Saturday, May 15, 2010

Getting a bit Owly

During the month of May, I have made a strange trip to the backwoods of Digby county for the last six years. About an hour before sunset we hop in the car and drive to the New France Road which is located inland from Weymouth. Our mission is to listen to the nighttime sounds of the northern woods and count the number of times we hear we hear owls calling. To the uninitiated this may seem like an odd way to spend an evening. Truthfully, after doing it for six years, it still seems to me like an odd way to spend the evening. What we are doing is participating in the Nocturnal Owl Survey for Bird Studies Canada.

Here is how it works. We have a route consisting of ten stops which are all spaced about two kilometers apart. When the sun sets we start out on our trek. We arrive at the first spot and record the time, cloud cover, temperature and other climatic information. We then set a CD player on the back of the car and push play. For the first two minutes all we hear is a beep. We have this time to see if any owls are going to call out and volunteer that they are in the area. After two minutes the call of a boreal owl rings out from the CD player. Again we wait two minutes and listen for owls until another boreal owl call enlivens the night. This process of recorded owl calls and listening continues through two barred owl calls. At the end of the stop, we record the species of owls we heard, when they called and in what direction they were found. With our information on paper, we move on to the next nine stops where the process repeats itself.

Our route takes us down a logging road into a fairly isolated part of Digby county. After we pass a mink farm at the third stop we have only once seen another vehicle. In that instance a logging truck pulled over to see if we were in need of assistance. As he rolled down his window, a very loud barred owl call played on the recorder. He quickly put up his window and headed down the road with a trailing cloud of dust. I suppose that he figured that we were out doing some strange environmental thing and wanted no part of us. I wonder what stories he told when he got home.

In all honesty, there is something nice about taking the time to listen to nature and stand under the stars in complete darkness. We are far enough from artificial light that there are stars on display which could never be seen in an urban setting. On the night of the owl survey I have the time to stand in complete silence and look at the majesty of the universe as it lays out before me. Satellites, planets, shooting stars and vast nebulas fill the panorama of the sky. Too few people take the opportunity to see the night sky like this. For me, the reverie is only broken by the call of the the owls we are there to count.

Last night had all of the hallmarks of a very average day on the owl survey until the very last stop. To that point, we had heard 11 owls (barred and northern saw-whet owls) which is about what we have come to expect. When we stepped out of the car for the last stop we could already hear a barred owl calling nearby. After starting the recording we heard a couple of saw-whets but our barred owl was remaining silent. Finally after the last recorded call everything berserk. three or four owls were calling on either side of the road. They were responding to our recording but they were also communicating with each other. I do not think that I can properly explain how loud an owl's call seems when they are nearby on a quiet night. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a movement and my owling companion Paula and I both hit the dirt. One of the warnings for the survey is that owls are territorial and they have been known to attack. I am not sure about you, but the last thing I want is an owl coming talons first at my head at the end of the evening. As I looked up, I could clearly see the silhouette of a barred owl as it flew over our heads. We got up, dusted ourselves off and made our way back to the car. We sat with the windows rolled down listening to the fracas that we had started.

All for now,

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