4 March 2000
This is my Mecca. A pilgrimage that I take not once in a lifetime, but once each year. At one point, mine was a simple 4 and 1/2 hour journey northward from the Twin Cities. Now it is the New York Thruway and Chicago at rush hour. It is 1600 miles of tedium and Visine. Yet, it could be 3200 miles and I would still show up every spring. The North Woods calls like a mythological siren, and each March I answer its song. I come to experience owls and to live a biologist's highs and lows of familiar and unfamiliar owl behaviors, and of successful and unsuccessful nests. I am compelled to take this journey.
I arrived on the North Shore and was greeted by those familiar frost heaves of Highway 61. They are worthy of contours on a USGS topographic map. If my truck could talk, it would say "no, please, not Highway 61." My 14th year. My truck's twelfth. It has aged gracefully, save for the rust.
The last 90 miles of my drive were the longest. I drove in a state of flashbacks, recalling my past owl encounters, the people, the exhilaration and depression, and the exhaustion that is inherent with owl research. I remembered every snowfall and trip up and down the Gunflint Trail as though they were singular events. Only one thing seemed out of place. Last year, I was greeted by thigh-deep snows and bitter cold. This year, I needed sun screen.
After unpacking, I drove up the Sawbill Trail. The snow that is left is harbored beneath thick conifer tracts and my study area is an unfamiliar brown. It looked on 4 March as it usually does at the end of April. I brought my skis, not because I was optimistic but simply because I am a creature of habit. I won't need them. Ten miles up, the first sign of the 4th of July windstorm presented itself: small strips of toppled spruce and pine, their boles aligned to the east, their roots a tangle of dirt and mosses. Adjacent to those strips, the forest stood unaffected.
The transition from daytime to nighttime work can be debilitating. Over the years, I have realized that the best way to adapt is to let your body adjust on its own. Just go out and do your thing and when you get tired, go home and sleep. Leave the thermos at home. No heroics. Just moderation. That and bring a chair. I mean, could you imagine ice-fishing all day standing up?
As the sun hid, I threw on my fleece and down parka and had a seat. March 4th and moths. It seemed an oxymoron, yet moths flitted on the unseasonably warm air. The long drive had left me drained. Tonight, I would simply observe and listen. I didn't have the desire to bounce around from sound to sound, I simply wanted to let biology unfold of its own accord. I wanted to experience, not manipulate.
The first concerted attempts to focus on one's listening senses are palpable. Your ears aren't used to total and complete silence. Your heartbeat, your breathing become conscious events. You strain for a sound. Any sound. For two hours I sat. The mustellids have been busy, their sickly-sweet aromas mingling with turpines, creating a North Woods cologne. A saw-whet sang for 15 seconds and then went silent. It is a pattern I often see in early-season singers, they know they can do it, but seem to be unwilling. Then, my ears reverberated as the harmonic song of a male boreal owl rode the stilled air. Two hours, one boreal. I could return to Maine.
The advantage of having done this for 14 years, is that I know where the owls are. There are no longer any surprises in where they appear. It allows me to observe and index their behaviors. I listened again over shallow breaths. His vocalizing patterns were monotonous, but not excited. He just sang. A bachelor owl. In four weeks, if he is still plaintive, I will assign him the title of "loser male. " It is the one smug anthropomorphic luxury I afford myself.
Several minutes later, another boreal sang excitedly. I knew that he was not alone. I folded my chair and walked towards "my boy." After a quarter-mile, I stood perpendicular to a cavity tree I had located last year, a cavity that had temporarily held a female during the early courtship process. Interestingly, at this same site, I observed two males in pursuit of the same female. Unprecedented in my owl history. Not so in the history of owls.
The male sang his song of reproductive fervor and I wondered whether it was the same male that I had trapped and banded at this site last year. After five minutes, the female vocalized and I quietly left the pair. I moved down the Grade to a site that is not as productive for owls as it is for aesthetics. A narrow creek meanders northward, framed by a narrow row of spruce. The sky is wide and auroras, when visible, are viewed in all of their arching glory. Just as I was relishing my surroundings, a distant staccato song was heard to the east.
I debated whether to chase, but sat on the road for a few minutes before getting in my truck. After a mile, I parked and walked to a tattered stand of aspen and a lone tree that had held nesting boreals in 1997, and saw-whets last year. The male flew right in, as though reading from a script. The female vocalized and entered the cavity.
Not wanting to push the envelope of exhaustion, I headed home. Six hours over one night had produced as many boreals as I had during the entire month of March in 1998 and 1999. Was it serendipity, karma, or perhaps global warming? No, it was a function of small mammals and habitat. The warm weather may facilitate early breeding attempts, but only because of the proximal resources it exposes. Owls and their hormones are inexorably tied with the photoperiod each breeding season. In a normal year, that means that I experience a peak in vocalizing activities during the first two weeks of April. Judging by my surroundings, however, this does not appear to be a normal year.
Copyright W.H. Lane