St. Louis' Owl Man Knows the Wild Nightlife

May 26, 2021 at 6:20 am
Charles, a Great Horned Owl, hangs out in Forest Park.
Charles, a Great Horned Owl, hangs out in Forest Park. MARK GLENSHAW

In the hour before sunset, as golden rays streak through Forest Park, its most silent residents can be found. There is a man who searches for them. The Owl Man.

His name is Mark Glenshaw. For the last fifteen years, the local naturalist has made the owls of Forest Park not just a part of his daily life, but that of the "owl prowl" groups he leads.

Glenshaw doesn't publicize the location of the owls' roost. It's something you have to see for yourself.

"I've come to respect the ethos of the Show-Me State, and I think of an owl prowl as a group of folks saying, 'We're serious. We're going to spend some time and effort with you,'" he explains. "First, we meet in an area close to the owl territory and go over some instructions.

"And then we go out looking for the owls."

Glenshaw, a services manager at Fontbonne University, first became fascinated with the park's elusive owl population after a chance encounter in 2005. It took him years of nightly park visits to get to know the stealthy predators.

Finding the owls takes a kind of detective work. There are dozens of possible roosting spots, and the owls don't stay in one place for long. Even if you know their rough location, or even the right tree, the summer is a difficult season for owl-spotting. Amid the park's blossoming branches and foliage-thick territory, finding the birds as they prepare for the night's hunt is a difficult task — one that hinges on knowledge gathered on previous trips.

"We start looking based on what the owls have been doing lately," Glenshaw says. "But we're also listening for other animals noting the presence of owls. This is especially helpful in the spring and the first half of the summer when a lot of other animals have babies. They're very concerned about the presence of the owls."

It's true. Baby animals are perfect owl food.

Although the summer foliage adds difficulty to the task of locating the owls, Glenshaw says it's rare to end one of his directed tours without spotting one or several. The outings are the product of more than a decade of tracking the owls, and Glenshaw says he leads around 70 every year. But even with the pandemic, as he limited the groups to four, life in the park continued. In February, that included the birth of two owlets, who are growing up before Glenshaw's eyes.

This summer, that means more opportunities than ever to watch owls in the wild.

How to start an owl prowl? The first step is emailing Glenshaw, at [email protected]. (While he says there is "no obligation" for payment, attendees can make voluntary donations to Forest Park Forever. "If so moved, I never say no to gratuities, and I am constantly touched by people's generosity," he says.)

Once a date is set for the tour, Glenshaw sends a detailed list of instructions, from what to wear based on the weather to things you should definitely not wear — particularly apparel resembling fur, as "owls have been known to attack." Attendees are also prohibited from bringing along their dogs or pets, because, again, owls.

Binoculars are a must, and any photography must be accomplished without flash. Generally, the owl prowls last about two hours — enough time for Glenshaw to use the day's remaining sunlight to locate his targets while they're still waking up.

"They're going to be stretching, grooming, just getting ready for the day," he says of the owls. "We follow them while they're hunting."

Of course, with the owlets maturing and learning how to fly and hunt, there's more to see than just the brutal side of nature. There's nurture as well.

"This is the first summer since 2015 that we've had this joy is seeing the youngsters grow up," Glenshaw says. "Each flight, each landing, each night, they're slowly getting better and better, and eventually closer to adulthood."

If all goes well, Glenshaw predicts the owlets will stay with their parents in Forest Park until late summer and early fall. Then, they'll take flight, leave the park and find a territory of their own.

For St. Louis' Owl Man, the life of Forest Park's Great Horned Owls is a subject he knows that he's still learning. Even after more than a decade, he gets to know them a little better with each prowl, each night.

"One of the most amazing things to see, whether it's March or August, is to see the owls fly," he says. "A lot of people have never seen an owl in the wild. It's so fast. It's silent. It's incredibly ethereal. Even now, having seen them fly thousands of times, there's still an element of, 'I don't quite believe my own eyes.'"

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