On my way to work one bright March morning, I heard a story on National Public Radio about a team of scientists who were roaming the river bottom forests of Louisiana in search of a ghost. They played a recording made just two months earlier by one of the scientists, an ornithologist named Martjan Lammertink, and what I heard made me pull over and listen with rapt attention. The sounds coming from my car speakers were of a deep pounding, similar to the distant sound of a hammer slowly hitting a nail. The sound was brief and there were long pauses in between that were filled with the quiet buzzing of insects and chatter of songbirds. Once more it came, a third time, and then it was gone. As the NPR reporter began to speak again, using low tones himself, I found that I was holding my breath, just as if I had been standing in the Louisiana lowlands, hearing this ghost firsthand, and looking for movement in the thick tangle of trees and underbrush.
The phantom this team was searching for is the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the largest of the North American woodpeckers, measuring more than a foot-and-a-half in length and with a wingspan of nearly three feet. The Ivory-bill was a resident of large southern forests from Florida to Texas, and though it was never very common, destruction of these forests led to the bird’s decline and eventual disappearance. The last confirmed sightings were in the 1950s, though there have been unconfirmed reports since then from parts of Cuba and the southern U.S. Still, most ornithologists believe the Ivory-bill is extinct, and that belief has held for a number of years. Then, in 1999, a young turkey hunter in Louisiana claimed to see a pair of Ivory-bills, and this rekindled the speculation that perhaps the Ivory-bill was alive, eking out an existence deep within the bottomland forests of the south.
After the story was finished and I had resumed my drive to work, my mind began racing. If I didn’t have such an aversion to heat, humidity, and poisonous snakes, I would love to be a part of that search party in Louisiana. I would love to walk quietly through those river flood plains and listen for the hammering to come across time and space. The story also brought to mind two of my own encounters with rare and wonderful creatures – a wolf on Isle Royale and a Great Gray Owl in Wisconsin’s Bayfield Peninsula.
Anishinabe (Original Man) and Maengun (the wolf) walked the Earth and came to know all of her. In this journey they became very close to each other. They became like brothers. In their closeness they realized that they were brothers to all the Creation… [but] the Creator said, “…you are to separate your paths. You must go different ways. What shall happen to one of you will also happen to the other. Each of you will be feared, respected and misunderstood by the people that will later join you on this earth.”
Edward Benton-Benai, The Mishomis Book: The Voice of the Ojibway
It was early June, and I was walking quietly along a path on Isle Royale in northwestern Lake Superior. Since leaving the dock at Moskey Basin and walking inland, moose tracks on this muddy trail to Lake Richie and the interior of the island had been mingling with those of a wolf, and they both looked fresh. At first, I noticed them with only a casual interest. The wolf tracks were a treat because they are so uncommon (only 16 wolves inhabited the 210 square miles of the island in that summer of 1995), but moose were easily found on Isle Royale; the population that year was in excess of 2,400 animals, and they were eating themselves out of house and home.
When the moose’s tracks veered off the trail and into the brush, I soon spotted it feeding in a beaver pond, but the wolf tracks continued to appear before me as I walked, and the idea began to take shape in my mind that I might be following an animal that had only recently passed this way. The possibility became a reality when I came upon tracks that had definitely been made within the last hour. No mud had fallen into the depressions of its toe pads, and its position on top of human boot prints (only a day or two old themselves) indicated that the wolf was somewhere out in front of me.
I could feel the hair on the back of my neck standing on end as the possibility and anticipation of seeing this phantom became very real. My imagination shifted into high gear, and every sound became that of a wolf hiding behind a tree or running into the protective cover of the forest. A red squirrel dashing through the ferns nearly caused me to jump out of my skin. I wasn’t afraid of seeing the wolf. On the contrary, I was hoping to see him, but I was so excited about the possibility that I was afraid of missing a sign or a flash of movement between the trees. I could practically feel the animal’s presence.
As I continued up the trail, the aspen leaves high above me were shaking in the breeze, and the sun was at its zenith. It was quiet, as very few birds sing at this mid-day hour. It was a warm afternoon, and a comforting, sleepy sense of summer hung in the air. I went up a small rise where bedrock protruded through the scant soil that covered the ground. I rounded a bend, weaving between three trees that grew close together, and then it came. A rustling in the ferns and maple saplings off to my left caused me to freeze in my tracks.
The wolf just appeared. It didn’t emerge from the brush or crest a small hill. It just materialized out of nowhere and stood staring at me with no more than 40 feet between us. It was gray and did not look nearly as large as I thought it would. Never the less, it was a wolf. He moved to his right, and I followed him with my eyes. One of the trees along the trail blocked my view, and the wolf did not reappear on the other side. I leaned back to my right to see if he had turned back, and caught a final glimpse of him as he headed back into the brush. As easily as he had appeared, he was gone.
The encounter lasted only a minute at most, but the memory was already burning itself in my mind. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I stood still for another minute after the wolf had left. It felt as if I had not taken a breath the entire time, but I was breathing heavily now. As I replayed the moment in my mind, the wolf seemed to vanish and reappear, fade in and out, as if I had imagined the entire thing. But I knew I hadn’t. The footprints in the trail at my feet confirmed what I had seen.
My wife would later say that I had tracked this animal, having followed its footprints and scat along the trail for almost a mile. But following it was only coincidence and seeing it was by choice – not mine, but the wolf’s. He allowed me to see him, to lock eyes and breathe the same air for a few brief seconds. Brother Wolf, Maengun, had made himself known to me and then melted back into the land from which he had come.
A bird of mystery, the Great Gray Owl bears in its aloofness some of the remoteness of the vast northland; its plumage the color of lichens and weathered wood; its soft hooting, part of the wind.
Robert Nero, Great Gray Owl: Phantom of the Northern Forest
During the spring and summer of 1996, a number of the rangers at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in northern Wisconsin reported seeing Great Gray Owls at various locations in the Bayfield Peninsula. They were perching on roadside signs or telephone poles, and one ranger even had pictures of an owl at close range. Another had found a dead owl along the road during her drive home from work. The pictures and the young bird that had been hit were irrefutable proof that the Great Gray was in the Bayfield Peninsula.
As a biological technician at the park, I was keenly interested in these sightings because Great Grays are a denizen of boreal forests farther north into Canada and in the western U.S. Sightings in northern Minnesota, only 70 miles west of us, and in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, had been reported, but there were few records for Wisconsin and no evidence of breeding. The fact that people were seeing these birds through the summer months suggested that the owl was indeed nesting here, but where? I spoke with each person who had seen the owls, recording the details of their encounters; the pictures were taped above my desk; the dead bird sat in our office freezer, right next to my desk, waiting to be sent down to the college where it would be stuffed and mounted. I drove the same roads at dusk, watching the power line poles and signposts for this large bird. I read all the historic information reported by others in the state’s birding journal. But I never saw a Great Gray for myself. In fact, that summer, I never saw owls of any kind.
The sightings continued the next year, but this time, the owls were being seen on a few of the islands, offshore from the Bayfield Peninsula, in addition to those seen along the mainland roads. What was most intriguing to me was that the distance between the reported observations suggested that more than one bird was being seen. So not only were the owls here during the breeding season, but there were multiple individuals.
One of my jobs at the park was to conduct annual songbird monitoring within the boundaries of the national lakeshore. This was done by walking different trails between sunrise and 10:00 AM and counting and recording the birds I saw and heard. One overcast morning in June of 1997, I was walking back to my truck after finishing a survey along the Mainland Trail that follows a 12-mile stretch of Lake Superior coastline at the tip of the peninsula. The white bark of the birch trees stood out in stark contrast to the darkness of the spruce, the green balsam fir, and the brooding skies above. The birds were singing in full force, and I was still identifying each one quietly to myself. I was wading through the ferns that press in along the path – no more than knee-high at this early time of the season – when a dark form leaped from the underbrush and landed on the snapped-off stump of a spruce tree. Startled, I stopped short to see what had moved and my eyes settled on the unmistakable form of a Great Gray Owl about 50 feet away. At an average length of 27 inches, the Great Gray is an imposing presence. Piercing yellow eyes sit within a very broad “facial disc” that is surrounded by concentric brown rings. A pair of white streaks below the hooked bill gives the appearance of a moustache.
I could not believe what I was seeing. When one goes looking for something, one rarely finds it, but when you least expect it, the object of your search tends to fly up in front of you. I was thrilled beyond words, but my elation was slightly soured by the realization that I had left my camera at home this morning.
The owl and I stared at each other. After a minute or so, she seemed to grow more comfortable with my presence and flew from the stump to a branch in another nearby spruce. She looked around again, seeming to search for something. Another minute later, she cruised to a tree behind me, and then flew once more to a stump near where she had first flushed from the ground. The bird had moved in a rectangular pattern around me, and I wondered if I had scared her up off of some prey she had just captured, or if I had wandered into her territory and she was protecting the location of her nest in the hollow snag of some nearby tree. I remembered from my reading that Great Grays typically begin nesting in late March or April, with the owlets hatching in early June and then leaving the nest three-to-four weeks after hatching. It was possible that this bird, if she were a breeding individual, had a nest in the area. I scanned the trees in the immediate vicinity with my binoculars (fortunately I brought them along!), but saw nothing.
The owl remained on the stump for some time before taking flight and heading south out of the trees and into a clearing beyond. I watched her go, silently winging her way out of sight. After she had disappeared, I stood still, committing everything to memory before the details faded. To my amazement, I would have no proof of this encounter to offer my supervisor when I returned to the office. I had only my story and mental pictures of the “Phantom of the Northern Forest” that had made her presence known and created for me a heightened sense of wildness along an already wild and mysterious shore of Lake Superior.