(Be sure to see Part 1, posted last week.)
I was still smiling happily at the thought of having finally seen a Flammulated Owl—a new life bird for several of us that evening. Because the females spend every hour of daylight inside the nest with their young, you can only see them at night—flying around catching moths in the dark. Meanwhile, the males spend their days in a tall pine growing on top of a (usually inaccessible) ridge, roosting right up against the trunk on a high branch. As they sit motionless for hour after hour, they are nearly impossible to spot; their feathers are a perfect match for the reddish-brown Ponderosa bark.
If Brian hadn’t graciously allowed us to accompany him, it’s unlikely I ever would have checked this species off my life list.
Having caught and released one owl, we headed on to nest number two, another mile down the road. Our target tree was about 25 yards into the forest. It was now fully dark, so we turned on our headlamps and headed off through the trees.
This was my first time using a headlamp. It seemed like a great idea—you can see where you’re going, and your hands are free to move branches aside or carry gear. However, I immediately learned that there’s also a major drawback.
Flammulated Owls eat moths. Colorado’s abundant moth population is why they migrate thousands of miles to get here every summer. With a nice, bright LED lamp on my forehead, I had suddenly become a walking moth magnet. They flew into my ears, crawled under my glasses, and tried to walk into my nose. I didn’t dare open my mouth! Flailing did little good—the cloud of pale bodies and wings surrounding me just grew larger and larger.
I was greatly relieved to finally arrive at the nest tree and turn off my headlamp. This time, we weren’t out to catch anyone—the female owl had already been banded. Brian simply wanted to know if she was raising owlets, how many there were, and how old they were. Later, when they were big enough and ready to fledge, he would come back and band the babies.
A small video camera mounted on a long extension pole was carefully raised up to the hole, about 40 feet above ground level. The camera sent its image back to a hand-held screen. As it was inserted into the cavity, we could easily see the wooden sides of the hole, and two healthy (and rather annoyed) owlets, staring up at the light. They clumsily flopped around a bit, managing to look incredibly adorable in the process. We could see a few real feathers starting to replace their silver-gray down.
It had been quite an evening for us—not only seeing, but actually holding a Flammulated Owl, seeing the owlets in the nest, inhaling a night’s quota of moths. The researchers had just gotten started, but it was well past our bedtimes and we still had an hour drive ahead of us. We thanked our hosts, waved good-by, and headed back to town.