A Sound Like Water Dripping: In Search of the Boreal Owl is the 2009 memoir of Canadian researcher Soren Bondrup-Neilsen’s research for his master’s thesis on one of the most elusive of North American birds. Born in Denmark, Bondrup-Nielsen spent the first few years of the 1970’s traipsing around the boreal forest of northern Ontario and northern Alberta, making some of the first audio recordings and nest observations of the Boreal Owl in the New World. Naturally, this involved lots of snowshoeing, skiing, camping, and hiking in remote forests in the dead of night at temperatures far below freezing, in areas frequented by wild animals and some equally wild humans, so as you might expect, there’s lots of material for a memoir.
I came upon this book while I was doing research for a blog post on the vocalizations of Boreal Owls. Bondrup-Nielsen was the first researcher to publish on the vocalizations of the species in North America, and we still owe a great deal of what we know about the species to his groundbreaking findings. As I expected, this book didn’t add any nitty-gritty details of Boreal Owl ecology to Bondrup-Nielsen’s published scholarly works, but it certainly adds a great deal of adventure, humor, local color, and historical context.
My favorite parts of the book were Bondrup-Nielsen’s adventures alone in the backcountry, searching for and finding the elusive owls. Besides the frigid temperatures, he suffered many other unexpected setbacks, from running into a moose (literally) to, unfortunately, losing two of the owls he had fitted with radio transmitters, possibly because of the transmitters themselves. In one case, feeling guilty that he had likely caused the death of a male owl who had fledglings to feed, he collected the three owlets from the nest after the widowed female abandoned them and found a bird rehabilitator to raise them. Stories like these underlie a great deal of biological field research, but are rarely told in the scientific literature.
Between bird backstories, Bondrup-Nielsen takes us into the culture of the logging camps where he lodged and sometimes worked, in the company of a colorful cast of characters with whom he got along sometimes better, sometimes worse. If I were to ask for one improvement in the book, it would be an expansion of the human character sketches, which capture my imagination but frequently leave me wanting more.
The book won a prize for its layout and design, which are simple but attractive; the black-and-white photographs scattered throughout the book help bring the story to life. Overall, the book is a quick read and a good one, especially if you yourself happen to be enthralled with the idea of wandering around in a dark boreal forest, waiting for that ethereal sound that the natives of northeast Canada likened to the sound of dripping water — the sound that (trust me) can instantly transform a tired, cold, exhausting, discouraging experience into a sublime, transcendent, unforgettable one: