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4384Boreal Owls up the Ahtanum-31 October

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  • Andy Stepniewski
    Nov 1, 2006
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      31 OCTOBER 2006

      Clear and very cold weather over the Cascades looked like good conditions to
      search for Boreal Owl in the high mountains so Ellen and I loaded up car
      camping stuff for a night in thesubalpine near Darland Mountain. We headed
      up the Middle Fork of Ahtanum Creek and made our first stop at Clover
      Springs Campground at 6, 300 feet elevation just below Darland Mountain. An
      inch or so of snow covered the ground, not enough I thought, to force an owl
      downhill. It was COLD, About 15 degrees F! Our strategy to locate the owl
      was to play a playback call of the Boreal Owl's primary song, a monotonous
      series of staccato notes. Well, after 30 minutes at five different stops
      along the road in this area, shivering in the frigid breeze, while playing
      the staccato primary call of Boreal Owl, we heard nary a peep from any
      creature. So we headed down the mountain. Our next stop at 6,000 feet
      elevation was at the point the road breaks out of the forest and begins a
      long descent. Here we had a Boreal Owl respond, but the bird did not seem to
      come close. At our next stop, farther down at about 5,800 feet elevation, we
      had another response, but again we failed to see the bird. Finally, at 5,600
      feet elevation, after playing the call into the still and starry night, an
      owl came in to within about 15 feet of us and barked out its "skieuw!" call,
      startling us. Once again, even with our floodlight, we couldn't locate the
      owl, as it remained hidden in the dense branchlets of the Subalpine Firs.
      So, we had to be content with a "heard" bird. Car camping in our vehicle,
      with an extra sleeping bag draped over us, was actually tolerable. Really!

      Our knowledge of this elusive species distribution has come very slowly.
      Until 40 years ago, it was unknown south of Canada except in certain
      winters, when perhaps due to rodent shortages in the far north, it was
      forced to move south in search of food. Then, in the 1960s it was discovered
      in the high Rockies of Colorado. In the 1970s it was detected in Montana,
      Idaho, and northeastern Washington. In the 1980s, it was found high in the
      Okanogan Cascades. A nest box project initiated by me in these mountains in
      1989 produced proof of breeding in Washington in 1991. Since then, surveys
      to the south in the Cascades have found it west of Yakima in the dry
      subalpine "rainshadow" habitats, particularly at Sunrise on Mt. Rainier and
      in the Ahtanum Creek drainages.

      Andy Stepniewski

      Wapato WA