Had you been walking past Cruger Island Road last Thursday evening, you might have noticed a few bobbing lights in the dark woods beyond the street lamps. Don’t get too excited—Bard has not been occupied by fairies or aliens. Further investigation would have revealed a circle of hikers armed with flashlights and keen eyes, about to set off down the road in search of Bard’s most mysterious feathered residents: owls.
After receiving some instruction from out guide, Bruce Robertson, we began our walk down the sloping road. The full moon was bright despite the sheen of mild November mist which covered it, allowing those of us who had forgotten our flashlights to see relatively well. After several minutes Robertson signaled for us to stop. He opened an app on his iPhone and began to play owl calls that sounded like the complaints of little children.
We waited in a hushed huddle, eye scanning the black web of tree limbs above our heads. Then a call to echo Robertson’s sounded from the wood, and a few moments later there was a rustling in the branches. An inquisitive shadow perched itself in a nearby tree, come to investigate the intrusive language emitting from Robertson’s phone. Excited flashlight beams searched the trees, trying to get a good view of the bird, but apparently having decided we were no immediate threat, the owl took off from its branch, it’s white breast blazing in the flashlight beams for a moment, before disappearing into the darkness. We heard its indignant calls for several more minutes.
That was the Barred Owl, one of the larger owls that can be found on Bard’s campus. Robertson said it was a lucky viewing. In fact luck determines what will be found on most of his walks. “But the more you learn and get out,” he says, “the more likely you are to see amazing and special moments that you never forget.”
Robertson is an assistant professor of Biology here at Bard, but he gained his passion for owls while doing Prairie Chicken Research in Oklahoma, where local scientists would take him and his associates “owling.” He got the inspiration to start taking people on owl walks from Professor Susan Rogers, who took him and his classmates on one while he was a Bard student.
“I found it magical to see these reclusive animals up close,” Robertson said of his early experiences with owling.
Now Roberston hosts the walks several times a year in hopes of creating a connection between the Bard community and the environment we live in. “Knowing the names of the plants, animals, fungi and other life around us gives us a sense of place and identity that nothing else can…I want to share these animals with more people with the hope that they will learn to value them and fight for their continued existence.”
The next owl walk will be at Montgomery Place on November 15th, where Roberston hopes to spot a Great Horned Owl. He typically sees Barred and Screech Owls on his walks down Cruger Island Road, but has found a Great Horned Owl nest in the area and thinks the Northern Saw-whet Owls might also be around campus. Anyone hoping to attend a walk can contact Roberston at email@example.com, or learn when and where walks will be on the Bard Office of Sustainability events calendar.
Those attending the walk will have the opportunity to see and hear the owls of Bard, but even if it’s not a lucky night in terms of bird viewings, the crowd will still be treated to Roberston’s store of owl facts. For example, did you know that owls have three-dimensional hearing because one of their ears points up and the other down?
Class of 2021
picture courtesy of Clipart