw-whet owl call. My anticipation rose, but the nets they were empty. Disappointed but undeterred, I remained optimistic that our quest would bring results. Besides, a night in the woods is still a delight, especially in a wildlife refuge where public access after dark is forbidden.  A behind-the-scenes tour much like crossing the velvet rope is my idea of the ultimate treat. 

The next check-up proved more fruitful, with one tiny saw-whet wedged in the net. After gently disentangling it, my friend placed it in a pouch for its protection, and I got to carry it back to the station. Once the weighing and tagging were completed I looked at our small charge; it was practically weightless. 

I could feel bones under its downy feathers and soft rhythmic heartbeats. The sensation of holding a wild animal brought back memories of box turtles and toads caught in the woods behind our Vienna, Virginia home. Temporary treasures, I call them, to enjoy for an afternoon before releasing them back into their natural habitat.

We headed towards a wooden bridge halfway between the station and the net. My friend instructed me to open my hand and let the owl get its bearings. She would fly away quickly.

I opened my hand.  

Nothing.

After a few minutes I moved my hand up and down to encourage the little bird to fly away.

Our eyes, having adjusted to the dark, watched as the owl continued to stay in place. My friend was amazed as the owl sat in my hand, staring at us. I decided to set it on the bridge railing. I stroked its feathers but still, it did not fly away. So for a few more minutes, we talked about owls and trees and nature and how fortunate we were in that moment to be a part of it. Then, without warning, the owl flew off to a nearby tree. But for a brief moment we were kids again, exploring the woods around us and seeing life as a fairy tale.

Kristina Tatusko Henry is a writer who's contributed to Washingtonian Magazine, The Washington Post, and Maryland Life, in addition to penning four children's picture books. She lives in Easton, Maryland with her husband Mike.