Thursday, July 22, 2010

We Are Watching You

The end of a hot summer day was perfect for a nature stroll around the lake. When I take the time to sit quietly, creatures come investigate, or emerge from hiding. This green frog and bluebird both seemed as interested in me as I was in them!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Owl Prowl

Excerpt from my journal--November 7, 2009

In bed all day hoping to elude the symptoms of a virus. I want to join 19 other people who reserved a spot to accompany Steve Huy, a bander of saw-whet owls to his mist net site. We convene at 9 PM. Feeling better I make a cup of black tea at the last moment to sustain me and rush out to the car, only to find that my kitchen clock has betrayed me and I'm already late to meet the others at the commuter parking lot. With my cell, I ring Carolyn, the organizer of these once-yearly jaunts, for directions to the site.

I've worn the recommended boots, scarf, gloves and jacket. I later learn that in the past some women have shown up in high heels! The night is cool, the sky dark enough to see many stars as I travel into the lesser developed south county. The shape of South Mountain crouches blackly to my left. Monument Road twists and turns up the mountain, round and round, up and up. The turnoff is onto a narrow blacktopped lane that continues steeply upward, weaving in and around trees. It goes on for some time, and just as I seem to be cresting the mountain, and see lights blinking in the valley below, I run smack into the butt ends of cars huddled by a utilitarian shed. A communications tower erupts on top, silhouetted against the starry sky.

The second I open my car door, I hear a very loud sound piercing the darkness. It sounds like the friction of large rhythmically moving mechanical parts. But the irregularity in frequency and the varying duration of each shriek makes me think of a neighbor's dog whose vocal chords had been surgically altered to eradicate an obsessive bark. Only in this case something has gone terribly wrong. The noise is that much more affecting due to the lack of information I'm receiving from my favored sense of sight. I later learn that this sound is a recording of saw whet vocalizations blaring at high decibels from a speaker by the mist nets further into the woods. Supposedly the owls come to investigate the "intruder" to the territory.

Carolyn greets me with a flashlight and we stumble to where Steve is speaking about saw whets and his project. As shadowy figures we huddle by a security fence. Steve tells us that before the banding project it was thought that saw-whets numbered only in the hundred thousands, but now are believed to be in the millions. They are very small owls, maybe 5 inches--in response to a question about their size, Steve says he doesn't keep that information in his head because it is in books, rather the "owls fit in my hand." He says that although the males are smaller than females, there is no easy or quick way to identify an owls sex, but he has banded several thousand owls now, and so usually has a general impression of an owl's sex based on his accumulated experiences.

Two shorter individuals in the front of the group ask questions and I recognize their voices, both fellow WV Master Naturalists. From their profiles, I see Carrie's ubiquitous baseball cap, and Ursula's fluffy hair cut--she is not a wearer of hats. My eyes slowly adjust to the faint light--from the stars, nearby "light pollution," and a just rising waning moon--enough to make out their facial features. At this level of light I see in monochrome. I read that owls I have have many more rods in their eyes than humans, so not only see much better in dim light, but in color too!

The question of the utility of banding saw-whets is questioned since they are so "plentiful." He explains that the well-being of saw-whets reflects the well-being of the boreal forest, and our ecosystem as a whole. Predators, including birds of prey such as the saw-whet, are at the top of the food chainand ecological disruptions often first present themselves at that level, since toxins accumulate as they rise through the food chain. Most of us have heard of the endangered falcons and other birds due to DDT use and the resulting thinning of their egg shells.

Steve says saw-whets travel in spring to breed in the boreal forests of Canada and migrate south in the fall. Those northern forests are crucial to a healthy ecosystem and the life cycles of many other birds as well. The boreal forests of the world are much vaster than the earth's rain forests. They are being diminished by the lumber industry and by climate change--as we lose the freezing temperatures, and the duration of the freezes in the north. Wood boring beetles are not being controlled by these seasonal changes, and so they proliferate and take the lives of more and more trees, reducing habitat for breeding birds.

Finally it is time to check the mist nets! The recording has been screeching away for an hour. We troop in the dark down a path. A sign in the stern wording of a government agency warns against tampering with the nets. I had never seen a mist net and always wondered what it looked like. Saw-whets are relatively low fliers. A series of poles rise to maye 8-10 feet at most. The poles are spaced about 12-15 feet apart. Each net is about 8 feet tall, but loops up at the bottom forming a trough. The bird flies into the upper part of the net, then falls into the trough, and is secured. Two or three horizontal swaths of netting are stretched between the poles to form tiers of alternating netting and troughs. The line of netting extends 50 or more feet in one direction with another line jutting off at an angle midline.

We take care not to entangle in or damage the netting as each net costs $500-600. The holes in the net are as large as quarters--surprising since I envisioned a mist net as being very fine. The threads in the net are indeed very fine, and tension placed on the net is very loose. I can see how a bird could fly into it, be caught up, and not harmed. Close by the nets, the owl call is deafening. Ursula, shouting in my ear, confides that she purposely left her hearing aid at home.

There are no owls in the nets, Steve announces so we troop back to the security fence for more waiting. It occurs to me that we are like well-meaning spiders awaiting prey. What is the word for attributing animal behaviors to humans?--a reversal of anthropomorphism.

Ursula tells me she has gone on owl prowls twice before. She describes Steve placing the little owls in mesh envelopes that hug them closely as they await banding. The owls do not struggle but calmly submit to the banding process. She describes them as beautiful and adorable, without tufted ears as horned owls have, but with facial disks like barn owls. Ursula, Carrie and I trade wildlife stories amidst other groups chatting in the dim light of the crescent moon. One couple lights up an iPhone looking at birding info and listening to bird calls--at first. Later I hear canned laughter coming from the device. The glow from the digital screen lights up their faces and distracts my gaze from the moon and stars.

Ursula confesses about driving to a Christmas bird count one year and an owl flying into her windshield. She stopped and picked up the dead owl, placed it in her car and took it to the birding group to share as found on the roadside. She did not tell that she herself had been in the moving vehicle that killed it. She tells of meeting Scott Wiedensaul when he came to a friend's home to band a species of hummingbird unusual to this area. She says he is a very nice, unassuming man despite his fame as an author. We share a chocolate chip cookie I brought and Ursula wishes for ginger snaps and hot chocolate.

Time to check the nets again. The moon is now high in the sky. We again trundle down the rocky path with our flashlights but the verdict is no owls tonight! It is 11 PM and I have reached my limit. We return to the cars and two groups leave. A few other folks remain, perhaps to wait longer for the owls to make an appearance. I am somewhat disappointed after having waited two years for this opportunity. But as a dirunal animal, I enjoyed the novelty of a noctural foray and the company of other nature lovers. It is said we must take on the characteristics of the creatures we study and want to commune with. To study nocturnal predators, we go out at night, we wait, we cast nets, we use lures and mimicry, we boost our sight with artificial light, we dress for the weather and terrain. Perhaps I will have better luck next time if I add more meat to my diet.