On the prowl with Oregon's pygmy owls

by Nick Neely

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.

“This isn’t the redwoods, obviously,” said Deshler, “but for this park, those trees that approach two meters in diameter at breast height, these are big trees. Old-growth by any standard.” The place had “structure”: It was a complex patchwork of mature western hemlock, western red cedar, grand fir, Doug fir, maples and alders. The biggest firs were fire-scarred, perhaps a couple hundred years old. Below us, one cedar held an owl nest. Or so Deshler said; it was 60 feet up, hidden in the canopy, and you probably couldn’t fit a ping-pong ball through the cavity’s opening. Still, that’s larger than a pygmy-owl’s head.

We crouched in the ferns, waiting for action. In a short time, we heard the call of a male pygger — two plaintive toots not unlike the sound of a tugboat, or a truck backing up. “He’s just above,” said Deshler. To my eye, every mossy, rounded node of this park seemed, at first, like a possible owl. Dark leaves speared on branches? Very suspicious. It’s tough to locate a pygger that’s not moving, no matter how competent the directions. “You must have a really good neck, or a bad one,” I said to Deshler. “It’s killing me now,” he replied.

Then a female answered the male’s toots: a call similar to the trebly chitter of a Douglas squirrel, something the owl’s probably too small to catch. With rapid wingbeats, she flew in beside her partner. Spritely described her movements: Shakespearean, a faerie queen descending to her bowered mate. This, according to Deshler, was a handoff, or “prey exchange”: a rite that may strengthen the owls’ bond, and help conceal the nest cavity, which the male avoids so as not to attract attention. Immediately, he flew off to hunt again. She stayed. For several tiny but timeless minutes, I had a first-rate look, straight up, at her domed head and “long” tail, which shook when she called. Then she swooped to a fountaining maple, with what looked like a bird in her talons, and pressed the gift into a mat of moss, caching it for later. “Red-breasted nuthatches, Pacific-slope flycatcher, Pacific wren — all on the menu,” said Deshler.  He's even seen one catch a swallow-tailed butterfly and feed it to a fledgling.

We continued our hike, up the fire lane to a BPA road that runs under more power lines, traversing a ridge on a muddy jeep trail. Eventually, we ducked off through the brush onto a former elk trail —illegally enlarged by mountain bikers, who even cut down trees to improve their route. It was Deshler who brought it to the community’s attention. Several years ago, he also stumbled on the cache of a man who had hiked in thousands of old Time and Life magazines. The hoarder had stacked them on wooden pallets, covered them with blue tarps, and created dry spaces underneath in which to sit (and perhaps read). The cops finally rousted him, but the magazines remain. Yet Deshler says his most exciting discovery in the park — other than the pygmies — was a porcupine: the only recorded sighting here so far. Deshler knows these 5,000 acres so well that, a few years ago, he was invited to join the Forest Park Conservancy’s board of directors.

Peeling off this clandestine trail, we waded through more ferns, scrambling down and up a little tributary, and stepped into the big-treed vicinity of another pygmy cavity, high up a dead trunk. “I want to catch this female,” said Deshler. “There’d be nothing that would made me happier today. Nothing.” He’d caught her in each of the last two years, but no luck this spring. After a minute, Deshler spotted her watching us motionlessly from a maple. But we didn’t lower our voices; Deshler believes that it’s better to act like a human around owls than, say, a researcher out to get them.

Even so, Ian served as a living screen to distract her while Deshler set up his four-foot-wide net, pushing the two pieces of rebar into the soft earth, sliding the two poles over the top, and stringing the net between. Then, from a homemade white PVC thermos, he poured two dark house mice, as if they were coffee, into a rectangular trap, and arranged green and brown fronds neatly around their cage on the ground. The fronds either camouflaged the ploy, or framed it perfectly:  A live lure is “raptor research 101,” said Deshler, and late in the nesting cycle, with four to six growing beaks to feed, the females become voracious and daring hunters.

We hiked uphill, and waited. Fifteen minutes later, Deshler checked the net. The owl had moved closer and perched on a small maple, but Deshler wasn’t optimistic. “She’s got my number,” he figured. “I tried to catch her earlier this year when she should have been vulnerable, but she has me pretty well measured.” But then, when he and Ian returned to the net for another look, he called my name, and I jogged downhill, glissading through the ferns to meet her.

Now, as Deshler continues his measurements, he holds her tightly in one hand, calipers in the other. “You’re a big girl, aren’t you,” he says, steadying the tool.  “My hands are a little shaky today. And this measurement is the one that matters, so I want to get it right.” The little bird is going cross-eyed trying to discern what might become of her and her five owlets—“pyglets”—hidden aloft in a snag nearby. “You just have a long tip to your bill,” Deshler tells her. “This kind of calms them down, when I measure it first. It’s like having the jaws right in your face. So, 13.6. Hang on, that’s not right. Ian, It’s 13.9, for C3.” Next, her black-and-white barred tail:  “Seventy-seven. She’s a big girl.” Seventy-seven is far shorter than my pinkie finger.

“I’m going to do your tarsus now, and your wing last,” he announces, as her talons catch his sleeve. “Let go, let go. I like to feel where that bone ends, and then measure it.” The calipers stretch from talons to ankle.  A bird’s lower leg, or shank, is actually its foot; what looks, to us, like an inverted knee is the avian ankle joint. "It’s a common measurement for birds, to measure their foot bone,” Deshler explains. “But in many birds, their feet aren’t feathered, so it’s a little easier. This girl, she was being pretty good”—he pauses to blow twice on her tarsus, puff puff, raising her wrist’s downy feathers—“but I need her to relax this foot a little bit.  When she bends her leg, it”—puff—“screws it up. Yep, you’re just a big girl all the way around. 28.1.”

Northern pygmy-owls are on species of concern lists in Alberta and on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. When Deshler began his study in 2007, they also were on sensitive species lists in Wyoming, New Mexico and Oregon; however, that was mainly because little was known about their abundance, and they’ve since lost their special status in those states. Even though they’re not particularly threatened, Deshler’s findings have implications for conservation. His nest surveys have shown that, like the spotted owl, pygmies strongly prefer mature forest, areas of Forest Park with remnant old growth, a diversity of robust trees, and snags for nesting. Places with “structure,” where one breathes easier.

And while the pyggers are often found near trails and pay no mind to joggers and dogs, they nest as far from this peninsular park’s edge as possible, almost in a line down its eight-mile middle. That flies in the face of another assumption. “You can go online and read things like, ‘They are probably never found in dense continuous forest,’ which is just wrong,” Deshler says. The clarification is important in a region where the logging industry often argues that patchy edge habitat benefits many species. “They can see and hunt just fine without us cutting down trees,” he says.

Deshler transfers the owl from his gloved right, to his bare left, gripping her tarsi between his largest fingers, so she sits atop his fist—a safe, reliable way to hold a wild bird. Puff—he blows on her crown feathers and strokes them, touching up her head, nape, and shoulder with a single finger, like a painter might a canvas. She unfurls and flaps her wings, then leaves them draped around his knuckles. “You’re a toughie,” Deshler tells her. “You’re saying, ‘Man there’s three of these big guys around. This is not my best day.’ But my new net worked on you, didn’t it?” He slips a ruler behind her left wing, and she cranes her neck and gnaws on the tool’s head, refusing to unclamp. When Deshler lets go of the ruler, it hangs from her bill like the fat, rectangular tail of a steel mouse. Then clang, it drops.

“Come on,” Deshler says, “I need you to cut it out. Settle it all down, girl, and don’t bite.” This try, the top of the tool nudges gently against her cheek. Her pale eyelids half-eclipse as she cocks her head and, resigned, nibbles on the metal. With his right hand, Deshler smoothes her wing flush against the ruler’s edge.  “You’ve got to put your tail down, sweetie, you just have to. Because I can’t get this right with your tail up.  And I know you’re more than 88—I just know it—because we’re not getting your last feather. Come on, that last feather’s the one I want, and it’s way out there. All right, there you are: Ninety … 93 and a half.”

Deshler takes such meticulous measurements because he’s not just studying the birds’ habitat selection, but their reproductive biology. He’s noticed some fascinating trends: For example, though this particular bird may be big, Deshler’s research suggests there is an advantage to being small. Typically, Forest Park’s smaller females breed a week or so before larger birds, which, according to ecological theory, would provide them a long-term reproductive advantage: The pygmiest of owls can raise more owlets and, if the nest should fail, perhaps bring up another brood. Smaller owls might do better especially when rodent populations are low and they rely wholly on songbirds, like the Pacific wrens that twitter loud and crystalline through the forest. “They do that at their own peril, around pygmy-owls,” says Deshler. But a wren only weighs nine grams, pre-plucked. Tiny pygmy-owls might do better because they’re more agile and need less food themselves.

Let go,” Deshler asks, one last time. “Then we’re going to let you go.” Like a falconer, he raises her up, to show her off, and says, “The false eyes never really look very good, when they get upset like this.” But they look pretty good, to me, these windows into evolution that stare out from the back of her noggin: black jack-o-lantern triangles, lined with white, upside-down V eyebrows. From a distance, they might well fool you, or another bird. Freeze, they say. “All right, good. Since we got all those pictures, we’ll let you go.” He finally stands, and paces off a few steps with her.

These days, given baby Henley and a bad economy, Deshler might not have made the choice he made in 2007 to study the pyggers: sacrificing a nine-to-five lifestyle in order hold something unknown close to his chest, for a while. He will go back to work soon, this time as the Forest Park Wildlife Study Coordinator for Portland Parks and Recreation—a job designed for him. But he doesn’t regret his time away from an office. “There’s really not much better to do than come out and research pygmy-owls,” he says. “Better than fly-fishing.”

To the bird, Deshler whispers, “You’re a beauty.” He extends his arm, relaxes his fist. Over the past few years, Deshler’s learned Forest Park drainages like the lines of the palm he now opens. He respects this place, and this species, deeply enough to let them go, and to share them with me. The big girl flutters. She flies. Deshler watches, and kisses the air.

© High Country News