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July 2013, vol 9, no 2

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Doris Lynch

In Search of Owls

Early spring, I don jacket, tie on hiking boots and enter the lengthening evening. "Ever heard an owl in the wild?" the newspaper listing began. Well yes, but an experience certainly worth repeating. Just past Lake Monroe, I join several ardent bird lovers, a few owling neophytes, and a married pair of ornithologists with iPads in hand. They announce tonight's agenda. "Keep quiet, don't rustle any bushes, and turn off all flashlights as soon as we arrive at each location. We'll play recorded owl calls then wait for a response. Last week we nailed the triple: barn, barred, and great horned owls all responded.

We follow the ornithologists down a dirt road. We're psyched, eager to hear owls answer the calls of love. First, the female professor plays a barred owl's whoo whoo toowhoo toowhoo. We stand raptly at attention but hear nothing. She taps her device again, more recorded owl sounds blast through the woods. Again, no response. Next the bird expert's husband plays the too-who too-who too-who of the great horned owl. His recording sounds louder; it has richer color and diction. This will do it, I think. This will draw in a possible mate. But again, silence.

rustling under cloud-shrouded moon
last summer's beech leaves

We hike back to the parking lot. "The night is young," the male ornithologist announces with a wry smile. We pile into two cars excitedly chattering about how owls are such harbingers of spring. The woman bird expert raises three fingers and bends each in turn: "first the owls, then the sand hill cranes fly past, then peepers fill the night with their high-pitched music."

We park by Paynetown Campground and carefully follow another path through the forest. The twin iPads broadcast more digital owl sounds.

We hike other trails at Pine Grove, off Leonard Spring Road, behind the DNR. We hear many pre-recorded calls but not a single live one. Above the clearings, Orion's belt shines next to Jupiter's tallow. On the way home, I practice each owl call over and over. With windows closed to the cooling night, my car fills with wild sounds.

vernal winds
hone box-elder limbs
hurry stars