Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Revenge of the Hawk Owl

Ever say, "Howdy" to an old geezer?  Show just a little interest, and he will turn your greeting around into some strange story involving bodily functions and the "good ol' days." Now you're trapped. And at random points in his expanding story, he'll change subjects without warning or explanation, leaving you to wonder just what the heck Randy's missing thumbnail has to do with that first hot summer after the big burn rolled through the North Fork.

Juvenile Northern Hawk Owl (Surnia ulula) in Montana (c) John Ashley
Juvenile Northern Hawk Owl from in MT's first documented nest in 1994
Yes sir, we've got a Northern Hawk Owl (Surnia ulula) here in our little valley. Reports from last Friday placed it north of town and also east of town, raising the burning question of whether there are two owls or just one well-travelled owl. I spotted one Wednesday on my way to the doctor's office. The little owl was hunting in left field, at the snowy ball park north of town, but I was so anxious about my old-guy physical that I forgot to post a report.

Just a glimpse of the owl's distinctive outline and long tail sent me back 18 years, to 1994, when I helped document the first Hawk Owl nest ever found in Montana. Did I ever tell you about that one? Well that was the little owl who got revenge on one of the bird banders.

My boss found the cavity nest a few miles from Polebridge, on the west side of Glacier Park, but I was the lucky lad who got paid to hike in frequently and monitor the young owl family. Two adults and eight fuzzy youngsters.

I lugged a parabolic microphone the size of a small suitcase for miles through a recent burn, and managed to record a few vocalizations - they are mostly silent birds. I also collected all of the owl pellets (regurgitated bones and fur) that I could find to send down to (local owl expert) Denver Holt, so his "owl guys" could identify exactly what these birds were eating. But the real fun began when I led Denver's crew in so we could try trapping and banding those owls.

I can't remember now if we caught any of the juveniles (one of them is pictured above). They'd already fledged the nest and were sort of spread out around the neighborhood by then. We caught only one of the adults, but I remember it well. Judging by the little owl's behavior, I always think of it as the female from the pair.

Anyhow, once we caught the owl in our mist net, she made it perfectly clear that she was quite pissed about our very existence. She never struggled after we got our hands on her, but those yellow eyes were sooooo intense. One look in her eyes and a guy could tell what she was thinking. You know, that mighta' been the last time I really knew what a female was thinking...

Where were we?  Oh yeah, we got to work banding that angry owl. One guy took the measurements and attached her leg band, and the other guy held her folded wings with one hand and her strong legs with his other hand. The guys were working as fast and quiet as they could, trying not to stress the owl, you see.  But of course we were all excited about having such a rare bird in our hands.

We were about halfway done when it happened. In the excitement of the moment, the guy holding her legs loosened his grip just a teensy bit, and she immediately reached out and sank a sharp talon right through the middle of his thumbnail!

Well now, that got everyone's attention. What's a guy to do?  Here's this poor field biologist, holding a very rare bird - the first one ever banded in Montana - and blood's dripping off the end of his thumb while that little owl stares him down with those deep, yellow eyes.


That's all he said.  Through clinched teeth, I'm tellin' ya'.  Can't let go, gotta' finish banding.

Dedicated bird biologist releasing a Northern Hawk Owl (c) John Ashley
Dedicated bird biologist releasing an adult Northern Hawk Owl
Well, we finish as fast as we can. He finally lets go of her, and she of him. I snapped their picture together as he tosses her up in the air. She flew off, and I sent him a little souvenir of his first Hawk Owl experience. I betcha' anything that fella's still got that picture somewhere. I don't know, but I hope he's still a bird biologist - now he was dedicated.

Owl Research Institute  (Denver's still at it after all these years!)