One of the things I appreciate most about living here in Amador County is the night.
Our skies are relatively dark, so we can still see myriad stars, blazing comets, metors of all varieties -- flashy ones, slow faders with long tails, loopy ones -- and the great wash of the Milky Way. We can smell the scent of the bay laurel and the mock orange. And we can hear the sound of owls at night.
One owl we hear each spring is the saw-whet owl. Even though we've lived in this place for 27 years, we first noticed this particular owl's call a few years ago. It sounded almost electronic -- a regular, repeating woop-woop-woop-woop-woop that sounds over and over from somewhere deep in the woods.
We really weren't sure what it was. Pete, being the careful sound-guy listener, finally decided he could hear the creator of the sound stop every now and then to catch a breath. So we decided it must be a bird rather than an insect. But we still weren't exactly sure. And even if it was a bird, we weren't sure what kind.
Our neighbor Ron called Pete one night to ask him to "stop making that annoying electronic sound." He meant the mystery bird call. (It does go on.)
Pete suggested to Ron that he step out onto his deck and listen for the brief interval when the bird catches its breath. Ron didn't believe him -- but did check it out -- and was satisfied that Pete wasn't the source of the elusive sound. But we still didn't know what it was.
So Pete got out some sound gear. He stuck a microphone out on the deck in the darkness, and sure enough, after a while, the bird began to call from the woods beyond the house. So we had the sound on tape, and we could listen to it, but we were stuck. We still didn't know what it was.
Not long after, our friend Jim, an amazing birder who knows bird songs like no one I've ever known, came to visit. He put a name to our mystery caller: the northern saw-whet owl. Using a bit of imagination, you can see how its repetitive call could conjure up the sound of a file sharpening a saw.
Now we hear the saw-whet owl every spring, even though we have yet to see him. It's one of the signs that spring has really arrived. He's back now, adding his call to that of the screech owl we're hearing these days. And before long, the great horned owls will be in the neighborhood for the summer.
I heard E.O. Wilson on NPR today, saying that while scientists have identified 1.8 million species of living things, that may be as few as 10 percent of all life on earth. In discussing the importance of learning about the creatures that share our planet with us, Wilson quoted a Chinese proverb that says, "The beginning of wisdom is getting things by their right names."
I'm not sure how wise we are yet, but we do know this one owl's name. And maybe one day, we'll see him, too.
See and hear the owls yourself
Encyclopedia of Life -- a new project . . .