On Not Hearing a Boreal Owl

I spent the summer of 2008 (oh my God, that seems like such a long time ago) at the University of Notre Dame’s environmental research center west of Land O’ Lakes, Wisconsin, through a program for undergraduates interested in environmental science – at the time I had no idea I’d be moving back here for graduate school! One night a group of us were out in the field at night light-trapping moths when we heard a striking, unfamiliar sound from overhead, similar to the tooting of a Saw-whet Owl but not quite the same. The sound seemed to moving around, now swooping over our heads, now farther away, now in a nearby tree. The night was too dark for us to ever get a glimpse of the creature that was responsible.

All of us, a half dozen or so undergraduates, listen to recordings of owl calls when we got home, and we all agreed that what we had heard was the call of a Boreal Owl. According to the range maps in our field guides, we were too far south to encounter a Boreal Owl in the summer, but there was no denying that the call we’d heard was a perfect match for the recording. Mystified but happy, I added Boreal Owl to my life list and didn’t give the matter any more thought.

Then yesterday GrrlScientist had to go and write a blog post about about Wilson’s Snipe and mention that the “winnowing” sound created by its tail feathers during its courtship display sounds very similar to the call of a Boreal Owl. And that courting males “fly in circles.” And that they do this “long into the evening.” And sometimes even at night, I suppose?

Sigh. No one likes deleting a species from their life list.

This post was one of the recipients of the 2011 Prairie Sagebrush Awards, created by Jack Matthews, nature writer, historian, and creator of the truly fine blog Sage to Meadow.

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5 thoughts on “On Not Hearing a Boreal Owl”

  1. When I was Iceland, I heard the winnowing of the common snipe every day, all around the Ring Road, and found the sound mesmerizing, wonderfully evocative of the landscape there. These were the European species, G. gallinago, split off from Wilson’s some time back.

    I’m a firm believer in the adage that if you sit by the riverbank long enough, you will see your enemies float by (unfortunately, I don’t have any enemies); likewise, I sometimes feel like I can catch plenty of lifers right here in NYC. A Boreal Owl showed up in Central park in the winter of 04/05. This guy’s site has some nice details. http://www.philjeffrey.net/boreal.html

  2. Oh the joys and pain of hearing and not seeing those shadows of the night. Mind you, it can happen in daylight when Eurasian Jays imitate Tawny Owls, Buzzards and the like. I’ve even sound recorded a Eurasian Blackbird (a very common bird in the UK) making an excellent rendition of a Green Woodpecker. I tell you, you couldn’t make it up. Crazy birds.

    A great account of your adventures as always, Rebecca.

    Kind Regards

    Tony Powell

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