Jon Kelly and Mike Bagnall play western screech owl calls in the forest at night (Photo by NCC)

Jon Kelly and Mike Bagnall play western screech owl calls in the forest at night (Photo by NCC)

Night sounds

Sometimes a search is a success, even if you don't find what you are looking for.

Northern saw-whet owl at TLBO (Photo by NCC)

Northern saw-whet owl at TLBO (Photo by NCC)

By Jon Kelly, summer 2015 intern in the BC Region

Two times this summer I assisted with nighttime owl surveys as an intern with the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) in British Columbia. In July I spent four nights in the Elk Valley near Fernie, searching for the endangered western screech owl. Then in August I travelled to the remote Tatlayoko Valley, where I participated in an attempt to band northern saw-whet owls at the Tatlayoko Lake Bird Observatory.

At this point I'm sure you already realize we did not find any western screech or northern saw-whet owls. And yet those searches were far from fruitless.

Searching for a screech

My base for the summer was NCC's Canadian Rockies Program office in Invermere, so in early July I piled into a truck with my fellow intern, Mike, and NCC's stewardship assistant in BC, Roslyn, to drive two hours southeast to the Elk Valley. This is where the town of Fernie sits, encircled by the towering Rocky Mountains. This is also where NCC has conserved 32,500 acres (13,000 hectares) of forest and riverlands, including the entire mountain known as Mt Broadwood.

Western screech owl (Photo by Josh Shaw)

Western screech owl (Photo by Josh Shaw)

For the next four nights we searched for western screech owls, crisscrossing the valley to access pockets of suitable habitat and spending 20 minutes in each location quietly listening for the owls. The first attempt would begin at dusk. With its speaker pointed into the trees, we would play western screech owl calls on the Foxpro Game Call device for one minute, and then silently listen for five minutes. Repeat three more times, then move on to the next location. We did this from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. every night for four nights.

We heard many things in the silent dark in between our recorded calls, but never any owls. Instead we heard the sounds of a forest transitioning from day to night. As the late evening fell, bird songs and animal sounds filled the air, followed by an abrupt silence. The deep silence of the night was punctuated by the steady thrum of nearby rivers and streams, and the occasional crack of a twig. In the stillness we sunk into a Zen-like patient silence, just listening and waiting. Waiting and listening.

One night the distressed call of a deer broke the silence. It sounded like a loud, forced sneeze. Was the deer responding to our presence, or to some other unseen predator? We couldn't be certain. In some ways we weren't sure of anything — the darkness of a forest at night robs your eyesight and replaces it with amplified hearing that plays tricks with time and space.

The next night we watched the distant sky crackle with lightening as a storm approached, only to have the tempest dissipate before reaching us.

After clocking 20 hours in search of western screech owls the Elk Valley, we left with no occurrences of this at-risk owl. Instead, we took away a catalogue of the mysterious sounds emitted by the nighttime forest.

The cutest (h)owl in Canada

A month later, Mike and I travelled halfway across the province to the Tatlayoko Valley, a remote and sparsely settled valley about three hours west of Williams Lake. This valley is where NCC has been proactive in protecting tracts of wilderness before they became fragmented and degraded by development or other human uses. The land here retains a wildness that is rare in the southern reaches of the province.

NCC operates the Tatlayoko Lake Bird Observatory (TLBO) each August and September in an effort to track the migratory birds passing through the valley on their long journeys south. Established in 2006, TLBO has banded 16,216 birds and contributed a decade of valuable data to national and international bird monitoring programs.

We were in the valley to assist with various stewardship activities, and after TLBO assistant bander Chris Chutter heard about our attempts to find western screech owls in the Elk Valley, he invited Mike and I to have a second go at finding owls in the night.

Northern saw whet owl (Photo by NCC)

Northern saw whet owl (Photo by NCC)

Chris has been documenting and banding northern saw-whet owls at TLBO since 2013. So with great excitement at the chance to witness first-hand what might be the cutest owl in all of Canada, Mike and I waited in the dark at the banding hut for Chris to return from setting up the nets and the owl call recording.

Suddenly, an eerie howling filled the silence. A wolf was calling, and from not so far away. Other wolves began howling in return, calling back and forth for many long minutes, shattering any sense of the forest being a benign place for a midnight stroll.

By the time Chris returned to get us, the hair was standing up on the back of our necks. While we felt lucky to have heard the wolves' haunting calls, we stepped into the scrubby forest with no small amount of trepidation in our hearts.

Alas, the nets were empty. After a number of empty net runs, Chris, who was determined to find us an owl, decided to call for great horned owls, which are known to be in the area. Using only his own voice, Chris vocalized the call of the great-horned owl.

Almost immediately, we heard a call come back. This was no echo. It was coming from a juvenile owl resting nearby. Chris called again, and again the juvenile replied. It was coming closer. Back and forth human and owl called until finally the owl lost interest and we were treated to night silence again.

While it was exciting to hear the calls of a nearby great-horned owl, we hadn't lost sight of our main goal: to catch and band the northern saw-whet. With that, we went on a few more net runs in the hope that one might turn up. But in a repeat of our experience with the western screech-owl survey, our search for the northern saw-whet owls left us empty-handed.

Nonetheless, we were treated to a number of other night-sounds, along with the experience of walking through the wild Tatlayoko woods in the pitch black, not knowing what was responsible for the sounds of breaking twigs and rustling leaves all around us.

Those sounds are the sound-track to my amazing summer as an intern with NCC. There may have been a dearth of owls, but I for one came away from these surveys with a reinforced appreciation of the wonderful — and sometimes unexpected — experiences to be had in the natural places NCC works to protect.

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