Monday 17 March 2014

Owl magic

Parts of South Eastern Norway has always been attractive for those of us that has a little bit more than an avarage interest in owls. A friend and myself set off from Trondheim rather late, and after the six hours drive we had arrived at our destination - the owl forest - at 10pm. The two main targets for this trip was two of Norway's both most sought after and rarest breeding birds. Both Great-grey (lappugle) and Ural owl (slagugle) has a breeding population of 10-50 pairs in Norway, and both are difficult to get even when you know where they are. Great-grey because its song is of such a low frequency that it is audible for human ears at no more than about 500m distance. And even though a very few can be seen hunting during daytime, most of them are actually strictly nocturnal. Ural owl is not only rare, but also a very silent owl. It is amongst the owls with the biggest sound repertoire, but at the same time most seldom sing.

Both of these owls are amongst the larger owls, and need lots of old forest in their territory. They are relatively common in our neighbouring countries like Sweden and Finland, but in Norway, they continue to be an extremely rare sight. Why this is isn't completely understood, but the fact that only about 3% of Norway can be classified as wilderness, and that even though we have lots of forest, we have extremely little old healthy forest left certainly must be part of the reason.

One of our main target, the Great-grey owl. So rare, so mythical and so ghost like.
Often just referred to as the shadow of the forest. As the only one we saw, crossed
the road and was visible only for a second or two, I do need to dive into my archive
to find a picture to set the atmosphere. Hopefully, a true great grey big year owl will
show up on the blog later some time.

So here we are, on a small forest road in a remote corner of Norway. The sky is clear and crisp, dotted with million of stars that fight between them to shine brighter than the full moon that is just about to rise. We stop the car next to a forest clearing, and not only ten minutes go by before we both hear something that none of us has ever heard before. A rythmical woof-woof-woof sound. So unmistakable and characteristic - yet totally new to both of us. The first owl magic had happened, as we realised that a great-grey owl actually was singing only a few hundred meters away from us! I've seen the species several times before, but never heard it. A tengmalm's owl was hooting nearby as well - just to add a little to the atmosphere!

We had decided to spend two nights in the forest, but with one of the targets already safely bagged we drove to another area we knew would give us a decent chance for hearing ural owl (slagugle). We arrived at site at midnight, and waited. Then we waited some more, and after that even some more. A distant tengmal's owl was singing, and the full moon was now accompanied by a northern light high on the sky - something very rare to see this far south. It was a special atmosphere staring up in the sky, listening to all the different sounds that the forest reveals during night. Despite standing there for two hours, no ural owls were heard. The forest certainly could hide its secrests well. We decided to search a bit around in the area before returning later in the morning. Another tengmalm's owl, singing close to the road was whistled in by my mimickry, and gave us some brief views before it realised I was no owl. On the other side of a forest clearing, some calls of a mammal started to fill the air. I have been working on a lynx project (radio tracking) earlier, and are well used to the calls of this rare forest cat from some captive animals at my University back in the student times. This one was certainly the right tone for it, but lacked the steady rhytm that lynx usually gives. The call from Red fox is very variable and can sometimes be is very similar. Even though I feel almost certain that what we heard was indeed a lynx, I won't exclude red fox one hundred percent....but it certainly helped the adrenaline rush up a bit! Bits by bits, the nocturnal secrets reveal itself.

Back for another hour at the ural owl site, but without any calls heard. Very silent indeed. The temperature had now dropped to about minus 5, and with a strong flu that had grew on me the last day, it felt rather cold. We decided to try again tomorrow and rather to search for other territories.

A couple of weeks ago, there were reports of more than 30 tengmalm's singing in this area - we only heard 5 for the whole night out in perfect conditions. This mean they have most likely already laid their eggs, and so have started the breeding season early this year.

A picture from the archive a few years back. Not as big as
the great grey, but the tengmalm's owl is certainly worth a piccture
or two as well. This bird was singing next to the road, just as several
of the tengmalm's we had on this trip were doing.
When light slowly faded out the exciting dark hours, the powerful drumming from black woodpecker (svartspett) started to sound like machine guns going off all over the forest. At one place, we had a male three-toed woodpecker (tretåspett), two Great-spotted woodpeckers (flaggspett) and one or two Black woodpeckers calling at the same time. Talk about quality birding! We continued to drive around on the small forest roads in hope of seeing the grey shadow of the forest. It was excitement around every corner, as we never knew what was waiting.

And then - suddenly - at 11:30 in the morning - a grey large owl flew across the road. Great grey! What an amazing bird. Fantastic, though frustrating at the same time as it dissappeared as quickly as we saw it. It flew straight across the road and went into the forest. We searched the area for an hour without any luck of finding it back. We did however find a big stick nest, where it might choose to breed later in the season.

Great-grey habitat. Despite searching for a couple of hours on nearby marshes and in
nearby forest, we never managed to find back the great grey that just was in too
 much of a hurry to truly let us enjoy its whereabouts and ghost like soul. 

Reports of a bewick's swan (dvergsvane) further south, and still no sleep since we left home made us leave the magic forest for a while. Searching through 500 whooper swans saw no signs of the bewick's that only hours before was present. This is the second time in a couple of weeks that I miss this species by a few hours only....maybe this is going to be my bogey bird in my Big Year?

3pm, and we now decided to get some much needed sleep - it had been 32 hours since last time....
Since the weather was so nice, we decided to camp out and just put our sleeping bags out in the forest close to a well known breeding site for Eagle owl (hubro), which was our next target. Three hours later, we both woke up by an eagle owl singing not far away - the best alarm clock one can possibly imagine and another great experience and big year tick!

After enjoying the eagle owl for some time, and since owl song activity usually is at its best just after dark - we decided to head straight back to the ural owl site. Eight o'clock we arrived, and what we waited more than 3 hours in vain for yesterday night, we now only had to wait about 10 minutes before contact calls from a female ural owl started to echo through the forest! Wow! As we enjoyed this for a few minutes, we suddenly heard a call in another direction that made both of us simultanously shout (in a whispering way) Great grey owl! This is way out of any known areas for it, and we decided to investigate this further and went in the direction of the call. While standing there, trying to hear more of what we only heard one time, the male ural owl decided to start singing from up the road. This is one of the most magic bird calls you can ever hear. A hollow, deep hooting - yet musical in a way was echoing from far away. The strong call can easily be heard a few kilometers away, and now, after a total of more than four hours within hearing distance of its territory, we got our reward. The male was singing for no more than 10 minutes tops, before it all went as silent as if there was never an owl around. This proves just how difficult it can be to locate ural owls during night time. After this amazing experience, we decied to leave the area and listen for any singing great greys where we earlier in the day saw one flying over the road. We stopped about 500m away and heard a distant, great grey singing. However, the direction where this birds was sitting might very well mean it was yet another great grey - but it is difficult to say for sure. Rest of the night was spent searching for more forest magic, but apart from a tengmalm's, the forest was very silent. Some sleep, and more searhcing on the forest roads the next morning gave 3 singing Pygmy owls (spurveugle), a hunting Hawk owl (haukugle) a fly by Hazel grouse (jerpe) and then finally another Big Year tick when 8 males and at least 3 females Black grouse (orrfugl) were feeding in top of a roadside tree.

One of three pygmy owls, that entertained us on the many forest roads. 

A total of 1340km on smaller and bigger roads, and we were back home. Despite almost not a single image taken, this certainly rank as one of the most exciting and successful birding trips in my career. We were welcomed home by a blizzard, but who cares - we had witnessed owl magic!

New species: 6
Total: 131


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