On the prowl with Oregon's pygmy owls

  • John Deshler shows the wing of a pygmy owlet in Forest Park.

    John Deshler
  • Six pygmy owl nestlings in their tree stump nest.

    John Deshler
  • John Deshler searches for owls in Forest Park.

    Nick Neely
  • John Deshler, self portrait with an adult pygmy owl.

    John Deshler

On his first Father’s Day as a parent, John Deshler is in Portland’s Forest Park. When I called several days ago, he was checking on a northern pygmy-owl nest site, carrying 5-month Henley with him. “My baby’s been good luck,” Deshler says. “I don’t bring her out here very often, but we did find a nest together. She’s got the mojo.” This morning, however, he left her at home. He was celebrating among the “pyggers” first, the birds he’s studied for more than five years. And at the second nest site we visited today, he caught a savvy female. Twice this year, he's tried to net her. To finally succeed—that’s a Father’s Day gift. Deshler holds her in his hand, talks to her like I imagine he talks to his baby daughter. “That’s exciting,” he says, in his deep, soothing Kentuckian voice. “It’s just exciting to catch you, girl.”

The 6-inch-long raptor, Glaucidium gnoma, is basically a glorified sparrow, “just a shaker of salt.” Deshler puts it this way, as he untangles her from his mist-net, because of her size, but she also has pale dots, like tiny holes, on the rounded top of her rusty head. “I want to get her calmed down just a slight bit,” he says, slipping her into a cotton bag. In his mid-40s, Deshler is tall, with gray hair, blue eyes, stubble on his face, and an REI ball cap the same cinnamon shade as the birds. Rustling and beak snaps come from the closed bag, a sure sign of agitation. “There’s a hole in there, but hopefully it’s not too big.” Deshler laughs; it wouldn’t take much.

She’s all fluff: Only 71 grams, when weighed in the bird bag, less than two-tenths of a pound, or slightly smaller than a robin. Deshler reaches inside with his leather-protected left hand. “She’s got both her talons sunk into the glove,” he says, staring absently into the forest as he searches for the right grip on her. “Don’t bite me,” Deshler tells her. “There she is,” he says, gently drawing her out, her head cradled between his middle and index fingers. The bird’s large yellow irises are the brightest hue in the forest, brighter even than the banana slugs. Her eyes are rimmed with white brows. Pygmy-owls are diurnal birds, day-hunters. When they perch, they flick their tails aggressively from side to side.

Deshler measures her with his calipers, starting with the culmen length, the upper ridge of her sickle-shaped bill. “Boy, she’s a big girl.  That’s 11.25 for C1.” He shares the details with Ian, a volunteer who copies the data into Deshler’s yellow field book. “Let’s just make it 11.2. I shouldn’t take it to the hundredth of a millimeter. I don’t really have the precision.”

He has plenty of precision, though, when it comes to knowing pygmy-owls. Deshler had a successful career as a GIS systems developer and consultant, but wasn’t satisfied. So in 2007, he began to stalk the owlets in Forest Park for a two-year master’s at Portland State University. “I surveyed a lot of areas in the state to see where I wanted to study them,” says Deshler, “and it turns out this was a really great spot. It probably has a density as high as anywhere you’d ever find them.” In his first season of fieldwork, he spent 100 straight days here – leaving his wife “a sort of a pygmy-owl widow.” Since earning his degree, he’s held off on returning to work in order to study the pyggers full-time.  “Long-term studies are the key to science,” he notes. And long, odd hours.

Deshler devoted himself to pyggers not long after he’d seen his first one because, to a large degree, they’ve been overlooked. “Generally, we just don’t know what’s going on with them,” he says, “what their population dynamics might be, threats to their survival might be, really even basic reproductive biology. They’re just kind of a mystery.” Consider that well over 32,000 northern spotted owls have been banded, and their reproduction has been tracked over several decades. “It tells a pretty sad story,” says Deshler, “but it’s a relatively robust story.” Not so with northern pygmy-owls. Prior to Deshler’s study, fewer than 200 had been banded across their range, in and west of the Rocky Mountains, and just two had ever been recaptured. But Deshler has begun to demystify them. He’s banded 90 in Forest Park and faithfully recaptured them at their nest sites from year to year. Altogether, he’s found 50 nests; there are 10 in the park this season.

At 5:30 this morning, I received a text message: “Wear rain paints if u got them.” Several hours later, we parked by a sky-blue VW van and a healthy woodpile. Deshler gave a theatrical sigh, then led the charge up “a heart attack ridge” through temperate rainforest, with his friend Ian, a volunteer pygmy owl stalker. Forest Park, for the most part, is mature secondary growth, a steep cascade of waist-height sword fern, seven-or-eight-story bigleaf maple, and taller but still mostly young Douglas fir. The ground’s so soft you feel as if you might fall through and vanish from sight. To tiptoe off–trail feels criminal, especially in boots. After it’s rained, the wet ferns wash your pants.

Up the ridge, we broke into a long clearing, a power-line corridor. Below them, a black-headed grosbeak sang powerfully, and a rufous hummingbird out-buzzed the lines' faint pulse. A western wood pewee breeee-d from a steel tower. We paused to catch our breath, and then continued up the ridge on a fire lane. Deshler carried two net poles and a couple of rebar stakes. “This is our way in, right here,” he said, and we scrambled over logs and under slanting saplings to a petite, picturesque drainage studded with columnar firs.

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