Immediately, we started giggling. We couldn’t help ourselves. The swan’s honk broke the steady silence of the dark, cold night. We were in a pull-off near Mile 10 on the Copper River Highway and I could see only a few stars speckled here and there in the sky. We had been standing for a while, straining our ears so that we could hear an owl. Our hopes weren’t high, but we dutifully continued with the broadcast, sending out owl calls into the night.
The forecast was good to see the northern lights, but the sky remained a patchwork of thick clouds. Danielle, her friend and I had ventured out that night to practice owl broadcasting. Danielle Rupp is an Americorps Member here in Cordova and she’s been tremendously helpful and friendly. She’s been here since September and has gotten to know the community remarkably well, which is great for me, otherwise I wouldn’t have learned about square dancing, dance classes and other fun events without her. I was also lucky to be able to work with her. In two days we were traveling to Tatitlek Village to conduct a community owl survey. I was thrilled at the chance to get out of the office.
I had spent most of my time in the office memorizing the different owl calls. I learned the easiest way of remembering these owls is by comparing their calls to something else. For instance, the Barred Owl’s call sounds like it’s loudly murmuring who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all? The Northern Saw-Whet sounds like a truck backing up. By far, my favorite is the short-eared owl’s call. This little guy sounds nothing like an owl. Instead, this owl barks. When I heard the sound clip, I thought of my little dog back home in Los Angeles.
“Okay, what do we have to do first?” Danielle asked. We looked down at the papers and saw that we had to record the time, location, precipitation, snow cover, wind. The protocol was very similar to what I had learned during shorebird training.
I looked at my watch. “It’s 10:38pm.” This was the second site. We thought we heard something at the first location, but the call was too distant to tell for certain. We jumped out of the car and turned on the broadcast. After the Boreal Owl’s call on the broadcast, we heard the swan.
Giggling, I briefly wondered whether we had awoken the disgruntled swan, but then, all of a sudden, a different call.
I gasped and we all swiveled around to stare at the silhouetted trees.
Like a truck backing up, it was the call of the Northern Saw Whet. That was how I heard and identified my first owl in Alaska.