Pre-dawn owl silhouette of Northern Hawk Owl  Photo by Don Reimer
Pre-dawn owl silhouette of Northern Hawk Owl Photo by Don Reimer

Since 2002 I have participated in the annual Maine Owl Monitoring Program that is cosponsored by the Maine Department of Inland Fsheries & Wildlife and Maine Audubon. With over 100 statewide volunteers, the primary goals of the owl study are to document the distribution and abundance of Maine's owls, including both common and rare species; to examine habitat, weather, and other variables that may relate to owl distribution and abundance. Previous studies have indicated that owls are the most active and vocal between the hours of midnight and 4 a.m.

Here's how the process goes: Ten permanent survey stops are established in advance (during daylight hours) along 12- to 15-mile stretches of secondary highway. The idea is to choose a variety of habitat types, with stops located at least one mile apart. We try to avoid monitoring near houses and barking dogs, or at noisy locations close to running brooks or major roadways. From my own experience, I have learned that Saturday nights are generally an unproductive time to be visiting rural highways (quieter Sunday evenings are probably the best).

At each survey stop, we play a CD containing several owl calls. Before playing the first owl vocalization, volunteers listen silently for 3 minutes, recording any random owls that are heard. Then a Long-eared Owl hoot is played. After two minutes of listening, a Barred Owl call is played. This time we listen for 6 full minutes because, for some unknown reason, Barred Owls often take longer to respond. Finally Great Horned Owl calls are broadcast and we listen for their responses for 2 minutes. This protocol is followed precisely at each stop.

Around midnight on March 7, I began my survey along Turner Ridge Road in Somerville. At Stop One, I logged a Barred Owl. With light winds, I had high hopes of hearing multiple owls. In some years, I had tallied 8 to 10 owls along this particular route. In the course of the past nine seasons, the route has yielded close to 70 owls, including several of the less common Long-eared Owls.

When I arrived at Stop Two, a Northern Saw-whet Owl was incessantly tooting his whistled call that resembles a backup beeper on heavy equipment. I wondered whether the tiny owl would cease his tooting once I began playing the recordings of the larger owls. Not on your life! While any one of the three larger owls could conceivably eat a Saw-whet Owl as a midnight snack, the brave (or fool-hardy) little owl continued to sing boldly to advertise his territory despite the voices of the larger hooters.

Another Barred Owl turned up at Stop Five, but no Long-ears or Great Horneds were heard at any of the stops. Then at Stop Nine, a pair of Barred Owls came out to the roadside to vocalize together. At first, the animated couple performed typical "Who-cooks-for-you?" vocalizations. As their enthusiasm built, they launched into a wild-sounding medley of hooty variations, squawks and squealed tremolo notes.

By 3:45 a.m. my night's total was five owls: the Saw-whet and four Barred Owls. During the night I had seen only two vehicles; at 1:10 a.m. a Maine State Trooper had pulled over to see if I needed assistance. As I headed back home, a brightening half moon rose to illuminate the pre-dawn sky.