Owling with Tony Beck: Opening your senses to the wild

It’s cold. Dark. What the heck am I doing, out in the middle of nowhere at 11:30 p.m.?

Last Wednesday I enjoyed an owling expedition with Tony Beck, Jo-Ellen and Geoffrey Cushing, and their two children, Kirk (10) and Janna Lee (7), as well as keen birder, Mario Gervais, at Cushing Nature Retreat, northeast of Ladysmith.

Conditions were perfect: not a cloud in the sky and not a touch of wind. A calm night’s the best for seeing and hearing wildlife.

But it’s not for everyone, owling. However, for anyone truly interested in nature, it’s thrilling to venture out at night to absorb its mysterious ways, as revealed in the sounds, smells and sights of nocturnal life. For truly, we are not alone… and it’s a good thing to remind ourselves of our place within nature, don’t you think?

Because we human beings rely so much on sight to interpret experiences, the darkness forces us to use other senses.

What did we discover? We heard the chorus of spring peepers, the croak of wood frogs, the whirr of the common snipe, the nasal “tzeet” of the American woodcock.

And finally, yes, we heard the repetitive call of the saw-whet owl and later, standing on the beach at Indian Lake, heard the “who-whoo” call of the barred owl.

There were other highlights, too. Overhead, a wood duck flew past, its silhouette outlined against the last light of day; and everyone except me spied four wood ducks which swam then flew out of range of my gaze.

In the wetlands on one side of the Cushing’s laneway, a swamp sparrow sang while, on the forested opposite embankment, a white-throated sparrow called its last evensong.

After the Cushings left, Mario, Tony and I continued our quest by car. Driving west of Ladysmith, our hardy little group searched in vain for more owls. But we had our reward: just before ending for the night, the hauntingly wild cry of the common loon rang out.

This call always gives me goosebumps - and I’m sure many of you react the same way. Its wistful loneliness somehow sums up the fragile beauty of the wild, and emphasizes (for me) how precious wilderness habitat is to us all.

So, it was a successful birding adventure, in my books. And this is “situation normal,” in my experience over the years, whenever I go on an outing with expert birdwatcher Tony Beck.

Many of you will recall his name, for Tony grew up here in the Pontiac, exploring nature and its denizens at his parents summer cottage on Leslie Lake.

For years, Tony has dedicated his life to birds and nature: he is a well-known Canadian photographer, tour leader and an active member of the Ottawa Field Naturalist Club, which designated him “member of the year” in 1994. He conducts birdwatching and nature photography workshops for the Ottawa Carleton Board of Education, and his photos have appeared in Canadian Living, Canadian Geographic, Nature Canada, Seasons, This Country Canada and Leisure Ways.

And for the past few years, Tony has conducted tours with Nature Travel Holidays, a Canadian tour company. Based in Kingston, Ontario, it has operated since 1972. Tony leads nature walks all over the world, from Eastern Ontario to Texas… to India.

But whether you’re in India or here owling with Tony in the Pontiac, he delights in sharing his knowledge. While we first listened for the hoot of an owl, soon Tony started to call them himself, mimicking the birds own calls. This is a surreal experience! Listening to a fellow human being trying to contact a wild creature is fascinating and a bit bizarre, frankly.

First of all, Tony made the “tzeet, tzeet” call of the woodcock. Obeying his request to stay still, and then his invitation to advance slowly while staying in the formation a collected group (so as not to spread out and inadvertently mimic predators such as coyotes) we came to within approximately 6 metres of a woodcock.

Suddenly, it took flight, startled. Tony continued his call, hoping that it would descend just in front of us. It didn’t quite cooperate… but suddenly, there it was, a short stone’s-throw away. In the beam of a flashlight, the woodcock’s eyes reflected and we could see it slowly moving about with the assistance of our binoculars.

After the excitement of seeing it, our appetites were whetted for owls. Tony began his second call, the squeaking sound of a creature in pain. Almost unbearable to listen to, it’s a successful announcement to predators such as owls which will often swoop toward the sound, to investigate potential prey.

It didn’t work. Tony expressed disappointment that we didn’t see an owl fly to us. But I wasn’t disappointed, for eventually both saw-whet and barred owls responded by hooting back.

And that, to me, is the total appeal of nature walks. They are unpredictable - and that is a good thing for us. After all, wild creatures are not programmable. This means that when you register for a course, you are welcoming adventure - and you are making a pact with yourself. Anything can happen… you might see a wood duck in flight… or not; you might hear a saw-whet owl and learn its call… or not.

What you definitely will have is an unforgettable experience whereby you learn how other living creatures share our natural world.

Are you interested in birdwatching with Tony Beck? Check out Nature Travel Holidays website at http://www.naturetravelholidays.com Not on the Internet? Don’t fret, contact them by snail mail at Nature Travel Holidays, P.O. Box 1334, Kingston, ON K7L 5C6 or by telephone, Toll-Free 1-888-305-3955, local: (613) 531-8105; fax:(613) 531-9193.

Don’t be shy! Call Tony directly and arrange to book a tour for your group of friends or association. His telephone number is 613-828-5936.

As well, Geoffrey and Jo-Ellen Cushing are hosting owling and nature outings with Tony. Want to know more about what these two local Pontiac entrepreneurs offer in the way of nature workshops? Contact Auberge Ecologique Cushing Nature Retreat at 819-647-3226.


Katharine Fletcher is a freelance travel and environment writer and author based north of Quyon, West Québec. Contact her at fletcher.katharine@gmail.com else at 819-458-2090.