Whether searching for owls, lady-slippers or lark buntings, repetition matters – Loveland Reporter-Herald


Repetition matters.

Owls taught me this many years ago. Just because I didn’t find an owl in this area last night doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. If I go back and try again, I might be able to find it tonight. Or tomorrow night. Or next week. I learned this lesson through two recurring experiences.

One lesson came from simply living the credo about if at first you don’t succeed then try, try again. The other lesson came from witnessing other people not finding owls.

Through the years I have encountered volunteers doing an owl survey that follows a standard protocol. Basically, stop and listen for an owl to be calling; and if you don’t hear one, play a recording for two minutes to attract a vocal response. Mark the record sheet with a yes or no then move a half mile down the road and repeat the procedure.

Several times, I have been monitoring flammulated owls when a volunteer has stopped on the nearby road and played the recording but with no response from the owls I was watching.

The record sheet would be marked to indicate no owls at that site when in fact the owls were right there!

For such surveys to be meaningful ecologically more than just simply statistically they must be repeated.

Because repetition matters.

Last week, I wrote of my many years monitoring a patch of rare orchids. I specifically explained that I found very few of the yellow lady-slippers.

But one search is not enough to produce meaningful results.

So I went back a second time and then a third.

On the first visit I tallied only five yellow lady-slippers but encountered a stump with more than 200 blue pleasing-fungusbeetles.

On the second visit the numbers reversed. I found maybe a half dozen of the fungusbeetles but tallied 208 yellow lady-slippers!

More than half of those 208 lady-slippers were less than 4 inches tall. That little detail was most gratifying. It meant I hadn’t missed finding the orchids because they emerged above the soil after my first visit.

Which emphasizes the need for repetition.

Then on my third visit I expanded my search area and found three more yellow lady-slippers, bringing the site tally to 211. That figure seems meager compared to the tallies of four and five and even six times that many 30 years ago. Still, 211 conveys some optimism for the population’s survival well beyond the first tally of only five.

In unspoken words the owls and the orchids speak quietly but earnestly to me.

A month ago, I spent six hours on Pawnee National Grassland where in the 1980s and 1990s I routinely found several hundred lark buntings, Colorado’s Official State Bird. But on that more recent day three to four decades later, I found only one lark bunting.

In the background of my daily thoughts, I hear the owls and the orchids urging me not to accept that one lark bunting as a final tally. Just as I first visited the lady-slipper patch before they had sprouted into view, I probably visited the Pawnee steppe before the buntings returned.

Because repetition matters, I must go afield and search for the lark buntings again.

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