For the Birds Radio Program: Steve Wilson's Owl Census

Original Air Date: April 11, 1988

Laura did a late-night owl census near Floodwood on April first.

Duration: 4′04″


Recording of a Boreal Owl)

This spring I’m involved in an owl censusing project that was developed by Steve Wilson in Isabella. He’s one of the area’s leading experts on Boreal Owls, and in order to discover the exact boundaries of this bird’s range in the Northland, he organized an owl census covering strategic locations throughout St. Louis County. Each of us counters has to go out and listen for owls along our routes four nights this spring.

I went out to my area, just southeast of Floodwood in the Fond du Lac Indian Reservation, for the first time on April Fools Day. I couldn’t find anyone crazy enough to spend their Friday night listening for hooting owls except my golden retriever Bunter, who’s not much of a conversationalist and is too friendly to be much portection, but is still nice company.

It was a perfect night for owling. The temperature was in the 20’s, but the wind was light and the sky was clear. No frogs were calling yet–all the puddles were frozen solid. The moon was just about full, and was so bright that it dimmed the stars. I made 22 stops along my route, each exactly a half mile apart. At each stop I got out of the car and listened for exactly three minutes. Stopping a car and standing around on a deserted country road after dark looks sort of suspicious to regular people–earlier in the week someone had even shot off a gun when Kim Eckert did one of his counts, so Bunter accompanied me at each stop. She found the whole procedure amusing. I’d drive a little way, stop and write my odometer reading on my data sheet, then hop out of the car and just stand there. Bunter could think of a lot better things to do in the woods, but she sat obediantly still for the whole 3- minute period, and then followed me back into the car where I wrote my observations down and then drove off a little ways and did the whole thing over again.

The major point behind this project is to find the Boreal Owl’s range limits. Steve Wilson has already found one Boreal Owl in its nest cavity near Isabella, and censusers have found at least two more in the northern part of the county. I was pretty sure my own area was too far south, but hope springs eternal in a bird watcher’s heart, so I listened as hard as I could for anything that even remotely resembled a Boreal Owl.

(Recording of a Boreal Owl)

I didn’t hear a one. I was also listening for other owls. My biggest hope was for a Saw-whet Owl.

(Recording of a Saw-whet Owl)

I didn’t hear a one. I listened for Long-eared Owls.

(Recording of a Long-eared owl)

I didn’t hear a one. I listened for Great Horned Owls.

(Recording of a Great Horned Owl)

I didn’t hear a one. I listened for Barred Owls.

(Recording of a Barred Owl)

I didn’t hear a one. There were a few dogs barking off in the distance, but even desperation couldn’t transform their barks into a hoot.

So the night was a bust for owls. But it was hardly a lost evening. I saw several large bats and a deer, and heard two coyote choirs. My first Killdeer of the year flew past the full mooon, and the best thing of all was starting off the month with my favorite April bird–the woodcock. There were several males peenting, and I even watched one of these fat little birds squatting in the middle of the road, waddling in circles as he opened his improbable beak to call. I opened my window so I could hear his wings whistle as he flew off. No, even without owls, a night of owling is never a waste.

(Recording of a Boreal Owl)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”