The Owl in the Woods

Wednesday, July 20 2016 Written by
Northern Spotted Owls are medium-sized owls that are found in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and Northern California. They prefer coniferous forests that consist of trees of different sizes and ages, making them sensitive to old-growth forests as well as one of the poster species for the conservation of old-growth redwood forests. These owls are also listed as threatened by the Endangered Species Act due to habitat loss and the startlingly rapid westward expansion of the more-aggressive Barred Owl which is known to drive Spotted Owls out of their nests and territories. Having learned about this bird in my wildlife classes a couple of semesters ago, I had never had the fortune of seeing one in the wild, as they are elusive and well-camouflaged in their environment until I came to LAVO. Me and my coworker, Eric, the wildlife technician were assigned on the endeavor of finding a Spotted Owl nest before logging operations commenced so that we may spare the area surrounding said nest. We had all of our gear: a wildlife sound caller, our binoculars, night-vision goggles, and heavy jackets. Night was upon the park as the sky embraced its fleeting hues of gold and rose pink, only to obstructed by the sugar and lodgepole pines that populated the ominously hushed forest that stood ahead of us. Eric had his suspicions of where the nest might be based on previous surveys and we hiked in the forest that was littered with felled snags and old branches, prompting us to disrupt the forest's mute nature. While we walked, we saw bright orange ribbons on some tree trunks, a brief reminder that the forest would soon meet the noise and destruction brought by chainsaws, which only added an added sense of emergence to our task. Of course, not all forest thinning is malicious and while it was ultimately scheduled so that it might have contributed to the forest's overall health, we did not want a nest or territory to be disturbed. Finally, as the night continued its fall, we arrived at a clearing and used the wildlife caller to play a recording of a Spotted Owl. The call effortlessly permeated through the trees, giving us hope that we would be able to see the owl. We looked off in different directions, increasing the visual range in which the owl might appear. After 15 minutes of calling and waiting, I saw a dark silhouette appear in the distance and land in a large tree off in the distance, only visible because of the darkening blue sky that shadowed the forest. I instantly grabbed my binoculars and pointed them towards the tree, and saw the owl leaning on the trunk, looking back at me with its eyes enveloped in a pitch-black darkness. I told Eric of my findings and we heard it emit a high-pitched escalating whistle, no doubt a response to our contraption's dishonest hooting. Its sex was now known to us: she was a female. She continued her call, attracting not another owl, but disgruntled robins and a gorgeous male Western Tanager, who were all extremely displeased with her pIMG_1684[1]resence. We watched her through our binoculars as she continued her calls, despite the relentless dive-bombings of the irritable songbirds. As her patience thinned, she maneuvered closer to our position until she finally decided enough was enough and landed on the forest floor, 20 feet away from where we stood. I no longer needed my binoculars, she stared at us in curiosity just as we stared at her. Her discomfort on the floor grew and flew to a snag 10 feet away from me and Eric, making absolutely no sound as she weaved through the trees, regardless of her close proximity. Her eyes, which darted from us to her surroundings, were her most striking features. There was no question about her dominance -- she was unafraid of confronting the intruders to her forest and was ensuring that we had done no harm to it. We were not completely useless in her presence: the entire time, we were furiously documenting everything about the encounter; whether she was banded, her behavior, timestamps, coordinates, etc. She reciprocated as she studied us with her black eyes that no doubt saw more than we could see of her. After 30 minutes of our encounter, she decided to resume her hunting activities and took off as silently as she came, over the hills that were delineated by conifers off in the distance. While we could not follow her and never found a nest, I felt very lucky to have such a close encounter with a gorgeous bird that I had only previously known through research and lectures. This experience was one-of-a-kind and even though we never did accomplish our ultimate goal, I hope that we will in future surveys and can protect the land that she calls home.
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