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.