owltalk 2001


9 March 2001

Even in the early stages of the 2001 field season, I am searching through my catalog of owl experiences to look for answers.  I weigh each year, looking for clues that will provide me with conclusions rather than guesses.  And as I search, two years keep bobbing in my consciousness:  1989 and 1996.  Both years were notable for their similarities.  In each, the snow pack was deep and arctic cold spent most of its time perched atop the Laurentian Shield.  Swarms of northern forest owls moved south from Canada, appearing ephemerally during daylight at feeders and outbuildings up and down the North Shore. Driving up Highway 61, it was not unusual to see a great gray or boreal owl, listlessly observing while their stored fat catabolized into death.  But there, the similarities end.  And both years were notable for one difference.  In 1989, the owls sang.  In 1996, they didn't.


At times during 1989, I wondered if I had entered owl heaven.  During my first two years, I had located singing boreals, but nothing would have prepared me for this. The night rang in song.  During surveys, my compass whirled in speedy circles, trying to collect the azimuths to singers and hooters.  Courtship, a personal mystery, revealed itself as a process rather than a serendipitous occurrence.  My curiosity became sated. By the end of winter, I had located 55 singing males and spent hours at cavity trees in my sleeping bag just watching.  It was my winter of learning.


At times during 1996, I wondered if I had entered owl hell.   Each survey night I started as an optimist, but within hours allowed the slump-shouldered defeatist to finish the surveys.  By late March, the voice in my head had programmed its mantra: "it ain't going to get better Billy," and it didn't.  After 700 kilometers of surveys, only two boreal owls were detected. I didn't listen to that voice then, but I certainly do know.  It is the voice of experience.


I am sitting at one of my favored owl haunts.  The winds move steadily through the tree tops creating the sound of rushing water.  There is a new 2" layer of snow, and the moon is fat, bringing with it the feel of daylight.  As the sun leaves, the temperature drops and two layers of clothing becomes three, then four.  I sit in the boreal forest with my ears eager, ready to pounce to life with the first sound of spring.  I startle a snowshoe hare and take that as a good sign, that there actually is life out here.  1989 or 1996?  I wonder how many bags of owl carcasses Steve Wilson will cart to his freezer.  I wonder about Nikky.  I wonder about life beneath the snow.  


I know there are owls here, but know too that with the snow, survival may supplant reproduction.  I sit hoping that my theory pans out, that one of my home boys will know where the voles are and know that receptive females may be his for the singing.  It makes perfect sense, but sense need not be integral to a biologic equation.  Prove me right, rather than wrong, is the challenge I issue.  


At 2300, I am still basking  in silence.  I pack my gear and head to the Shore.  But then I begin to wonder again.  I wonder if things are any different along the Lake?  I throw my skis into my car and start a 10 k journey up the Onion River.  Wolf tracks move to the north, as do I.  I stop and silence is defined anew.   


I am holding in my hands two owl years.  In one 1989, in the other, 1996.  I listen, but after only three visits to the night am not yet ready to listen to the voice that narrated 1996.

W.H. Lane