Almost every talk I give, I'm sure to be asked why or how I got into owls. Well, the answer comes from a place long ago and far away.
You see, owls are a bi-product of my real passion. Pine Martens. When you're searching for martens, many of the methods you use also locates owls and other small predators. Weasels, foxes, etc.
So why martens?
As an Indiana farm boy on his honeymoon in Yosemite, one of the first mountain creatures I came across was a marten sleeping at the edge of a meadow. I had to look it up in my guidebook "Pine marten, rarely seen".
I was hooked. Funny how that works. If it had been a bobcat, today I probably would be looking for cats.
Anyway, over the next dozen years, Cindy and I searched the Rockies from Arizona to Alaska hoping to catch a glimpse of a marten. And we did find them! Not a lot, but often enough to keep us searching for the next one.
In the mid 80's we met Mardy Murie and soon discovered martens were a passion of hers also. She invited us out to her cabin to photograph a marten that visited daily. It was while at her compound, I formed a plan for the future. Cindy and I would find our own place like Mardys.
It took a couple years of hard work, but we eventually saved enough to start our search for our own mountain cabin. It would have to be near water and be in old growth forest.
In the summer of 89, with our first daughter only months old, we purchased a 50's cabin in Silver Gate. It was surrounded by lodgepole pine, engleman spruce and subalpine fir. The Soda Butte Creek ran below the cabin. A small stream passed by just to the west. (This was handy as the cabin had no running water.)
We moved in the following spring and waited for martens to find us. Finally, around New Years, a female marten moved into our woodpile. By spring I could tell she was ready to give birth and I followed her to a den under an uprooted tree. The next day she was thin and slow moving. She soon disappeared for the summer, but by Thanksgiving she was back with a couple of youngsters and a big male.
The next year we had 8 martens. We gave them names to tell them apart. Names like Spot, Buck, Little Lady, Momma and Six. I had started guiding for film crews and had made some connections so our martens were starting to appear in wildlife films. Films like "Yellowstone Wild"and David Attenboroughs "Life of Mammals". Also I was getting photos of them published in a variety of books and magazines like Montana Outdoors and National Wildlife. I'd become friends with Steven Buskirk who was the leading expert of martens of the world. And we decided to do a book together. (It never found a pubisher, however Steven just released a book on The Mammals of Wyoming and Yellowstone.)
Most years martens only visited us November-April, but every few years we would have a mating pair that would go through courtship and breeding (June-July) right in our front yard. Since this is rarely observed (I had only witnessed it once before near Canyon) we were able to gather rare info and once, Planet Earth happened to be filming here when we had a mating pair.
Because we basically lived with martens on a daily basis, we also were privy to other rarely seen natural history. We observed how martens hunted squirrels and voles. How martens traveled in loose family groups. What happened when two dominate males met in the forest. "The fur really flies!" And the relationship between a mother and her young. Also a male and his young. This is everyday life occurrances that researchers can't collect data on by implanting and using satellite.
As a business we expanded our interests to other species. When the wolves were releaed in '95, I joined in the new excitement that gripped Yellowstone. My years of searching through the forest for martens had put me on a collision course with other forest dwellers. I had become somewhat of an expert on black bears and owls, so was often asked to guide film crews looking for these species. But through it all, martens always seemed to center me when I strayed off course. Always served to remind me of why I do what I do.