Spending half the night in the woods, in the rain, may not sound like a lot of fun to you. Let me explain why you're wrong.
Last night, I met research tech Anna Fasoli at dusk to track one of the owls we'd radio-tagged the night before. A short while earlier, she'd found two of the birds, Lexi and Maria, which had been netted in Cold Springs Hollow, over the top of the ridge and in that veritable Hilton for saw-whets, the upper portion of King's Gap Hollow, where the majority of our tagged owls have roosted this season.
Gemini, on the other hand, had been caught off Ridge Road west of Rt. 233, and earlier in the day, research intern Drew Weber had traced its signal (we don't know this owl's gender) to a dense pine forest about a mile south of its capture location, but he couldn't get a visual on it before he had to leave.
Anna and I took a look at the thickening clouds and spitty rain and decided to focus on Gemini, figuring we could spread out along Ridge Road and track its movements in the valley below (radio-trackers, like soldiers, prefer the high ground). That way, when the heavy rain came we could shelter in our cars between taking our every-10-minute bearings.
We got Gemini's signal nice and strong at first, but with the wind gusting the signal seemed to be moving a lot, fading in and out, so an hour after dark, I decided to loop around to the south and see if there was a way to get closer. Unfortunately, as soon as I dropped off the ridge, I lost the signal. I stopped several times, but got nothing, moving closer and closer to where Drew had found the probable roost site; Still nothing. I radioed Anna, though, who was still picking up a nice, strong beep; she suggested the dense forest might be blocking the transmission.
Finally, I drove back a narrow, muddy track through the state forest that after half a mile passed a lonely cabin and got even worse. I parked; the rain was coming down hard, so I slipped the receiver into a Ziploc bag to keep it dry. This time, Gemini's signal was booming, but I was getting suspicious; this was exactly where Drew had found the signal during the day, and I began to wonder if the squirrely readings were because the owl had picked off the harness and dropped the radio.
I began working my way through the very thick forest - lots of young, dense white pines with an overstory of immense pines and oaks, through which ran Tom's Run, a gorgeous stream. The signal seemed to be moving all over the place, bounced by the trees, very strong but hard to localize. I was increasingly convinced I was looking for a dropped transmitter, not an owl, and radioed periodic updates to Anna, half a mile north of me on the ridge.
Finally, rain dripping off my hood, I zeroed in on one patch of thick pines, zigzagging back and forth, sweeping the antenna along the ground, wondering how I'd spot the radio in this drenched, reflective world.
Then I looked up, right into Gemini's eyes.
The owl was perched at eye level with me, less than five feet away, the antenna sticking out behind it, the bird standing as tall and erect as possible, trying to look like a stick. I looked away for a second, and that fast it was gone.
"I just found the radio," I told Anna, "and it flew away."
So Anna raced down to join me, and for the next two and a half hours, we sat quietly in the dark along the path a couple hundred yards apart, taking very precise bearings as Gemini moved through the woods around us. The rain stopped and the wind hadn't yet started again, and it was really quite pleasant, although the temperature dropped steadily.
At one point, the signal strength increased dramatically, and I whispered into my radio, "It's right here" -- just as Gemini let loose with one of those eerie saw-whet wails, not 20 feet away in the dark.
It was an amazing evening; in seven or eight years of doing this, I've never seen a tagged saw-whet at night. And to be in the woods, with a faint hint of moonlight through the clouds, the stream rushing nearby, was great. Anna had settled into a folding camp chair by the cars, me slouched against a huge white pine by the creek, and we chatted quietly by radio between bearing checks. Our guess is that Gemini's been bunking here since we initially caught it in early November - and why not? Perfect habitat, good cover, and the cabin had well-stocked bird feeders, which probably attract lots of mice and flying squirrels at night.
We finally knocked off about 11 p.m.; we were both tired from the banding blitz Sunday night, and I had a two-hour drive to get home. With luck, we'll be able to locate Gemini's exact roost today, along with Lexi and Maria. The weather tonight looks bad for tracking, but it's great to be back in the game after a two-week hiatus.