Sewickley prowl offers birders chance to spot an elusive bird

Friday, January 25, 2019 | 6:03 AM


It’s something everyone — from Harry Potter fans to serious birders — should get to experience: seeing an owl perched in a tree against the clear night sky.

The National Aviary is offering an opportunity to do just that in the Sewickley area at the Allegheny Land Trust’s Audubon Greenway at 7 p.m. Jan. 31.

Ornithologist Bob Mulvihill will take a group on an owl prowl with the intent to spot the bird.

“The goal is to just give everyone that experience of witnessing one of these animals that they know about, that they read about in books,” Mulvihill said.

An owl prowl “is simply a cute way of saying that you’re going to go outside after dark and attempt to hear or see any kind of owl,” he said.

Owls are largely nocturnal and most can only be seen at night.

“It’s not something most people get to see in their lifetime,” he said.

The winter is a great time to go on an owl prowl. It’s dark earlier and visibility against the clear sky is better, Mulvihill said.

If you’re wondering if you’ve seen an owl, Mulvihill helped describe what they look like in this region.

Owls come in lots of sizes, but they’re mostly all the same shape — heavy bodied with a large head, perched in a upright manner. Some have smooth, rounded outlines to their heads, while others have ear tufts — or little pointy feathers that stick up from the top of their heads.

Owls can be as small as a soda can and as large as a waste basket, Mulvihill said.

There are three species of owls common in Western Pennsylvania, with the Eastern screech owl being the most common in the area.

“It’s probably in everybody’s neighborhood, in backyards and parks,” Mulvihill said. The screech owl nests in cavities and trees.

What makes it unique is that it comes in two colors. Some are a very rich, reddish brown, while others are grey.

You’ve probably heard it before, but didn’t know it was an owl, because it doesn’t hoot, Mulvihill said. Instead, its calls a a short double trill or a bark.

The great horned owl also is common in the area. It’s widespread in woods and farm fields, and is what people usually think of when they picture an owl, he said.

“It’s a big bird and it hoots,” said Mulvihill.

The barred owl is the least common of the three in the area. It’s a forest-resting owl, but can sometimes be found in area parks.

On an owl prowl, the owls obviously have the advantage, Mulvihill said. They can see and hear people coming from miles away. It’s more difficult for people to know if an owl is in the area.

Mulvihill will introduce the group to the owls of the region, along with their calls, anatomy and conservation challenges.

The group then will walk with their flashlights or headlamps along a trail, at least until, as Mulvihill jokes, his owl radar starts going off.

Then, it’s time for silence and lights out as Mulvihill sounds an owl call.

“When you get a response, it’s a little bit like fishing, you have to reel it in. So you play a little game of cat and mouse with it to try and get it to come closer,” he said.

During previous prowls, there have been times when owls have flown right above the group. In other instances, groups have gotten to see the elusive birds perched in a tree above them.

“It’s a really, really fun experience,” Mulvihill said.

Mulvihill has been working on a research project in Sewickley Heights Borough Park since 2013, so holding a prowl in the area is particularly exciting.

Project Owlnet monitors the migration of the Northern saw-whet, a species that was not definitely known to be present in the Sewickley area as a migrant bird until the study commenced.

Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.