Birdwatchers Glimpse Owls in Basalt Under Full Moon

Jan 20, 2014

A full moon lit the way for a group of birdwatchers outside of Basalt. Last week, they walked around ACES' Rock Bottom Ranch, searching for owls.
Credit Marci Krivonen

Last week, under a gorgeous full moon on a cloudless night, a group of Roaring Fork Valley residents braved the cold to try and catch a glimpse of owls.  On a normal night owls can see better than humans and, not to mention, they can hear better than we do anytime day or night.  The Aspen Center for Environmental Studies held the moonlit walk at its Rock Bottom Ranch, just outside of Basalt.  Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen packed her binoculars and went along…

About 40 people quietly tromped through the snow under a full moon. The group whispered so as not to scare away owls. Chris Cohen works at the ranch.

"We’ve definitely seen them up here; the boy’s usually up here and the boy’s usually on the fence. And, they call back and forth to each other," she said

Rock Bottom Ranch is a good place to spot owls. It’s far away from city lights. Instead snowy fields and large cottonwood trees dot the landscape.

The group stops abruptly. A large bird-like silhouette is high up on a tree branch.

"So, it’s possible that that is an owl up there in the tree," said ranch hand Maria Sabljak.

She led the walk. As she pointed toward the tree, the bird made a fluffing motion. A common move for owls when they’re cold or uncomfortable.

"I mean, you can make out the body and the tail, so I think it’s definitely an owl," Sabljak said.

In Colorado, and across the country, Great Horned Owls are common. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes these birds as the “quintessential owl of storybooks”...with long, ear-like tufts, an intimidating yellow-eyed stare and a deep hooting voice.

"Great Horned Owls are nocturnal hunters, which means they hunt at night. So, they’re mainly relying on their sense of hearing," said Sarah Onstad.

She's a naturalist at ACES. She says these owls dine on all kinds of animals, from other birds to mice.

"When they’re perched up in the top of a tall tree, let’s say 75 feet high, he can hear a mouse’s footsteps, one foot underneath the snow."

Back outside, the group walks to stay warm in single-digit temperatures. Birdwatcher Judy Fox-Perry carves marble and she’s done a couple of owl carvings.

"So, I’ve looked really extensively at their anatomy and their head shapes and the ears, eyes and beaks. I wanted to hear more from a naturalist about owls."

She lives on a ranch west of Carbondale with her husband Will Perry. He says they hear owls on their property frequently.

"It kind of resonates across the valley. It makes you be quiet and listen, it’s a real primal thing to want to listen to it, like, ‘Oh! That’s an owl!’ It’s something you can identify and it’s soft and quiet and something listen carefully for...and, it’s magic."

The moonlit walk was part of ACES’ efforts to educate people about the natural world.