The night before Winter Solstice, Charlotte and I took part in one of Yampatika’s
winter programs, Citizen Science After Dark, an outing in partnership with the US Forest Service, for the boreal owl survey on the ski mountain. As we arrived to join the group, we spied a fox investigating the base area, sleek body trotting gracefully between mounds of snow. It was the perfect start to our evening.
Our group of eight didn’t need snowshoes or headlamps: the plan was to stay on packed runs and the Waxing Gibbous moon was bright enough to help light the way. I thought it strange that we were warned to be on the lookout for snow groomers, snowmobiles, and possibly skiers, but that warning was right on the money.
Within the first quarter mile we’d already encountered two snow groomers and a snowmobile. One of the snow groomers had a super long arm on the side facing us. As it reached us the arm lifted, sailing over our heads, and as soon as it passed the last person the arm lowered back down. It felt like we’d received a group blessing from a gigantic mechanical octopus.
We reached our first stop. The protocol was to first listen quietly. If we heard nothing, then several different recorded owl calls were played, one at a time, in each cardinal direction. After each call we listened again. The USFS gathers data on wind, temperature, time, and phase of the moon, as well as any owl calls (real ones) detected. This data is important in understanding the impact of various factors including the ski area itself on owl populations and habits. Typically the owls nest in February and so are more vocal at that time as they defend their nesting territory.
Playing owl calls is not something you or I should do on our own, because unless we’ve had training, we could cause problems. We also learned that pictures of owls flying at the camera posted on social media are often achieved by baiting the owl (eg., dangling a mouse just below the camera). This baiting results in a significant mortality rate for owls.
The quiet of listening for owls was in significant contrast to the amount of noise at the ski area. Groomers grooming, snow movers working down at the base with their incessant back-up beeping, and even the engine braking of trucks way out on the highway traveled up the mountain. Wild Blue gondola was lit up like a stadium, and equipment lights shone here and there all over the mountain.
We didn’t hear any owls at our first stop. We then decided to head off-piste and we post-holed our un-snowshoed feet into winter wonderland. The snow was deep amongst the trees - easily up to my knees. This made for more demanding work than strolling up the ski run, but way more rewarding.
It felt like we’d entered another world - in some ways the world of the owl. Under the trees the lights were out of sight, but we could see the moon. There was a sense of hush here, and I was aware of the cool air on my face. Our leaders pointed out tracks in the snow: weasel, mouse, and snowshoe hare. I wondered if owls spied those tracks when they hunt. I had never seen snowshoe hare tracks before - they appeared as two large oval (snowshoe) back feet with heels together and toes turned out, and two little feet in front. The presence of snowshoe hare is integral to the health of an ecosystem; many animals feed on the hare including Great Horned Owls and the Canada Lynx which is endangered in the state of Colorado.
So often when I am out hiking or snowshoeing, I don’t think about the things I can’t see or hear at the moment. Slowing down and observing on this night resulted in the amazing experience of seeing the tracks - to be reminded of the presence of a whole world living and breathing, the hunters and the hunted, on the mountain.
We didn’t have much luck with hearing real owls until the last stop - when most of the group heard a faint call. It felt like we’d been given a little treasure.
Part way across a ski run on our way down, we paused to regroup along one side of the run. All of us were dressed in dark clothing, standing individually, no headlamps, and silent. Suddenly a skier came around the bend, and we gave him quite the start. He was most likely a liftie enjoying his peaceful ski commute at the end of a long day, and he did not expect to see us. He called a hello, then said “Children of the Corn!” as he went by, shaking his head.
All in all it was a terrific evening. We learned a lot, had some fun, got some exercise, and even heard an owl.
Jacqueline Denny, ACC, CHPC, LMT