by Jeanne Dammarell
On first sight, it looked like a brown plastic bag snagged on a low branch hanging over the Little Spokane River. The branch was encrusted in icicles and the river repeatedly grabbed and released the branch, causing a severe bobbing motion.
Our CBC team strained to look through the gloomy light to see more clearly. “I think it’s a bird caught on the branch,” said Gary Kuiper. Rachel Brabeck and I turned to examine his find. It was such an improbable site for a bird to choose for a perch. Binoculars confirmed that we were looking at a Western Screech Owl perched inches above the river on a branch that bobbed up and down incessantly. We strained to see well enough to determine why it might choose to sit there and could see nothing. We went back for my camera and shot off a few photos, hoping that the big lens would pick up details we were missing, and then resumed the Count work.
As we worked through the day, the conversation would return to the owl and possible explanations for the bizarre perch. That night I downloaded the photos into the computer and felt sick. Even in the poor light, the camera picked up the fishing line running across the branches and over to the bird. The flight feathers on the wing located on the backside of the bird hung down and appeared encased in ice. I drove back down to the river and used a flashlight to confirm the continued presence of the Owl. I phoned Gary and we agreed that it was too dark and the area too wild and snow-covered to deal with at night but that we would go back in the morning when Gary was freed up about 10:00 a.m. and see if we could get close to it.
I sent the photos in an e-mail to Ron Dexter and he phoned around 10:00 p.m. “This is an emergency, so I think you should call Pam Wolff now.” We had all spent the day birding the CBC and I felt reluctant to phone so late, but Ron persisted. He was right. After quick introductions and explanations, Pam listed the equipment we should have with us in the morning and agreed to meet at the river at first light. Pam’s ten year background in bird rescue and rehabilitation in Alaska would prove to be invaluable.
I phoned Tina Wynecoop in the morning and explained the situation. She knew someone who was a friend of the property owner and would make the call. The land on both sides of the Little Spokane River is private property, so there would be no access to the owl without crossing into someone’s property. Tina also said she could bring some waders and join us in the rescue.
I had spent an entire night with my mind running over rescue scenarios and worried about the suffering of the poor owl. Planning the rescue while we spoke by telephone, it seemed that wading into the river and cutting the branch off would be the safest for the owl. When we drove up to the site, however, I could feel my heart sink. The bird was located just past a waterfall and the water underneath the perch as roiling.
My husband, Buz Dammarell, grabbed the long handled pruner and walked across a foot bridge to the owl’s side of the river. He disappeared behind a thicket of tall bushes. The riparian area was deep, the bird was sitting several feet out from the shore on a branch loaded down with ice and snow, and footing from that side would be treacherous because of the deep snow cover on tall grasses.
An hour and a half of cutting trail into the target bush brought Buz up to the base of the branch. The owl’s eyes would barely open and there was no telling what kind of condition it was in. It was agreed that Pam would saw the branch while Buz held it and reeled it to shore. As he pulled the branch in, he watched the owl and noticed the fishing line slacken. Suddenly, the owl hopped into the river. Everyone scrambled! Fortunately, the water carried it to shore, where it pulled itself up and collapsed. Sliding down the steep bank with a towel, Tina quickly wrapped it up.
Back at the car, the initial examination was encouraging. Finger examinations of the breast revealed some good body fat. The owl was very passive and radiated body heat, so Pam said keeping it cool was important. Wild birds overheat when they are in stress and keeping them cool is the first step. Neither wing appeared to be broken and the little feet looked really good. We were about a mile from a wildlife rehabilitation veterinarian (Mt. Spokane Veterinary) but it was Sunday on New Year’s weekend.
Pam took the bird home and we would try for a veterinarian’s exam on Monday. That day Pam purchased a mouse and liquid containing electrolytes. The owl was fed small bits of mouse internal organs mixed with the liquid. Soon he was barking at her when she came into the room.
Good, it is getting grumpy! She left the box open in the closed room overnight, to see what it would do. It was running around the room the next morning and barking at her again. Pam phoned the vet’s office and connected with staff, but they were there only to check on the animals…no doctor would be in until after the holiday. They did agree to let Pam use their flight cage to check the owl. Tina and I met her at the clinic just after a successful flight test.
Pam handed us the box and suggested that the best thing for this owl would be to return it to the location of the rescue and release it. Tina and I drove back to the site and carried the box across the foot bridge to stand between two thickets. As I lifted the tiny owl from the box we were delighted to be scolded with two sharp ‘barks’. I laid it down on the snow and stepped back. It paused there for about one second and then shot rapidly and surely through the thicket and disappeared.
Christmas bird counts are always fun, but this opportunity to save a bird that was in deep trouble has added another dimension to the event. From now on, we will think fun and adventure when we think of the CBC and when I think of Buz, Tina and Pam I will always think ‘Heroes’.