Sunday, March 21, 2010

March 17-20: Spotted Owls!

March 17: This morning Dad and I started out early for Lillooet, BC. He had to get to Vancouver to attend some meetings and give some talks on birds and I had to go looking for birds in the Stein Valley... not just birds but SPOTTED OWLS. Dad kindly offered to take a "scenic route" to the coast by cruising over to Spences Bridge, then down the Thompson River to Lytton where we turned north up the Fraser to Lillooet where I was to meet up with Jared Hobbs and Joel Gillis-- 2 of Canada's most knowledgeable Spotted Owl biologists. On the way of course we took a few side roads, finding my first RUFFED GROUSE of the year in Fountain Valley, and almost getting stuck up the Tom Cole Road north of Lillooet. Anyways, eventually we made it to the heli-pad on the east side of town (after a brief stop at local birder Ian Routley and his partner Vivian's beautiful house up on the hill). My Dad said his goodbyes and I hopped in the chopper with pilot Scott, Jared and Joel, and UBC Forestry student- Marianne Secrest.

As we gained altitude and headed southwest to the Stein Valley, passing over endless white mountain peaks and giant fir forests, I recalled my previous Spotted Owl work with Jared in September of last year. That trip had been my introduction to the job and to the owls... as luck would have it we ended up at "Billy Goat Creek"-- possibly one of the hardest avian field-sites to work in the province with it's 45 degree slopes, wet mossy tallus, and thick underbrush. Having said that, getting to live with a pair of Spotted Owls for 3 days and 3 nights was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

Anyways, back to the present! Here we were heading to the Stein-- usually one of the easiest Spotty sites to work since most of the habitat is at valley bottom with a hiking trail running through it. This would have been a cake-walk in comparison if it wasn't for a fire that ripped through the valley last summer, resulting in a significant amount of dead-fall over the trail... plus the few feet of snow that remains in the area despite the early spring. I guess my point is that because of habitat mismanagement and the range-expansion and aggressiveness of Barred Owls, Canada's Spotted Owls now only exist in remote areas that are very hard for average human beings to access. And we also realized too late that we should have brought snow-shoes!

After an awesome heli-ride we touched down near our first campsite where a pair of Spotties had been detected last year. That evening we split into two groups: Joel and I heading one way up the valley, and Jared and Marianne heading the other way. It was tough going in the deep snow and burned areas but we managed nonetheless. After a couple unsuccessful hours at our end of the survey area, Jared came onto the radio quietly exclaiming that the had found a pair of Spotted Owls about 3 KM downriver from us! With nothing happening in our area we hopped, ran, fell, climbed, and swore as we ducked and scrambled our way past burnt logs, scree slopes, and creeks concealed by snow. Eventually, sweating like crazy we met up with the other two just in time to see both birds! Oh what a sight! The male gave his 4 part hoot, then the female responded with a "kuu-weeeep!" call, then they both chattered away in a manner somewhat similar to excited Barred Owls... definitely in courtship mode we thought. Perhaps they will attempt nesting this year! Before heading back to camp I captured a short video of the female (TOP RIGHT OF BLOG PAGE)-- perhaps the last time a Spotted Owl will be filmed in Canada... I sincerely hope not. There are so few of these birds left in BC (probably less than 10) so a moment like this, as brief as it was is truly special, and I wanted to share it with everyone. It is possible that this is the last pair in Canada since the female I saw last fall near Billy Goat recently passed away.

So why have Spotted Owls become so scarce in BC? They rely on old-growth fir and cedar forests for nesting and hunting opportunities, and due to unchecked logging practices in the past and present this habitat-type has been severely degraded and fragmented across southwestern BC. Check out my dad's recent blog entry from March 17-- he gives a great account of the species' status and sums things up most appropriately:

On our way back to camp I was riding high on the "Spotted Owl Cloud" -- nothing else mattered. Well, hearing a pack of wolves sounding off 1 km up the valley was pretty thrilling... but I had just seen THE OWLS again! I was so lucky to be with them again, and with such knowledgeable people like Jared and Joel who have worked with these birds for over 10 years.

March 18/19- Today we moved to a new camp down river. In past years, another pair of Spotted Owls nested in a broken cottonwood near the river (the first time this species has been recorded nesting in this tree in North America). Here titanic groves of fir, spruce, cedar, cottonwood, and pine dominated the valley bottom where the Stein River meanders back and forth providing a perfect home for countless pairs of American Dippers and many other creatures. Unfortunately no Spotted Owls were detected in our two and a half days here. Several other owls made appearances though-- 3 Norther Pygmy Owls, 3 Barred Owls, and 2 Northern Saw-whet Owls (including 1 that called well into the day). Spring is here! Everywhere we went Varied Thrushes, American Robins, and Winter Wrens belted out their songs, and on the evening of the 19th I heard a SOOTY GROUSE giving its hooting display (another year bird!).

We flew out on the 20th but took a long route to Lillooet in order to map out some other fires and look for some possible snake den sites. While flying particularly close to a hillside east of Lytton a noticed a female DUSKY GROUSE flush and fly up the hill-- another year bird and a new helicopter tick!!!

What a trip... I'm falling asleep as I write this so I hope the story has been readable. I really hope I can tell you all about the owls in person as I make my way around the province this year as they are truly the most endearing and trusting owls I have encountered while travelling North America and other parts of the world. If only there was a feasible way to ensure the survival of future generations in the wilds of BC.

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