The Hunt for the Great Horned Owl


By Frank (and the Beautiful AP) Scoblete

After four months of weekly birding trips on Long Island, where I became the well-known expert in not-knowing-anything, my wife the Beautiful AP, our son Mike and I headed to Cape May, New Jersey for our annual Christmas trip. And this time, now knowing that Cape May is a premier bird-watching venue, we brought our binoculars.

This would be a bird-watching vacation! The three Scobletes reveling in nature while staying in a magnificent hotel, just where we (meaning “I”) belong. Knowing that Mike sleeps just as well camping under the stars as he does in a top hotel, AP told him, “This is as outdoorsy as Scobe and I get,” as we navigated well-marked trails.

Cape May has woodsy, watery, and grassy places harboring birds of all types, from cute little colorful and skittish songbirds to ravenous raptors such as hawks, falcons, and sometimes even bald eagles. It is one of the best birding areas in the world.

As we entered the “bird observatory” (about two miles of trails around a few lakes) I noticed a prominent sign. It had pictures of the birds that were currently being spotted, and smack in the middle was a photo of the great horned owl.

The great horned owl – at almost three-feet tall with strong wings and slashing claws – is perhaps the largest owl on earth and it eats just about anything it catches, including mammals and birds, some of which are its size or bigger.

Seeing the great horned owl would be a major coup in my birding career and quite early on at that. Very few birders in my South Shore Audubon Society have ever seen this bird since it is nocturnal. It would give me much-needed status in the birding community and take me from my current position of “Oh, he’s a birdbrain,” to a position of, “Can you believe this guy once saw a great horned owl?”

The following two days as we tramped around the great areas near the Cape May Lighthouse, we saw an amazing number of birds:

On a small pier in a salt-marsh lake we saw three cormorants perched looking for lunch.

We saw disorganized flocks of robins moving from tree to tree.

We also saw ducks: mallards, pretty males with their plain females; several spectacularly colored wood ducks (I consider them the peacocks of the duck world); and a few American black ducks, which are mostly brown with some gray and a spot of blue.

Of course, there were the ubiquitous Canada geese (named after a man named Canada – seriously – not after the country); a half dozen majestic white swans; three great blue herons, the largest of which came flying down from the sky to stand still on the edge of the lake also looking for lunch. These herons can stand still for a very (very!) long time just waiting for their meals to arrive.

We also saw numerous gulls – I just don’t know one gull from another yet. To be honest I also don’t know the names of most birds from most other birds. Sadly, I am a birder without a bird brain yet

And, of course, there were dozens of different types of songbirds – those small, swift flying creatures seemingly always looking out for predators that are looking to eat these little guys. It’s hard to get them into view because as soon as you lift your binoculars the birds tend to zip away.

Although we saw various types of sparrows, they don’t give us a thrill; we have maybe 800 thousand of them at our feeders every day.

We got a close-up view of a nest of the cute black-capped chickadees. Actually it was more like a communal apartment building made of leaves and small branches with quite a number of these adorable birds flitting in and out.

Then we saw a bird that Paul, a member of our South Shore Audubon society, calls “butter butt” which I think is actually called the yellow-rumped warbler. If you look at the bird’s butt, right under it is a yellow horseshoe design – I’m talking bright yellow. I have only seen this particular one so far in my expeditions, although the Beautiful AP has seen several.

For three days up above we saw numerous hawks. We’re still trying to identify them. They glided in the sky as if they owned it.

In fact, these predators, and other predators like them, do own the sky. They don’t so much fly as soar; they glide through the air like winged warriors. All other birds, constantly flapping their wings, look as if they are putting such energy in flight, but not the predators. They are the birds to be reckoned with.

As we hiked, we scanned the trees for the great horned owl. We talked about the past, the present and the future. We stopped to focus on myriad birds. We admired nature (as outdoorsy as we get). We joked around. We looked up birds on AP’s Audubon app. One or another of us stopped to pee. One or another of us produced mini alcohol wipes for the person who peed.

And our hunt for the great horned owl? No luck there. But the walking, talking, kidding around, the spotting of all the other birds, the admiring of nature even at our modest level of outdoorsy-ness – isn’t marked or marred by the absence of the great horned owl. Instead it is an occasion memorable for the time we did spend together away from the hustle and bustle of daily life, for what we did see together and for what we did say to one another.  And that, my friends, is a Scoblete bird walk.

[Read my new book Confessions of a Wayward Catholic! Available from kindle, Barnes and Noble, and at bookstores.]

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