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Gone Owling: Trek into Tennessee Valley at Dusk for a Taste of Wild Marin

Written by Jeff GreenwaldPublished Sep. 02, 2022 • 1:30pm
A spotted owl stares at birdwatchers from a tree. | Matt Lau/National Park Service

To be honest, I never knew “owl” was a verb. But indeed: One can owl. I owl, you owl, they owl. We owled.  

“I never miss an opportunity to go owling,” says Steffen Bartschat, a Mill Valley-based naturalist with a day job as a tech innovation consultant. “I’m always looking for an excuse to see some owls.”

Bartschat is a certified California Naturalist—a program run by the University of California that encourages “citizen scientists” to engage with the public about the wonders of nature. I’d heard about his night walks in Muir Woods, and called the Park Service to sign up for the next one. Though the hikes are popular (with groups as large as 25), there were none scheduled. So I emailed Bartschat and asked if he might be convinced, with a bribe of pizza and beer, to take me for a private stroll. He agreed (see above).      

“But let’s go to Tennessee Valley,” he said. “We don’t need permission from the National Park Service, and we don’t have to reserve parking.”   

An evening walk on the trail to Haypress Camp in Tennessee Valley, a popular hike in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area near Mill Valley on Aug. 31, 2022. | Don Thompson for The Standard

It was better this way. Because (a) there are plenty of owls in Tennessee Valley, and (b) anyone can go there, any evening of the year, for free, making it a great local travel destination.  

The Junction is a fun beer garden serving food from PizzaHacker near the entrance to Tennessee Valley Road, and we met there at six. When the sun got low we drove to the Tennessee Valley trailhead. Shrugging on our light down jackets, we set off in the gloaming.  

Bartschat was born in Germany and moved to the U.S. at 13. He has an easy smile, a quick stride, and a keen ability to focus—especially on wildlife. He began doing guided walks as part of the docent team that opened up the Point Bonita lighthouse in the 1990s. Then he began a series of guided day hikes in the GGNRA—but there were few takers.

“Nobody wants to show up in the middle of a day for a  guided nature walk,” he says. “But in the evening, they’re like, ‘You know what? I'd rather be with a group.’ Because evenings are somewhat scary, in the wilderness. But I like the evenings—that's when the people leave, and the wildlife gets busy.” 

Bartschat’s first night forays began with mountain lion walks, which he led for about 20 years—without seeing a single one. “So I started working my way down the food chain, doing walks on coyotes, and bobcats. Then I got to the owl.”   

Bartschat doesn’t see owls as a lesser prize. “They’re fascinating animals,” he says, “and play a part in almost every culture’s folklore.” In ancient Babylon, owl amulets were worn for protection by pregnant women; to the Norse, they were guides to the underworld. The Miwok and other Native Americans saw them as symbols of death and mystery, while the goddess Athena’s owl stood for truth and wisdom.

Owls feature in American pop culture as well. The first appearance of “Owlman” was in 1964, when DC comics introduced the character as a sort of nemesis to Batman. Some owls do in fact prey on bats; they’ll also go for rats, mice, rabbits, smaller birds (including other owls), and even skunks. 

A rabbit emerges from the grass near the trail on an evening walk in Tennessee Valley on Aug. 31, 2022. | Don Thompson for The Standard

“They are extraordinarily effective hunters,” says Bartschat. “for reasons unique to their species.” 

Owls have at least four superpowers, he explains as we walk the shadowy trail to Haypress Camp. “They have amazing night sight; their eyes alone can account for as much as 5% of their total body weight.” 

They also have great hearing. Unlike humans, owls can pinpoint sounds in three dimensions. If humans hear a bird chirping in a grove of trees, we have to scan around to see where the noise is coming from. But owls, with their asymmetrical ears and satellite dish-shaped faces, can locate their prey with precision. 

“So if they hear the rustling of a mouse, even from 100 feet away, they know exactly where that mouse is,” says Bartschat. 

Once they’ve spotted their prey, owls are what Bartschat calls “stealth flyers.” Along with superb aerodynamics, owls have fine, hair-like bristles on the leading edges of their wings and talons. “The fibers disturb the air just right,” says Bartchat, “to cover up the normal wing flapping and wind noise.” 

Finally, of course, there’s the Exorcist-like owl head, which can rotate—thanks to special blood reservoirs in their necks—in an arc of 270 degrees. (The human range of motion is about 160 degrees unless you’ve strained your neck looking for owls.) 

A great horned owl incubates their eggs. | Gavin Emmons/National Park Service

Unlike Muir Woods, which closes at 8 p.m. (Bartschat’s walks are an exception), you can hike and/or camp in Tennessee Valley all night. There are about eight tents set up in Haypress Camp, which seems crowded for a Wednesday. It’s a clear, temperate night, a quarter moon in the sky, a slight breeze ruffling the Eucalyptus leaves. I have no idea what I’m looking for. 

Bartschat takes out his binoculars and scans the groves. “Look for the silhouette of a football shape in the trees and ask yourself: Where would I sit if I was looking for prey?”

Though there are at least six species of owls in Marin, we’re most likely to spot a Great Horned or Barn Owl. During his guided walks in Muir Woods, Bartschat sees Northern Spotted Owls; but that’s as far south as their habitat extends. We hope not to see a Barred Owl—an invasive species that has extended its territory into the northwestern U.S. and is becoming a threat to the Spotted Owl population. 

After a spell of waiting patiently, we hear only distant mourning doves.  But Bartschat, as an NPS park guide, is permitted to use an owl call— and we finally see a football-like shape swoop onto a branch above. A few initial shrieks are soon replaced by the distinctive baritone hoot of a Great Horned Owl. 

The calls also stir one of the nearby campers—a young guy named Jack—who emerges from his tent to share our binoculars. The owls—now plural, an adult and a juvenile—stare down at us, then fly off.

I suddenly find it funny that we’ve wandered all this way for the simple pleasure of standing in the dark and hearing a few hoots. I’m jealous of the overnight campers.

“Now they’re just declaring their territory,” says Bartschat. “But they’ll really become active after around 2 a.m.”

“Wow!” I turn to Jack. “You’ll be here for the full late-night chorus!”

 “That’s okay,” he says reassuringly. “I have earplugs."

How to Go Owling in Marin: Steffen Bartschat’s Muir Woods evening owl walks are offered sporadically; to find out when the next one is scheduled, check with the Parks Conservancy. Remember, parking reservations are always required for Muir Woods. A more reliable option is to plan your own evening owl walk at Tennessee Valley, which is open all night. The best place to see (and/or hear) owls is probably at Haypress Campground, about 0.7 miles from the parking lot trailhead. Bring layers, water, headlamps and binoculars. And please remember that it is illegal to feed or otherwise lure wildlife, owls included. Find nourishment in Tam Valley before or after your walk at Southern Marin favorites, The Junction, Hook Fish, Cafe del Sol, or Floodwater. Learn more about the state of Marin’s wild owl population in this National Park Service video presentation by local biologists. 

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