Evidence of absence: Spotted owls are still vanishing from the Northwest

This feature appeared in the Spring, 2016 print edition of The Living Bird, the magazine of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.IMG_8072.jpg

You won’t meet a Northern Spotted Owl in this story.

The first reason is that, by the time I drive west from Sutherlin, Oregon, with Janice Reid one sunny November morning, the raptor’s breeding season is over. Spotted Owls are territorial while they nest and can be summoned with a hoot simulating an intruder. But once their owlets are grown, the birds melt like ghosts into the forest.

The second reason is grimmer: Spotted Owls are becoming much harder to find.

Reid, a small woman with wavy silver hair, is the U.S. Forest Service’s project director on the 400 square-mile Tyee study area, one of 11 such study sites in western Washington, Oregon, and northern California involved in a decades-long effort to track Spotted Owl population trends.

“I essentially live in this truck in summer, so it’s still got dust and fir needles from field work,” she apologizes, explaining that the dog smell is from a Labrador retriever she’s trained to track owl pellets. She’s studied Spotted Owls in these mountains since 1985, lured by their docile personalities and the puzzle of locating them in the tangled woods.

“You can see your reflection in their eyes sometimes, you get so close,” she says. “And they have big brown eyes. Maybe it’s just human nature to like big brown eyes.” More…

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