by Shyloh A. van Delft
I first learned that owls could be called in with recordings last fall while attending Doug Tarry's Young Ornithologists Workshop at Long Point, Ontario. Six kids had been accepted into the workshop; three boys, and three girls, myself included. We were ending a Big Day with a hunt for Eastern Screech-Owls. It was well after dark when we were walking down the trails towards the area where the owls had been reported. One of our leaders took out an iPod and began playing an Eastern Screech-Owl recording while the rest of us waited in tense anticipation. Before the recording had finished playing the owl's song even once, a real Eastern Screech-Owl called back, its shrill notes piercing the darkness nearby. We looked around expectantly just in time to see the silhouette of a small owl flapping madly overhead and into a tree behind us. It sat in a high tree branch watching us curiously. A second screech-owl joined it, perching on a branch just below the first owl’s.
That was the first time that I had seen the technique of using recordings to call live owls. Ever since I discovered this, I started playing owl recordings on our upstairs balcony; through the fall, occasionally during the winter, and throughout the spring. I focused on Boreal Owl, playing their recordings before mimicking Great Horned Owls. Great Horned Owls will hunt Boreal Owls, so you should not play Great Horned Owl recordings first if you are trying to attract Boreal Owls.
It was a beautiful Yukon night. One hour out of Whitehorse in the community of Tagish, the evening was clear, cold, and calm with not the faintest breath of wind. The stars were out, twinkling above me. There was no moon, only the slightly lighter shade of blue on the horizon where the sun had set. The Black Spruce covering the landscape in and around the yard formed a mass of black outlines against the horizon and the dark blue sky. I decided to go out with my speakers once again to attempt to get a response from a Boreal Owl. This time, I decided to set my speakers in the driveway near our garage so I could walk around instead of sitting on the balcony to listen. I turned the volume up to maximum and put the Boreal Owls song on repeat. Then I waited.
I rarely had any response to my recordings, and never a response from my target species. When I started playing the recordings in the fall, I expected a Boreal to call back. Getting owls to respond with a recording had seemed so easy at Long Point! At home I soon learned that it takes a great deal of luck for that to happen. I paced back and forth between the speakers and the road, stopping to look around and listen often. I felt nervous being outside in the dark by myself, expecting to see the sparkling eyes of wolves in the trees. I kept my eyes peeled for any signs of movement, and my ears sharp for the slightest sound. I had always expected that, if a Boreal Owl responded to the recording, I would see it fly in like I did with the screech-owl in Ontario, or possibly feel the faintest stirring of the air as it passed by. That was not the case.
I was halfway back to the speakers when my sixth sense suddenly kicked in. I stopped abruptly. I didn't even think about it; the first place I looked was into a spruce tree beside the woodshed, at a branch just above my head. I could see the sharp black outline of the branch against the horizon. I could also see a strange rounded blob in the middle of the branch. I never remembered seeing that shape on that branch before, so I took out my flashlight and turned it on. Bright yellow eyes, flickering with red, flashed at me from the branch. I could now clearly see the little Boreal Owl sitting on the branch above my head. I could see the long brown streaks on its chest, the creamy-white spots on the wings, the deep frown and disapproving eyebrows. It was not happy at being discovered.
I ran backwards to the front door to tell my brother (who was letting our two dogs out) to let everyone know that there was a Boreal Owl in a tree, and asked for a better flashlight, since mine was dying. The little owl glared at everyone as we came out onto the front door steps. From that distance, it was just a tiny brown and gray blob against the tree trunk; you could hardly see it, even with a flashlight, because it blended in so well. It was my little brother and sister’s first time seeing an owl, and they were thrilled. After a few minutes the Boreal Owl decided that enough was enough, shot a final parting glare, and gracefully glided off the branch to be swallowed into the blackness of the forest bordering our yard.