Vince Zauskey, an owl expert with the Audubon Society, mimics a northern pigmy owl near the Lower Table Rock trailhead Thursday. Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch

Walk on the wild side

Vince Zauskey speaks fluent owl, with barely a trace of a human accent.

"A northern pygmy owl makes a three-note whistle," the owl expert explained during a recent walk along the Lower Table Rock trail at dusk. He pursed his lips and slowly whistled three short toots.

"That doesn't carry very far, so I sometimes use my other whistles," he said.

With that, he pulled a red-and-white whistle out of his bag of toy whistles and blew three more short toots.

"Now that's a little high-pitched," he observed.

Then he selected yet another toy whistle, this one shaped like a small fish.

"This is a little lower, sounding a little between a hoot and a whistle," he said.

Sure enough, the sound was a bit less shrill, perhaps the kind that might strike the fancy of another pygmy owl.

Zauskey and Bob Quaccia, both owl experts and Audubon Society volunteers, will be leading a dusk-to-dark walk up Lower Table Rock on April 24. The educational and fun hikes are part of the annual Table Rocks weekend spring hikes, which begin Saturday, April 3. The hikes are organized each year by The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Those schooled in owl talk will attempt to lure pygmy owls, great horned owls and screech owls that evening.

"Owls are very unique," Zauskey said. "Many of them are nocturnal. They can see in the dark, but they also use their asymmetrical hearing to hunt for prey. One ear is a little higher than the other.

"An owl's face is like a parabolic reflector," he said. "When an owl hears a mouse, it hears it first with one ear, then turns its head slightly to pick up the same sound with the other ear. Where the two sounds cross, that's where the food is."

Owls glide silently to their prey, enabling them to reach their food before it has a chance to scram, the Ashland resident noted.

Zauskey, 60, joined the Audubon Society 40 years ago while a communications student at what is now Southern Oregon University in Ashland.

But his fascination with the wise, old birds of myth flew in long before he started college.

"I remember being 8 or 9 years old in the hills of Southern California," he said. "Our neighbor had a telephone pole on his property. Almost every night an owl would land on that pole and hoot."

He quietly watched that owl for hours, he recalled.

"That's what I want people to do on our hike — be very quiet and just listen once it gets dark," he said. "They may hear some ambient noise like a plane or a car in the distance. But they may also hear an owl before I start calling."

The hikers may hear a killdeer or a common poorwill, too, although he noted they generally arrive later in the spring.

Although the recent hike marked the first time Zauskey has "owled" on Lower Table Rock, he has hiked there several times. It's good owl habitat, he noted.

"Particularly for screech owls," he said. "There are a lot of oaks here. There would be tree cavities, and they are cavity nesters."

Despite their names, pygmy owls prey largely on other birds, and likely will be found there, he said, noting they hunt birds during the day.

Toward the other end of the size continuum, there are the great horned owls around, too, which will take other owls for food."If I heard a pygmy or western screech owl here, I would not try to call in a great horned after that," he said, later adding he is also very cautious about disrupting the lives of nesting birds.

A great horned owl's call sounds like, "Who's awake? Me too!" he noted.

More than a dozen different species of owls have been seen in the Rogue Valley over the years, he said, including a few of what birders call "accidental" sightings — species only rarely seen in these parts.

"The most accidental was a snowy owl found in the 1980s," he said of an owl normally found farther north. "That was in the winter. It was an immature bird."

He stopped again, this time to make the call of a western screech owl — a series of short low-pitched whistles that get closer and closer together until they abruptly stop.

With no answer in the growing twilight, he reached into his bag of tricks to pull out a small horn. He squeezed it, producing a sound reminiscent of a mouse or other small rodent. He used the device often while making northern spotted owl surveys.

A pair of acorn woodpeckers flew up to a nearby oak tree to check out the imposter. He continued a variation of whistling and squeaking. Out of the oak savannah came an answer remarkably similar to the pygmy owl whistle. Some 200 feet to the northwest, a bird with a long tail could be seen gliding among the trees."An accipiter hawk, maybe a Cooper's hawk," Zauskey whispered. "It was probably looking for one last food item before it goes into a roost for the night."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at

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