by Suzanne M. Wood
illustration by Addie McElwee
The first indication that the owl “safari” I was about to embark on would be more of an audio experience than a visual one came when leader Meredith Massengill hoisted a large black boom box and megaphone into the cab of the white, full-size Chevy pickup.
A dozen of us were gathered on a brisk Friday evening, and we had just heard owl calls blaring from that boom box. Massengill, the program director at Rudolph Howell & Son Environmental Learning Center near Smithfield, was about to play her recorded screeches in the woods for the local population of barred owls and great horned owls, the two species most plentiful in the Triangle. We’d be lucky to hear the secretive birds, she told us, let alone see them.
A couple of young families and other owl adventurers and I packed in shoulder-to-shoulder, huddled for warmth on wooden benches in the back of the truck. The wind came at us full-force across the fields. After about half a mile on a dirt road riddled with muddy ditches and an overflowing stream, we pulled over in a copse of bare-limbed trees.
We were adjacent to the Neuse, and it turns out that bottomland forest along a river like this is prime habitat for the barred owl. Massengill and Jordan Astoske, the center’s director, set up the audio equipment while we made the four-foot leap off the back of the truck. One young father took it upon himself to gallantly help the women disembark, and although I was prepared to jump, I took his proffered hand. Parents hushed their kids as the “who-cooks-for-you” call of the barred owl blared from the loudspeaker, alternating with the “who-who” call of the less-common great horned owl.
“It might take a few minutes,” Astoske said. First, the owls would have to recognize the call – or the “bark,” as ornithologists describe it – and then decide if they felt safe enough to respond in kind.
Although we were as quiet as any group of amateur birders with five kids under 10 could possibly be, nobody heard an owl respond. Even my husband, Scott, who wandered away from the group in the hopes of a better chance of hearing one, had no luck. Instead, we were treated to the honking of a few Canada geese heading in to roost just as full dark set in. And several sharp-eyed children caught sight of a small herd of does in the woods about 30 yards from where we stood.
As the air grew colder and the light dimmer, we headed down another of the several roads that traverse the 2,800-acre property, which the late Rudy Howell donated to the college in 1993. This time, the water obstacle we faced – a roaring stream with rapids and a roar that got the children squealing – was too much for even the full-sized Chevy and its high clearance. Another road took us to a clearing that had proven to be an ideal spot for owl-hearing during prior safaris.
Stiffer and number from the cold, I decided to stay on my perch atop the truck; about half the others, including most of the kids, tumbled off. Massengill fired up the tape, and we waited. And waited. Then, very faint and seemingly far away, it came: “who-cooks-for-you? who-cooks-for-you?” I wanted to cheer.
I’ve always been fascinated by owls. Maybe it began when I came across a copy of a slim volume called Owl by William Service at my great-aunt’s house. The book describes how the author and his family rescued an abandoned owlet and then, besotted, let it rule the roost. I yearned for an owl of my own, but my mother reminded me that Manhattan wasn’t the ideal place to rescue or raise one. My first close encounter came much later, when a giant great horned owl glided noiselessly just over my head at dusk on a canoe trip to Merchants Millpond State Park in Gatesville, N.C. about 25 years ago.
But whether it was the inevitable squirms of children trying hard to be silent, or just the wariness of the owls themselves, the woods went silent once again.
Back at the learning center, which displays indigenous reptiles and amphibians on loan from the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, I visited two permanent winged residents of Howell Woods. Neither Trixie, a barred owl, nor Carl, a great horned owl, can be returned to the wild because of injuries they suffered prior to captivity.
They were dignified in their enclosures. And, like most of their wild friends that night, silent.
If you go:
The Rudolph Howell & Son Environmental Learning Center, known as Howell Woods, is about a 45-minute drive from Raleigh. It’s open to the public year-round and features five fishing ponds; trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding; tent-camping sites; and rental cabins. It also operates a wild hog, turkey, and deer hunting program. As part of its mission to increase environmental awareness, it maintains a learning center that houses live animals and offers educational programs for all ages, including the owl safari. Howell Woods is located at 6601 Devil’s Racetrack Road in the Bentonville community of southeastern Johnston County. For more information, visit johnstoncc.edu/howellwoods.