High: 42° FAs 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).
Low: 25° F
Conditions: Mostly clear with increasing winds. Wind chills dropping to 15° F
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 owlpages.com. (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.