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Two miles off the end of a dirt road on Casper Mountain, Wyoming’s only northern saw-whet owl banding station sits perched overlooking the ridges of the Laramie Range.

Zach Hutchinson, a naturalist and bander with Audubon Rockies, comes out here every night during the owls’ migration season, just a couple months in late fall before the snow comes.

Tonight, he’ll have plenty of company. Ten participants and other instructors from the inaugural class of the Wyoming Naturalist Program are on their way up the mountain, for the last event of their first annual meeting.

Nearly every state in the union has its own naturalist program, which teaches residents about their state’s unique flora, fauna and how to steward the land they live on.

Until this year, Wyoming didn’t have one of its own.

Now, a group of nearly 20 Wyomingites has completed the state’s first run of the course, a partnership with the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute, Game and Fish, state parks, Audubon and Serve Wyoming.

Hutchinson, Audubon education programs manager Jacelyn Downey and a pair of naturalists who ate dinner on the road to make it up here before the sun sets wander into the cabin, which Murie Audubon’s Bart Rea built with his family in the early 1970s.

“If we see five owls tonight, I’ll be ecstatic,” Hutchinson says. “One or two would be great.”

The group sets off into a stand of lodgepole pines and aspen, carrying a set of metal poles, five black nets and a clunky plastic speaker. The dirt is loose, Hutchinson notes as he tries to stand the poles up.

“I’m just going to hope that sticks,” Hutchinson says. “As long as it doesn’t get windy, we’re fine.”

A small caravan with the rest of the naturalists bounces down the road and parks outside the cabin. One of the cars has brought the batteries for the speaker, which looks like a megaphone and sounds like a very repetitive owl.

The sound begins, and the naturalists retreat inside so they don’t contaminate the call with their human sounds of boot-rustling, chair-scraping and English-speaking.

Then they wait.

***

If all goes as planned — which, tonight, it won’t — these barely visible nets will catch saw-whet owls as they fly through the area.

On fall nights, Casper Mountain becomes a stop on the owls’ way south, as they leave from the Bighorns to the north.

They don’t typically stay long, just long enough to hunt, eat and rest before heading back out the next day.

The saw-whet owl lives in forests, with large enclaves around the Great Lakes and the Mountain West. They weren’t tracked until relatively recently, and were thought to be much rarer than they actually are until banding stations began popping up and recording their movements.

The megaphone speaker emits the sound of a male open for mating, on a loop that tries to draw saw-whets through the trees where the nets hang almost imperceptibly in the dark. The low, repeating “too-too” would drive the cabin’s neighbors, if there were any, mad.

When an owl gets caught in the net, they’re carefully transported back to the station. Some banders put them in carriers made of PVC pipes, but the Casper Mountain station is experimenting with bags to accommodate the larger western variety. With pliers, a small metal tag is wrapped around one leg and cinched. The owl is released.

Hutchinson, ducking back inside the cabin after the first net check of the night, reports that he could hear two of them, near but invisible, in the trees.

***

owl banding cabin

Members of the Wyoming Naturalist Program wait to check the nets during an owl banding event on Oct. 2 on Casper Mountain. The class took place virtually in the spring, culminating in a weekend at Boysen Reservoir.

The cabin is quiet once everyone takes their green plastic seats around the table laid with a scale, banding equipment and a pair of thick binders full of information about the saw-whets, including a size chart that Hutchinson says doesn’t go large enough to cover most of the owls they see out here in Wyoming.

To pass the time, the naturalists agree to a game of bird charades.

Write the name of a bird, any bird, on a slip of paper. Put the slips in a cup. Pull one out and mimic the bird until someone guesses right.

Downey gets up and puts up two fingers. Two words.

She mimes wrapping something around her waist, then casts an imaginary line and reels it in around a closed fist.

“Belted kingfisher!” Kathy Lichtendahl says.

Correct.

She acts out “blue heron,” which someone points out should really have been “great blue heron.”

John Fenton draws a slip.

“Meep meep,” he says.

“Roadrunner!” a few voices call out.

Correct.

***

Half of the group straps on headlamps and heads back outside to check the nets for the second time tonight.

In the cabin, the artificial saw-whet call still hoots on, like someone puffing on a wooden flute every few seconds.

Dorothy Tuthill pulls out her nature journal. Tuthill, as the associate director of the University of Wyoming’s Biodiversity Institute, helped run the naturalist program — but she says she hadn’t kept a journal before the class started.

The journals hold drawings of plants and animals the naturalists have encountered since starting the program. Having to draw them by hand, they say, means paying attention to every little detail.

Tuthill spreads her journal open on a page dedicated to a wolf she saw in Yellowstone National Park, while on a Snake River backpacking trip with six of the naturalists, aged 60 to 72.

“She was like a 6-year-old, seeing that wolf,” Lichtendahl, who regularly leads trips in the park, says.

***

For the first four months of the naturalist program, the participants only met through computer screens. One week they’d meet over Zoom to learn about ecology, geology, herpetology and other -ologies in the context of Wyoming from local experts and UW professors.

“I wanted to do this to fill in all the connections between things,” says Chris Schafer, a Laramie man who works in wildlife and compliance for an energy company. “All the different backgrounds of the experts and even the participants, it helps you see how everything is connected.”

In May, the group met in person for the first time, on a weekend trip to Boysen Reservoir, where they got to finally put their virtual learning into real practice.

The program’s first class is full of people who work outdoors — a science educator on Casper Mountain, a state park supervisor, a Yellowstone guide-slash-wildlife photographer and a couple who propagate native plants.

But there’s also Beth Hronek, a recently-retired librarian, who worked her last shift the day before she woke up at 4:30 this morning to see the sunrise and start the trip from Powell to Casper. The program is open to all, regardless of background, and there are already more than 50 people on the waitlist for next year’s class.

Hronek scrolls through pictures of the sunrise on her phone.

“Remember that commercial where they showed the first sunrise of people’s retirement?” she asks, referring to a Prudential advertising campaign from around 10 years ago. “I felt like I had to get up and take pictures this morning.”

To officially claim their naturalist status, members of Wyoming’s inaugural class have to complete 40 hours of volunteer work. Some, like Lichtendahl, have already hit that mark.

Others, while waiting for the owls that would never come, trade tips on where they can volunteer: counting bats or elk, golden eagle checks or bird bandings like this one.

The group checking the nets for the third time comes back inside, empty handed.

***

As the night nears the switch to morning, more than half the group piles back into their cars and starts back down the mountain, towards Casper motels or long stretches of highway that will take them home.

A few, Hutchinson, Downey and two of the naturalists, stay parked in their green chairs for one more run. A NOAA dashboard shows winds to the south, and an online bird cast hasn’t shown much activity in the area all night. The noise of 12 people clomping in and out of the cabin every hour probably also doesn’t help attract the owls, Hutchinson says — usually, it’s much quieter with just him and maybe one other bander out here.

To keep their naturalist certification going forward, the program’s graduates have to take at least eight hours of advanced classes and complete their volunteer hours every year.

“The network of naturalists will just grow from here, with more classes coming through,” says Carlo Migliaccio, a superintendent at Edness Kimball Wilkins State Park. “It’s nice, in Wyoming, to have something that’s not tied to hunting or recreation at all. It’s just conservation.”

The group gears up for the last net check, just before midnight. As silently as possible, they approach the first net, the second, the third, the fourth, the fifth — all empty. The nets are taken down, rolled up in plastic bags from Walmart and Olive Garden. The poles stay up.

At last, the speaker mimicking the owls that never responded is shut off. The chairs in the cabin, save for one at the banding table, are stacked and pushed against the walls. One last look around, the light flicked off, and the door closed and locked, until next time.

Follow city and crime reporter Ellen Gerst on Twitter at @ellengerst.

This article originally ran on trib.com.

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