Listening for that bouncing-ball call
It is 5:55 a.m. and still very dark on the cold, snowy morning of Dec. 16. Pulled over near the corner of Aspen and Orchard in Fruita, I wake up my laptop, hold out the little speaker, play track 3 and listen for a response.
I am not trying to woo a still-sleeping beau. Rather, I am trying to get an answer from a Western Screech-owl, a small, unobtrusive owl about 9 inches high that blends in well with the trees where it perches.
Finally my response comes: A soft hoot that starts out loud and slow and then gets softer and faster. It’s like a ping-pong ball bouncing high on a table, gradually making shorter, faster bounces as it comes to rest.
These owls keep a low profile, so while you may not know it, there probably is one living in your neighborhood. If so, you are in luck because they make great neighbors.
Birders, on the other hand, are an odd bunch.
They get up at ungodly hours of the morning, do goofy birdcall imitations, and walk around with clunky binoculars swinging from their necks.
Sure, they sometimes travel to exotic locales like Costa Rica to see toucans and parrots, but you are just as likely to find them at the local dump or sewage treatment ponds trying to spot an unusual species of migrating gull.
Like any special interest group they include a broad range of types. The best birders, in my opinion, are those who not only take time to observe their favorite birds, but also make an effort to learn more about them and turn that knowledge into actions that help preserve the birds.
Here in the Grand Valley, the birders may be relatively few, but we have been blessed with some of the good ones.
About 20 years ago, some of these good birders, led by the late Rich Levad, took an interest in the Western Screech-owl.
This pocket-sized owl occurs in a variety of habitats and there should be lots of them in the Grand Valley, but Levad, Coen Dexter and Tom Moran noticed that only a very few were counted in the Grand Valley Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count.
This isn’t too surprising since, like most owls, Western Screech-owls are not very active in daylight hours. Also, their calls are not very loud so they’re often missed by bird surveys.
But Levad and his colleagues devised a way to find them: First, find a spot that looks good for owls — someplace with larger trees with holes for roosting and nesting — and then play a recording of a screech-owl’s “bouncing ball” hoots.
Being territorial, when the owls hear the recording they think it is an intruder and come over to check out him or her, or at the very least call him/her names (hoot back.)
Using this technique, the Audubon volunteers soon were counting lots of owls in the annual bird count. But as Levad and other volunteers quickly realized, the tree holes that the owls need for roosting and nesting were becoming scarce as older trees were trimmed and removed.
In response, Audubon volunteers began building and installing owl-nesting boxes throughout the valley and monitoring the success of those boxes.
This effort, plus a collaboration with the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory to mark and collect data on nestling owls, has paid off.
This year’s Christmas Count yielded a local record 63 Western Screech-owls.
Now, GVAS President Nic Korte is eyeing another species — the Barn Owl, whose numbers also seem to be declining across North America.
Barn Owls make great neighbors, but don’t be surprised if, some early morning around Christmas, you notice some odd-looking people with speakers and binoculars taking a peculiar interest in your trees.