25 March 2002
At midnight on Friday, I grew a bit concerned. In 18 hours, I would be leading my first field trip of the season and for two days I had heard nothing. The weather report for Saturday night was not good: cold and windy. I had nothing to show the participants and given the distances they were traveling, wondered how palpable their disappointment would be.
I do the trips for two reasons: I want people to experience the nighttime as I have for 15+ years and I need the money. I no longer have the attachment to the University, and all that money the State makes selling lottery tickets? None of it is coming to the Owlman. Were it not for the steady support of the Forest Service, my focus would be elsewhere. They scratch my back and I scratch theirs…..a relationship every biologist strives for.
On Saturday, I met my group while the sun was still hanging above us. I prefaced our journey with a status report, exuding confidence that something good would come from our trek. To the east, I had recently located a pair of saw-whets, but on Friday night, their activities were elsewhere. Eight boreals are scattered throughout the landscape, but have been quiet since the chill arrived.
We would drive the back roads, periodically stopping to search the horizons for owls and to allow me to tell the stories that now, need to be told. I suggested a drive to see the saw-whet pair, to watch courtship while the sky was still pale with light. I told them what would happen, the vocalizations to listen for, the timing of the pair. But, I fully expected that my descriptions would be all they would take from the site.
At sunset, the winds died and the saw-whets appeared, the male playing his persistent flute, the female playing hard to get. He sang softly, less than 30 feet away from us, she peeped in response. She moved to the cavity, flying over our bent necks as we huddled against the cold. Owl biology leaves a lasting impression.
When a group of lost snowmobilers moved (illegally) up the Caribou Trail, sounds of nature were rendered inconsequential. They sped by, sending up trails of sparks, each driver raising their arm in the snowmobiler's universal salute of "yeah….I've got shit-for-brains….how you doin??" They are the square pegs in the round hole of winter.
When the snowmobiles were gone, we moved north and then east. We looked at the "new" comet and watched as auroras started to blaze in the northern sky; vivid despite the moonlight. I smugly suggested that "observation of the comet and auroras was not included in our travel package and would require an additional 5 dollar payment." I was having fun.
I took them to a boreal owl and he sang a song of melancholy, his voice carrying on still air. They had never heard that song and now, they would never forget it. When a bank of low clouds moved in, treetops swayed and the group got to experience the other aspect of my nights: silence.
When our trip ended, nearly 6 hours had passed. It was good to have people to interact with and release my three weeks of isolation. It was good too that we did not follow a structured path, but instead took advantage of the opportunities the North Woods presented. At the very least, I was not disappointed.
© W.H. Lane