“Who-cooks-for-you,” cried the voice in the distance. “Who-cooks-for-you-all?”
My father and I, both standing in the road near the front of his pickup, pivoted in the direction of the call and leaned toward it, cocking our heads, straining to listen against the silence of the night in case the call came again.
“Over there,” my dad whispered, indicating with a slight nod of his head the stand of evergreens on the far shore of the lake. Though it was two-thirty in the morning, I could see him clearly. The full moon made the night iridescent.
From the opposite direction came another call, this one even farther off in the distance. “There’s another one,” I said in a hush. My father tilted his head in the new direction but couldn’t hear the second owl.
Overhead, the power lines sizzled in a vaguely insect-sounding way. Something in the bushes across the road rustled. The first owl called again. More sizzling. The soft clap of boots on pavement as my father walked across the road in the direction I’d indicated. We both strained to listen harder.
The second owl called again. All the tension melted out of my father as he heard it, as though relieved that he wasn’t losing his hearing and I wasn’t losing my mind.
The barred owl, common through much of Maine, has a distinct pattern: “Who-cooks-for-youuuu.” Our job, conducted for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife in conjunction with the Audubon Society, was to make eight stops along a prescribed route through rural Penobscot and Hancock counties. At each stop, we set up a large boom box on the hood of the pickup and played a CD of owl calls. We then had to listen to see if any owls responded.
By making notes about which owls, and how many of each, we heard, we were collecting data for a longitudinal study of owl populations in the state.
Our CD featured the calls of barred owls, great horned owls, and long-eared owls. Long-eared owls get their name from tufts of feathers that look more like tall eyebrows or horns than ears. There might not even be any in this part of the state. “Over the years, I’ve only heard one,” my dad says, “but this year some of the other owl surveys across the state have reported quite a few.”
Saw-whets turn out to be the most common owls we hear this night. They’re migrating at this time of year. “The woods are full of them,” my dad says. We find our first one along another lake. Its vocalizations sound like squeaky wheels going ‘round in circles or a tiny chimpanzee going through Lamaze class.
Saw-whet owls are the smallest on our list—each is only about the size of a human fist—while great horned owls are the largest. Full grown, a great horned owl can stand over two feet tall.
I also hear the warble of a loon come from somewhere out on the obsidian water. “First one of the year,” my dad whispers.
From the corner of my eye, I catch movement on the lake. “What is it?” I ask. My dad has trouble seeing it, which surprises me because he has owl-like night vision. “Probably just a stick,” he says. But then the moving thing makes a splash.
Could’ve been a muskrat. Or maybe the loon.
At another stop, we hear the preent of a woodcock—the thrumming call it makes as it spirals into the air as part of its mating dance.
For being mid-April, with temperatures in the low 40s, it amazes me how full of sounds the night is out in the middle of nowhere—and the insects aren’t even out yet. They’ll turn the night into a cacophony when they finally emerge.
We never see a single car, and we hear only a single truck, far off in some valley to the east of us as we sit astride the crest of a ridge.
But beyond human sounds, the woods are alive with noises—cracks and snaps and rustles and hoots and calls and loon cries and splashes. At two stops, we hear the distant sound of a waterfall from one of eastern Maine’s best trout streams. At one of the stops, we also hear what’s probably a coyote. “Yodel dog,” my dad whispers; I can hear the smile in his voice as he says it.
At home, with a highway just a half a mile east of my house, there’s always a reminder of human company. But I also live on the border of a huge state park, and there I can occasionally retreat to find the kind of noisy solace I find in the Maine woods. There I can still listen the gurgle of a brook and the creaking of the trees and the hoots of an owl in relative solitude. There are still plenty of quiet spots in my own neck of the woods.
Our owl expedition doesn’t end until nearly sunup. Our final tally: eleven owls—five saw-whets, five barred owls, and a single great horned monarch of the night forest.
When we get back to my dad’s farm, we head off to our respective burrows for a few hours of sleep—the peace and quiet of bed a marked difference from the spectacular peace and quiet of the owl-filled night.