owltalk 2000


2 April 2000


Four weeks. Has it been that long? It seems as though I just got up here. Then again, I look around the Forest Service trailer and the signs of my stay suggest permanent residence. Fleece and polypropylene are piled into the corners, unclean but ready to be worn again. Sorel liners have lost their suppleness and feel like form-fitted pieces of cardboard on my feet. Dishes soak in soapy, gray water and await the next burden of spaghetti and overly-sweet sauce. Cleanliness is not the key to happiness in the field, being full is.


That said, I completed my first round of surveys on 30 March. Weather conditions that started out the month in a tropical pattern took a U-turn, and the spring-time conditions that owlers hope for (enormous high pressure systems that don't move) were only temporary visitors to the region. Instead, winds rode the shoulders of rapidly moving low pressure systems, and surveys that were ready for lift-off, stayed on the launching pad of the night.


Five boreal owls, 27 northern saw-whets, 20 barreds, 1 great gray, and 1 long-eared owl were detected during 170.5 miles of surveys (341 stops; 0.5 mile intervals; 3 minute listening period per stop). Given my observations of 26 March, it seems appropriate to reduce the saw-whet number by one. During pre-survey monitoring, an additional 6 boreals and three great gray owls were located. It has been in fact, an early spring.


I have never been overly excited about conducting surveys along a specific route. They are treated with impartiality.  With the windstorm damage along the Gunflint Trail, however, I was eager to visit its 40+ mile length. For me, it sets up a unique opportunity to observe the effects of catastrophic change on the owl community; a before-and-after snapshot, if you will.  


What wasn't surprising was the fact that very few owls were detected within the altered landscape. Barred owls along the Gunflint hooted, but they no longer provide close-to-the-road listening and viewing opportunities. Instead, they are tucked into the draws and valleys whose trees were immune to the 100 mph assault from the west. What was surprising was that in several isolated islands of trees, saw-whets sang away my conception that they are an interior forest species.


The return of the saw-whets to the North Woods this spring has been accomplished with unprecedented numbers. They are on a march northward like Patton's army. They are in the hills and in watersheds; in intact and fragmented forests. They don't waste any time. Males sing for several nights and within a week the female sits atop warm eggs. They have become nocturnal starlings.


Unlike saw-whets, boreal owls do not rely on a flood of returning migrants from the south for their productivity. Instead, their numbers consist of a low density of resident birds supplemented by wanderers from the north. They are locked into an existence centered around large stretches of spruce lowlands and cavity trees in adjacent old forest uplands. Many of those lowland tracts remain, but windstorms and chainsaws come, and one by one cavities are lost.  Saw-whet nests are easy to find. Boreal nests are now a more difficult discovery. 


Fourteen years. Has it been that long? It seems like I just got here.  My thanks to Rich Jordan for his enthusiasm and ears.  


W.H. Lane