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MailTribune.com
  • ENVIRONMENT

    Elusive owls get new home in Cascades

  • Klamath Bird Observatory members erect and install new nesting platforms for a pair of uncommon and elusive great gray owls.
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  • ASHLAND — With its huge round face and menacing stare, a great gray owl's appearance belies its neighborly nature.
    While other owl species' intense territorial nature causes them to clash, these largest of the owls are so docile they won't present themselves to bird calls that would send a barred owl crashing in to see what's up.
    "It's quite easy to walk right past them," Ashland birder Harry Fuller says. "They're not territorial at all. They don't screech. They don't fly away. You would never know a 3-foot-tall owl was staring at you."
    Trouble is, they have the construction sense of poets, making nesting success one of the main pitfalls for North America's tallest owls, which are relatively uncommon in Southern Oregon.
    That's why a pair of these owls found squatting in an old raven's nest this summer high in the Cascades are getting some new digs, complete with furniture.
    Two nesting platforms installed this week on private land in the High Cascades will give the two great gray owls a proper home for their next set of owlets next spring.
    The two platforms will provide a new address of choice for the owls, which don’t make their own nests so they must either commandeer one from another bird or eke out life in a tree snag.
    This Habitat By Humanity project is courtesy of the Ashland-based Klamath Bird Observatory, which is giving a helping hand to some of Jackson County's estimated 300 to 500 great gray owls, one of the largest documented population hubs on the West Coast.
    The platforms actually are redwood planters that nature photographer Peter Thiemann fastened to tree branches for stability.
    Forester Marty Main then scaled about 35 feet up a thick white fir to screw the contraption into the trunk. A collection of lichen and small sticks from nearby trees will provide bedding for the pair and, eventually, for the female and owlets that will stay together full-time while the male hunts for them until the young fledge.
    They will be on display as part of the local birding circuit as well.
    Great gray owls have been somewhat of an enigma to Oregon birders for decades, largely because they are so difficult to find and monitor, Fuller says.
    They weren’t even thought to be nesting in Oregon until around World War II.
    These particular owls were “discovered” nine years ago when Willow-Witt Ranch owners Suzanne Willow and Lanita Witt hired the KBO for a bird survey on their ranch off Shale City Road east of Ashland.
    That’s when they were first heard, but not seen, Willow says. A family member first spied one of the owls two years ago, but the nest site wasn’t discovered until a camper awoke under the nest to see a big face staring back, she says.
    The couple’s ranch is ideal for great gray owls, which require large trees and open understories for nesting and nearby wet meadows for hunting mice, shrews and other small mammals.
    Their large, disc-like face acts as a satellite dish, funneling sound to their ears so they can hear little animals scurrying underground from more than 100 feet away.
    They also don’t migrate much, with the pair living year-round in the Cascades and likely not ever moving more than 10 miles, says Fuller, who is president of KBO's board of directors.
    Fuller and other birders monitored their previous nest this summer, noting that it appeared too small for the female and owlet.
    “We think it’s probably an old raven’s nest because it’s so ratty,” Fuller says. “I can’t imagine it would be any good next spring.”
    But there’s no assurance these owls will accept either of their rent-free offerings.
    Main installed a similar platform 13 years ago on private land near Howard Prairie, he says. That went unused for a decade before owls nested there last year and this year, he says.
    The southern Cascades population is the largest in the southern end of the owls' range, other than an isolated population in and around California’s Yosemite National Park. A subgroup found in the upper Applegate River Basin is the only known population west of Interstate 5.
    The KBO plans to collect donations to build and install more nesting platforms, thereby upgrading their known neighborhoods.
    “They’re great birds,” Fuller says. “We’re actually quite lucky to have them.”
     Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.
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