On the night of January 16th Methow Conservancy Conservation Biologist Julie Grialou and I joined 12 hardy folks for a night walk out in the mixed mature forest of the Big Valley Loop. We were hoping to hear some owls. This is the start of their breeding season, a season that will extend into May for some of the species. We were most interested in listening for five different year-round Valley residents: Northern saw-whet owl, Northern pygmy owl, Western screech owl, Great horned owl, and Barred owl.
The night was cloudy and the temperature was in the upper twenties--good weather for standing still. We left from the parking area and our process was to walk for 5-10 minutes, stop to play the different owl recordings from an Ipad with external speakers, wait and listen for about 5 minutes, and then continue on with this same process of walking, stopping, playing owl recordings and listening until we reached our turn-a-round point. We listened patiently, optimistically, and with intent. But we heard nothing. We covered at least a mile and a half before turning around and as we came back it started to snow softly as if to seal in the silence of this night. We went home slightly disappointed.
That soft snow turned into a good couple inches overnight. I had hopes that if we got skunked on the second evening of owling, I might at least be able to find some mountain lion tracks in the fresh snow to sustain the group.
That night back in the Big Valley parking lot the owling group was livelier, chattier, and bigger than the previous night. Most likely everyone was feeding off the energy that only fresh snow can bring in the depths of winter. I was nervous about our prospects and refused to answer multiple questions about what the previous group had heard. We left the parking lot and stopped on the edge of the same conifer stand as the previous night for our first listening stop.
I was just about to play a recording for a Western screech owl when Jason Paulsen said in a hushed tone, “Got One!” Sure enough in between the barks of two distant dogs a faint call of a Great Horned Owl could be heard. After making sure everyone heard it, we marched on, following its call, hoping to get closer. Eventually, we stopped underneath a massive cottonwood snag to listen and we heard a crisp distinct Great horned owl call. It was close. So we played a Great horned owl recording in response and got another Great horned owl to join in, and then another, and another. Soon four individual Great horned owls surrounded us in a chorus of song.
As we walked back I felt relief. We had been in the exact same spot with the exact same songs as the night before, but with a much different outcome. We can’t always control or predict Mother Nature. We can simply be in awe. Photo at left by Daniel Senner.