The Great Boreal Owl Adventure

In February 2018, the Bayne lab had several crews scattered over northern Alberta deploying autonomous recording units (ARUs) to detect owls, specifically Boreal Owls, for Jeremiah Kennedy’s MSc project. ARUs were deployed in a grid of 16, over a 2.4km2 area in places with historical Boreal Owl detections. Due to winter accessibility and logging activity, an ARU grid needed to be moved. The field crew in northwest Alberta (Connor Charchuk, Lauren Law, Ben Paulsen, and myself) decided to do evening playbacks for Boreal Owls to best locate a new place to deploy a grid. Connor highlighted a couple areas he thought we should check out and around 8pm, we set out to start our search.

The playback protocol consisted of three parts: (1) Listen for 2min, (2) Play the song of the Boreal Owl for 2min, (3) Listen for 2min. We tried not to get our expectations up for finding a Boreal Owl, as most owl playback attempts are not successful. We turned off Highway 88 north of Red Earth Creek and headed west down a side road. A kilometer in, we started our search. The plan was to try a playback at each kilometer. The first playback was unsuccessful, but we expected most to be. The second stop was silent for the first two phases, and in the final seconds of the post-playback listening, Connor and I looked at each other with wonderment in our eyes. “Did you hear that?” he asked. “Yeah, what was that?” I replied. We both heard a soft, single call in the far distance, not the typical sound an owl makes. Optimistically, we thought it could be the contact call of a Boreal Owl responding to our playback. “Let’s go check this out” I suggested, and so we walked down the road to where we thought the call had come from. “Alright, play the song again” Connor prompted. Connor played the call from his phone and Ben remarked, “Oh look! A bat just flew overhead!” (I can’t make this stuff up). Ben. This is northern Alberta in February. There are no bats. WAIT! THERE ARE NO BATS! WHAT COULD THAT HAVE BEEN?! Ben shone his flashlight on a group of trees on the other side of the road to where he thought the creature flew to. “THERE IT IS! OVER THERE! SHINE YOUR LIGHT OVER THERE!” Connor exclaimed. There it was. A Boreal Owl perched in a tree no more than 20 feet away!

Figure 1. Boreal Owl in aspen tree, inspecting the singing owl coming from our playback. Photo: Natasha Annich.

We jumped and celebrated in excitement! High-fives, hugs, and shouts of joy were abound. The Boreal Owl is one of the boreal forest’s most elusive critters. The bird has a characteristic staccato song that is heard far more frequently than the owl is ever seen, but even then, it can be a challenge to find. Boreal Owls are poorly understood, and most banding records are sparse and incidental. They may follow migratory patterns of Northern Saw-whet Owls, but no one knows for sure. Anyway, back to the story. We watched this owl for several minutes, and it even swooped back across the road nearly taking out my eye on the way – yes, I literally had to duck out of the way! Then it perched in a patch of black spruce and with four flashlights and my iPhone, we managed to snap a somewhat identifiable photo of it:

Figure 2. Boreal Owl in black spruce, inspecting the singing owl coming from our playback. Photo: Natasha Annich.

We decided we had pestered the bird long enough, and got back in the truck. Connor then realized he had forgotten to take a GPS point, so got back out of the truck to go mark the waypoint. He then came running back, “she’s calling! Come have a listen!” So, we all got back out to listen to her contact calls – something none of us had ever heard before. Connor managed to record the call the owl was making and while we were all listening attentively, we heard another owl singing off in the distance in response! We concluded that the bird we were watching must have been the female, and the male was off in the distance. It was the perfect spot to build a grid for Jeremiah’s MSc project! Stay tuned to find out what he found.