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West Valley Focus

CALABASAS : Owl Watchers Keep Eyes and Ears Peeled

November 26, 1993|REBECCA BRYANT

Hunched over with cold fingers shoved into warm jeans pockets to thaw, about 40 people braved the night chill in hopes of meeting the wide-eyed stares of California's nocturnal birds.

You have to be a night owl to see one, these folks figured as they set out to search the treetops and telephone poles of the Santa Monica Mountains campus of Soka University.

Three groups of a dozen people split off to try their luck in the private university's second free owl watch Saturday.

Led by John Pepin, a field ornithologist from Valencia, one group tramped across a newly plowed field toward oaks and pines that might hold the night's prize.

Owl watchers were on the lookout, Pepin said, for three types of the night birds. Barn owls, often called ghost owls, have white bodies and hollow-looking black eyes. Western screech owls average only about eight inches in height. Easier to spot might be the great horned owl, which can reach nearly two feet in height.

"Let's stop for a minute," Pepin said. "I'm hearing a great horned out here somewhere."

The owl, which Pepin said was probably calling to find a date for the upcoming breeding season, took off from a nearby pine and flew past the hopeful birders.

Pepin led the group to a stand of trees and tried to play a tape-recorded screech owl call. But the portable cassette player didn't work.

John Alderson, parks administrator for the city of Pasadena, decided to improvise. He pursed his lips, and from the tall 47-year-old came shrill mouse squeaks. Pepin joined in. Either the owls weren't fooled, or they figured these mice were too big to bother with.

A few more successful sightings of great horned owls and the group was off to the barn owl roost, a hole in a tree with "white wash" coming out of it, Pepin said.

"That's owl poo," added one of the observant followers.

"Ssssshhhhhhhht," came a call from the trees. The barn owl wasn't amused.

"Shhhhhhhhhhh," replied Pepin.

Across the field, a coyote chimed in, howling and yipping to fill the silences between Pepin and the unseen owl's retorts.

Under the tree, Pepin picked up what seemed to be thumb-size chunks of semi-glazed earth. The pellets, as he called them, were vomited by the barn owls and consisted of the indigestible parts of their prey. Pepin broke apart the pellets to show part of a tiny skull and two intact femurs.

The next owl watch is planned for March, when the crickets will probably come out.

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