As NFL fans prepared snacks for the biggest game of the year, a group of strangers was gathering in a Delaware airport parking lot, where snow still gathered on the edges of the pavement and frost clung to a few cars that had clearly been left overnight.
Rather than a football field in Atlanta, their game was about to be played across 150 miles, six public lands and involve eight owl species.
For the rest of America, it might have been Super Bowl Sunday. But for these amateur ornithologists and many others, Feb. 3 was Superb Owl Sunday.
And just as they were plotting their game plan, there was a time out.
Someone had spotted something perched atop a building at the New Castle County Airport.
A merlin, a small type of falcon, could probably elicit more reserved joy from this small group than a hundred touchdowns.
After peering at the predator relaxing in the cool morning air, the self-described bird nerds loaded up and headed to their first stop: John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, across from the Philadelphia International Airport, one of the most urban stops of the day.
For about four decades, the Delmarva Ornithological Society has led enthusiastic birders on adventures through the woods and along waters’ edge, searching for the eight different owl species known to perch and nest in the naked trees of Delaware’s winters.
And who better to lead them on this surprisingly warm winter morning than Jim White, a nature enthusiast and Delaware Nature Society staff member? White recently earned the Delaware Audubon Society’s 2018 conservation award for his decades of work in Delaware and, for about 25 years, White has been the one herding the birders going owling (like birding, but for only owls).
“We’ve wuss-ified this trip,” he said while driving on the highway to the group’s first destination. For the first 20 years, the birders would hit the road for an all-day owl-searching escapade at 5 a.m. Now the start time is a more manageable 8 a.m., and it’s all for the birds.
“Everything’s for fun,” White said. “Life is for fun.”
After a 30-mile drive, the crew piled into the parking lot at John Heinz, a sanctuary surrounded by urban life where one crew member had recently spotted a species on the group’s list.
Saw-whet owls, tiny, fluffy predators with Boreal Forest breeding grounds, are known for finding a good perch in their wintering grounds and staying put.
It only took a few minutes to stumble upon the first bird, mostly hidden by foliage as it sat on a branch a bit higher than typical for this species.
But another path led to a second owl sitting in a tree directly nearby, dozing on and off in the daylight as if it could not care less about the birders and photographers giddily whispering on the ground.
“Owling is an interesting thing, it’s a different kind of birding,” White said. “You’re hard searching. But owls are fascinating.”
White and other experienced birders in the group said they keep an eye out for “whitewash,” an extremely polite term for the bird poop that can be seen trailing down a tree trunk.
And sure enough, there was whitewash below that saw-whet “puff ball,” part of what helped White and the others spot it.
White said that over the years, this and other field trips have helped illustrate the positive changes for Delaware’s various bird species. From a proliferation of bald eagles to a rebound of pileated woodpeckers, those iconic species tell a story of how humans have – in most parts of the state – allowed older forests to grow back after they were hewn down for industry and agriculture.
At the next stop at White’s place of work, the Delaware Nature Society’s Ashland Nature Center in Hockessin, a bald eagle flew overhead, eliciting a calm response from birders used to seeing the nation’s emblem frequenting First State skies.
They were pleased, but that’s not what they were there for.
They were heading to the Coverdale Farm Preserve nestled among the expensive mansion-like homes of Delaware’s chateau country.
“I don’t think we’ll get stuck,” White said with a smirk, as the warm winter day threatened to melt the lingering snow and make a mess. “We might. But there’s a lot of people to push.”
That go-with-the-flow approach followed the group throughout the entire trip, as a caravan of mostly gray and silver sedans and hatchbacks traveled from Philadelphia and northern Delaware to southern Kent County in search of the elusive snowy and short-eared owls, as well as the screech, barred and barn owls.
At the Coverdale stop, a long-eared owl (which truly lives up to its name, looking like its creator got confused about whether bunny ears should be on a bird of prey) fascinated the dozen-plus nature enthusiasts, who tip-toed through the woods.
“We’ve been very careful with these birds this year,” White said, noting that the long-eared owls sometimes come as early as October, at least for the past few years. This year, there was no sign of them until January, much later than usual.
“I’m paranoid about it,” he said. For the shier species – clearly, those fluff-ball saw-whet owls are not included in this group – humans can cause some serious stress. If people are disruptive enough to “flush” a bird – meaning the bird flies away from its nesting or resting spot – it can force them to expend energy they should be saving on fattening up for the winter.
Flushing was recently a problem at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge, which attracted a slew of birders and photographers last winter when short-eared owls did their nightly dance at dusk and a snowy owl was in the most picturesque position on the dunes at Fowler Beach. Sometimes the urge to get that perfect photo outweighs the awareness that these superb birds should not be harassed, experts said at the time.
“I don’t know how he even spotted it,” one of the younger birds in the group said.
After some huffing and puffing back up the hill, it was a long drive down to Kent County to search for a barred owl, which White spotted almost as soon as he approached the tree it was sitting in. Spotting the fluffy gray squirrel tail dangling below its feet may have helped a bit.
The morning’s adventures of three-for-three in the owl-spotting world set up a good start to the day. But the next three stops would not prove as successful.
Searching for a snowy owl near the Dover Air Force Base turned up nothing but a quick stop to see the planes at the museum. A trip down a slushy dirt road at the Little Creek Wildlife Area that ended at the David S. Small Trail in Little Creek also led to a lack of screeches.
But by the time the group reached Port Mahon, it was getting close to dusk – prime time for the flitting short-eared owls known to frequent the Delaware Bay marshes hunting for food in the waning light.
After trying to find a barn owl in nearby woods, the group went bumping along the pothole-laden road to the pier, where the group scanned the horizon for owls dipping over a sea of phragmites. For some, the variety of gulls, ducks and a lone bald eagle sitting on a bay iceberg provided entertainment during the wait.
No such luck spotting the short-ears there, but not one person in the group complained. There was never any pushing or shoving, blaming, complaining or competing. Just a group of people from Delmarva with one common love of nature.
They just got in their cars and drove off into the sunset, holding out hope that they might have one last run of luck at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge. But there’s always next year.
Eight superb owls
1. Northern saw-whet owl: This little owl winters in the area, White said. According to the National Audubon Society, this species is described as a “round-headed little gnome” known to perch in conifer groves in the winter.
2. Long-eared owl: Described as a medium-sized owl by the National Audubon Society, this owl can be found roosting in groups in winter. It is a relatively uncommon species on Delmarva.
3. Barred owl: These owls are year-round residents of Delaware, White writes in his owl blog, and are usually found near swamps, wet woodlands or floodplains.
4. Snowy owl: This picturesque Arctic visitor is known to attract birders and photographers from all over when it reaches Delmarva during the winter. Because the beach resembles its tundra-like home, and provides good snacking, it can be spotted sitting on beach dunes, White previously told The News Journal.
5. Eastern Screech owl: This species, known for its terror-inducing trill, is among four owl species known to nest in Delaware, according to White.
6. Barn owl: This Delmarva frequenter is known to like marshes and farm fields, and can often be found in man-made structures such as—yep, you guessed it—barns, according to White.
7. Short-eared owl: These agile hunters, who are said to look like moths when in flight, enjoy hunting meadow voles in Delaware marshes, when they travel this far south, White previously told The News Journal.
8. Great horned owl: One of four owl species known to nest in Delaware, this species is relatively common in Delaware and known to be very vocal at dawn and dusk, according to White’s Delaware Nature Society blog on owls.
Contact reporter Maddy Lauria at (302) 345-0608, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MaddyinMilford.
This article originally appeared in The News Journal on February 13, 2019. You can read it here.