Napa Valley's "Owl Whisperer"

Is this the owl that will dash hopes for a new vineyard? An owl caller in tune with the noble bird--and with an excellent melodic sense--pays a visit. When an opera conductor joins the group, anything can happen.

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Photo by Axel Bührmann/Flickr CC

I am dreading May a bit, as we are slated to start preparing the ground to plant on May 15, after our venerable owl caller, Mr. Theodore Wooster, gives us the all-clear signal for the Northern Spotted Owl Strix occidentalis caurina.

As I have oft stated, in order to plant grapes in Napa County, you must obtain permits. For our project, we had to obtain an Erosion Control Permit from the County of Napa and a Timber Harvest Conversion Permit from the State's forestry governing body, known by the blunt and sobering sobriquet of CalFire.

To qualify for the state permit--even in our case, where we are clearing a little timber on an abandoned 19th-century orchard while leaving 60 acres of tall redwoods pristine and untouched--is a rigorous exercise.

During the years of extensive logging in northern California, the Northern Spotted Owl's habitat was greatly infringed upon, and it unwittingly became the center of controversy for both environmentalists and loggers alike. Environmentalists realized, correctly, that the clear-cutting of old-growth forests was infringing on this noble bird's natural habitat. Loggers, fearing the loss of their jobs, were seen sporting bumper stickers on their large 4x4 pickups that said, "Save the Spotted Owl...For Breakfast!"

The end result was that any logging operation, no matter how small, had to preserve the habitat for the California Spotted Owl by tracking local mating pairs and making sure they were not living within 1.3 miles of the project site.

A few perfectly rhythmic, and perfectly in-tune hoots erupted from Ted's throat.

Our local owl guy is Theodore Wooster, of Calistoga. Ted first came to our house about four years ago. He politely called to alert us to his arrival. I didn't know what to expect. When he came to the house, he briefly presented himself to us, remarked upon the view, and said he was going to the top of the property to "hoot around a bit." I asked if I could accompany him.

We proceeded in his small Japanese truck and arrived at a point on our property that is about 1,600 feet in altitude. There, he turned on a small tape recorder with screeching owl noises that sounded like a heavy metal concert overlaid with outtakes from the Nuremberg rallies.

He then made hooting noises towards the valley. At first, I had to suppress my laughter; imagine a large man in oversized overalls and a straw hat standing at the top of a hill, letting out an owl hoot every few seconds. In any city, Ted would have been arrested and committed.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a giant owl landed silently about six feet away from us in a small, shiny, red-barked manzanita tree. Ted didn't see it, so I hesitate for a second and wondered if this was the Spotted Owl that was going to close down my vineyard project.

My environmentalist side kicked in and I got the courage to tap Ted on the shoulder and point it out to him. Ted turned and said laconically, in his strangely comforting adenoidal tone, "that is a Great Horned Owl." He turned away coolly, like this happens every time he hoots, and blew off a few more.

"Hooh whooo!" The owl batted his funky little ear feathers at us in a come-hither fashion that made me think he was contemplating mating with Ted.

Ted always works for barter, and I have paid him mostly in fine wine, but also in antique glass barrel bungs from France. Whichever it is, I am obliged to always overpay him, not only for his expertise but also for the great stories and humor he brings...not to mention the most amazing maple syrup, which he hand-harvests.

It turns out that Ted spent some time in England in the U.S. military in the the 1960's and has a bit of a weakness for English "birds," as it were. So, he often comes in for tea and to chat with my English wife Claire.

On one of these occasions, we had another English visitor, William Lacey, a great up-and- coming opera conductor. Will loves to come over, relax by the pool, play a little ping-pong, and drink large quantities of really good wine. He always overpays his bill on our very beat-up 1850s Bosendorfer grand piano, the result of an impulsive eBay purchase. Like many classical performers, Will practices his Mozart or Handel during the day but becomes a jazzman at night.

On one of these evenings, he was playing Cole Porter, when Ted Wooster dropped in. We were all singing along to "Night and Day" when a few perfectly rhythmic and perfectly in-tune hoots erupted from Ted's throat. Ted then performed a halting, all-hooting version of "Ain't Misbehavin" and moved on to the Owl Choir's version of "Round Midnight." Stunning!