Sundance • After 10 days of snowboarding and taking in the winter night life in Park City, Ken and Melissa Brown were ready for something a little different.
The couple from Knoxville, Tenn., decided to escape the noise and bright lights and join a dozen other people on a night hike in the moon shadow of Mount Timpanogos. Their goal? To spot, or at least hear, owls. Turns out they got an up-close-and-personal encounter with the nocturnal creatures even before hitting the trails.
Patti Richards of Great Basin Wildlife Rescue had brought four owls to the owling outing offered by Sundance Resort the last Friday of 2011. One of the birds would not be traveling back down the canyon at least not in a vehicle.
"We were glad they brought the owls ahead of time," Ken Brown said. "Seeing them like that and then watching them release the rehabilitated owl was a very cool experience."
Richards brought three educational owls a northern saw-whet, Western screech and barn to help participants learn about the mysterious raptors of the dark.
A chorus of ooohs and aaahs comparable to those heard at a New Year's Eve fireworks show rang out as student volunteer Andalyn Hall brought out tiny Connery Saw-Whet (he has his own Facebook page under that name).
"He's so cute!"
"That's as big as he will get?"
"What does he eat?"
Connery, all of 8 inches tall, sat on Hall's hand like a model, hardly flinching despite all the attention bestowed on him. Like the other two educational birds, Connery had suffered injuries during his time in the wild that make it unlikely he can survive on his own.
The great horned owl Richards brought was a different story. The bird had been delivered to Great Basin Wildlife Rescue two months ago with a visual impairment, then nursed back to health. When the owl proved he could hunt on his own using hearing, Richards decided to return him to the wild.
The owl made several participants unnecessarily duck during his departure, then soared silently into the night.
"It's awesome every time," Richards said after the release. "People ask if I get upset and cry, but I'm more like 'get going.' I want them in the wild."
And she has put a lot there, averaging 150 to 200 rehabilitated raptor returns to the wild each year. She also works under federal and state law with orphaned black bear cubs.
With low snowfall and warm conditions, a decision was made to go without the usual snowshoes worn on the Sundance owling hikes. Armed with trekking poles, head lamps and a boom box, the group set off on the hiking portion of the evening. At the first stop, Scott Root, an outreach specialist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, pulled out the boombox and hit the play button.
"I like the megabass. It helps get that booming call of the great horned owl out there," Root said while hoisting the music player on his shoulders.
The group fell silent as electronic calls of the owl rang from the device and echoed throughout the canyon. Every ear ached for the sound of a response. After three minutes and no call back, Root turned to the northern saw-whet call. Some became restless when that too went unanswered.
There was some excitement when the distant yell of a skier under the lights on the slopes of Sundance reached them, but the group made two more unsuccessful stops before heading back to the yurt. There were a few "maybes" when Root asked if anyone heard anything that might may have been an owl.
"We get a response about half the time," he said. "Sometimes you don't even need the calls; you can just hear them."
Back at the yurt, Amanda Plumb of Sandy reflected on the evening and said she would like to try to find owls during a night hike again. The 22-year-old said her mother had learned about the event and thought it would be fun to take family visiting from out of town.
"At first my feet were a little cold, but I quickly got into the spirit of it. Seeing the owls before we went on the hike was really cool. It really helped me imagine them in the outside world," she said.
The Browns also said they would likely return to the Sundance Nordic Center, but perhaps with extended family in tow for a moonlight snowshoe hike.
As they departed, the Browns mentioned they planned on stopping at the appropriately named Owl Bar at Sundance to toast their new favorite birds.
Owls in Utah
Here's a list of owls that have been spotted in Utah according to the Utah Ornithological Society. Descriptions of the codes can be found below.
Barn Owl • uncommon/permanent resident
Flammulated Owl • uncommon/summer resident
Western Screech Owl • uncommon/permanent resident
Great Horned Owl • common/permanent resident
Snowy Owl • accidental
Northern Pygmy-Owl • uncommon/permanent resident
Elf Owl • accidental
Burrowing Owl • uncommon/summer resident and rare/permanent
Spotted Owl • rare/permanent resident
Great Gray Owl • accidental
Long-eared Owl • occasional/permanent resident
Short-eared Owl • uncommon/permanent resident
Boreal Owl • occasional
Northern Saw-whet Owl • uncommon/permanent resident
C = COMMON • Found consistently in large number in appropriate habitat and season
U = UNCOMMON • Inconsistently found in small numbers in appropriate habitat and season
R = RARE • Found infrequently but annually in very small numbers in appropriate habitat and season
O = OCCASIONAL • Not observed annually, but a few individuals may occur some years in appropriate habitat and season
A = ACCIDENTAL • Not expected and out of normal range (few records)
P = Permanent resident • Found year round in the state
S = Summer resident • Present in the state during the nesting season)
Sundance Resort in Provo Canyon is holding four more owling trips at its Nordic Center, two miles past the resort on Highway 92.
When • The remaining dates are Jan. 22, Feb. 19, March 5 and March 26. The Jan. 22 event is sold out, but call now (801-223-4170) to get on a waiting list or to make reservations for other dates.
Cost • $30 per person; includes a guide, snowshoe rental and access to the trails.