8 March 2000
I was joined yesterday by Rich Jordan, who in my original plan was to be my adequately paid assistant. Now he is my inadequately paid volunteer. Budgets derail biology. There is no price, however, that equates to an extra set of ears. Rich came to Minnesota seeking to experience northern Minnesota and its owls. He will do that.
I took him to a pair of boreals before sunset, and we watched from our seats of spongy mosses as the male perched above us, then flew to his seasonal home. His vocalizations were soft. Volume has no function when the recipient of his song is nearby. The female flew in and nervously looked down and then behind her, as if to make sure she had not been followed. We left, but the pair stayed.
The great gray owl that I could only visualize during the strong winds on March 6th, materialized last night. I had a feeling he was there. The habitat shouts "great gray." It is boreal forest lowland. Spruce and scrub-shrub, with hummocks framed by windowpanes of ice. Break through the ice, and you are up to your thigh in organic, cold waters.
The owl hooted in barely audible bouts. It's detection a function of the hushed air. I had heard it before, but for Rich it was unfamiliar. I wanted to tell him great gray stories, but he stood transfixed on the logging trail and my voice would only distract. The stories would come later - over the din of the truck skipping over washboard roads and a heater that will never deliver enough warmth. That is the time for anecdotes.
Over the course of the evening, we moved from one end of the Arrowhead to the other. Thin cirrus clouds skirted over the dark sky and with each cloud, I expected the breezes that would announce the arrival of the anticipated cold front. The breezes never came.
Access seems such a foreign concept to apply to my visits here. Rich and I drove into areas that previously had only been broached by my labored efforts atop skis or a mountain bike. The ice on Kawishiwi and Brule Lakes is an unfamiliar gray, their shorelines exposed by receding ice. The Cascade River is open at the rapids and as loud as the Hoover Dam. Yet, the new-found access does not equate to owls.
Only from my time-honored survey routes were owls found. Two new boreals and a smattering of saw-whets, the latter uncommon in the numbers heard this early in the season. At an old boreal and saw-whet nest site, I shined my headlamp on the entrance and was greeted by the orange glow of the tapetum lucidum of a female saw-whet. Elsewhere, old cavity trees were snapped like toothpicks by the angry winds of last summer. The North Woods are fluid, everchanging.
At 03:30, we drove down the Sawbill, better suited to the nighttime hours and eager to experience more. In one evening, Rich had seen the good and bad of his new surroundings. He had watched a season begin to unfold through a biologist's eyes and ears. Out of the classroom and into the fire, so to speak. I haven't asked, but I think he realizes how lucky I have been to experience the North Wood's ticking clock of nature. If only those experiences were currency.
Copyright W.H. Lane