Under a star-pocked night sky, Vince Zauskey is on the prowl for owls.
It's just after 7 p.m. on a trail off the intersection of the Greensprings Highway and Old Highway 99 outside Ashland. Stars shimmer in a cloudless sky. Frogs and the occasional hiss of tires on Interstate 5 nearby are the only sounds.
The bespectacled Zauskey, a bird enthusiast since he was a young boy, cups his hands over his mouth and calls into the darkness with his best great horned owl impression, a rhythmic hoot that sounds sort of like blowing air over the lip of an open soda pop bottle.
"Hoo-oo-oo. Hoo. Hoo."
He cups his hands over his ears while he gazes at the treeline in the distance. Then his eyes grow wide, and he gestures excitedly, pointing.
"Way out there," he whispers.
He's heard something, a far-off hoot among the trees. He gestures for silence so others can hear it. Nothing. That brief moment would have to suffice for this owl prowl.
Similar educational hikes Zauskey embarks on come with one goal: Get owls to call back, maybe to even fly right up and say hi. It's an activity many in Southern Oregon can easily take advantage of, especially with the prominence of great horned, barn and western screech owls in the area.
But if you're a novice to the hobby and want to check a Southern Oregon owl walk off your bucket list, there isn't a lot required to get going.
You really just have to listen.
No formal owl prowls were planned at the time this story went to press, but a bird walk led by the Rogue Valley Audubon Society is set for April 15. More information is available at www.roguevalleyaudubon.org.
Zauskey has been interested in this unique species of bird since he was 8 years old living in a remote, hilly area in Southern California. A great horned owl would land on a telephone pole outside his bedroom window during the night.
He took several classes on birds at Southern Oregon University during the 1970s. During the '80s and '90s, owl calls were part of his job description when he worked for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.
Even now, as an information technology professional for Ashland Fiber Network, Zauskey likes to venture into the woods at night, hands cupped to his ears, listening and calling.
"I like the evening hours," he says. "Most people are out, obviously, during the daytime. They're in their residences at night. But if you're out at night and you're really quiet, there are a lot of sounds out at night."
And, when you're lucky, some of those sounds come from owls.
No more hoots call back to Zauskey during this round. But he doesn't let it discourage him. He continues on down the same trail to another location. He tries some more great horned owl calls and listens.
The large birds (up to 25 inches long, with a wingspan of up to 41/4 feet) are known for their prominent ear-like tufts and yellow eyes. They eat other owls, rodents, reptiles, amphibians. Zauskey was successful in calling out to one back in 2009 in the same spot he attempts the call now. He heard it from a distance and called it in. The bird lighted on a large oak tree off Old Highway 99.
"It was extremely exciting," Zauskey says.
Other owls common to the area make different hoots. Barn owls have an unusual screech. Western screech owls sound similar to doves. Zauskey heard two of them conversing outside his home one morning while he fed his cat.
When Zauskey is trying to call the birds, he uses only his voice, never pre-recorded sounds. For some reason, recordings increase the risk of confusing the birds or making them territorial.
And just how do you recreate an owl call on your own? Make your mouth and trachea rounded and open. Mimic the phrase "Who's awake? Me too" with hoots. Listen to samples online and mimic them the best you can.
Great spots for practicing owl calls and listening for replies are in higher elevations, where noise from cars is restricted. Mount Ashland, Roxy Ann, Grizzly Peak or Table Rock are all good spots. Howard Prairie is, too, even during the day.
Go during late spring or early summer when most owls are nesting. Go with a group. Know your bearings.
Then just cup your ears and listen. You might hear something.
Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.