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Owls bring out the cuckoo in bird lovers

Long-Eared Owls rarely turn up west of the Cascades, but this one was spotted near Stanwood. Credit: Glenn Nelson / trailposse.com

It once roosted in a thicket the size of a two-car garage, amidst wetlands and diked agricultural fields near Stanwood. The brush was so thick, the Long-Eared Owl must have felt unassailable, even with the long-barreled photographic devices trained at it like arms in a cold war.

The birders and the avian paparazzi jostled and bickered and shoved like football fans queued for playoff tickets. With Mount Baker gleaming in the background, hunters boomed rifles, dogs sniffed and barked and, just across a flooded field, a battalion of construction workers jack-hammered and backed loudly beeping trucks.

Yet, all the while, the object of everyone’s desire appeared to not give … a hoot.

The people did, for sure.

These nocturnal birds of prey with the long, distinctive ear tufts prefer shrub-steppe habitat in Eastern Washington, making their presence on the other side of the mountains a “thing,” the way a new iPhone is a “thing.” The mobbing of the Long-Eared Owls at one point regressed into a panic that one of the birds literally had been loved to death. Those fears proved unfounded, but it provided yet another cautionary tale about unchecked human interaction with one of nature’s more sensitive species.

Almost more than any feathered creature, owls will bring out the cuckoo in birders.

“Owls become like religion for people,” said Dr. Kevin McGowan, a professional ornithologist and educator at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, one of the global authorities on birds. “They are more people-like — like cats. Those round heads and flat faces — it ticks something in the [human] brain that other birds wouldn’t inspire.”

On Dec. 8, Mitchell Von Rotz of Woodinville made one of those sightings that sends feathers — and people — flying. He posted to Tweeters, a local birding listserv, that he was “80-85” percent certain he’d spotted a LEOW (birder’s shorthand for Long-Eared Owl) near Stanwood. He also noted, “it may be a quasi noteworthy sighting,” which may have been an understatement along the lines of, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

So many birders subscribe to instant alerts that reports like Von Rotz’s are tantamount to firing a starter’s pistol. The race certainly was on after Ryan Merrill of Kirkland made the state’s first-ever confirmed sighting of a Wood Sandpiper in 2011. Just before posting a report online, Merrill warned Harley Soltes, owner of the Edison, Wash., farm on which the sighting was made: “You might need help to manage the crowds.” Shortly after Merrill hit “send” on his phone, the cars started lining up along Bayview-Edison Road, according to Soltes.

Merrill’s transmission was made over Tweeters, which was established by Dan Victor in 1992. Victor’s preceded another bird-themed social network, Twitter, by 28 migrations or 14 years, depending on how you mark your time. Closing in on 3,500 subscribers and read by countless others on the Web, Tweeters is a place to chirp about anything bird related. Cats eating birds is the all-time, “hot-button issue,” according to Victor. The most ubiquitous sightings-only tool is eBird. The online data-collection program launched by the Cornell Lab and National Audubon Society in 2002 can be accessed via smartphone applications.

The aftershocks of Von Rotz’s report didn’t really hit until the holidays, when crowds and emotions began to escalate. Mayhem seemed an inevitable consequence. Belinda Rotton, who manages the Skagit Wildlife Area for the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW), received reports of as many as 20-30 cars at the site, spilling out of a parking lot that holds about six.

The demise of one of the Long-Eareds was incorrectly reported more often than Morgan Freeman’s. When photographer Bryce Yamashita of Bothell returned to the site in February, he felt such a chill from birders that he skipped looking for the Long-Eared Owls because he “didn’t want to get beat up or yelled at by anybody.” Even hunters felt squeezed out by the raptor-triggered mosh pits.

The place ended up looking like the high-school football field the morning after senior prom. Large parts of the thicket were trampled and strewn with waterfowl carcasses and garbage. Sammy Catiis of Arlington says she found a knife sticking out of a tree where branches were cut away. Someone went joyriding in a four-wheeler and chewed up sections of the adjoining farmland. The WDFW eventually plopped down signs and increased its enforcement presence.

McGowan of the Cornell Lab listened to a detailed account of the commotion near Stanwood and offered a figurative shrug. He noted that Long-Eared Owls generally are plentiful and far from threatened. The same could not be said of people inspired enough by birds to help protect the environment. “People who are in the business of protecting the well-being of a species are all about populations and habitats,” McGowan said. “Everything else is a distraction.”

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife intervened after owl habitat was overrun and trampled by birders and photographers.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife intervened after owl habitat was overrun and trampled by birders and photographers. Credit: Glenn Nelson

People tend to project their own anxieties onto the birds, said McGowan and several other local avian experts. The fact that the owls remained near Stanwood as long as they did tells the tale more than anything else.

“They have wings, don’t they?” one local authority asked, suggesting the owls could easily have moved if genuinely harassed. For that matter, the legions of outraged birders and photographers had the same choice. After all, numerous birding listservs and forums, even the American Birding Association, discourage reporting the location of sensitive species, which certainly include owls.

Barb Deihl of Matthews Beach used to post on Tweeters as much as several times a week about the Long-Eared Owls. Her reports included links to photos and descriptions of the owls’ behavior. Increasingly, the posts contained complaints about the expanding human circus, which she now fears she may have contributed to arousing. “I have vacillated between feeling guilty about doing this,” said the retired junior-high-school teacher.

The last Tweeters post about the Stanwood site was a response to a Feb. 24 post by Deihl. She included nary a mention or photograph of the owls in her post. There weren’t many people in her photos, either. She’s since moved on to another longtime love, the Merlin. Deihl volunteers to monitor the falcon in Seattle neighborhoods where, unlike the owls, it goes largely unnoticed.

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