Friday, September 19, 2008

Owl aboard.

Burrowing Owl at sea. Photo by Bret Jagger.

Two years ago this week I received a ship-to-shore email from my friend Bret, who at the time was a US Fisheries Observer. He was on a factory ship, far off the Oregon coast. A stowaway had been discovered, a small owl, tentatively identified as a Burrowing Owl. The crew, numbering more than a hundred, had become enamoured of it and were worried what would happen as the vessel approached land. Would the bird take wing, overestimate its strength and end up in the drink, or perhaps make it ashore, only to become dazed and confused in the urban sprawl of Seattle, the ship’s next port of call? Besides, were Burrowing Owls not endangered? It was hoped a wildlife official could meet the ship and take the bird where it belonged.

The crew doted. Someone lashed a plastic office tree to a bulkhead, which the bird adopted as a perch when it wasn’t flapping about the vessel. It was eating heartily, squid and hake from the galley.

I emailed back that I doubted it was a Burrowing Owl, which, yes, is endangered in southern BC and elsewhere. This is a ground-dwelling species of the once expansive North American grasslands. It is in decline in much of its range because of habitat loss and the eradication of badgers and ground squirrels, in whose abandoned burrows it nested. It seemed ridiculous that a species that lives in holes in the ground, preying upon rodents and insects, would happily sit on an office tree on the deck of a ship in the middle of the ocean, eating calamari. More likely, the shipboard bird was a non-endangered Saw-whet Owl, many of which migrate southward along the coast in fall. Conceivably one could veer off course and end up on a ship, and once in range of land again, continue its journey.

Bret emailed, “Captain said to send you this picture.” A clear photo was attached. Apparently the captain knew something about birds.

I emailed back, “Uh oh. That IS a Burrowing Owl.” There it was, perched on a plastic Ficus tree, the vast blue Pacific in the background. I asked if it could be caught and kept in a box until the vessel returned to port. I would try to contact a US wildlife agency.

Via the internet I discovered PAWS, a wildlife rescue organization in Lynnwood, near Seattle. I phoned and explained that a ship was en route with a rogue burrowing owl on board, origin unknown, and we were wondering (the crew, Bret, and I ) if it might be possible for someone to meet the vessel and take charge of the bird. The woman at PAWS kindly explained that it was probably not a Burrowing Owl. Most likely it was a Saw-whet Owl. I asked for an email address, then waited for the image to pop up in Lynnwood. “Oh. That IS a Burrowing Owl,” she said. She joined the mission.

We then discovered that ship-to-shore satellite email is a less than perfect technology. Messages kept bouncing. We weren’t sure that instructions from shore were being received, or if the crew had managed to corral the bird. PAWS was ready to meet the ship, which was now only a day out. We lost contact.

We finally heard. The communication lapse had occurred in rough seas. The crew had been unable to contain the bird. As the weather calmed with the ship still far from shore, the crew searched high and low, bow to stern, to no avail. The owl was gone, its fate uncertain.

There is a chance he made it to shore; there are records of Burrowing Owls flying long distances over water. They occasionally show up on the Farallon Islands, 43 Km west of San Francisco. Fortified with seafood and a good tailwind (it was blowing east), our bird may have beaten the odds. More than a hundred people hoped so.


pookie said...

Classic RPL post. Thanks. I sent it off to my family and friends (the more discerning ones, that is).

Hugh said...

Thanks, Pookie.

Camera Trap Codger said...

Very interesting. I'm trying to remember if it was Dana's "Two years before the mast" -- an anecdote about an exhausted finch that showed up on board, only to be driven off by the captain. It ended up in Davy Jones' locker. Hopefully the burrowing owl had a dry landing.

zhakee said...

That is quite a story! I hope the owl figured out which way was land.

Dave Wenning said...

Amazing story I am sharing on Twitter.

Hugh said...

Thanks Dave!