owltalk 2002


5 March 2002


This was the first year that I did not methodically prepare for travel using a Holy Grail packing list. Instead, I relied on the familiarity of 15 years of experience, threw everything in my car, and headed west. So far, I have yet to discover anything that I truly need. If I do, I will have to live without it. Afterall, it is now 1600 miles away.


Unpacking, though, has produced one surprise. I put on my boots last night for the first time in nearly a year. They had been relegated to storage in a shed; 9 months free from my weight and sweat. Pulling them over a layer of polypro socks, one foot didn't fit very well. I turned the liner upside down and out came a bird feeder's ration of sunflower shells and a wad of shredded paper, cupped into a comfortable oval. Mixed in with the remains of a once cozy existence was what is left when a mouse eats well: mouse poop. When I took my boots off this morning, there was strong evidence that also incorporated into the liner was the liquid exudate of a summer spent in my boot liners: mouse pee. My right foot now smells funny.


To enter the North Woods again last night was exhilarating. I don't know if hearing an owl was critical to the equation, but brushing against black spruce and high-stepping over downed trees was. Snow did not encumber my movements and taking the trek without snowshoes so early in March made for a hike of celerity. It appears that snowshoe hares are experiencing the "upside" of their population cycle. Their sign is everywhere, as are the footprints of animals that like to dine on the hares.


I walked into a cavity tree, ostensibly to record its location with a GPS unit. I had made a similar "fix" in 1999, but when viewed in ArcView, the 60+ cavity tree locations, painstakingly revisited during a 6 day mission, had been electronically superglued into two points. Talk about slumped shoulders.


Last year, at this very tree, a male and female boreal had entertained me with their courtship during the windswept nights of early April. I couldn't survey so I watched.


My early nights in the boreal forest are based on a simple concept: don't go to where the owls might be, go to where the owls are. I had convinced myself that, based on last season's activities, the male would still be around. He had no reason to be elsewhere. I have had two recaptures of banded male owls in 15 years, and without exception, the boys were caught within a stone's throw of the cavity tree where they were captured during an earlier field season.


I shined my light up the bole of the massive aspen, but the cavity was empty. I fixed my position and did what I have become so adept at: waited. There were no winds and snow fell lazily from translucent clouds, backlit by celestial beacons.


Less than 100 feet from the cavity tree, a male owl quietly initiated his song. I didn't pursue him, since that now seems such an amateurish quest. When I started in 1987, I would have been on him like a bad odor. I would bull through the woods to position myself beneath him, and when he moved, so would I. It didn't dawn on me until a few years later that rather than me moving to the owl, the owl was moving from me. I know of someone who collected a bounty of perch tree locations, fixing the sites with a GPS unit that emitted a high pitch beep. With each location came a beep, and with each beep, the male owl moved, convinced that a female was responding to his heartfelt song. Sitting quietly, however, introduces no observer bias.


After 15 minutes, the owl lost his song and moved. He flew directly over my head and I reflexively ducked. It takes a strong will not to. During my first night back in the boreal forest, I played my hunch and my hunch was correct.


W.H. Lane