With a full yellow moon rising above Sengekontacket and a sky full of stars visible through bare branches, a screech owl cry broke the quiet on Friday night at Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary.
Alas, the trilling noise (not really a screech, it should be noted, but sort of a high-pitched whinny) came from a bird call device held by Felix Neck property steward Philip Hunsaker. A few dozen people, gathered in silence for a Felix Neck Big Moon Owl Prowl, waited and looked for a real screech owl to return the cry.
Felix Neck property manager Philip Hunsaker prepares Owl Prowlers for evening walk.
— Ivy Ashe
But the owls weren’t falling for it Friday, or perhaps they were out hunting for dinner elsewhere. The owl prowlers, led by Mr. Hunsaker, walked quietly through the night, stopping here and there to try to lure the elusive screech owls.
“No dice,” Mr. Hunsaker said after the last attempt.
The snowy owls that have arrived on the Vineyard this winter have been getting a lot of attention, but Friday’s owl prowl brought the spotlight to the Island’s year-round owl residents. While the snowy owls fly in during the winter, barn owls, screech owls, Great Horned owls, short-eared owls and Northern saw-whet owls also live on the Island.
Most of the owls hunt for rodents. “That’s the big go-to for everybody, because this Island is crawling with rodents,” Mr. Hunsaker said during a short owl primer Friday night. He demonstrated how owls hunt; swooping down talons-first to stun their pray, then killing them with their beaks.
Maren Mercier studies an owl talon as sister Ruby looks on.
— Ivy Ashe
Besides their hunting prowess, Mr. Hunsaker showed off other owl facts and features. The owls have serrated feathers, making their flight nearly silent, all the better for hunting. Owls’ big eyes and ability to swivel their heads 270 degrees each way add to their hunting prowess. Their brains are actually quite tiny, despite the owl’s reputation for wisdom.
Owl prowl attendees, who represented all ages, also got a look at the contents of owl pellets and barn owl skulls.
Newly filled with owl knowledge, the group walked the Felix Neck grounds with the aid of a head lamp or two. Mr. Hunsaker said screech owls are almost as abundant as robins on the Vineyard, however they proved elusive during the walk.
But the owl prowl wasn’t a bust. Besides the breathtaking views of the stars and the moon above Sengekontacket, Felix Neck’s resident barn owls saved the day. As the group passed by a field, Mr. Hunsaker halted and listened. Barn owls could be heard screeching back and forth in the distance. Two barn owl pairs have nested at Felix Neck, and while they too were not visible during Friday’s walk, they can be observed via Felix Neck’s owl cam.
“Well, we heard them,” Mr. Hunsaker said at the end of the prowl. “In the bird world that’s as good as seeing them. It counts. You can write it on your list.”