For the last three months, a group of volunteers has been going out at sunset to search for Western Screech Owls.
Our task was to play a recording of a Screech Owl for about a minute, then listen intently for four minutes, then repeat the sequence three times.
If we heard an owl, any owl, we recorded as many details as possible.
Barred Owls, Pygmy Owls, Saw-whet Owls and Western Screech Owls responded.
For the purpose of the survey, an owl response was really all the information that we needed but there was so much more to learn from standing around in the dark, listening.
In February and less so in March, the peaceful early evening hours were frequently punctuated by the roar of vehicles disgorged from the Hurley Pass, laden with snowmobiles.
As the evening darkened, the rumble of vehicles subsided and the yodelling of coyotes and the howls of wolves escalated.
In response, farm dogs barked and sometimes horses startled us by snorting loudly. Cows mooed.
On clear nights, the changes in air pressure brought us sounds from far away, like car doors slamming or people talking.
On rainy nights, even a slight drizzle caused enough noise to make us question whether our auditory abilities were up to the task. But then one of us would hear an owl and we would strain to make sense of the new sound, silent and shivering on the side of the road until the notes coalesced into certainty-“Yes, it’s the bouncing ball call of a Western Screech Owl!” Out came the GPS to mark a waypoint, matched by the compass to note the direction and we would all test our skills at noting how many meters away the sound might be.
In March and April, the croaking, peeping and chirping of tree frogs drowned out our chances of hearing anything in some areas.
Killdeer calling for mates and Canada Geese and Trumpeter Swans also made listening difficult at times but their calls also opened up whole other realms of questions: What might they be saying? If they already attracted a mate, do they really need to keep up with the same sound, over and over? Is it really the same sound, or am I just not able to differentiate?
While our auditory skills were paramount for the survey, we saw some unusual sights as well. In March, the carcasses of Western Toads littered the upper meadows road. We herded those still alive off the route whenever possible but they likely crossed as soon as we left, hopping over the bodies of hundreds of salamanders as they did. When I returned in the morning to the sight of this carnage, crows and ravens had cleaned up every sign of the event. In April, the moon was full during our survey time and so bright it cast shadows – no need for a flashlight even in the darkest woods.
The surveying is all done for now but the avenues for new investigations have only just begun. I noticed how easy it is to overlook or tune out random noises that don’t make sense but as with learning to appreciate a new kind of music, what we hear can open up new worlds to us. For instance, instead of ignoring the chirping noises coming from the edge of Tunkwa Lake recently, we shone our flashlights at the water’s edge and discovered a roiling mass of bodies – toads mating and forming a “Toad Ball” (It’s a thing, I looked it up – just what it sounds like – a ball of toads – with a female in the middle.) There’s no matching photo this time-it was dark and we had a job to do, and we’ve yet to see a Western Screech Owl as they are nocturnal, but I’ve included a newly hatched Western Toad.