Owl Prowl

The brave group of students ready to go on the Owl Prowl

With an ice storm the night before and daytime highs in the low 20’s, few people are thinking about hiking through the forest in search of owls. Ornithologist John O’Donnell, from the Friends of Cedarburg Bog, led our group of 18 MUHS students and adults through the UWM Field Station land at Cedarburg Bog in search of some of the most interesting birds in WI, owls.

The night before our walk, several inches of snow and ice covered much of WI. These sorts of storms can really disrupt feeding habits of owls causing them to increase their hunting efforts in future days to prevent starvation.

We began our night at the UWM Field Station learning about the Cedarburg Bog and the ecology of Owls. The Cedarburg Bog was Wisconsin’s first State Natural Area, which is a special protection designation for ecosystems exemplifying pre-settlement features. The bog covers 2000 acres and is home to many unique plants and animals including carnivorous pitcher plants. See last year’s blog post from our hike through the bog: Cedarburg Bog State Natural Area

Let me first describe some of the amazing adaptations these nocturnal specialists have. Of our 10 species of owls that call WI home, only 6 are residents year round. Of those 6 species, really only 3 species are regularly seen or heard by outdoor enthusiasts or even birders: Great Horned Owl, Barred Owl, and Eastern Screech Owl. These were the 3 focus species of our Owl Prowl.


Adaptations- Hearing: Owls have an amazing sense of hearing. This is no accident. Many owl species that spend the winter here depend more on hearing than sight to find their prey scurrying under the snow. Owls have a facial disk that acts like a satellite dish funneling sound to their ears. The ear tufts on a Great Horned Owl are not its ears but merely feathers. The sound funneled from the facial disk ends up in the ear openings of the owl which are assymetrical on each side of the skull. This sound hitting the ear openings at slightly different times is enough to help the owl pinpoint their prey with extreme accuracy. For example, Great Grey Owls (our largest owl) can hear its prey under 3 feet of snow! Even at 30 yards away, an owl is able to pinpoint its prey within 2 centimeters by hearing alone.

Facial disks of owls acting like a funnel for sound

Adaptations-Eyesight: Hunting at night presents some big challenges because of the low light conditions. Owls have tackled this problem through some amazing eye adaptations. To start, owl eyes are huge in proportion to their skull size (like humans having grapefruits for eyes). This large size is what can allow a tremendous amount of light into the eye and to the retina. Owl eyes actually weigh more than their brain and take up the entire eye socket, not leaving room for muscles. This means the owl cannot move its eyes side to side but must be able to turn its neck back and forth to see other directions. Inside the retina are millions of times the number of “rods” that human eyes contain. These rods are what allow us to see in low light and only register in black and white. Owls also have a highly reflective layer in the back of their eyes (tapetum lucidum) which bounces the light around to make efficient use of it. This is the same structure that makes dog and deer eyes glow at night when shined with a flashlight. Lastly, some owls are thought to see in infrared wavelengths and thus be able to perceive heat emitted from their prey.


Adaptations-Silent Flight: It is astounding when owls can fly up into a tree right next to you without you hearing them. This is exactly what happened to us on the Owl Prowl when a Barred Owl landed 15 yards away in a tree. Lucky for us, the tree was covered in ice and when the owl landed, some ice was knocked off the tree, notifying us of the owl’s presence. Owl wings are specially adapted to be silent. This is necessary because the ambient noise at night is very low and any noise an owl would make descending on its prey would be enough to make the hunt unsuccessful. Their feathers have hooked barbs to stitch the feathers together eliminating sound passing through. They also have a serrated leading primary feather to disrupt sound passing by. Lastly, even their feet are covered by feathers. Unlike hawks, this allows owls to glide throughout the forest without detection. Feathers on the feet are also important insulation for birds like Snowy owls that inhabit extremely cold areas.

Hawk Talons (left) are not covered with feathers like owls (middle). Snowy owls have full feathered feet (right) to insulate from the cold.


The 3 target species of our Owl Prowl were Great Horned, Barred, and Eastern Screech Owls. Great Horned Owls are actually sitting on their eggs right now (the earliest nesting bird in North America). This early nesting is timed so that when the fledglings are at their most demanding for calories, the rodent populations will be booming i.e. rabbits and voles. The method we attracted owls to us was through the use of audio recordings broadcasted on a speaker. These acted as territorial challenges bringing the owls in. We were able to hear a Great Horned Owl calling (likely from its nest) and were entertained by a male and female Barred Owl curious about these foreigners in the forest. We later tried for Screech Owls at Riveredge Nature Center to no avail, reminding us that these are elusive and secretive creatures.

The Great Backyard Bird Count


The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) is a free, fun, and easy event that engages bird watchers of all ages in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of bird populations. Participants are asked to count birds for as little as 15 minutes (or as long as they wish) on one or more days of the four-day event and report their sightings online at birdcount.org. Anyone can take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count, from beginning bird watchers to experts, and you can participate from your backyard, or anywhere in the world. In return for your service to the bird monitoring community, you receive the prestigious GBBC certificate.


The GBBC has been a great way to track bird movements and populations over several decades. For example, in WI we have seen a movement of Northern Cardinals northward presumably because of availability of sunflower feeders north of their usually range. The GBBC also allows scientists to track effects of diseases like West Nile Virus and impacts  of changes to our climate. Need help identifying a bird, my go to is always the easy to use website Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds. They show pictures, related species, and even have audio of the calls and songs.

If you are anything like me, then you are wondering what are the top birds spotted in Wisconsin. Well first of all, let’s talk rarities. With the warmer temperatures, we are seeing early movement north for many different species including Golden Eagles. There have also been reports of Snowy and Great Grey Owls in the state and some rare Gull species on Lake Michigan. Now, on to the most seen birds. Check out the photos below to see if these birds also frequent your feeders?



Becoming a Steward of Creation

Reflection by High School Student Niklas Martensson

I have lived in the city my whole life. The suburban realm is not the most environmentally diverse or sustainable. There are a lot of parks within my neighborhood, though. Furthermore, my parents would always take my siblings and I up to Door County to see the State Parks up there and a few beaches north of Milwaukee.

Peninsula State Park

I was introduced to the outdoors, as much as any suburban kid can, through the efforts of my parents, but it really struck me when I joined the Marquette High School’s environmental science and outdoors homeroom and also enrolled in the environmental science class. Ever since then, I have seen the world differently, appreciating the environment we have been given by God, from the smallest insect or blade of grass to the deadliest predator or largest forests.

Laudato Si’ has shown the Catholic Church that care for the environment is part of a belief in God. We have been created and entrusted with caring for our home that God gave us and unfortunately we have destroyed a good portion of it. Humans need to care about how their actions impact the world around them and what they can do the preserve nature for generations to come. Laudato Si’ has inspired me to seriously think about how I am impacting the environment and ecosystems around me in my daily actions. From convincing my lunch table to recycle properly, to biking as much as possible. This shows that little actions in our lives can create small changes. If these small things, inspired by the “Care for Our Common Home”, could be instituted on a much larger scale, who knows how much we would be able to accomplish.


Religion classes have often neglected the topic of care for nature, but the focus is starting to return to its importance as part of our faith. Being involved in the Laudato Si Project has meant a lot to me because previously, I had thought that tiny little me in a world of polluters could do nothing, but since my involvement in many projects, I have seen ecosystems and small communities improve with every eradicated invasive species, savanna reconstructed, and river cleaned. All of these projects build men who can see their environmental impact, reduce their waste, and improve the ecosystem around them by small steps one at a time.

Last winter I was involved in a group that went out to restore a woodland back to savannah and prairie lands. Arriving on the chilly morning and meeting with a few professionals including Mr. Jim Uhrinak of the Milwaukee Audubon Society. Zipping up coats and putting on work gloves meant that we were about to start. Chainsaws rumbled and sliced through the woods. We dragged the large trees to a huge fire, where we burned the lumber in order to create a prairie landscape like the way it was when only Native Americans were here.

After several exhausting hours of dragging tree after tree through the muddy snow, we were allotted time for a break. Stepping back and admiring our work, we realized that we just restored a vast area of prairie land back to what it looked like prior to European Settlement. How could a small group like that work so efficiently? This was my favorite project because we endured the cold, worked hard, and enjoyed the blessings of our labor with sub sandwiches and our friends.


Winter Carnival Outdoor Fun

Candlelight hike

This weekend was the Winter Carnival at the Heiliger Huegel Ski Club near Holy Hill, WI. Hundreds of people came out throughout the weekend to enjoy Wisconsin’s winter beauty and have some fun in the process. Festivities kicked off on Saturday evening with a .75 mile candlelight hike through the HH ski club property and the adjacent Schoofs Preserve. Our volunteers set up the hike by placing over 100 luminary bags and candles throughout the route.

Over 75 winter enthusiasts, including many families, came out for the hike. The hike ended at the ski club chalet for chili, fireworks, s’mores, and polka music; all thanks to Tall Pines Conservancy and the HH Ski Club.

Sunday’s events started with the Langlauf XC ski race at 10am (Langlauf is German for cross country skiing). 30 racers participated in the 5k and 10k race that winds through beautiful fields, woods, and prairies. Afterword, wheel and sprocket bike store had “fat-tire” bikes out for people to try on the winter trails. Overall, great February weather for a great winter experience.

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MUHS Faculty Respond to Work of Mercy: Care for Our Common Home

MUHS faculty brave the cold to “care for our common home”

With morning temperatures in the single digits, doing woodland restoration is usually the last thing on people’s mind. Well, that wasn’t the case for these brave Marquette University High School faculty. As part of their 2017 faculty retreat, Laudato Si’ Project offered a stewardship option to reflect what Pope Francis established in 2016:”care for our common home” as both a spiritual and corporal work of mercy.


This same 12 acre woodland has been a continual work site for Laudato Si’ Project since last Fall. See our blog post “Fall Woodland Restoration”  The main focus of Thursday’s work was to remove invasive European Buckthorn from what will be a .3 mile nature trail through the woodland. The buckthorn is an aggressive tree species that steals nutrients, water, and sunlight from our native trees and woodland wildflowers. MUHS uses the Schoenstatt Retreat Center for its sophomore retreats and faculty were happy to give back to the Sister’s by helping care for the ecological health of this beautiful property. This woodland project will also host groups in the coming year from other schools, boy scouts, and confirmation programs.