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

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“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.

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