(As reported by Marne Kaeske, Ridges Stewardship Coordinator)
One does not get many field days when working in natural resource management. As teachers and mentors have cautioned, “the better you get, the more likely you will find yourself behind a desk applying for grants and submitting reports.” And as I have learned, successes come as small gifts and with many mosquito bites. On rare occasions though, fabulous experiences abound. Such a rarity was last week Tuesday. . .
For starters, I had the opportunity for some assistance in the field. An energetic and passionate volunteer, Katie, was up for a trek through the woods at our Logan Creek property to select tree sites for nest boxes, part of a Northern Flying squirrel citizen science monitoring program The Ridges Sanctuary is coordinating.
We stretched 60 meters of measuring tape over blow downs and very wide creek beds, and stumbled into another white cedar at the base of which stood a Platanthera orbiculata orchid. Large round-leaved orchids have never been recorded at our Jacksonport property before. It was a very exciting find, especially for the middle of August.
After Katie and I had finished the last tree selection for our day, we heard the forest cackling with red squirrels… and then a sound that didn’t seem to be red squirrels. I joked that they were flying squirrels, since it was approaching dusk (flying squirrels are nocturnal) and that we had selected the perfect site for a nest box. Just then Katie noticed an owl not more than 50 feet away. It was making the strangest sound, almost a moaning cry. He was aware of us but didn’t seem perturbed that we were in his territory. He looked at us, then the ground, then up in the trees, behind him, then back to us.
The owl was about the size of a full grown barn owl, but had a light gray face. It was a little more square than heart shaped. When he turned away from us, his tail was a very starkly mottled white and dark gray. He flew closer. We wondered if it were injured, all the while making that moaning cry. He flew closer still — now only 20 feet away! We started to wonder if we were being hunted. After about 10 minutes of mutual inspection, our owl flew up to the canopy where blue jays and crows were very disturbed by his presence.
Feeling that things didn’t get much better than this, we left the trail for home. Katie did some research that night and found that our owl was a fledgling barred owl, his coloration due to the fact that his adult plumage hadn’t come in yet. The moaning? Well, he was calling for his parents to feed him- a common characteristic of fledgling birds of prey. His curiosity about us and apparent lack of alarm? I guess it’s safe to say that if all you’d every known of life is a nest, you wouldn’t recognize humans if they were standing right in front of you!