For years our Memorial Day weekend has been a halcyon outdoor adventure to explore mostly unknown wild places in Oregon and Washington. A week ago, our trip had to be delayed due to The Blind Princess musical being scheduled during the holiday and due to an unexpected invitation to conduct spotted owl surveys for the US Forest Service. The thread between the two events was not lost on me: a play about turning blindness into sight, versus also attempting against all odds to hear a local extinct owl echo our Mp3 player series of calls. Regarding the surveys, I wonder what nearby campers were thinking when exposed to the strange recordings at one in the morning!
Spotted owls have been studied since the 1960’s, and miraculously, the species became federally threatened in 1990 just one month after starting my Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife career. As the local Habitat Biologist tasked with determining suitable spotted owl habitat, I was immediately thrust into a boiling cauldron of environmental controversy. The shy bird became the savior symbol of bio-diverse old-growth forests while conversely as the ruination scapegoat of the timber industry. The spotted owl may still be the only bird to ever grace the cover of Time Magazine.
In the early 1990’s when spotted owl surveys preceded nearly all timber sales on the Mt. Adams Ranger District in south-central Washington, dozens of pairs were discovered through the same call and response system used today. A positive call prompted the next phase of trying to locate whether the owls were nesting. It was time to bring the lab mice into the woods. Believe it or not a sacrificial rodent was placed on a branch and the owls would swoop down and either eat their dinner on a nearby tree or tote the mouse to the nest site to be consumed by their owlets.
Ten years ago, owl surveyors returned to the White Salmon basin and instead of locating plentiful numbers, they only detected one bird. So far, our work has not revealed any spotted owls.
If there is a place and time for any unpredictable occurrences to arise, it would be in the middle of the night, in the deep forest, and definitely under a full moon. So we continue our surveys with that hope, that dream, because a landscape without night denizens is far too quiet and lonely for me. ~