owltalk 2000


26 March 2000


After weighing my observations, I can come up with no conclusion other than: there is one less saw-whet in the North Woods today.


Several nights ago (22 March), while fighting off sleep and monotony towards the end of surveys, a pair of barred owls snapped me from the purgatory of silence. Theirs weren't the typical "who cooks for you" vocalizations associated with the species, theirs was a maniacal exchange that was more suited to a Stephen King novel. When the saw-whet screamed (yes, it is a scream), my vision of nature as a utopia was dashed.


I have heard barreds in a similar state of commotion once before. In 1990, I was conducting surveys on the Crooked Lake route during a rather unproductive evening. My ears rang from the quiet. When the barreds let loose, my vertical leap extended several inches beyond its normal 2" limits. My heart rate went from 60 to 120 in an instant. When the snowshoe hare started the last vocalizations of its life I had learned a valuable lesson: never take silence for granted, it can easily be broken.


Sensing the opportunity, I put on my snowshoes and walked beyond a clump of balsam firs to watch the demise of a prey species. But watching it, or that the owls didn't seem to pay much attention to me (usually, barreds are gone at the drop of a hat) isn't what surprised me. What surprised me was the battle that evolved over the prize. First one, then both owls were on the ground, clutching their prey, dragging it in the powdery snow, leaving a trail of red on white. They tugged and mantled, then flew to perch, only to swoop on silent wings from the treetops and start the tug-of-war again. There was a palpable feel of Strigidean excitement in the air.  There were screams, hoots, gurgles, and whistles, all of the sounds you won't find in the Peterson sampler.


And some 11 years later, that was the scene that clicked, the memory that sprang from the motherboard. Three times the saw-whet screamed and then went silent. The barreds continued their banter, but then they too went silent. Without visual confirmation, it is difficult to know if my surmise was an actuality. But sometimes, 2 plus 2 in the night does equal 4.  Barred owls are notorious for being an owl predator in North America and on more than a handful of occasions, I have watched barred owls come into audiolures as I attempt to trap saw-whets.  I never turn my back on one during trapping and will often halt my efforts.  The barred's European counterpart, the Ural owl, is a well-documented connoisseur of boreal owls. In that light, it made sense.


As revealing as the events were, it did leave me with a hollow feeling, a feeling exacerbated by my weariness and the realization that my evening had shifted from uneventful to eventful and unsettling, in a matter of seconds. The saw-whet is now likely a chalky stain and a pellet on the forest floor. At times like this, I have to shake myself by the bootstraps and realize that I am here to observe, and that sometimes, despite its logic and order, nature can be unsettling.


Copyright W.H. Lane