Monthly Archives: March 2011

when heads droop

it wasn’t long ago that i could do this all night.  sunset to sunrise.  just load me up with some caffeine, a little nicotine, some data sheets and i was good to go. 

ten hours of survey bliss.  my life in half-mile, 3-minute intervals.  over and over.

get in at 7, sleep until 3.


obviously, things have changed.

i knew it was going to be a tough night last night when somewhere around my eighth stop, my head started to droop.  for the unaware, the drooping head of an owler means only one thing: despite high levels of charisma and enthusiasm, he is tired.  

sure enough, immediately after the drooping came the wandering, aimless mind.    

owl surveys are defined in webster’s dictionary as “monotonous, repetitive, often unrewarding efforts by charming owl biologists and owl biologist wanna-bes, wherein many hours are spent alone at night, listening for the songs and calls of owls, but mostly wondering why they are doing what they are doing.” 


last night would afford no owl karma, no serendipitous discovery, no declaration of “this is why i do this.”  instead, the storyline was an owler’s dogged determination to finish a survey route and then drive the hour back to his den of disarray for much-needed sleep. 

reality tv at its worst.

there was a thin overcast for most of the night but otherwise, nothing endearing about the evening.  three listless male saw-whets and one cantankerous barred owl after 25 miles, 51 stops, and another 2.55 hours of my life chalked up to a “stubborn refusal to change his ways.”  

the drive home was another white-knuckle, asleep at the wheel adventure which seems to occur more often as i get older and push the surly bonds of aging. at 0130, my inner voice demanded i pull into the cascade river rest area and sleep, even though my home was only 20 minutes away.  i slept deeply for 5 minutes and woke up with a convulsion, not knowing where i was.

instant, deep sleep, then panic, then relief knowing the airbag had not deployed.   

looking back at the first round of surveys, the most notable feature had to be the immobile high pressure system that sat over me for nearly 2 weeks.  it was cold, but calm.  rarely at the end of march can i count on anything more than a couple of nights of perfect owling ambience before “poof”, it all gets blown away by a low pressure system from hell. 

my summary statement:  weather good, owls bad.

sleep:  even better.


the perfect night

all it took was 15 degrees on the happy side of zero and again, the night fit like a glove.  it didn’t matter that the owls were few or far between, or that the stream of vehicles out of grand marais was steady until 2100.  what mattered was the perfect ambience of a late march evening in northeast minnesota.  

i have long acknowledged that my favorite hour of any day is the shift between daylight and darkness.  it is the gloaming, the magic of crepuscular light when those things diurnal stop, and those things nocturnal begin their stirrings.  in an owl spring, the end of daylight typically means reproductive effort which means song which means detectability. 

but surely, you already know that by now.  

until the moon again appears in the evening sky, the clear nights of march and april provide a full presentation of zodiacal light, which is the fleeting glow in the western horizon caused by sunlight scattered by the detritus of  space. like so many night sky events, its show is brief but compelling viewing. when it is gone, it’s nighttime baby. 

that’s what i’m talkin’ about.  

four saw-whets in 3 hours does not seem like a lot and in fact, i had several stops where the inner voice issued its keen observations, wryly suggesting “it’s fucking dead out here tonight.” 

okay, that was my audible voice.  

if an owler is in the woods and he issues a stream of profanities and there is nobody with him does he actually issue a stream of profanities?  

of course not.  

tonight, i will make the long slog up to the end of the gunflint trail and work my way back towards last night’s starting point.  i will stop every half-mile in the windstorm/fire/fire ravaged forests and listen for life, even though the triumverate of catastrophic events have created a void in the strigidaen landscape.  

i can think of several reasons not to survey there, but know if an owl is in the woods and makes a sound and an owler is there, it will make perfect sense.

warning: objects in the rear-view mirror (of life) are closer than you think

if one is looking for interior forest owls, it helps to have interior forest. 

last night, my route took me up the caribou trail, yet another route that has changed immensely since my owling infancy.  the more recent changes, those that have occurred since my last traverse in october, were profound.  several large clear cuts and thinning that has essentially removed all the understory and shrub layers from acres of forest.  i mean, acres of former forest.

i don’t know if the intent is forest management or to protect the haughty summer homes from the smites of a vengeful god,  but whatever the reason, it seems a curious landscape now.  

there were some big aspen in those stands.  i mean, former stands.

only a lone saw-whet last night.  he sang from the backside of a ridge and i nearly missed him because my attention had drifted to one of those teary-eyed, nostalgic owling journeys i so often take when there are few distractions.  last nights trip took me back to 1991, the first of several years i was able to utilize the services of field assistants and the middle of several years where boreal owls were as thick as thieves. 

i stopped at an old ’91 nest tree whose 80 feet of bole and canopy have been reduced to around 20 feet of bole. 

aspen does that:  it grows like a weed and then falls apart.  order, owls, then chaos.

despite the punky condition of the wood, several spike marks in the tree were visible, the remnants of my early, white-knuckled climbs to get to the cavity to determine the status of the nest.   

i should have hired spiderman. 

i have two surveys left and until thursday to get them finished,  then i start the whole process over again.  then, once more through the end of april.   

oh oh…the 1997 owl season is calling me.

righteous stink

i returned home last night, just as the clock tickled midnight.  the temperature hovered around zero, which just so happened to describe where my interest in owls was.  still, i had to spend a few minutes on the deck to see if anything was happening with my “boy”, the male saw-whet who has come-a-courting.

alas, there was no song and no one in the cavity, which means it’s still early or…he has moved on.  making deductions based upon 5 minute observations is not sound (unless you are a naturalist or attend umd) and so, i am cautious about coming to a conclusion about the tree top events in my back yard.

diurnal update:  i just checked the cavity tree and there was nothing there but “good god man” (inner voice of owl wisdom), “it’s not even april yet.” 

“you are right, inner voice. now please stop!” 

my good friend jan horak brought me a deer carcass a couple of weeks ago (a true sign of north shore giving) and while the corvids are currently enjoying it, they have taken umbrage over the arrival of an adult bald eagle.  scavengers show no class when it comes to sharing.  right now, the eagle is sitting at the top of a spruce, surrounded by 20 cacaphonous crows.

owl surveys last night were conducted without so much as a taste of an owl.  the weather was cold and calm, but the landscape was surprisingly quiet.   the nighttime temperatures are supposed to remain around zero the next couple of nights, so swaddling myself in stinky fleece is on the menu.

speaking of stink (warning: another heartwarming owlman anecdote coming), in 2001, i went 11 days without taking a shower.  i didn’t do it because i was rustically situated, i did so because as a biologist, i was curious about the putrification process.  the stink was trapped in fleece whenever i ventured outside, so i don’t think anyone noticed or cared.  then again, i never had to wait in line at the holiday or super america.  when the shower came, it was glorious.   i wrote about it on a long-lost blog and assumed that the immersion and reveling over ones’ personal stink was a “guy thing.”  lo and behold, i received a response from a female field biologist who confessed it wasn’t just a “guy thing”, that she too had conducted a similar “experiment lasting several weeks.” 

ewwww……that is so gross!!

waxing philosophically

cold and clear and calm.  no moonlight to douse the landscape with the lighting of a wal-mart parking lot.  stars and galaxies forever.


a perfect storm for early season owling.  

i love not having the moon, more than having the moon.  darkness affords attention, affords connection.  i look up and know the night sky is the same night sky seen by voyageurs and native americans and australopithecus when their heads turned upward in reflection or curiousity or fear or…

…complete self-awareness.

i am nothing.  those stars can be touched, but never reached.  millions of years of conscious humility can be found in each galaxy and here i stand on a gravel road in the middle of everywhere and think i am all that, and more, but i am not.

this is why i owl:  i owl because in every strife or challenge or hardship or loss or celebration or distraction, owling forces me to deal with the totality of life. there are few precedents; each experience is unique. the survey stops have remained unchanged for years, but each stop is different.

in my personal life, i have regularly heard the chagrin and disbelief about my owling passion. i accept that i march to the beat of a different drum, but also, that i am powerless over its pulse.

each owl can be identified by its song or call.  when i hear an owl, i hear the nuance and tempo and emphasis and urgency that remind me of where i have been and also, who has been there before me.

happy and sad owls

it now appears i will be unable to venture into the cold, late march nights without freezing my nordic skiing-toned buttocks off.  i hate when that happens.  lows around zero through sunday and when the warming comes, it isn’t going to be much of a warming. 

i should have known that taunting the gods of winter was not a good idea.

last night, i made several sorties to the deck to see what was going on with the male saw-whet.  indeed, he has got it all going on…bouncing around the aspen, then spruce, then back to the cavity with an excited song that tells the seasoned owl observer that the first step towards fecundity has been taken by his new strigidaen neighbor. 

the last pair of saw-whets calling my homestead their homestead, didn’t get going until mid-may. usually, that timing suggests a couple of kids trying to act like grown-ups and like kids, the only thing they got right was copulating. i’ve seen it many times with many owls and successful pairs are typically experienced at being a successful pair, or a contributing component thereof.  in 2002, i banded a nesting female boreal and 2 years later, retrapped her at a new nest a mile down the road. only the ravenous appetite of a carousing pine marten interrupted her earnest efforts to send owlets into the night. 

but please, don’t get me started on nest predation…like in 2006 when i lost over 10 nests to a group of predators whose efforts stopped only when there wasn’t anything left to eat. or 1991, when i left a boreal nest at 3 in the morning and came back the next night and everything was gone.  the male came in with a food delivery and (i don’t do this often) i listened to his plaintive wailing for 2 hours. it was one of my few anthropomorphic moments in 25 years of owling.

 meanwhile, i will do some surveys tonight and hope i find a pair of owls that are in love and seem happy and get lonely when the other leaves.  

okay,  i’m just going to do some surveys.  whatever else happens is beyond my control.          

yeah, baby!

just in from a brief, non-hypothermic stretch on my deck and indeed, the male saw-whet is in courting mode.  he flew into the cavity and is tooting like a teenager and by tooting, i mean, trying to get busy. and by get busy, i mean trying to engage in a brief, yet satisfying bout of copulation.   

i think the voyeuristic part of owling is what i like the best.  even though i can’t see a thing.

acoustic voyeurism? 

that works too.