From the Life of a Field Technician and the Flammulated Owl
As the amber sun sank into the horizon, the world surrendered detail into colorless shapes against the darkening cerulean sky. I sat watching the light in the woods disappear, preparing myself for another night of wandering. I thought of friends and family at home, settling into their beds after a long day, to fall peacefully asleep wrapped in security and comfort. The juxtaposition of this thought and that which I was preparing myself for, left me with a deep feeling of loneliness. While the rest of the world slept, I was to wander the mountain woods alone, in search of the Flammulated Owl. Pushing away this dampening thought, I returned my mind to the forest and the increasing darkness. My loneliness soon lost its negativity. Turning on my headlamp, gathering my things, I surveyed my surroundings. I felt empowered by my isolation, realizing again a strength found early in life; For myself, there is fortitude in solitude. I then entered the night.
I was blessed to be in a mountain valley in the shadow of the tall Timpanogos, where the grades are mild and the forest is relatively open. This allowed me to negotiate the terrain with relative ease, but my blessing carried a curse. Physically taxing nights with all manners of obstacles and difficulties distract from the mentally taxing thickness of the night and the unknown. The blessing of mild terrain allowed my mind to toy with itself. When one is alone in the night, the mind becomes paranoid and powerful. I imagined a number of alien sounds and concerning movements just out of reach of the light from my headlamp. Every night was a battle with reality, and this night was no different.
The open aspen forests of which I wandered were not the ideal habitat for the Flammulated Owl, as they are said to prefer open, mixed conifer forests. As the night grew I heard no report from any bird. With little success for finding what brings you to the lonesome forest, the spirit dampens, and the mind becomes ever more powerful. My physical and mental wandering continued.
As I made my way to my fourth point, I was startled by an explosion of thundering sound. As twigs snapped, and the ground shook, I nervously searched for the source. Seconds of searching passed and silence suddenly returned. With the silence came two shining eyes, staring still in my direction. I immediately knew the animal I had intruded upon. The mountain valleys of the Wasatch are full of Elk, and it is not uncommon to find herds in the backcountry. Still, the nervous large animal concerned me, and I proceeded to yell and send it farther from me.
It was a rare night if I saw no shine. I was always grateful after finding myself staring at two glowing eyes, to hear the pounding prance of a fleeing ungulate. It was the nights that I came upon low lying eyes with silent retreats that concerned me. I do not know if I ever made eye contact with a Cougar, but many nights I found myself staring down a creature that was silent and curious, in no hurry to retreat from my glow, until I began hurling rocks and yelling obscenities. I remember one night waiting for the sun to fall, listening to the final songs of the passerines before they returned to roost. I heard the call of a bear not as far from me as I would have liked. That night I travelled between my first points talking aloud to a bear that more than likely was no longer near. Still, these amusing displays brought comfort to my mind.
As I recalled these memories, my mind rested upon the reason for my employment with HawkWatch International as a field technician. The young man that held the position prior to my employment had let the night into his head and poison his spirit. Early in the season, the work steadily wore on the young technician. He reached his breaking point one eerie night on a survey plot somewhere between Logan and Bear Lake in northern Utah. As Tyler, the other technician, was working through the forest between points, he caught shine from an animal only meters ahead. As he approached he realized the animal was not retreating, and was in fact lying motionless on the ground. The shine belonged to a dying fawn, which was without a doubt the prey of a Cougar. As Tyler watched the life retreat from the young deer, he became aware of the possibility that he was being watched by the hungry lion. He radioed his companion to report the experience. Tyler’s report became the pinnacle of a bad week for the young technician, and the following morning he quit.
When I joined Tyler we quickly became friends. The nature of night work produces countless stressful situations from experiences with animals, humans and gunshots, and unmerciful terrain. We each entered the night fresh, and returned with scrapes, bruises, and torn clothing. Above all we returned to the truck worn from paranoia and solitude, grateful for someone to share the stories of the night. Positivity goes a long way in field work, and I attribute a large part of my success with the season to the fact that Tyler always kept his head, and encouraged me to do the same. We took turns lamenting about the difficulties of the work, and the therapy of these discussions refreshed our spirits and gave us the strength to return to the woods the following night.
Undoubtedly the most rewarding experiences from my time in the field came from my encounters with the very bird I was pursuing. I discovered a handful of birds over the time I was in the woods, yet each instance carried with it the magical allure of the life of the night. Every night birthed new and unique experiences, and this very night in the shadows of the great Mount Timpanogos, I found a small community of the Flammulated Owl. As I ran my survey at my last point, deep in an open forest dominated by large, seemingly ancient Quaking Aspen, the world of the Flammulated Owl revealed itself. The abundance of the low steady hooting chased away paranoia and negativity, and relieved my fatigue. After running my survey and soaking in the experience, I slowly returned to the truck. At the truck I found myself still in the midst of the choir of owls, and took the opportunity to record the birds. This night marked the highlight of my owl summer, as I will always remember my time in the mountain woods in search of Otus flammeolus, the Flammulated Owl.