Looking for a Spotted Owl in Colorado As part of its fire management plan, the National Park Service is sending out scientists to parks around the country to search out endangered wildlife. NPR's Adam Burke went along with one of those scientists into Colorado's Black Canyon to see if they could find a rare spotted owl.
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Looking for a Spotted Owl in Colorado

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Looking for a Spotted Owl in Colorado

Looking for a Spotted Owl in Colorado

Looking for a Spotted Owl in Colorado

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As part of its fire management plan, the National Park Service is sending out scientists to parks around the country to search out endangered wildlife. NPR's Adam Burke went along with one of those scientists into Colorado's Black Canyon to see if they could find a rare spotted owl.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY From NPR News.

I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And I'm Alex Chadwick.

Wildfires can be ecologically beneficial, but they also can harm endangered wildfire or the habitat it lives in. As part of their fire management plans, federal officials send scientist out to look for endangered animals.

The National Park service hired biologist Steven Boyle(ph) to find out if a rare owl is living in Colorado's Black Canyon. And NPR's Adam Burke went along.

ADAM BURKE reporting:

You might call it an exercise in futility, but Steve Boyle says if you want to find a Mexican spotted owl, you've got to deal with the frustration of not finding one first.

Mr. STEVEN BOYLE (Biologist): It's in the nature of the game. If the job in hand is to look for rare things, one has to come to grips with the fact that a lot of times you're going to be looking for things that you ultimately don't find that day, or that month, or even that year.

BURKE: Not a job for everyone certainly, but to Steve Boyle it's a little piece of heaven. This summer, Boyle teamed up with two seasonal employees of the National Park Service, Sandy Ragusa(ph) and Grant Ledem(ph), the project was looking for spotted owls in the Black Canyon along the Gunnison River - well not looking really. But on a recent outing we do strain our eyes at first, it's after sunset and our motorboat skims across the inky surface of a reservoir into the Black Canyon's dark embrace.

(Soundbite of Water)

Mr. BOYLE: We're doing it at night, and human beings are not by nature nighttime creatures. We're very visually oriented compared to most other animals. We're pretty much daytime sort of creatures. And when you step out into the woods at night, or wherever we're surveying - here we're on a motorboat on a reservoir in steep-walled Canyon.

(Soundbite of Water)

Mr. BOYLE: That's a strange environment to be out at night particularly when you shut the motors off, turn the lights out, sit there in the dark and wait for everything to become quiet so you can hear better. You know, you begin to hear little things - you hear a little fish jump or you hear a pebble fall off a cliff and plink into the reservoir.

You hear the breeze in the trees up on the slopes. You can see bats, maybe, flitting in the starlight above you. I feel myself slipping out of normal human experience and starting to enter this other world of communicating with the birds. And that's a strange way to make a living.

Wonderful - but it's strange.

(Soundbite of Owl)

Mr. BOYLE: Every biologist who calls spotted owls sounds different. And it's inevitable that everybody puts a little of their personality into the calls, too.

(Soundbite of Owl)

Mr. BOYLE: Grant's owl strikes me as a lonely owl - and owl who is calling for company.

(Soundbite of Owl)

Mr. BOYLE: It is a mournful quality to it. He doesn't put his calls real close together. There is some time in between the calls. It reminds me of an owl that might be calling at midwinter, searching for a mate. And that may be totaling anthropomorphic, I'm not sure a spotted owl would think that at all - but that's what I think when I hear a Grant's call.

(Soundbite of Owl)

Mr. BOYLE: Sandy's owl is a female.

(Soundbite of Owl)

Mr. BOYLE: Definitely a female because of the pitch - it's a high pitch, and spotted owl females are higher pitched than the males.

Seems to me like an owl on a nest communicating with your mate, maybe about the progress of their nestlings, maybe - I'm hungry, I'm over here how about coming and feeding me.

(Soundbite of Owl)

(Soundbite of water flowing)

(Soundbite of hooting)

Mr. STEVE BOYLE(ph): I'm thinking owl all the while while I'm hooting. I'm being an owl, and I'm talking to an owl. It's kind of like fly-fishing in a way, isn't it? You're trying to fool an animal into reacting to what you're doing.

BURKE: Do you ever feel like a cheap counterfeiter?

Mr. BOYLE: Never. No, I think of myself as a clever impersonator.

(Soundbite of hooting)

BURKE: The night wears on. A few birds answer the teens' owl calls, each very faint, none of them completely identifiable. But no reply comes from a spotted owl. Boyle says these surveys can be discouraging, like the one he did a few years ago in New Mexico's Gila National Forest.

Mr. BOYLE: I was working with another biologist and we were doing a long route, and we were walking ridges in rugged country at night with headlamps. This goes on night after night, and after a while you become weary, you start to wonder, gosh, are we ever going to find anything?

BURKE: Every half mile, the two would stop, hoot for 15 minutes, and then trudge along to the next location.

Mr. BOYLE: You're hooting, you're listening, as you've been doing maybe for days or weeks on end, and all of a sudden you hear a spotted owl. And you call again, and it calls again. It's a magical moment. You've found the gold nugget in the pan that maybe you've been looking for for a long time.

BURKE: So far, no gold nugget has turned up at the Black Canyon yet, but, true to their kind, Grant Leedham(ph) and Sandy Ragusa(ph) are undeterred.

Mr. GRANT LEEDHAM: We definitely have the potential to have owls. And if they're not here, then hopefully they'll be here some day.

Ms. SANDY RAGUSA: And they exist south of us and north of us, so why couldn't they be right here?

BURKE: Steve Boyle says that from a cold, scientific point of view coming up empty-handed is fine too.

Mr. BOYLE: And if we don't find owls, then we haven't failed, we've completed the survey and we've found no evidence of their presence here.

BURKE: And while all three seekers would be thrilled to hear the call of a rare and mysterious creature, they appear satisfied to have spent a little time in the realm of the owl. They certainly have made a snug nest for the animal in their imaginations.

Adam Burke, NPR News, in western Colorado.

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