A hardy band of volunteers in Maine brave freezing temperatures till the small hours of the morning to unlock the secrets of owls.
At 2 a.m. on a cool March night, coyotes are yipping down by a small brook in the woods next to this rural road. The stars are brilliant, and the countryside near my home in midcoast Maine, pretty but unspectacular in the day, seems entirely different in the dead of nighttranquil, wild, mysterious.
Soon the coyotes pipe down, and it's utterly quiet. Too quiet. My ears strain into the darkness, listening for owls. For four years I've prowled these back roads at midnight, pounding coffee, stopping the car every couple of miles and playing taped owl calls from a battery-powered blaster box, waiting for the nocturnal raptors to echo back. Ten minutes tick by. Nothing. I'm all bundled up in wool and flannel, but my ears are bare to better hear. The silence is broken only by the trickle of water draining a nearby beaver pond.
Finally, from the tree line at the edge of a blueberry barren, I hear breathy, plaintive, low hoots. A great horned owl. A minute later, on the ridgeline above me, there's the urgent call of a barred owlnot the typical who cooks for you but an excited, monkeylike ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh oo-oooo, first ascending the scale then descending on the slurred, trailing-off last syllable.
I'd slept a couple of hours and started out a bit drowsy. But now I'm awake. I wonder why we waste so much time sleeping when this wild night is ours to see, and hear, just outside the window. Best of all, this is not just fun; it's science. I'm one of more than 100 volunteers in Audubon's pioneering Maine Owl Monitoring Program, a citizen science project that aims to fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge of these secretive birds.
The owl program is a collaboration between Maine Audubon and the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (DIFW). Tom Hodgman, a DIFW wildlife biologist by day, first started thinking about doing an owl survey eight years ago while participating in another Audubon citizen science project, the ongoing Maine Amphibian Monitoring Program. "I was hearing owls on my route, and I knew there was no source of data, no information on population trends, because the existing monitoring efforts for birds don't occur at the same time that owls are nesting" he says. While there are a number of citizen science monitoring programs for birdsmost notably the Christmas Bird Count and the Breeding Bird Surveynone in the United States were geared specifically toward monitoring owls.
Hodgman began discussing an owl-monitoring program with Maine Audubon wildlife biologist Susan Gallo. The two had already worked together on nongame bird conservation, and both brought valuable experience to the project. While Hodgman had organized surveys for salt-marsh birds and wintering waterfowl, Gallo had coordinated Maine Audubon's annual loon count, another citizen monitoring project. Soon they were collaborating on the owl surveys. "Who better to field a staff of citizen volunteers than Audubon?" says Hodgman."It was a natural marriage."
With a $30,000 grant from Maine's Outdoor Heritage Fund, Gallo and Hodgman started developing the survey techniques. They would focus on detecting the three species of owls common in Mainesaw-whet, barred, and great hornedwhile also tracking rarer screech, long-eared, and short-eared owls. Then they began assembling volunteers for the first field season, in the winter of 2002. After a couple of newspaper articles in advance of the first survey, volunteers came forth in droves.
Gallo assumed that when she told the prospective volunteers what was expectedthree nighttime surveys between February and Aprilthey would lose their enthusiasm, particularly with temperatures dipping into single digits."I'd say, 'Okay, this is this insane thing. You have to go out in February, from one to five in the morning,' " recalls Gallo. "And they'd say, 'That sounds great, I can't wait.' "
Gallo and Hodgman had planned on only 40 volunteers, but they soon had a list of 322many of them had to go on a waiting list. "We were totally overwhelmed," says Gallo. But they managed to have volunteers cover 146 survey routes that first year.
The volunteers find it tremendously rewarding. "To be outside for a chunk of time in the middle of the night, you sort of reclaim a part of your life," says Kit Pfeiffer, a development director for a performance art series on the Maine coast. "It's magical."
"Owls are really special. The fact that they are out at night gives them a mythical quality," says Karen Larsen, a DJ at a community radio station. "The idea that they can see into the dark, that they can see into mysteries."
Even people who spend their lives in the woods are compelled. "You know there are owls out there, and you very rarely see them," says Amanda Barker, a ranger for the Maine Forest Service. "To me they are one of the phantoms, the things in the woods that you just don't see. Like lynx."
In the daylight the road cutting through the blueberry barren above the brook, the only spot on my route where I've heard all three common owl species, doesn't seem wild. It features a Maine-specific sort of sprawl: 1800s farmhouses interspersed with 1970s back-to-the-land shacks, 1980s trailers, and, from recent years, large prefabs and larger McMansions. But at night you understand the development for what it isa narrow strip of civilization along the roads, backed up to fields, wetlands, and woods. It's not quite fragmented habitat; it's what Hodgman calls "perforated."
While the surveys could track how development affects owl abundance and distribution over time, it's too soon to tell the relationship between the owls, the habitat, and the land-use patterns. But Hodgman believes the owl habitat in much of Maine is in fairly good shape. "The three common species are pretty flexible," he says. "Forested land is what they need. But if it's broken up by wetlands and farmlands, I think it's especially good. It's that combination of woodlot and forest and field, meadow and wetland."
It's not yet clear why these all seem so hospitable for owls, but Hodgman speculates that it's because many of the owls' prey species are oriented toward edge habitat, which abounds in this sort of varied landscape. As expected, the survey has found the three common species of Maine owls to be well distributed throughout the state (although the numbers drop off in heavily developed areas). In the first two years of the monitoring programthe only time frame for which data has thus far been analyzedvolunteers counted 1,457 individual owl calls; nearly half of them were barred owls, followed by saw-whets then great horned owls.
The surveys seem to confirm Maine's long-observed scarcity of long-eared, screech, and short-eared owls, which had just 11, 5, and 3 reports, respectively. The dearth of long-eared owls, though expected, still confounds Gallo and Hodgman. They had hoped the survey might turn up a few more reports.
"If you look at [Maine habitat maps], you'd say long-eared owls should be everywhere, but clearly they're not," says Gallo. "It's not a matter of we're just not hearing them because they are out at night, or we're not seeing them because they are owls." The absence is just one of the many mysteries the surveys might help to solve.
Occasional die-offs, especially of barred owls in winter, are another poorly understood phenomenon that the data might shed some light on. Many of the owls appear to be mature. They die of starvation or are hit by cars as they hunt along roads. "There are a lot of questions there," says Hodgman. "Are those local birds? Are they birds that have migrated? When you get all these birds dying, is the local breeding population affected at all?" That's why regional monitoring could be an asset in the future, explains Gallo: "If we're having a bad year here, is everyone having a bad year? Or are they having a great year in New York?"
As the researchers and volunteers continue to gather distribution data in Maine, the owl surveys are already establishing a baseline for analyzing future changes in owl populations in the state, and beyond. A fledgling owl-monitoring program in Minnesota and Wisconsin has drawn inspiration from Maine and from several ongoing programs in Canada. "Owls are top-level predators," says Gallo. "If something is happening [in the ecosystem] underneath them, they are going to be affected."
Through trial and error, it took Gallo and Hodgman some time to dial in on the best formula for hearing owls. After having volunteers go out for early, mid- and late-night surveys, over three winter months, they found that late winter is a peak calling period for all three target species, and that the late-night time slot is the most productive. They also discovered that owls call far less when the temperature is below 10 degrees Fahrenheit.
Varying the sequence of callback tapes, the owl duo found the best responses came by broadcasting the saw-whet call first, followed by barred and great horned owls (in order, no coincidence, of ascending size). And they learned to ask volunteers to listen for a long while after playing the barred owl call. Volunteers use their own audio equipment: basic boom boxes, often borrowed from their kids' bedrooms.
In a nutshell, here's the best strategy for hearing owls in Maine: Go out after midnight, between early March and early April, but if it's windy or below 10 degrees, stay in bed.
Gallo and Hodgman refined the methods for 2004. Now volunteers go out just once, from 1 a.m. to 4 a.m. The great quantity of data volunteers have collected over the past four years will, no doubt, reveal more interesting tidbits of owl behavior and biology. But first it needs to be dissected, a laborious and time-consuming process. "Now that we have the data, you could tease out little things about barred owls that no one's ever tested before," says Hodgman, such as the average length of time before the first response to a call. "There's tons of questions. It really would warrant a graduate student to tear it apart."
The surveys seem a good way to short-circuit your circadian rhythm, but the volunteers have come up with different strategies to stay alert. Pfeiffer takes a partner with her, and they stay awake by talking. The weather also helps a bit. "The air is cold, it's invigorating," she says. "The silence is deafening, it keeps you awake" The classical music aficionado prefers to listen to acid rock between stops. Barker says, "Usually it's so daggone cold that I end up jumping around. Staying awake doesn't seem to be a problem."
As if hearing owls doesn't keep the blood circulating, each year a handful of surveyors actually see the nocturnal ghosts. Ted Whitham, a mariner and woodsman from Bangor, had a close encounter with a barred owl on his route in 2005. "He flew six feet over our heads," says Whitham. "And then he called from the edge of the woods across from us. Then another owl started answering. Then a third barred owl called. And they started having the sort of hootenannies they have, clucking and all that."
Such melodies make Hodgman certain that he'll be sifting through data for many years to come. "This could go on forever," he says. "Ask me in 20 years if we're ready to stop, and my guess is I'll say no."
For more information about owl monitoring, go to www.maineaudubon.org/conserve/citsci/owl.shtml.
Murray Carpenter lives in Belfast, Maine, where he writes frequently about New England's environment.
© 2006 National Audubon Society
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