Friday, April 4, 2008

Owl Prowl

High: 42° F
Low: 25° F
Conditions: Mostly clear with increasing winds. Wind chills dropping to 15° F
As many of you know, Ari and I have been keenly interested in owls this season, particularly since a barred owl began making appearances in our pine grove and on our porch (You can read about these encounters here and here).

Given this sustained interest, I was delighted when we received an invitation to participate in the Maine Owl Monitoring Program. Sponsored by Audubon and the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, this initiative seeks to gather the type of data gleaned during other bird counts, including the Cornell backyard birding initiative. To do so, Audubon and Maine IFW send out teams of scientists and volunteers in the wee hours of the morning. Armed with small radios, cds of owl calls, and LOTS of warm clothes, these teams survey a series of pre-determined routes in Maine as a kind of owl census.

Unlike the two felines in our house, Ari and I are both awfully guarded about our nighttime sleep. Snoozing is one of our favorite hobbies, and we both get pretty cranky when it’s denied us. Even still, the prospect of another owl encounter was enough for us to surrender our zzzzzzs for one night. We agreed to meet Dave Potter, the naturalist heading up our local survey, at 12:15 a.m. on Thursday. It’d be worth it, I assured Ari, as we settled in for a quick nap around 9:00 that night. I could have sworn she agreed.

Nevertheless, a certain canine snored through the alarm just before midnight. I crept downstairs, put on a big pot of tea for my thermos, and donned several layers of polypro and expedition-weight long underwear. Still no Ari. I made an audible production of pulling my hiking boots out of the hall closet—a sure-fire signal to arouse any caninaturalist. Still no Ari. I crept upstairs to find her curled into a ball on the bed. Two steely blue eyes peered out from under a thick husky tail. “Ready to go?” I whispered. She responded by skooching closer to Greg and curling up even more tightly. I asked again. She feigned deep sleep.

Apparently, I’d be travelling alone.

Disappointed but undaunted, I made the chilly drive up to the college, where I rendezvoused with Potter and the other volunteers. He provided a quick orientation that included the protocol of each stop: at each of our 10 assigned locations, we'd fan out along the road. Potter would play the Audubon cd, which begins with several minutes of silence (time to assess ambient noise). It is then followed by a 45-second long-eared owl (Asio otus) call and two minutes for response time; then a 1-minute barred owl call (Strix varia ), followed by six minutes for this more reluctant species to respond. Lastly, we would play a brief great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) call. Because they are at the top of just about every food chain around here, this call would ultimately silence any other birds in the area (hence its placement at the end of the survey).
The owl calls are haunting, even when projected from a tiny boom box. You can hear them for yourself by clicking on this link to (Warning: if you live in a house like mine, this will result in scurrying, barking, and general mayhem from the quadrupeds in your life).

We volunteers were an inspired bunch Thursday night. Upon departure, the van was humming with life-list stories, recounted owl mythology, and tales of misadventures during previous trips. Our first few stops yielded good results: at both, we heard the call and response of two great horned owls and a few barreds. We also were audience for an unexpected meteor shower, which helped us ignore the arctic wind and surprisingly uncomfortable temperatures. Our third stop included a particularly enthusiastic serenade by a nearby barred owl. His voice jumped arpeggios and tone the entire time we stood on the side of his dark forest. It was pure magic.

Later stops yielded fewer results. Temperatures had begun to drop, and the wind was picking up. Potter speculated that it was getting too cold for much owl activity—particularly since many already had eggs, if not chicks, to think about. Our crew became increasingly more interested in recipes for hot chocolate than the subtle nuances of ornithology. A few opted to stay in the van at our last few destinations. We began to gently resent the barred owl for needing six whole minutes to respond:Why couldn’t they be more like the prompt great horned, who only made us stand in a ditch for 120 seconds?

Still, by our last stop, a kind of momentary nostalgia settled in. We dragged our feet to the van and lingered out in the predawn light. In total, we had recorded 11 owls that night. Few of us were ready to say good morning. And when I slunk back to bed just before 5:00 a.m., I couldn’t help but gloat to the stirring caninaturalist still nestled there: she had no idea what she missed.


Khyra The Siberian Husky said...

And OWL never tell her!


Khyra The Wise

PeeEss: KHOOL stuff she missed OWLt on!

The Army of Four said...

Woo. I have two thoughts on this. #1. Ari needs her sleep to be able to make it from nap to nap during the day. Trust me on this. #2. Maybe she has the same very serious hearing condition that I do. My vet even diagnosed it - it's called seee-lective hearing. I can't hear Mom call me, but I can hear a banana being peeled from the other side of the house. Crazy, huh? Maybe Ari has that affliction.

Turbo the Sibe said...

Owls are cool but need to learn it's "woooo" not "whoooo!"

Gunner said...

Ari, owls are too cool!

We had one in Cali and when we took early morning walks in the summer it was always in a big Ponderosa pine at the end of our road.


YourFireAnt said...

Oh, I enjoyed this. And thanks for the link to owl sounds, which I've just spent fifteen minutes listening too, and am now partially deaf. ;-)

I've always been fascinated by owls, and this was a treat to read.


Gus and Louie said...

That sounds like you had a wonderful time seeing all those different owls..

Big Sloppy Kisses
Gus and Louie

Kathiesbirds said...

Kathryn, sounds like an awesome trip! I'd have loved to join you. Ari can just sleep away! Nice you got to see the meteor shower also. Glad there was hot chocolate at the end, though I am partial to Earl Grey Tea. Maybe we should invent a Gray owl tea?

Kapp pack said...

Very cool! I've never heard an owl before!

Woo woo, Kelsey Ann

JB's Big World said...

Ari sure did miss out, all snug inside in bed! Those owl sounds are a little eery....we listened to some of them. Now, if it was me, I would have already been up since cats are nocturnal. I could have come with you!

Simba said...

I'm tired just thinking about all that. Its nice of you to take such good care of the owls.

Simba xx

Anonymous said...

What an excursion! Playing CDs to owls! I like it. When I go for walks, I sometimes give in to the temptation to whistle back at birds. It's a good job I'm nearly always on my own. The birds rarely reply because I'm such a terrible whistler. I just hope they appreciate the effort.

Peace, SB.

umekotyan said...

Good evening Ari.
The observation of the owl is interesting.
Exactly, it is Harry Potter's world.
It gets excited to know owl's ecology.
Wonderful preparation for investigation on weekend. :)

from loved ume tyan

Mary said...

Must have been a wonderful experience.....and Ari kept the bed warm for you!

Sandpiper said...

This sounds like fun! Every now and then I see field trips to look for owls, but I've never done it. I love all the owl sounds.

Island Rambles Blog said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Island Rambles Blog said...

I made many silly typos and I am redoing my comment as I respect this blog and do not want to put in my typos!!!! New cleaned up comment below:
That sounds like a really great time ...I seldom hear owls here but there are many out in the woods that people hear...mosted barred owls around here..the spotted has become rare to extinct now in our area. Hope Ari recovers from all this owling.

Lorenza said...

Sure it was interesting to be there with the owls!
And Ari, well maybe this time she just wanted to stay warm at home!
Have a great weekend
Kisses and hugs

Sharon said...

That sounds like a great overnight outing! Thanks for sharing it with us. The way you write it is as if we were there. Except for the cold.

The Daily Echo said...

That's very intriguing and Mom commented that it might actually be enough to persuade her to give up her nice warm bed one night. Not me however. I'll just wait until that confused owl lands in the tree outside Mom's bedroom window.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a great time, and how fun to see my old pal Potter on the blogosphere. Say hi for me,


Dakota said...

Wow! I never heard an owl before. What a great way to spend a night, Ari.
Oh, wait, I meant Kate. What a great way to spend a night Kate!


Holly said...

Wow, I bet that was wonderful!! Definitely a good reason to give up a nights sleep. Too bad Ari slept through it all. But, I might have done the same thing. Sleeping IS one of my favorite things to do.


John Theberge said...

I've seen very few owls in the wild but I do remember being out in the meadow across from where I live one early evening. I heard squeaking coming from the sky so I looked up and it was an owl flying by with a mouse in its talons. It was an interesting sight and I don't think the mouse survived.

Lex Houdini Dog said...

Gosh! You want to hear from me!!!??? Wow! I'll have to see what I can do!

JB's Big World said...

Hi Ari,
I mentioned you in my post today. Maybe you or your mom might be able to help us identify what kind of geese my mom saw? We know you are very smart in a canine naturalist sort of way!