The first call came in at 11 p.m. on Oct. 26. Adrienne Leppold left a voicemail to let me know a major flight of owls was underway at Petit Manan National Wildlife Refuge in Steuben. Already, 20 saw-whet owls and two boreal owls had been trapped and banded, and the night was still young.
Normally, Adrienne would not be calling me about such a phenomenon. But I had just spent an evening at the capture site two weeks earlier, and I divulged that the boreal owl was my No. 1 most-desired bird to see in the wild. And here she had two of them! Was I close enough to run over for a look, she wondered?
Adrienne is now a biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, but some years ago, while on the way to finishing her doctorate, she spent a lot of time helping to launch this owl banding project. Every autumn, at a secluded spot near the end of the peninsula, researchers set up mist nets and trap owls, primarily saw-whet owls. Adrienne seldom gets to visit her old stomping grounds nowadays, but her arrival on Oct. 26 coincided with the appearance of dozens of owls. It was like Harry Potter’s mail call at Hogwarts.
Saw-whet owls are tiny – smaller than a blue jay. They are widespread in Maine, but prefer to stay out of sight. Boreal owls are slightly larger. They are denizens of northern spruce forests, with a range across Canada that dips down into this country through the higher elevations of the Rockies. They are circumpolar (inhabiting one of the Earth’s polar regions) and the most common forest owl in Sweden. They are rarely seen in North America.
And Adrienne was holding two of them.
A second call came in at 11:20 p.m. I missed this one, too, but Adrienne’s message wanted to be certain I was not on my way to Steuben before she released the owls. I wasn’t. I was nearly three hours away, too far to hold the owls captive. Adrienne knew I was desperate and would go to great lengths to see a boreal owl. I had just proven that by making a dedicated trip up to Tadoussac, Quebec.
Tadoussac is a small tourist town on the upper end of the St. Lawrence River. At the north edge of town, a bird observatory has been established on the site of a major glacial dune system. It’s primarily a hawk watching spot, as raptors stream down the river’s edge, reluctant to fly over water. Owls share the same reluctance, and at night the spot has become so famous for owl banding that they’ve made a festival out of it. Posters adorn every wall in town, advertising the opportunity to see boreal owls, for a small fee.
Two problems: First, the lectures were in French, and I can barely pronounce Duchesne correctly. Second, we were a couple of weeks too early. They were catching lots of saw-whet owls, but had yet to snag a boreal owl.
It was only a few days later that I visited the owl banding station in Steuben, and relayed the tale of my Tadoussac failure. I explained that my next attempt would be an all-out assault on the Canadian forest in central Quebec. I plan to go up there, above Quebec City, sometime next spring when boreal owls might be calling. It’ll still be frosty and frozen up there that time of year. This is the ordeal from which Adrienne was trying to spare me.
Most saw-whet owls migrate. Boreal owls don’t. Instead, they show a pattern of post-breeding dispersal. After the nesting season, the owls spread out, giving each bird enough feeding territory to survive the winter. Some wander south. There are amusing records of boreal owls hanging around Boston suburbs. Since the boreal owls are relatively tame and approachable, such birds often end up as celebrities in local newspaper stories.
Maine has secrets. Most people are familiar with backyard birds at the feeder. Many folks get out for a little birding in the field. But few people are aware of the more exotic possibilities that are out there. As birds move around with the seasons, some sneak in and out so quietly that nobody knows they’re there. But they are.
In her last voicemail, Adrienne lamented that she would have to release the owls shortly. But first, she was thawing out a couple of mice to treat them before sending them on their way. Boreal owls are special.