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Feature Story

The Owl, Spotted

by Alison Hawthorne Deming

When scientists and poets spend time in each other's company, the result is a deeper look into the world's hidden beauty.

Steve Ackers and I clamber over vine maple and Oregon grape, a tangled mess of scrub that covers Hardy Ridge high over Cougar Reservoir in Oregon's western Cascades. This terrain is better suited to flying squirrels and red-backed voles than to a mildly arthritic, bipedal primate. But here I am on a sun-drenched morning in mid-May, hiking with the head of the northern spotted owl research team from the H. J. Andrews Experimental Forest and filled with unaccountable joy. Last night Steve was orienteering toward an owl that was calling from a mile away. He set a compass point and hiked into the dark forest toward the call, but never found the bird. He's been working on the owl study for seven years, on wildlife fieldwork for 21. Today we're looking for a spotted owl that has been in the study for 12 years, one habituated to the visits of field scientists.

Extensive study of this species had been conducted for at least a decade prior to its 1990 designation as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The northern spotted owl is perhaps the most studied bird in the world, inspiring unprecedented collaboration among scientists, federal and state agencies, universities, and landowners.

We break into an opening shaded by a small stand of Douglas fir -- trees not super-old, as we've seen along the McKenzie River Trail, where there are giants 600 years old, but stately elders nonetheless. The ground is dappled with light, the air cool and damp. The hillside slopes steeply below. Ahead of me Steve hoots the four-note location call: hooh-hoohoo-hooooh. The last syllable descends with a slight warble. No response. Then he turns and a quiet smile opens on his face. He has the bright and easy look of a man who knows how lucky he is to love his work. He points over my left shoulder.

Silent, she's perched on a small understory branch 20 feet up. She's watching us, waiting for us to notice her. She knows the contract. She will give us data, we will give her mice. After three decades of research on the northern spotted owl, scientists have gained a wealth of understanding about this creature's life history. Each spring the field crew checks nesting pairs for their reproductive status and bands fledglings to include them in future surveys. The data gathered led in 1994 to the comprehensive Northwest Forest Plan, which decreased the rate of logging and altered how it is done, giving the owls and their entire ecosystem a better chance at survival. But data cannot compare to the experience of that deep well of attention, quiet, and presence that is the owl. She has a spotted breast; a long, barred tail; and tawny facial disks with brown semicircles fringing her face and back-to-back white parentheses framing her eyes. These markings give the impression that her eyes are the size of her head. The blackness of her pupils is so pure they look like portals into the universe.

When Steve takes the first mouse out of his aerated Tupperware container, lifting it by its tail and placing it on a log, the owl drops, silent as air, down through the branches and closes her talons. She lofts back up to the branch and scans around. She may be looking to see if a goshawk is near. Whatever constitutes a threat to her does not include us. How rare it is to have more than a fleeting glimpse of a creature in the wild. Still clutching the mouse, she burps up a pellet that plops to the ground, gives us a nonchalant look, then gulps down her meal.

"You want to see the parachute drop?" Steve asks with a grin. He places a second mouse on the log, and she billows out her wings, buoying herself down to us. It takes a moment to understand why her flight catches me each time by surprise. No riffle, no flutter of resistance through the feathers, she's evolved for this easy drop onto her prey. The spotted owl is a sit-and-wait hunter, unlike the goshawk, which will tear through the woods in pursuit. The fringed edge to her wing reduces noise and increases drag, making this strategy a good match of form with function.

Steve collects the pellet and we poke apart the slimy gray glob of indigestible fur and bones from the past day. The bones are very delicate, still shiny with the life that left them, some nearly two inches long.

"Maybe a wood rat," Steve says. Through binoculars he can see the owl's identification band. Last year a male was keeping this female company, a two-year-old from King Creek. This year, so far, she appears to be alone. The owl team's last visit to this site was one month ago.

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Alison Hawthorne Deming teaches creative writing at the University of Arizona.

Photo: Michael Durham/agpix

OnEarth. Fall 2006
Copyright 2006 by the Natural Resources Defense Council