Inaugural Class of Naturalists Search for Elusive Owls in Casper Mountain | Regional news
Two miles from the end of a dirt road on Casper Mountain, Wyoming’s only Saw-whet Owl banding station is perched high above the ridges of the Laramie Range.
Zach Hutchinson, naturalist and bander of the Audubon Rockies, comes here every night during owl migration season, a few months in late fall before the snow arrives.
Tonight he will have a lot of company. Ten participants and other instructors from the inaugural class of the Wyoming Naturalist Program are climbing the mountain, for the final event of their first annual reunion.
Almost every state in the Union has their own naturalist program, which teaches residents about the unique flora and fauna of their state and how to manage the lands on which they live.
Until this year, Wyoming did not have one.
Today, a group of nearly 20 Wyomingites completed the first part of the state course, a partnership with the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute, Game and Fish, State Parks, Audubon and Serve Wyoming.
Hutchinson, Jacelyn Downey, head of education programs at Audubon, and two naturalists who had dinner on the road to catch up here before sunset walk around the cabin, which Bart Rea by Murie Audubon built with his family in the early 1970s.
âIf we see five owls tonight, I’ll be delighted,â says Hutchinson. “One or two would be great.”
The group makes their way to a stand of Lodgepole Pines and Aspen, carrying a set of metal poles, five black netting, and an awkward plastic speaker. The earth is loose, Hutchinson notes as he tries to raise the posts.
“I’m just going to hope it sticks,” Hutchinson said. “As long as there is no wind, it’s fine.”
A small caravan with the rest of the naturalists bounces on the road and parks outside the hut. One of the cars brought the batteries for the speaker, which looks like a megaphone and sounds like a very repetitive owl.
The sound begins and the naturalists retreat inside so as not to contaminate the call with their human sounds of rustling boots, chair scratching and English.
Then they wait.
If all goes according to plan – which tonight it won’t – these barely visible nets will catch little owls as they fly over the area.
On fall nights, Casper Mountain becomes a stopover on the owls’ path south, as they head north from the Bighorns.
They usually don’t stay long, just long enough to hunt, eat and rest before leaving the next day.
The little owl lives in forests, with large enclaves around the Great Lakes and Western Mountain. They were only tracked relatively recently and were considered much rarer than they actually are until banding stations began to appear and record their movements.
The megaphone loudspeaker makes the sound of a male open for mating, on a loop that tries to pull pricks through the trees where the nets hang almost imperceptibly in the dark. The bass, repeating “too much”, would drive the neighbors of the cabin crazy, if there were any.
When an owl is caught in the net, it is carefully returned to the station. Some banders place them in racks made of PVC pipe, but the Casper Mountain resort is experimenting with bags to accommodate the greater western variety. With pliers, a small metal tag is wrapped around one leg and tightened. The owl is released.
Hutchinson, returning inside the cabin after the first clear check of the night, reports that he could hear two, close but invisible, in the trees.
The cabin is quiet once everyone takes their green plastic seats around the table set with a scale, banding equipment, and a pair of thick binders filled with prick information, including a size chart that , according to Hutchinson, does not go large enough to cover most of the owls they see here in Wyoming.
To pass the time, naturalists indulge in a game of bird charades.
Write the name of a bird, any bird, on a piece of paper. Put the leaves in a cup. Take one out and imitate the bird until someone guesses correctly.
Downey gets up and holds up two fingers. Two words.
She mimics wrapping something around her waist, then throws an imaginary line and wraps it around a closed fist.
“Belted Kingfisher!” says Kathy Lichtendahl.
She plays the role of “blue heron”, which someone says really should have been “great blue heron”.
John Fenton takes a wrong step.
âMeep meep,â he said.
âRoadrunner! Shout some voices.
Half the group puts on their headlamps and heads back outside to check the nets for the second time tonight.
In the cabin, the artificial call of the sharpening saw still sounds, as if someone is blowing on a wooden flute every few seconds.
Dorothy Tuthill pulls out her nature journal. Tuthill, as associate director of the Biodiversity Institute at the University of Wyoming, helped run the naturalist program – but she says she didn’t keep a journal until the course started.
The journals contain drawings of plants and animals that naturalists have encountered since the start of the program. Having to draw them by hand, they say, means paying attention to every little detail.
Tuthill opens her journal to a page dedicated to a wolf she saw in Yellowstone National Park, on a hiking trip to Snake River with six of the naturalists, aged 60 to 72.
âShe was like a 6-year-old seeing this wolf,â says Lichtendahl, who regularly leads trips in the park.
During the first four months of the naturalist program, participants only met through computer screens. One week, they met on Zoom to learn about ecology, geology, herpetology and other -ologies in the Wyoming context from local experts and UW professors.
âI wanted to do this to make all the connections between things,â says Chris Schafer, a man from Laramie who works in wildlife and compliance for an energy company. “All the different backgrounds of the experts and even the participants, it helps you see how everything is connected.”
In May, the group met in person for the first time, over a weekend at Boysen Reservoir, where they finally got to put their virtual learning into practice.
The program’s first class is full of people who work outdoors – a science educator at Casper Mountain, a state park supervisor, a Yellowstone wildlife guide-photographer, and a couple who propagate native plants.
But there’s also Beth Hronek, a recently retired librarian, who worked her last shift the night before she woke up at 4:30 a.m. this morning to see the sunrise and begin Powell’s journey to Casper. The program is open to anyone, regardless of their background, and there are already over 50 people on the waiting list for the course of next year.
Hronek scrolls through the sunrise images on his phone.
âRemember that ad where they showed the first sunrise of people’s retirement? She asks, referring to a Prudential ad campaign from about 10 years ago. “I felt like I had to get up and take pictures this morning.”
To formally claim their naturalist status, members of Wyoming’s inaugural class must complete 40 hours of volunteer work. Some, like Lichtendahl, have already reached this milestone.
Others, while waiting for the owls that would never come, exchange tips on where they can volunteer: counting bats or elk, golden eagle checks, or bird banding like this. this.
The group checking the nets for the third time returns inside, empty-handed.
As night approaches morning, more than half of the group gets back into their cars and back down the mountain, to the Casper motels or long stretches of highway that will take them home.
A few, Hutchinson, Downey and two of the naturalists, stay parked in their green chairs for one more run. A NOAA dashboard shows southerly winds, and an online bird cast didn’t show much activity in the area overnight. The noise of 12 people coming in and out of the cabin every hour probably doesn’t help attract owls either, Hutchinson says – generally it’s a lot quieter with him and maybe another bander here.
To maintain their certification as a naturalist, graduates of the program must complete at least eight hours of advanced coursework and complete their volunteer hours each year.
âThe network of naturalists will only grow from here, with more classes to come,â said Carlo Migliaccio, director of Edness Kimball Wilkins State Park. âIt’s good in Wyoming to have something that isn’t hunting or recreation at all. It’s just conservation.
The group prepares for the last net check, just before midnight. As silently as possible, they approach the first net, the second, the third, the fourth, the fifth – all empty. The nets are removed, rolled up in plastic bags from Walmart and Olive Garden. The poles remain standing.
Finally, the loudspeaker imitating the owls that never answered is muted. Cabin chairs, with the exception of one at the banding table, are stacked and pushed up against the walls. One last look around, the light went out and the door closed and locked, until next time.