2018 was a whirlwind. Meetings. Pitches. Travel. Learning to do audio on YouTube. Turning our apartment into a wall-to-wall Post-it note storyboard. You see, we’re trying to create the first prototype of Nature Labs by fall 2019 and, as a result, we had fewer days in the field than ever before. Yet 2018 was good to us. We made our time in the Rocky Mountains count like never before, narrowing our search to specific individuals and landscapes we’ve come to know well while working to create the stories that will underpin Nature Labs.
In order of date, please enjoy a behind the scenes look at the making of Nature Labs and what became our top wildlife encounters from 2018.
Great Grey Owl-opolooza
We had a spectacular month researching, observing and documenting what we consider to be the most impressive species of owl in North America, one that will be featured prominently in our Nature Labs program. Our time in field began with a search for a particular pair of great greys that we have observed several times over the last few years, but we never could have imagined where they would lead us.
Their quest for food during the everlasting 2018 winter brought the owl pair into a one square kilometre parcel of land in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Betraying the commonly held belief that owls hate wind and bad weather, we found our pair hunting extensively in extreme winter conditions, including during windstorm gusts that reached 90 km/hour.
And our pair of great greys weren’t alone in loving this landscape. Over the next few weeks, no matter the elements, other great grey owls started showing up. First two pairs joined our owls in hunting the same meadow. Then six. Then eight. And on one amazing night, we counted 16 unique great grey owls visible within one kilometre of one another at the same time.
We have been scrambling to discover any research documenting this type of temporary population density and have struck out. Though we’re sure this isn’t a first – and believe it is the by-product of a record snowpack and a banner year for voles in the area – it does reinforce the value of observing one particular habitat or species over a long period of time.
When done respectfully and when fortified by research and learning, citizen science has the ability to document rarely seen behaviour, ask questions about widely held beliefs and identify new knowledge that can inform better strategies for safeguarding biodiversity.
It’s important to note that in observing owls hunting, we have never interfered with their natural behaviour. We do not bait owls, as it is a practice that can lead to their death (as a result of toxins from the baited prey or car strikes due to owls associating vehicles with food) and, obviously, it alters the true behaviour we seek to understand and share. Moreover, we have worked to understand the subtle signs that an owl provides, allowing the animal to dictate distance and time spent observing the great grey. And this is imperative: some owls can be observed without forcing flight, interrupting rest or scaring them away from their chosen prey; others can’t. Recognizing the difference, in our opinions, is the most important factor in upholding ethical science and storytelling standards.
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