Boreal Owl has always been a black mark on my birding resume. In August of 1972, two of my brothers, Tom and Jim, and I backpacked into the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness Area in the Park Range west of North Park, CO. We camped for three nights at Seven Lakes 10,500 feet above sea level. We were young and ready for adventure in the American West but poor and unprepared. No tents, just a primitive lean-to. Everynight it got incredibly cold and we basically froze our butts off. We were certainly too cold and tired to investigate the family of Western Screech-Owls that would line up on a dead spruce branch and amuse us each night with their antics. We were unaware of two important facts. First that Boreal Owls had been discovered in Colorado in 1966 and second that Western Screech-Owls lived at 5000’ in cottonwoods not 10500’ in a climax spruce-fir forest! I’ve always been too embarrassed to add Boreal Owl to my life list after that. Oh, I’ve tried for them off and on. On the Train from Thompson to Churchill I literally stayed up all night hoping to spot a Boreal Owl on some stump in a clearing. I even found one but the train was moving way too fast to be sure. I’ve searched for them in Alaska without success. However, the easiest way to find Boreal Owl is at the top of the Poudre Canyon near Cameron Pass in the Medicine Bow Mountains of Northern Colorado. That’s where the listers go- Life listers, State Big Year listers and ABA Big Year listers. Those cold shivering nights at Seven Lakes made searching for anything at high elevation when it was cold repugnant and I had never tried for them.
But tonight Bill V and I were making the 125 mile drive from Niwot to Cameron Pass. Tonight I planned on erasing this black mark from my past. It’s a long drive, mostly through the winding Poudre Canyon. As we gained elevation we noticed that the trees were swaying a little from the wind, not good when trying to hear calling owls. That sung my spirits, was this going to be a wild goose chase? A moment later a Least Chipmunk ran across the road. New year mammal, spirits were bolstered. It was still light as we drove past Joe Wright Reservoir and the summit of Cameron Pass and we noted where to pull off for reference later in the evening. I wanted to push farther west remembering that Todd Deininger had heard calling Boreal Owls at the Moose Visitor Center in Jackson County. We made it there about 8:05 PM. We stepped out of the car and the first thing we noticed was the wind. There wasn’t any. Still as one could expect at 10,200 feet. No owls but a beautiful Red Fox watched us from the other side of the small parking lot.
So we drove back east towards the pass about a quarter mile to another parking lot. This time when I stepped out of the SUV I was prepared. I looked like a grip from the production set of the Battle of the Pelinor Fields of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. My Sennheiser microphone was attached to a MD-I Mic to Line Driver Headphone Monitor, which in turn was attached to my Bose headphones. I’d be able to hear a Boreal Owl in the next county, maybe even Wyoming!! Bill played the Boreal Owl call from his new IPhone. Far away in the distance I could hear one call. On the ridge to the south, it could have been a mile away. Then I swiveled left towards the pass and heard a second owl calling. This one was closer. I passed the Bose headphones to Bill and he could hear them as well. We drove about a mile back towards the pass pulled over to the side of the road and stepped out. There was a calling Boreal Owl within 100 yards. Even I could hear it with the naked ear. Awesome, a life bird for both of us! We drove further east and again stopped and heard an owl. That was at 8:50 PM. A moment later the winds came howling in and that was it for the night. The serenading was over as quickly as it began.
The drive down the canyon was blissful. A Moose crossed the road and we startled a Bobcat from the side of the road (my 5th Bobcat for the year). An hour later headed back to the comfort of my bed I realized. I’d never noticed the temperature, not one bit. Please remove that mark from my resume.