Sunday, April 05, 2009

Is there anybody out there?

Last night I joined a Boise State graduate student on one of the owl surveys for his research project. I can't imagine a more beautiful night to have chosen. The moon was high in the sky providing plenty of light, and there was no wind or clouds. It was fantastic.

We left Boise at about 6:30pm in the hopes to find a crepuscular Northern Pygmy Owl near Idaho city which he had previously spotted. This owl was not officially part of his research, he had simply arrived at his research point early one day and happened upon it. It would not cooperate this evening. We did hike up onto a ridge and observe the forest. We found an owl pellet which could have been from a pygmy owl, but that was it. We did see a red fox, a Turkey Vulture land in a tree, a Red-tailed Hawk being harassed by Common Ravens, and could hear the simultaneous drumming of a Hairy Woodpecker and a Northern Flicker. Not bad.

We moved on to the official starting point of the survey. We would be surveying three separate points on a high mountain ridge. We were hiking in snowshoes over fairly steep terrain. The snow had become a little crusty from the sunny days we have had late in the week. In the shade of the trees it would turn to deep soft powder. We were surveying fixed points with a 20 minute procedure at each point. The 20 minutes starts with 3 minutes of silence listening for unsolicited owl calls. Then a series of various owl calls are played, each followed by silence to listen for solicited responses. We were hoping to record responses from any number of forest owls including a Flammulated Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Western Screech-Owl, Boreal Owl, Barred Owl, or Great-horned Owl. There were be no responses at the first survey site.

We hiked further up the ridge to the second survey site. At this site we didn't log any owls, but some Mallards migrated over followed by some American Wigeons. I had no idea that either of these were nocturnal migrants. It was close to midnight.

The third site on the ridge was also lacking in owl responses. This is where I discovered that I had broken my snowshoe. More than 2 miles from the car in deep snow with a broken snowshoe! Some quick trail repair with a piece of cord and we were mobile again. A short while later, I broke the other side. It must be time for an upgrade! I was able to hobble out to the car by carefully placing each foot step.

From here we moved to a second location which had two survey points on it. This was at lower elevation so we could hike without snowshoes, speeding up our progress. It was still covered in snow, but had been driven over and packed down to ice. Once again, the first survey point produced a null result. He hiked further up to the last point of the night. Before we arrived we could hear a Great-horned Owl calling near the point location. Finally. Unfortunately, this one was not within the survey protocol. Executing the protocol at the survey point, he would not reply. Neither would anyone else. Shortly after the survey completed, we heard a Northern Saw-whet Owl calling from down the valley. Two owls for the night. We headed back to Boise.

It was a scary drive. At 4am in the morning after being up for 22 hours, there were deer scattered all along the road. It was a slow and stressful drive hoping that none of the deer would jump out in front of us. We made it home safely.

Wildlife research is an interesting process, one of the reasons that I am pursuing my encore career. It is always unpredictable. If we knew what to expect then there would be no reason to perform the research. Being out on a high mountain ridge in the snow, surrounded by the moon and the star was spectacular. The trip was even more rewarding as I quizzed Micah for hours on various research topic, approaches, etc. It was very educational and he was very patient in dealing with my questions. I feel much more prepared in formulating my own research. I meet with a research adviser next week to begin the process.


John B. said...

It's too bad you didn't find any owls for the survey. Another night, I guess.

wolf21m said...

Thanks John. It was still a great night. Previous surveys over the past month and a half have reported owls at four of the five survey locations, with four species accounted for. The theory around here is that owl calling dies off in early April as incubation begins, then picks up again in May. While not a specific aspect of this research, we will see if the data supports this hypothesis.

Anonymous said...

It's too bad you didn't find any owls for the survey.
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