So, how can a Northern California birder hear dozens of owls of 4 different species in a single (very early) morning? By hopping on a bike!
Owling, the quest to hear and occasionally see owls at nighttime, is challenging by car. You need to find a spot to pull over, and by the time you’ve hopped out and closed your car door, every nocturnal creature in a 200m radius is aware of your presence. On foot, a canoe, or a bike, you can experience nocturnal sounds with minimal disturbance. The sense of peace on a quiet road is powerful.
Last week I took advantage of a warm, still night and biked up Page Mill Road in Palo Alto until I reached Skyline Drive, a road that follows the ridge of the Santa Cruz Mountains in Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties. By 2:30am I had dropped down into San Mateo County along smaller roads. From there I began a languid ride back uphill, rolling past solemn redwood groves, mixed oak woodlands, and grassy meadows. Great Horned Owls constantly exclaimed their presence, and one forest break offered up a pair of calling Northern Pygmy-Owls, harmonized by a distant Western Screech-Owl. The saw-whets occasionally wailed from mixed creekside habitat, and their toots could be heard from across broad, wooded canyons.
As dawn broke at Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve, I discovered that I had risen above the clouds. Mountain ridges peeked above the condensed water vapor, islands in a vast sea. The rewards of an early wake-up.