Last night I was working on a project looking at whether or not certain species at risk occur on some federally owned properties in the Comox Valley. Specifically, I was doing call play back surveys for Western Screech-Owls (Otus kennicotti). This involves walking to pre-designated survey points, and doing a combination of playing calls and listening for responses, over a 15 minute period. What this often equates to, is standing around all night in the dark, shivering from the cold, and trying to stay awake and alert, without much happening. And to be honest, calling for Western Screech-Owls in a heavily modified landscape, I wasn't expecting much.
At about 1:30 I was strolling through a golf course. It was fantastic. All too often, owl surveys on Vancouver Island mean thrashing through salal in the pitch black, wiping spider webs off your face, and waiting for a Cougar to drop on you from out of a tree. This site was different. Fast hiking on a well groomed path. A bit of ambient light from the nearby airport. Fairly quiet. Good sight lines. What more could you ask for? Well, unfortunately, it didn't seem like good screech-owl habitat, and I wondered if I weren't totally wasting my time surveying this location. But, negative results are useful too, so I kept walking, ending up about a km away from where I had parked. I set up the loudspeaker on the edge of a tidy green, sat down with my back against a healthy old Douglas fir, shut off my headlamp, and pushed "play" on the mp3 player. One call set echoed across the empty golf course, and nothing responded. I waited a few minutes, straining to hear something far off in the distance, but it was only the baying of an old hound. I pushed play to begin the second set of calls. The Western Screech-Owl has a territorial call that is a soft little "boop", repeated every few seconds, but with a shorter duration between calls, so it seems to be speeding up as it goes. Some have described it as being similar to a ping pong ball bouncing, with the bounces coming closer together as it loses energy. At any rate, the bird didn't respond by vocalizing. Seconds into the second set, I caught a dark flash out of my right eye. I turned instinctively, my heart stopped, and there was a Western Screech-Owl, a foot from my face, it's feet aimed right for my eyes with it's talons fully extended. It was like touching an electric wire. I lurched to my feet, falling backwards, my hand flying up to protect my eyes, and I clunked the back of my head against a the trunk of the very skookum tree. The owl was gone. My heartbeat was thumping hard in my ears. I shut the mp3 player off, and waited. The bird passed by again, but this time a little further off. Although it was too dark to see any real detail, the size and shape left no doubt as to what it was. It circled me in complete silence, and then disappeared off to my left. I waited. All was quiet. I slowly turned my head to left, and again got a jolt to the heart. The owl had been sitting on a low branch, only a meter to the left of my head. It hissed, clacked it's bill with a tiny "smack", and fluttered off into the darkness. Wow! As a final treat, as I was stuffing the gear into my pack, I heard the secondary call of a Western Screech-Owl. A short descending tremolo. Then a quick couple of "boops". And then all was quiet again. On the walk back to the truck I left my headlamp off and savored the dark, magnificent night.
As an aside, one of the reasons that Western Screech-Owls are declining on Vancouver Island, is predation by the Barred Owl, which is a relatively new species here. Until about 40 years ago Barred Owls were unknown here, being essentially a species of eastern North America. As settlers altered the landscapes on their advance west, Barred Owls were able to move along with them. Here on Vancouver Island, the population has exploded, and they are commonly found now in most habitats, and from one end of the island to the other. They not only prey on Western Screech-Owls, but being larger, they also out compete them on available prey, and nesting cavities. Last night I saw and heard at least 5 Barred owls. All of which came swooping in to the sounds I was playing, apparently intent on finding a meal.
Although Barred Owls get the lion's share of the blame for Western Screech-Owl declines, I have no doubt that industrial forestry, agriculture, traffic moralities, and overall biodiversity declines associated with human activities, also play a large role.