I've grown used to the funny looks; the subtle little side glances as they pass by on bicycle or on foot, often walking a dog. Or maybe it's the delayed turnaround after putting enough distance between us, just to make sure they aren't being followed by the strange guy with the binoculars. From the homebound, it's the furtive peek around the curtain. It's the rare person - often a young child - whose curiosity can't keep them from asking that which is begging to be asked, "Are you a bird watcher?"
I can't blame them, of course. As humans we are conditioned to recognize and react to the different. We have to be able to discern the normal from the not-quite-right. It's hardwired into our DNA. Certainly it's beneficial to be able to pick out that saber-toothed cat in the tall grass when we exit our cave. Without such a trigger, we have the potential to place ourselves in danger; just the sort of genetic shortcoming for which nature has little tolerance.
I only point this out because my recent activity has likely stirred even more uncertainty in the few people who have witnessed it. I've taken to lurking around in the dark. That's right, I've been looking for owls.
After a careful examination of this hobby, I've come to the conclusion I don't see enough owls. More accurately, I don't make the attempt to see enough owls. I'm not necessarily talking about the ubiquitous great horned owl which appears almost anywhere whether rural or urban. No, I'm speaking of what I like to call the "little" owls.
I've seen a few of them through the years but not a large number. And those were mostly accidental sightings in the daylight with little more than blind luck playing the larger role. In brief, I, like most other birders, have given owling short shrift.
There are good reasons for this. Nighttime wanderings through the woods are not comfortable. There is something instinctively wrong with doing it. Maybe it goes back to that saber-toothed cat and the cave thing. Honestly, it's sort of spooky. There's another potential challenge to comfort too - it's typically cold. Not to mention this is usually the time when our bodies are prone to sleep, not saunter in the forest.
There really aren't very many expected species around these parts when I say "little" owls. I'm talking mostly about eastern screech owl, short-eared owl, long-eared owl and northern saw-whet owl. We can probably eliminate short-eared owl from the list right off the bat since it's a prairie bird and shuns the woods.
Of the remaining three species, eastern screech owl is the easiest to locate. It's a permanent resident after all, and with some effort one should be able to find them. I've had more luck in residential areas with this bird than anywhere else. It seems to be particularly fond of streets with old elm trees.
The other two have been personally frustrating. I've only found one long-eared owl in Cass County and one northern saw-whet owl, which happened earlier this month. After spending many dark and fruitless hours seeking this bird, I finally located one along the Sheyenne River near West Fargo. Persistence pays off. I guess I can cite the motto of the fictional Witwicky family in the "Transformers" movies since it seems to fit: "No sacrifice, no victory."
I can't boast of a high degree of success in my owl searches. Hopefully I'm learning a little something along this journey into darkness. I'd encourage anyone with an interest to give it a shot, since migrant owls are filtering through the area in this season.
Plus night falls much earlier these days which makes for a reasonably early evening. I will caution you though, partaking in this requires patience and perseverance. And be mindful of a public which will scrutinize and question your presence. Owling barely fits into the program for most birders. You can imagine how it sits with an unfamiliar public.