15 April 2002
Several nights ago, I made the journey inland to a cavity tree nestled about a 1/4 mile on the "other side" of a tangle of windfall spruce and fir. I went armed to the teeth with every piece of equipment I could fit in a pack or sling over my shoulder because this was not a jaunt I wanted to make more than once in an evening. I took this labor-intensive hike to find out where the boreal owls were. In the blink of an eye they had vanished; the female probably long before the male.
The cavity tree sits atop a bowl of alder and spruce and although relatively close to the road, has a remote feel to it. Maybe the windfall contributes to that remote feeling. I went in with the express purpose of trying to trap the male, since it was here during the previous year, a pair of boreals had nested, and I needed to find out if the individuals of last year remained loyal to this site. Getting my nets ready, I put a couple of mice in the safety of their trap and waited as the light grew paler in the west.
Almost immediately, an owl flew in and perched next to the bole of a fir. I could see the silhouette bobbing and cocking its head, but couldn't tell the species. I hoped it was a boreal, but had a sneaking suspicion it wasn't. Then from above and behind me, a male saw-whet started his song and my detective work was over; the unidentified owl started peeping in response. She flew towards the mice, got tangled in my mist net, and was retrieved. He sang for a while but then, intrigued by the sound of dried pasta being masticated in the night, came to investigate.
I banded both owls and set them free. They were but teenagers, not even a year old yet but ready to take on the responsibilities of parenting. From the jaundiced viewpoint of an owl biologist, I don't think they understand what they are in for, but I am happy that they have allowed me to observe their behaviors. From here on out, I will leave them alone. Within 1 minute after the release, the male flew to the cavity and sang his clarion song for the female. She soon joined him and after a minor commotion in the cavity, he flew off to show his prowess as a hunter.
Last night, a similar scenario with a different species. I hiked about a mile into the woods to check an old cavity where earlier this spring, a male boreal sang. I am dead set against the use of playback recordings for any number of reasons. But, I use it when I am trapping to create a little dander under the collar of the territorial male owl. Once the owl comes in….I let the mice take over. As luck would have it, the boreal didn't show up, but the long-eared did. He came right into my mice, and circled above me like an oversized moth before finally perching and beginning his monotonous hoots. The season's first mosquito landed on my cheek and I brushed at it lightly. The long-eared looked at me, reacted, and was gone.
These experiences remind me of the North Woods owl magic that I observe every year. The concept is simple: one species establishes itself and provides me with entertainment and intrigue, and then "poof", they are gone, replaced by another species within the span of 48 hours.
During a field trip in 2000, I took a group to a fat, leaning aspen within a patch of fat, leaning aspens. In that stand I had watched a pair of saw-whets meet, then mingle, then mate and for 3 weeks recorded the progress of their nest. She was tight on eggs and he was a dutiful deliverer of prey. I wanted to show the group the intricacies of an owl nest; the scripted behaviors and the silence that takes over once courtship is over. I had visited the nest on Friday, leaving after the male made a food delivery. But less than 24 hours later, with a group in tow, my jaw dropped as a male boreal owl sang from the cavity. I tried to voice my amazement to the group, but they just watched and thought it "was cool". Two years later, my head is still spinning.
With my field season winding down, I am reminded of one thing: never expect the expected. Just ask the saw-whets and the long-eared that visited me, and the boreals that didn't.
© W.H. Lane