FAIRBANKS - You can't typically see one of the first signs of spring in the Interior, especially if you look at the thermometer these days, but if you step outside your door at night, you just might hear it.
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The woods are alive with the hooting of great-horned owls, and to a lesser extent boreal owls, as the birds begin their annual spring mating ritual.
While the recent cold snap has kept boreal owls quiet for the most part - they typically don't do much hooting when it's colder than 20 below - great-horned owls are busy pairing up and breeding, said wildlife biologist Jack Whitman at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks.
"They may start laying eggs real soon," Whitman said of great-horned owls.
Each spring, starting in mid-February, Whitman conducts hooting surveys to track the populations of both boreal and great-horned owls around Fairbanks. From what he and his band of volunteer hooter hounds have heard so far this season, the number of hooting great-horned owls is down slightly while the boreal owl crop is substantially off, though the cold weather may have something to do with that.
According to data he has collected over the past four years doing his hooting surveys, boreal owl activity drops off substantially when the temperature gets colder than 10 below.
"Cold temperatures are counterproductive to boreals," Whitman said. "They're a little wimpier than great-horned owls."
"I'm really suspecting when this cold snap breaks that the boreals will be fairly noisy," he said.
Great-horned owls begin hooting in late January or early February and continue through March, said Whitman. Unlike most owl species, both males and females hoot, both for mating purposes and to define their territories. Their deep, distinctive hoots can be heard for more than a mile on a quiet night.
Male boreal owls - females don't hoot - usually begin calling in late February or early March. Their hoots are strictly for mating purposes.
Susan Sharbaugh at the Alaska Bird Observatory confirmed Whitman's assessment that great-horned owls have been more active than boreals.
"We have a great-horned owl that's been hooting behind here for a month now," said Sharbaugh by phone from the ABO's office at Wedgewood Resort on the edge of Creamer's Field.
But Sharbaugh has yet to hear the softer, quicker call of male boreal owls.
"I've heard people saying they're hearing boreal owls so they're starting up, but I haven't heard one yet," she said.
The best time to listen for owls is about two hours after sunset and two hours before sunrise, Whitman said. Find a quiet spot in the woods away from traffic and sit and listen or take a walk in the woods and see what you hear.
"Of all the things I looked at, time of night and temperature were the two biggest variables" in hooting frequency, Whitman said. "They don't really get going until two hours after sunset. Then they kind of drop off in the middle of the night and pick it up again before first light in the morning."
Chances are if you've heard great-horned owls around your house or in a specific area in past years, you will hear them again this year. Great-horned owls typically mate for life and are faithful to the same nesting area, said Whitman.
"Horned owls often use the same nest year after year," he said. "They have pretty high site fidelity."
Boreal owls, on the other talon, move around from year to year and find new mates each spring, Whitman said.
There's a good chance there won't be as many nesting boreal owls this year, Whitman said. The microtine population crashed last summer and that's the main food supply for boreal owls. With less food available, Whitman expects fewer females to be looking for mates because they are not in good enough shape to raise a brood of owlettes.
"There was almost no food last year," Whitman said. "I'm guessing we won't see nearly the number of active, reproducing females we saw last year."
The last time there was a bad vole year, in 2003, male boreal owls didn't start calling in earnest until April and most didn't find mates, said Whitman. The woods were filled with the desperate hoots of male boreal owls.
"The males get kind of frantic at the end," he said. "The females are there but they're not in good enough shape to breed. They're not interested."
Unlike boreal owls, great-horned owls don't rely on the vole population for food as they do snowshoe hares and grouse, Whitman said. With the hare population still on the rise and plenty of grouse around, Whitman expects great-horned owls to fare well this spring.
There have been few reports of anyone hearing and seeing great gray owls this spring, Whitman said.
"In talking with trappers on the south side of the (Tanana) river where they've been seeing lots and lots of grays the past few years, they're not seeing them this year," Whitman said. "I suspect they wintered someplace where there was a better food supply."
The hooting of owls isn't the only bird sound that signals the onset of warmer weather and more daylight. The drumming of woodpeckers on dead trees can also be heard these days, Sharbaugh said.
"I've been hearing hairy woodpeckers drum, too," she said. "That's more a sign of spring to me than owls hooting.
"Hearing the boreals and hearing the woodpeckers drumming, you know the end is in sight," Sharbaugh said.