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Owls and bird watching add family fun to travel

Great horned owl at Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
Great horned owl at Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
Florence McGinn and Dr. Joseph T. McGinn

Bird watching brings feathered thrills to wildlife viewing travel for families. Children are fabulously intrigued by owls as evidenced by famous owls like Harry Potter’s Hedwig, in J.K. Rowling’s novels, the fantasy owls in Kathyrn Lasky’s series, Legend of the Guardians, and the savvy Owl of A.A. Milne’s classic Winnie the Pooh stories. Still, many traveling families don't look for owls believing they’re only visible at night. But, especially during nesting season, owls can be spotted during the day. At well-traveled locations such as national parks, state parks, and wildlife refuges, finding owls easily can be combined with other bird watching, wildlife viewing, camping, or casual strolls.

Owls fascinate children.  Bird watching adds learning fun to family travels.
Florence McGinn and Dr. Joseph T. McGinn

Different owl species

Certain owls are easier to spot. Great horned owls are large, so their size contributes to easier spotting. Barn owls often nest in structures, so rangers can more easily direct interested watchers. Burrowing owls are active during the day as well as dawn and dusk. Their unusual habit of nesting in holes in the ground, gathering in small groups, and fondness for usurping empty prairie dog holes adds to the possibility of spotting this long-legged owl.

Learning about owls

Enchanted Learning offers facts about owls, their structure, and environments, along with learning printouts and even quizzes. National Geographic Kids supplies excellent fact sheets and video materials for children on owl species including the great horned owl and burrowing owls. Discover Wildlife from BBC Wildlife Magazine offers "12 barn owl facts you need to know."

Owls are unusual

Whatever their size or species, owls are extraordinary hunters. Children find their huge eyes fascinating. The owl's big eyes, so large in their skulls that an owl cannot roll its eyes as humans do, create an unusual behavior. Owls are adapted to check their environments with head turning that can be as extensive as 270 degrees! Seeing a live owl is a thrill for families intrigued by wild life.

Finding owls

At locations such as Antelope Island State Park in Utah and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and Montana, families can inquire at the visitor's centers to be informed about where owls might be found. If it is nesting season, directions to an owl tree or nesting structure often can be given. For example, in Yellowstone National Park, great horned owls nest and are visible, high up in their tree, in the Mammoth area near the administration building. While enjoying elk in the Mammoth area, scout the tall pines in the administrative buildings area, and you may spot the Great Horned Owl family, parent and baby owls! If you can’t spot them on your own, ask the area’s park rangers or watch for birders with binoculars and photographers with long lenses, all focused upwards into the pine trees.

At the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, Arizona, a great horned owl often is part of the popular Free Flight demonstration, soaring over the wild desert and feeding on dead trees near fascinated viewers. Free Flight is well-suited to families, for when the expert begins the demonstration, children are allowed to move to the very front of the standing audience. Seeing owls and other birds in free flight definitely stimulates children’s wonder and delight.

Owls often re-use nests and, if not disturbed, owls can be territorial, returning to a familiar area for nesting. In June of the 2014 nesting season, a great horned owl family nested in its familiar, forested area behind the historic Fielding Garr Ranch buildings, delighting many visitors. Barn owls frequent Antelope Island State Park's open hay shed area, also nesting there in the June, 2014 nesting season.

Special sites like Cave Creek Canyon in Southern Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains and Madera Canyon in that state’s Santa Rita Mountains are birding hotspots where owls as well as intriguing species like hummingbirds and the elegant trogan can be found. Great owling combined with viewing multiple species of hummingbirds accelerate the fun of travel and bird watching.

Owls build wonder

Whether enjoying owls in the Sonoran Desert, America’s vast national and state parks, or in your own back yard, amazing owls enliven nature’s exploration. In discovering owls, the empowering spirit of John Muir’s words that “In every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks” are woven into family experiences, for as William Shakespeare astutely stated, “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”

Find the take in this article to be helpful? National and International Travel and Recreation as well as National Education and Industry materials come from a husband and wife creative team, who travel extensively as photonaturalists and writers. One is an experienced research scientist with a doctorate in Material Sciences and background in optics research. The other is former Vice President of GKE (Global Knowledge Exchange), who served as a US Web-based Education Commissioner during the Clinton administration, and was a former US National Tech&Learning Teacher of the Year.

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