A Memorable Owling Trip

I went camping last weekend.

Why would anyone even partly sane choose to go camping in February? This was no trip for sissies. We set up camp at 9,500 ft., on top of a mountain in Colorado. It was definitely cold. One weather website claimed a low of 8º F, much lower than the predicted 16º. While I am a die-hard camper, this was pushing even my limits. So why did I do it? One word: owls.

owling-camp-rampartrangerd-2009-02-28-lah-541

As I’m sure you know, owls are active at night. Therefore, if you want to see one, you must become a night-owl too. And, if you’re going to be up that late, you might as well spend the night. At least, that was the theory.

Why this time of year? Owls are early nesters. They are currently flirting with one another, pairing up (sometimes with last year’s mate), claiming territories, and in general, going about the business of making baby owls. (Ornithologists explain that the predilection for winter nests produces hatchlings just when most rodents are having their litters, ensuring plenty of small, newborn prey for the owlets.)

A birding friend is doing a survey (part of Colorado’s Breeding Bird Atlas II project) to determine which bird species are breeding on her assigned quadrant at, you guessed it, 9,500 ft. elevation in the Pike National Forest of Colorado. She needed to go count owls. Well, we couldn’t let her go all by herself, could we? So we packed our hot cocoa and hand warmers and set off.

We arrived at our chosen spot in plenty of time to put up tents. The recent warm weather had melted most of the snow, which helped a lot, though pounding in stakes was a bit difficult due to the frozen ground. At this point I will admit that I slept in the back of my station wagon, instead of in a tent. I’m not sure it was any warmer, but I didn’t have to deal with a tent.

trash-rampartrangerd-2009-03-01-lah-562Once our sleeping bags were unrolled, our next chore turned out to be picking up trash. Honestly, I was appalled. This was not an official campground, just a wide place by a side road on public property. It looked like a landfill. Newspapers and phone books, presumably used to start fires, were scattered across the mountainside. Piles of fast food containers, shot gun shells and broken beer bottles were interlaced with broken CDs, shattered plate glass, and a bright purple whipped cream can. There were even entire trash bags that had been filled and left behind, to disintegrate and spew their contents among the Ponderosas. It was a sad commentary on how we treat our national resources.

After an early dinner, we headed out to the aspen grove deemed most likely to contain owls. The sun disappeared behind the mountains. The dim light of a crescent moon was far surpassed by the brilliance of Venus. Then more stars appeared than I’d seen in ages. We picked out Orion’s Betelgeuse, followed Leo and the Big Dipper. The temperature plummeted, and I begin to shiver in spite of my many layers of clothing. The time had come to look for owls.

Sapsucker holes on Ponderosa Pine

Sapsucker holes on Ponderosa Pine

To minimize our impact on the owl species we were hoping to find, we followed a careful protocol designed by the project leaders. We started with the Northern Saw-whet owl, a woodland species seven to eight inches tall that nests in tree cavities. Playing a recording of their call should draw a response, if they were around. We timed it carefully: one minute of hooting, followed by two minutes of silence, repeated five times. To ensure their safety, we scanned the tree-tops for Great-horned Owls that might be drawn to a potential meal. All was quiet. No owls. No predators. Nothing.

We hiked back to the car, stumbling over shadowy patches of Kinnickinnick in the dark. I was anticipating the car heater thawing my toes as we drove a mile or so to our next stop, but we needed to listen for bird calls. We rolled down all the windows. The warm air never reached my perch in the back seat. This is an adventure, I kept reminding myself. It will be memorable.

We made four more stops, each time playing a recording of the target owl’s calls, and each time staying as still as possible as we listened for a reply. But no one was home. Finally, disappointed and frozen, we headed back to the campsite and our warm sleeping bags.

aspen-grove-rampartrangerd-2009-03-01-lah-558 I had on so many layers that it was difficult to climb into the back of my car, much less slide into my mummy bag. It was even trickier because the mummy bag was stuffed into a larger rectangular sleeping bag. Finally, after much scrunching and shoving, I was immobilized, ensconced in layers and layers of insulation. A stocking cap, covered by a sweatshirt hood, kept my head warm. After pulling the drawstring to gather the sleeping bag tightly around my ears, all that stuck out was my nose.

After munching a frozen banana, some cold egg salad and a hard roll, we went for a short hike in the morning light. It sure looked different during the daytime. Then we pulled up our stakes and headed back to civilization.

Yes, it was disappointing to miss the owls. But, it was an adventure, and it was certainly memorable. Next time I go owling, however, I’m bringing a battery pack and some electric thermal underwear.

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