Local Arts

KNOW: Discovery Place Nature director says screech-owl is ‘my spirit totem’ – and they come to him

Marvin Bouknight has been director of Discovery Place Nature, formerly called Charlotte Nature Museum, for the past four years. The animal exhibitions, butterfly pavilion and outdoor area at the place – in the Myers Park neighborhood next to Freedom Park – attract visitors from the community and beyond. Bouknight, 52, grew up in South Carolina and holds a degree in wildlife biology from Clemson, is a certified beekeeper, published photographer – and can call owls. He answered a few questions for the Observer’s KNOW series; responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

How did you learn to call owls? I made a copy of the tape “A Peterson Field Guide to Bird Calls of Eastern North America.” It had Eastern screech-owl, barred owl and great horned owl. I eventually learned all three, but I have a special bond with screech-owls because we used to hear them all the time when we went camping, so they are my favorite.

Barred Owl in Cavity
One of Bouknight’s photos, which he posts at Nature Nook Wildlife Photography on Facebook: a barred owl. unknown Marvin Bouknight, Nature Nook LLC

How have owls responded? I’ll never forget the first time I tried my call. After practicing for about two weeks, I hiked into the woods behind my house and sat down in the dark. I waited until it was quiet and I tried my first call. I was so nervous, that my throat was dry, and I couldn’t whistle! I waited a little longer and chewed on a sassafras twig until I felt I could whistle again. I tried my call, complete with the mournful trill, followed by the monotone tremolo that the owl makes. I waited for a minute, listened intently, and just before I made my second call, a screech-owl responded. He called as he flew in real close, and I raised my flashlight, and lo and behold, there sat a little gray screech-owl, staring at me! I whistled back, and he looked right at me, and his whole throat fluttered as he called back to me. It was such a powerful experience, that I almost cried.

Screech owl in duck box
Screech-owl in a duck box. Marvin Bouknight, Nature Nook LLC

Many folks have approached me about learning how to call owls, but I am cautious because there is a lot more to it than just doing the call. You need to understand owls, their behavior, times when and when not to call. I don’t ever want to put any owl in danger, so I am cautious about teaching someone. To this day, I am respectful and humbled when an owl responds to me.

Marvin Bouknight
Bouknight with bees. Courtesy of Discovery Place Nature

What about your current work makes you proud? I’m really proud of the Discovery Place Nature team and the work we are doing to bring more attention to honeybees and their impact on us and our environment. It started as an idea, and now we have four working beehives and an observation hive. [Pro tip: On Fridays, staffers sometimes put on their bee suits and wear microphones so visitors can watch them do hive inspections from indoors.]

We partnered with the Levine Scholars program, Bee Downtown, and the Mecklenburg Beekeepers to make this project come to life. Discovery Place Nature offers weekly bee programs and actively works with and manages our beehives in full view of our visitors. This summer, we harvested and extracted our first honey crop, which was sold at our gift shop to support our ongoing educational efforts around bees.

Leopard Face CR Marvin Bouknight
Another of Bouknight’s photos: A leopard, photographed at Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Marvin Bouknight Marvin Bouknight, Nature Nook LLC

Describe when you knew you were in the right job. During my initial tour of Discovery Place Nature. As a naturalist, I have had many experiences with owls, and the screech-owl happens to be my spirit totem. I walked out on the back deck of the museum and saw a barred owl fly off. I hooted to the owl with my “Lowcountry” owl accent and to my surprise, the owl hooted back. Pretty powerful moment for me.

Who’s someone we should keep an eye on? Ernie McLaney of Charlotte Reconnecting Ourselves With Nature (CROWN) and Jim Warren of the Carolina Raptor Center. McLaney and all the volunteers of CROWN, the local chapter of the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, are involved in many diverse and amazing efforts to bring environmental awareness to the Charlotte area. I think the work they do is so important, and we partner with them on many initiatives. Warren and the Raptor Center are known nationally and globally for their work with raptors, but they also provide amazing programs and activities for a variety of audiences.

Visit Discovery Place Nature Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is $8 for children and adults and free for children under two years old.