The Sound of Owls
by: Mike Lushington  

            We are in the middle of the woods. It is the middle of the night. We are doing another Owl Survey for Bird Studies Canada and tonight things have come together. It is a nice night, there is no traffic, and we are hearing owls.

            "We" are Jim Clifford and myself. We have been doing these surveys for four years now. Others have come with us on one or two occasions but I guess it takes a certain mindset - I don't know what else to call it - to keep on setting out into the woods at a time of day when common sense suggests that it is time for a warm house, some good music, a comfortable arm chair and a reasonable bed time. In any case, we have been doing these surveys for long enough now that it is an unspoken fact that we enjoy them, look forward to them and plan for them each year.

            We have a routine now that needs no conversation. We take turns driving but when the vehicle stops, Jim gets out and sets up the ghetto blaster with the CD recording of owl calls while I make note of weather conditions, time and other data that I will include in my final report. And then, Jim walks some distance back along the road we have just driven while I move out ahead; neither of us has ever said, that I can remember at least, "I'll go this way and you, that way." It is just that this is the way we have always done it. I usually take the first stop to walk out about 500 meters to make sure that I can hear the taped calls at that distance. For the remaining stops - there are ten of them in all, each about twelve minutes long - I will move around a bit to keep warm or to get away from the babble of a little roadside brook and, perhaps, its accompanying chorus of Spring peepers and Wood frogs. And I listen.

            On most nights, the overwhelming sense of being in the woods, especially once darkness settles in, is one of timelessness and stillness. I look at the stars, first to orient myself in case I hear an owl calling. I locate the Big Dipper and, from there, Polaris - the North Star. Once I have that figured out, I look around for signs of clouds, for the configuration of the moon and the alignment of any planets that might be visible. In the meantime I sort out the small sounds that I hear, or imagine that I hear, always listening for that faint first call of some far off owl. Occasionally I hear Snipe winnowing overhead, especially during the earlier stops, or the strange, nasal "peent" of Woodcock in the alder thickets. Occasionally, oddly, I hear a Ruffed grouse drumming, long after one would think that he should be snuggled up in a thick spruce tree for the night. Once in a while there is a startled call of a Robin - having a bad dream of owls in the night perhaps? But mostly it is silent.

            But then, perhaps on the fourth or fifth stop, we hear it - the far-off mating call of a Barred owl, or the little tin soldier toot of a Saw-whet, or, once in a great while, the deep booming resonance of a Great horned owl. Suddenly, even after four years and perhaps twelve or fifteen of these surveys, there are grins in the dark and nods of approval - the owls are still around and making their presence known.

            One night, one magical night a few years ago, we had sixteen owls; one night earlier this year, we had eleven. On another, we had one - during the very last minute of the tenth and final stop. Most of our numbers are in between, and, truth be told, much closer to the one than to the sixteen. Somehow, though, the numbers don't matter. What does, what persists with me from year to year, is the experience of being out there - somewhere - in the dark - with those creatures of the night, and in the companionship of a fellow wonderer.


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