Spotting Spotted Owls!

Today I had the truly great joy of encountering Spotted Owls in the wild!

My first glimps of a Spotted Owl

The Northern Spotted Owl is currently listed as threatened in the United States under the Endangered Species Act. According to Fred Swanson, the Andrews Forest was formerly home to perhaps 7 or 8 mating pairs of Spotted Owls, but their numbers are dwindling, despite substantial efforts to conserve their old growth nesting habitat. Currently, there may be 3 or 4 mating pairs within Andrews. As if their difficulties with forest demise weren’t bad enough (old growth replaced by younger forests managed for timber), their territory is now being invaded by an increasing population of Barred Owls. The Barred are larger, more reproductively successful, and more omnivorous. The Spotted Owl eats only a few things; the Barred Owl eats many things.

If you’d like to hear the sound of the Spotted Owl, here is a site that includes a sound file of their call (both hooting and whistling). The recording has it backwards, perhaps:  I heard them doing their ‘location whistling’ for quite a while before there was any ‘hooting.’

There is also a discussion of ethics and the “Spotted Owl controversy” on Santa Clara University’s website, for those who are foggy on some of the details, history, and implications:

I went out this morning with the “owl crew” — researchers who are gathering data on the Northern Spotted Owl in Andrews and the surrounding Willamette National Forest.  After a rutted drive, we hiked a short distance up-slope into rugged old growth terrain to a known site, where we met both a female and male, hanging out near their nest.  Amazing experience!

Delightful owls!! They seem small in my photos, perhaps, but only because they are in such large trees.

Spotted Owl (Oregon)
Spotted Owl (Oregon)

Female Spotted Owl

The researchers follow a protocol that includes offering a few live mice to owls (this helps bring them in closer for band checks).  Once they have prey in hand, they often reveal the location of the nesting tree. The female owl knew this drill (actually she even knew the sound of the tupperware mouse container opening,  I think).  She was not shy, and hooked her mice in record time. Her partner, however, was reluctant to approach us. The researchers were excited to meet him (“the boyfriend”) and said that it was probably only his second encounter with people. His first encounter was being man-handled during banding, so the boyfriend remained carefully aloof.

Brunch for Spotted Owls

An owl researcher just deposited this fresh mouse on the great fallen tree beside my camera. The log was very large — maybe chest-high — and the mouse just sat there for a moment, getting its bearings. Seconds later the owl arrived. One minute the mouse was sitting on the log, wondering which way to go, and the next minute the spotted owl had grabbed it and was back up on the branch. The owl DROPPED silently on the mouse, just a foot in front of me, in one great outspreading of wings, then the snatch, and then a soft ‘whooh, whooh’ wing-sound as she flew back to her perch.


Mouse dangling from beak

If you look closely you will see the mouse is now in the female’s beak. The spotted owl is wondering whether to “cache” her fresh-caught mouse, eat it, or bring it high up into an adjacent old-growth Douglas fir, where her nest is located. In the end, I believe the decision was made to tuck this juicy mouse away in a hole in the tree, and save it for later….

Later, the male owl DID bring a mouse up to the nest, which required a number of “ladder” steps, flying counter-clockwise in trees surrounding the nest tree, getting a bit higher with each perch. The nest is located at the very top, in the rotted top-notch of a massive Douglas fir; the crown is thick with new tops that have been sent up, and the nest is probably sheltered at the center, hidden between them.

My heart was singing owl-songs all the way down the mountain.  Best of all:  as I was driving, an owl swooped over the road in dense, mossy trees, just ahead of me!  I stopped the truck, turned off the engine, and tried out my new-found owl vocabulary, hooting hopefully (and badly) into the trees, wondering if it was the watchful boyfriend bird, but nothing answered.

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