The sun has barely relinquished its hold on the sky. Twilight transforms lush green aspens and firs into foreboding black shapes that whisper threats with each breeze, and scratch against the night. A Swainson's thrush perches on an ancient snag and pumps his melodious "reeger-Reeger-REEGER!" into the gloaming until the night quiets him.
The song is meager antidote to the paranoia that lions! and tigers! and bears, oh, my! are descending through the blackness to dine on a human listener rarely found holding a mountain vigil at 9:30 on a summer's night.
And then another sound seeps into the consciousness, low-pitched and ambiguous, at first imaginary, then real: "Booop! Booop! Boo-doop, Booop!" The sound makes the heart sing and relaxes the electrified hairs on the back of the neck. The singer is a flammulated owl.
The flammulated owl is just shy of seven inches from beak to tail and weighs a smidge more than a golf ball. It's Northern Utah's smallest owl and quite possibly, the hardest one to see. Researchers knew so little about the flam just thirty years ago that they considered the owl rare. Now, we know differently.
Consider the confounding facts of the bird's appearance and how it lives: It's tiny and sports cryptic feathers the color and pattern of bark. It's completely nocturnal and is up when people are down. It's insectivorous, dictating a short annual stay on its northern breeding grounds, and during that time, the male sings his soft-voiced "Booop!" only from his spring return until his babies hatch. That's six weeks or perhaps two months.
Small woodland owls are also ventriloquists and defy the savviest human listener from divining their locations, even when an owl perches just 20 feet away and sings.
And so local flam-seekers clear their calendars on summer evenings in late June and early July when the male owls are most active. They hope to entice the birds to investigate recorded playbacks of a flammulated's call and approach the owler. An owling expedition also requires a spotlight to briefly illuminate a curious owl, the ability to fake bravery when twigs snap in the night and a tolerance for failure when an owl sings on an open branch two car lengths away and you can't find him.
Thus prepared, I ascended to the mountains on an evening last week full of hope and doubt and conviction that I would be noshed upon by a large, wild feline before the evening was over. Lingering light enabled me to scout good habitat -- mixed aspen and fir -- and good viewing spots -- dead branches -- as I waited for complete darkness.
It was time.
The first several playbacks elicited responses from four different owls. Each approached from deep within an aspen grove or down a fir-covered slope. I stood at the base of the slope sweeping bare branches with my light while the owl booped, me feeling unfit for the task as I looked for a tiny gray bump that would appear more like a lichen goiter than a bird. I found neither that one nor the next that sang from the aspens; the other two owls were not interested enough to approach my spot.
At the next stop, a cooperative owl sang at the edge of the trees, even moving toward me when I moved to draw it into the open. I swept the beam over a long-dead fir without a needle remaining, and Hey! Was that a goiter?!? Perched calmly on a branch in the open was the male flammulated owl, looking at me coquettishly over the flame-like feathers that accent his shoulders and facial disk, dark eyes piercing.
They can be so relaxed when illuminated that they call quietly in your presence while looking around, ostensibly for the intruding recorded voice. Once I watched an owl hunt in the circle of the spotlight, pinning a fat moth against an aspen branch and then flying into the darkness, likely to the nest cavity to feed his mate. I've seen them singing while the boom and sparkling cataclysm of Independence Day fireworks exploded in valleys below.
I didn't keep the flam for long; he had beetles to pluck and moths to snatch. He was probably feeding both himself and his missus incubating three eggs or so in an old woodpecker cavity nearby. Once the owlets are big enough to maintain their body temperatures, the female will join the hunt until the babies fledge in the montane forests of the Wasatch.
Kristin Purdy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.