Saturday, April 11, 2009

Going out west for owls

I thought things were good to go with Alice for my next trip since I had made arrangements for her to stay with falconer Erica Broberg in St. Charles, MN while I was gone. But two days before I left on my trip I had more problems: I used up the last of the gophers in my basement freezer and found the 150 gophers in the garage freezer were all moldy! The freezer was running, but was only keeping them cool, not frozen. So I had the honor of cleaning up the disgusting mess. All I can say is that if there's a murder in the area, they'll be confused by all the (gopher) blood in my garage and out back.

Once the wonderful cleaning job was over, I was left needing to find another food source for Alice, and I had just 1.5 days to find it. After some more phone calls, racking my brain, and a trip to the nature center, I found the number for Bernadette Snyder, a woman who breeds rabbits an hour west of here who once donated some of her culled rabbits as owl food about five years ago. And I was in luck--I went over to her place that night to get some rabbits and rats for Alice to eat until gopher trapping starts up for the season again.

The next day I loaded up Alice and a boatload of her stuff to haul to Erica's. Erica had a nice-sized mew (cage) cleaned up and ready to go for her, and we got Alice settled in it with her stump perch, bow perch, travel box, nest basket, food tray, eating mat, and water bowl so that she'd feel as comfortable as possible in these new surroundings. She seemed to take to it right away. Erica and I visited for an hour or two and I checked on Alice once more to see that she seemed comfortable, then drove home to an owl-less house...the first time I've slept there without Alice in over 10 years. It was a weird feeling to not wake up to an owl hooting in the wee hours.

Bright and early the next morning I flew out to Boise, Idaho and stayed the night with Katie McVey. Katie was an intern of Marge Gibson’s at the Raptor Education Group (where I got Alice), had the same college advisor at Luther College as me (Tex Sordahl), and is now finishing her Master’s degree doing research on Burrowing Owls. She took me out and showed me a Great Horned Owl nest the day I arrived, and I was able to record some of their vocalizations for my study on regional variations in the territorial hoots of Great Horned Owls. She also introduced me to some of the “owl guys” at the raptor research facility where she works. I had only corresponded with Mark Fuller by e-mail before, so it was good to meet him in person. Carl Marti would have been good to meet also, but he wasn’t in his office when we were around. I also met one of Eric Forsman’s students. Eric is a world authority on the Spotted Owl and was in Houston a few years ago for our International Festival of Owls.

The next day I drove through the mountains to the Owl Research Institute, north of Missoula, Montana. It was an interesting 10.5 hour drive for this girl who’s never been in the mountains to drive through them in a rental car with snow in a couple of the passes. But I made it safe and sound, even if my knuckles were white for parts of the trip. But I had already decided by then that I'd rather look at mountains than drive through them.

Shortly after arriving at the Owl Research Institute (ORI) and having dinner, founder Denver Holt was out showing me Great Horned Owls. I kept telling him how much trouble I had finding Great Horned Owl nests around here, and he kept saying he could show me 10 nests in an hour. He wasn't kidding! There are so few trees there that the owls are in the trees in people's front yards. And the trees are so short and the nests so conspicuous that they are really easy to find. And the owls are highly tolerant of people, something I'm not used to. Plus Denver has a resident female who's mate disappeared early this year, so my first night there I recorded his female and the pair to the north.

One of my main goals in visiting with Denver Holt was to see how he conducts educational programs in the field. He allowed me to tag along and assist with the grunt work for a two day course he was teaching through the Glacier Institute while I was there.

After a morning classroom session, everything was in the field. He taught the participants how to find Great Horned Owl nests, Long-eared Owl roosts and nests, Saw-whet Owl roosts (although we didn't find any Saw-whets in the roost areas we located), and watched some Short-eared Owl skydances at dusk. He even took the class to some cliffs where Barn Owls had bred in the past, but after a precipitous ladder climb up into the hole in the cliff, all there was to show for the season yet were some pellets.

I do have to say that Denver is a master showman. He's an expert at finding nests and roosts to say the least, but he's also a marvelous presenter. He knows how to make the class fun and exciting for the participants in addition to just providing top-notch information. If you ever have a chance to participate in one of his classes, jump at it! I guarantee it will be worth every penny.

After my visit to ORI, I'm starting to think more seriously about getting together a group of volunteers to help with owl nest finding and perhaps owl surveys around here.

I drove back to Boise through the mountains with beautiful weather. I managed to have another "mountain" experience on the way back through: There was a medium-sized rock in the middle of my lane and a car coming toward me in the other lane. Being used to a Chevy Tracker that has a little clearance, I thought I could straddle the rock. But there was a horrifying thud as the car lurched when I hit the rock.

I had a sick feeling in my stomach as I watched the digital readout on the dash of the Chevy Cobalt I was driving. It could tell me the pressue in each of the four tires as well as if there was ice on the ground, so I figured it would tell me if the rock had done damage. But by the time I got to Lower Stanley, Idaho and the gas station there, I knew something was wrong, even though the car didn't say anything was wrong. Sure enough, all the transmission fluid was pouring out, and that was where my car was going to stay.

I had a marvelous visit with Judy at Jerry's Country Store there while I waited two hours for a tow truck and a new rental car. Stop in and say hello to the nice folks there if you ever go through there! (By the way, I found out from my insurance adjuster that my insurance company will cover the damages 100% with no deductible since I'm from Minnesota! Very sweet, since I have a $1,000 deductible on my car insurance since my vehicle is old. I've got American Family Insurance, in case you're wondering.)

I was late getting back to Katie's in Boise that night. The next day I spent at the World Center for Birds of Prey, which is part of the Peregrine Fund. This is an organization that got it’s start breeding Peregrine Falcons to release back to the wild when their numbers were so low. They’ve now moved on to breed other rare raptors, like the Aplomado Falcon and the California Condor.
They have a wonderful, competent, and friendly staff at the Center's interpretive building. I spent all day visiting with Jack Cafferty, Nick Piccono, and Trish Nixon, learning how they work with birds, manage staff and volunteers, run their gift shop, and more. It was very helpful as I'm ruminating on the details of starting an owl center here in Houston, MN.

My last day in Boise Katie took me out for a “play day." She took me out to her study sites and I saw zillions of Burrowing Owls—the first time I had ever seen them in the wild. They are in artificial burrows, so Katie dug up two of them to open up the 5 gallon buckets they nest in to show me a clutch of 6 eggs (more yet to come) and a cache of prey that included a kangaroo rat and other miscellaneous rodents. It was absolutely awesome to see the owls with someone who knows so much about them!

Katie wanted to show me some other owls too, so we went to another site in the Snake River valley. We checked a Barn Owl nest box (it only contained pellets) and flushed a couple of owls, but didn’t get good looks at them. Then I climbed up a tree to check a Western Screech-Owl nest box that was active last year. Sure enough, there was Mom and 5 young chicks inside! (See the photo above.) Katie asked me to pick up Mom to see if she was banded, but warned me she would poop. Mom didn’t resist in the slightest when I picked her up, and just as Katie said, she pooped. I expected a small poop, since this was a small owl. But this owl dumped a huge load of pudding-consistency poop that landed all over my binoculars and jacket. Then as I lowered her down for Katie to photograph the band on her leg, the owl let go of another massive poop that landed on my jacket, jeans, and shoe.

Katie laughed and apologized for the mess. I couldn’t care less—it’s not like I haven’t been pooped on by an owl before! I was just so happy to see my first ever Western Screech-Owl, see the chicks, and get to hold her. Too cool.
I cleaned up as best I could in the field, then we continued to look for possible Long-eared Owls or Great Horned Owls. My binoculars reeked of screech-owl poop, but it just made me smile each time I got a whiff. Katie’s expert eyes picked out a half-hidden Great Horned Owl roosting in a tree. Excellent!

Besides the owls at this site, we were also treated to the sight of a male Northern Harrier doing his courtship flight. He would fly nearly straight up in the air, flip over, then dive straight back toward the ground over and over again. It was amazing to watch, and I couldn’t help but think he must be having a bit of fun too.

After nine days I flew back to Minneapolis and caught my shuttle to Rochester. Upon arrival, I found out my luggage hadn't made it on the shuttle and was probably on the next shuttle. Since I was the only person on the next leg of the shuttle to Winona, my driver graciously agreed to wait for my suitcase to arrive. And since there had been a mix-up with my luggage, he also kindly agreed to stop to pick up Alice when we drove through St. Charles so I wouldn't have to drive back there with my vehicle once I got to Winona.

I was very anxious to see Alice again. Erica had sent updates via e-mail so I knew she was eating and doing well, but quite frankly, I missed her. And I was curious to see how she'd react to seeing me again. Especially after Erica told me she had been heard hooting with a wild male the night before!!

Alice didn't say anything as I talked to her while approaching the mews, but as soon as I opened the door into her pen she started hooting. Her plumage was compressed with ear tufts up, so it wasn't how she normally hoots to me. But I lowered my head, went up to her and hooted back. She let me do it, and I like to think that she appreciated that I was back. She hooted every time I came into the mews as we loaded up all of her paraphenalia. She even let Erica bow her head against hers and hoot to her!

Alice was quiet in her travel box on the way back to Winona, and didn't say anything as we finished the last leg of the trip in my Tracker back to my house. But when we got into the house she hooted and hooted and hooted. I think it felt good to both of us to be back home again. Alice had lost 200 grams (nearly half a pound) since I had left, so thankfully she was beefy enough that it didn't make too much difference.

The next day I met with MaryBeth Garrigan at the National Eagle Center in Wabasha. (MaryBeth is serving as a mentor for my Bush Leadership Fellowship.) Alice had been snoozing in the hall, but when she heard me put on my shoes and jacket to leave, she started hooting. I think she was concerned I was going to leave her again, since she normally doesn't hoot when I do this. But things were fine when I returned home that night after a wonderful visit with MaryBeth, and we're back to our normal routine. And gopher trapper Ron Ehlers has already deposited 30-40 more gophers in my parents' freezer for me to pick up when I'm there for Easter.

So although it was an excellent trip overall, I'm happy to be here in Houston, MN with our little 300 foot bluffs. I'll leave the mountain driving to other people, thank you very much.