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To Save a Snowy Owl

Friday, December 22, 2017

I knew that going to see the snowy owl at Grand Central Mall in Vienna, WV, just across the river from us, would change things. When I see wildlife in peril, I have to stop to help. Back in the mid-1980's, I remember walking Long Beach in Stratford, Connecticut, when I was working as a field biologist for The Nature Conservancy's Connecticut Chapter. I came up to a large colony of least terns and piping plovers which were trying to incubate their eggs and raise chicks on the open sand. People were walking through the colony, spreading beach towels over nests, letting their dogs run, and even driving through the colony, crushing nests as they went. I couldn't believe what I was seeing, and I couldn't stand the fact that nobody seemed to notice or care.  How asleep could they be?? Didn't they hear the birds shrieking at them, see them diving overhead? Wasn't there some responsibility on the part of the state Department of Environmental Protection to make sure these threatened birds were safe? All evidence indicated there was not. Somebody had to do something! Now!  On that day, I started planning how to protect the colonies statewide with signs and string fencing and patrols.  The Least Tern/Piping Plover Recovery Project was born, in the hot flame of an idealistic young heart. For the next three tern/plover nesting seasons, starting in late March and ending in late August, I covered 80 miles of coastline in my little Dodge Colt, hitting each colony as many times weekly as humanly possible,  designed and made my own signs, did my own fundraising, with TNC channeling the money ($1200 each season, on which I lived and bought materials) and three years later had enlisted 30 volunteers to help me. And by then I was burned to a crisp, skeletal, almost, with a bum hip from lugging stacks of wooden signposts in loose sand. 

No longer burned crispy and hardly skeletal, I still have that hot flame, that need to intervene.  And I knew that once I connected emotionally with the snowy owl, it would be game over.  It showed up at Grand Central Mall on Dec. 14. Bill Thompson III (Editor/Co-Publisher of Bird Watcher's Digest) had seen it on Dec. 17 and told me I should really go take a look at it, because it was so unnaturally tame and it was attracting a lot of attention. But I didn't go to see it right away.  I didn't want to see it. Or that. Any of it. Malls at Christmastime are like a vat of boiling oil I avoid falling into. I could only imagine a snowy owl in the middle of all that. The thought almost turned my stomach. Bill told me on the morning of Dec. 18 that he had called the local television station, WTAP Parkersburg, and offered himself (and me, if I chose) to talk on camera about this rare Arctic visitor to the local mall. Well then. Head out of sand, flushed out of cover. Off I go. 

I gathered my optics and camera and went to join Bill, a smattering of friends, and the crowd that had gathered in the Panera and Ruby Tuesday's parking lots.  I talked on camera about why the owl was hanging out in this humble ditch that ran between the mall and the strip of restaurants. (Short answer: Restaurant Rats).  I stayed there for 5 1/2 hours, taking in the scene, photographing the owl and the people enthralled by it. By evening, I'd seen more than enough. It was clear to me that the owl was weak, badly injured, and in considerable pain.  I didn't yet know what had happened to it; that it had been actually been hit by a car Dec. 6 at this Burger King four miles away, but I knew it was something bad; its right wing was at about half capacity. 

A couple of days after I posted about the fact that the owl was injured, a gentleman approached my friend Michael Schramm from USFWS while he was monitoring the mall crowds and confessed that the owl had flown off a low wall at Burger King near the Emerson Ave/I-77 interchange and slammed into his right front bumper. He thought he'd killed it at first. And his bumper still bears the evidence. It hurts just to look at this photo.
Somehow, the owl made it to the mall four miles distant. It disappeared Dec. 6 and showed up in the ditch behind Panera Dec. 14.

Photo by Tammy Anderson, thank you!!
While most in the crowds seemed to get that it needed space to live and hunt,  a small percentage didn't.  And they were crowding it and pushing it into reluctant flight, again and again.  My friends, led by birder Jon Benedetti, Rebecca Young of USFWS, and animal rescue softie/brave soul Ryan Bates, took it upon themselves to show up each day, to try to police the crowds and keep them a decent distance away from the owl. I got up at 6 on the morning of Dec. 19, sat down, uploaded and edited my photos, and wrote the post. I didn't leave my desk until 4 pm. I wanted to say in the post all the things I couldn't say on TV. 

I offer this link to Megan Vanselow's excellent video on WTAP's site. In it you will see the owl flying weakly, flopping onto the ground in pursuit of a mouse or vole it did not catch, and an epic Zick mic drop at the end. It's the lower (older) of the two videos that appear on the right side of the page. Watching it will give you a good feeling for the setting, and the owl's behavior.

Meanwhile, Bill had also contacted writer/naturalist Katie Fallon of the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia, a wildlife rehab clinic located in Morgantown, WV. Would she and her avian veterinarian husband Jesse Fallon be interested in helping this injured owl? Katie leapt at the chance, and shared my blogpost on her Facebook page. West Virginia's State Ornithologist, Rich Bailey, commented on Katie's post that he was conferring with his colleagues at WVDNR about what to do. Katie and Jesse at ACCA were standing ready to provide medical assistance. They enlisted their friend, Vince Slabe, raptor biologist and PhD candidate at WVU, to help capture the bird. It was all moving at lightning speed. I felt like the church mouse who'd climbed up and managed to ring the bell, and it was clanging hard and fast. But really, the ringing was from all of us pulling together, galvanized into action by this wholly unacceptable fate for a threatened and beautiful bird. 

Meanwhile, people were opining freely, as they will on social media. If the owl was hurt, why didn't somebody do something? Didn't anyone care? Call the state! Call a wildlife sanctuary! Go get it! As if there were an official West Virginia state wildlife ambulance that would skid to a halt, lights flashing, to take care of the problem. Far from it--ANY wildlife rehabilitation that goes on in West Virginia, Ohio, or in any state is ALL privately funded, through donations. These organizations, some of which handle hundreds to thousands of creatures each year, operate on a shoestring, through the kindness of strangers. Little did the people squawking about it know that we were all working as hard and as fast as we could behind the scenes to coordinate; to get the necessary Federal and state permission to capture and take the bird into the care of a West Virginia wildlife rehab organization. (Though most of my contacts are in Ohio, you can't take WV wildlife across state lines). We had to gather the right people together to pull this off. To schedule a time for capturing the bird when everyone could be there. These things must be done delicately...

To try to allay some of the chatter, without tipping our hand, I commented, 

It's all been figured out and many good and capable people care and are involved. With a rare Federally protected bird, there are proper legal channels and hoops to jump through by which to get help to it. This can't be done overnight. Nor does one simply call a wildlife sanctuary or walk up to a formidable predator that can kill geese and foxes and throw a blanket over it. Hang in there! If you have not read my blogpost, referenced in the original post, please do. It will answer many questions. Updates will follow. Thank you.

It was important not to state the plan, because whatever we did, we'd probably have a crowd of maybe 30-100 people watching, and far, far more if word got out. And a crowd would only complicate things. Crowds are good for that.

On Dec. 21, the scheduled morning for the first trapping attempt, we all woke up early. Vince and Jesse would have a two hour drive from Morgantown; mine was only 45 minutes. Jon Benedetti hurried to the mall, only to find no owl! What?! The owl had been there without fail since Dec. 14, and now he'd quit the place?  How could this be? HOW. And then I got a text from Katie Fallon, all the way from Morgantown, saying she'd gotten a text from Mollee Brown that she and Kyle Carlsen had found the bird on a telephone pole next to Faith Baptist Church on 10th St. in Vienna, about 3/4 mile from the mall. I emailed Jon, who'd already checked in saying the owl was AWOL; texted Jesse and Vince, and arranged to meet them on 10th Street. 

There was a pretty good group there, comprised of local birders who'd been guarding the owl; USFWS employes from the Ohio River Islands NWR; and local law enforcement who'd thought they'd be doing crowd control at the mall. Everyone agreed that meeting in a tucked-away church parking lot was vastly preferable to dealing with all that. Wise owl!

The bird had flown aways off since Mollee and Kyle found it, but the group soon spotted it a few blocks away. In the bright morning sun it looked like a big light fixture.

I look at this photo, all clobbered up with powerlines and transformers and poles, and think, "What on God's green earth is a snowy owl, denizen of the tundra, doing on 10th St. in Vienna, WV?" 

The crows were demanding to know the same thing. Even from this distance you can see the owl's hurt right wing, sticking out front and back like a banner.

The crows dove on it for a few seconds, then lost interest, thank goodness. 

As for marching right up and catching the owl, there's a right way to capture a large, powerful raptor that can fly, and it isn't throwing a blanket or a box over top of it. You're only going to traumatize it, and you're certainly not going to catch it that way.  Owls have wings and they tend to use them. To catch a raptor, you have to lure it into a trap, using live bait with special nets (bow, cannon, or, as a last resort, pole) or a noose carpet (not an option for someone with huge floofy feet). 

A noose carpet is a tethered pad covered with little monofilament loops that tighten when pulled on. You put live prey in the middle, the raptor lands and nooses tighten around its toes. They work well for raptors with scaly feet. Floofy superinsulated furry feet, nope. This is my highly scientific guess as to why Vince didn't try using a noose carpet on the owl.

Vince carries his bow net to the trap site.

A bow net is like a two-parted clamshell, that closes over the bird. It would take a very large bow net to capture a snowy owl. That's OK. Vince has lots of experience trapping golden eagles in the West, so he had the right bow net.

He tethered a gerbil in the bow net and set it where the owl could see it, but away from the sidewalk where people might mess with it.

Several hours went by.  The owl sat on the telephone pole, its injured right wing hanging all the way down along the pole. 

Phoebe and Liam and I sat and watched and waited. Finally, at 1:29, the kids had to leave; Phoebe had an appointment that couldn't be missed. As they left, they touched their hearts and gave the owl, sitting on its pole several hundred yards away, a sign to live long and prosper.  My heart swelled. I wished so hard they could have stayed with me at the stakeout. They were into it, would have been good for it, too.

At 2:01 pm, I took a photo of a man walking under the telephone pole, completely unaware of the giant Arctic owl sitting over his head. I call it, "Man Unaware of Giant Arctic Owl."

I sat in my car, parked well back from the pole, and watched. I never took my eyes off that owl, all day long. Once the kids left, I resisted the urge to chat with anyone; I wasn't interested in chatting. I was interested in 
the owl.

I knew as long as that injured wing was hanging down, the bird wasn't going anywhere. Frankly, I was glad to see it rest, glad to see it high up above and away from the madding crowd. Every once in awhile the wing would twitch as the owl seemed to try to bring it up into a more normal resting position, but it never did tuck the wing up. The sun was warm; I had to believe it felt good on the sore places.

I knew that as long as I could see the wing hanging, nothing was going to happen.

Vince decided to change from a bow net to a cannon net. He tethered live bait in the little field, a surprising distance from the owl, and armed the cannon net.  He knew the owl could see the bait moving around, and it didn't have to be right under the telephone pole for the owl to come after it.

Cannon net: With a bang, an explosive charge sends three padded missiles shooting out on a low arc, dragging and spreading that folded up, lightweight netting (the black wad in the box) behind them. Ideally, the raptor, which has landed on live bait on the ground in front of the device, is covered in netting before it has a chance to fly up and away. 

Suddenly, at 2:07 pm

 the owl's head came forward, it crouched, lifted that injured wing, and without further ado took off from the telephone pole, headed for the cannon net in the open area.  My camera was up and my eye was on the viewfinder and after six hours of solid waiting, I was ready to get the shots.

Why the owl had perched, sunning and sleeping, for six hours while ignoring the bait, then decided to launch after it, only the bird knows. 

I hate to leave you with a cliffhanger, but what you've just digested is 9 hours worth of photo editing and writing. I'm beat! and I need to start dinner cooking and take a hike before it gets dark on the shortest day of the year. Stick with me and I'll be back with more on Sunday!

Though I'll tell you more about the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia in subsequent posts, if you're moved to help now, even before you hear how wonderful they are, their website is here.

Next: GOT EEEM!!!


spoiler alert!

Well, OK, Unknown, thanks so much, um, but jeez. I trust people will still come here for the story the way I'll tell it.
There's only so much I can post in a very long day. Think of this as a Slow Food Restaurant.

What a wild, wonderful, heartfelt tale unfolded there. I love all the efforts by everyone. Thank you so much for being there and telling the story. I look forward to the next post, Julie.

Thank you for telling this owl’s story as only you can. I will be waiting for the next segment from you when you’re able. No need for a newspaper article that gives details, but not life to the story.

I'm so glad that the owl was rescued. Ever since your last post, I've been thinking about it, hoping that a rescue would happen. Can't wait to read the rest of the story!

Posted by Anonymous December 22, 2017 at 5:53 PM

Can't wait to hear the rest of the story from your viewpoint, Julie! You lend real heart and emotion to the story, that newspapers just can't. I'll be watching and waiting!

Patiently waiting with no spoilers! Its bliss to have a lovely (fingers crossed) holiday story to look forward to!

You know Zickie, because I told you, that I have seen your plover and/or tern drawings all over the East Hampton beaches, hanging from the fences that kept people from the nesting areas!!!!

$25 sent to via PayPal. Thank you Julie for all your dedicated work and for the enormous efforts of all involved. Also thank you for the information on how we can,in some small way,help.

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PS. I will only gr8 my birding and wildlife information from the SlowFood Restaurant 'cause there is NOTHING else like it anywhere!!

Who needs TV when such compelling drama unfolds here??? What an incredibly strong bird to survive all it has! I AM glad to know from Instagram that the owl is in rescue; it makes my Christmas happier. :-D

PS: I'm glad I'm not the only one with that internal struggle to see, knowing full well seeing is complete commitment.

PPS: I'm also glad to know I'm not the only one who takes HOURS to compose a post!

Ahhhh I'm just seeing all this and my heart is hurting thinking of that poor animal in pain. Can't wait to read the next installment.

Riveting story re: Snowy owl, but what resonated with me is a skeletal Julie telling those damn cars to get off her nesting birds’ lawn!!

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