Some fathers fish with their sons, others take father-son birding trips

My son, Drew, and I have been doing an owl survey for seven years now. It’s a chance for some father-son bonding time. Some fathers and sons go fishing or hunting together. We do bird surveys or birding trips.

The owl survey is a citizen science project that monitors owl populations in the Western Great Lakes Region and always runs on a night between April 1 and 15. Our assigned survey route begins south of the town of Howard Lake, west of St. Paul about 50 miles.

We stop at each of 10 points a mile apart along the designated route, get out of the car and listen for owl calls for five minutes. I stand out beyond the front of the car; Drew stands a ways behind it.

Over the past seven years, we’ve struck out several times, heard one owl a couple of years and heard two owls only once. So we have fairly modest expectations.

We can’t begin our route until at least a half hour past sunset. This year, we got to the first survey point a little later, at 9:45 p.m. We pulled onto the shoulder and began to get set up, putting on reflective vests, setting out reflective hazard triangles on the road and getting the starting temperature.

We did our first five minutes of listening there with no owls heard. So we picked up the triangles and drove a mile onward to survey point 2.

Point 2 gave us the same empty data set. On to survey point 3.

Our first several survey points are along a two-lane asphalt road with a 50-mph speed limit. We pulled off the road to the extent that we could, but the shoulder wasn’t much wider than an automobile tire and there was a deep ditch beyond it. Drew had to be careful getting out, hanging onto the door handle until he found solid ground for his feet.

We began our five-minute survey at point 3 and heard Canada geese gabbling in the dark. There must have been a pond out there somewhere. Then we heard the low “Hooo-hoo-hoo” — a great horned owl. I heard it from across the road, then from our side of the road. So there were at least two great horneds. How nice!

We heard snow geese flying over, almost shouting at each other. These flocks continued passing from time to time all night long. I tried to catch a glimpse of them, silhouetted against the quarter moon, but couldn’t.

After point 3, all our points were

along dirt or gravel roads without the steep ditches.

At point 9, our survey spot was at the end of a long driveway, and there standing guard was a German shepherd-mix dog, barking lustily. Drew asked if we were actually going to get out of the car. I told him I’d heard rural visitors often open the car door just a bit and put their hand out below it, so the dog could get a sniff of their hand. “Do you want to change seats?” he asked me.

But he boldly tried the hand- under-the-door routine, and it worked. The dog stopped barking, licked Drew’s hand and wagged its tail. We got out of the car, and another dog joined its canine buddy. They sniffed us up, down and around, decided we were harmless and went back up to the house. We completed our five-minute survey and headed on to the last point.

At point 10, I heard a fragment of a barred owl call, just the descending hoot that usually ends a longer “Who cooks for you?” call. I heard barreds from two different directions. Drew heard a great horned owl “arguing” with a barred.

That would not be a good idea for the barred, since it’s smaller than the great horned and could wind up as a late-night snack for the bigger raptor.

Drew heard two more owls after our last five-minute survey period was over, a barred and a great horned. He was really pumped, and I know he’ll be ready to come back again next year. It’s great to be out with him, doing what I love.

We heard at least five owls this year. It makes up for the earlier low counts. Maybe a later start is better. After all, owls are just starting their day as we’re ending ours.

Clay Christensen’s book, The Birdman of Lauderdale, is available from local bookstores and bird stores as well as online from

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