Last night was one of the most memorable owl surveys ever!
My cousin Marilyn and I headed out with hot tea, snacks, a compass, and a notebook at 8:45PM to begin our first Nocturnal Owl Survey of the year. My first survey always takes place on the South Klondike Highway between Carcross and the Yukon/British Columbia border, during the second weekend of April. The weather seemed promising, with crystal clear skies and a nearly full moon. Wind gusted to a 3 or 4 on the Beaufort’s scale in a few spots at the beginning of our survey, but the night quickly grew calm and still.
Faint northern lights could be seen over the mountains, hardly amounting to anything but promising a good show later on. During one stop two lights in the sky caught our attention: one was definitely a jet, faintly roaring and flashing lights. The other followed it fairly close, moving at the same speed, but it made no sound and there were no flashing lights. It was as though one of the brightest stars in the sky had come alive and was gliding across the sky. It disappeared behind one of the snow-peaked, craggy mountains edging the Windy Arm, and never came back into view. In the direction it was heading, it should have. A UFO? A strange, silent, none-flashing plane? Or the International Space Station? The Twilight Zone theme song played in our minds as we pondered the possibilities.
It wasn’t until our seventh stop, 9.6km away from our starting point, where we heard our first owls. I could hardly believe my ears as I shut the van door and listened. Just off the road, about 100 meters away in a cluster of spruce trees, a Northern Saw-whet Owl was singing.
Through the Saw-whet’s steady, monotone toots, a Boreal Owl sang distantly on the other side of the road.
Northern Saw-whet Owls are quite rare, but likely annual in the Yukon. A couple of years ago, Jukka and I heard one singing down the Atlin Road during one of his surveys. It was an owl I did not expect to hear on my survey, and was without doubt a wonderful surprise!
We heard Boreal Owls through the next two stops, and then paused the survey to watch northern lights play out over our heads. It was the best show of the winter; bright furls of green edged with pink raced across the sky in all directions. Everywhere we looked there were dancing lights. Luckily we were at a pull-out, so Marilyn and I both laid down on the gravel to watch. They were moving so fast that it made us dizzy from our perspective, and at times it seemed as though they were piercing through the atmosphere, reaching down to touch us.
Eventually, they faded enough that we were able to tear ourselves away and continue on with the survey. We heard four more Boreal Owls and three Great Horned Owls between that spot and Carcross, ending the night with three owl species. An excellent tally for a Yukon nocturnal Owl Survey!
It was all in all a wonderful night, and a perfect way to officially begin the owl survey season. I’m looking forward to going with Jukka to do his Morley River survey (between the B.C. border and Teslin) tonight!
If you love owls, and know your local owl calls, you may be interested in starting your own owl survey route! Check out this link for more information on the B.C/Yukon Nocturnal Owl Surveys.