Northern spotted owls may have an image as being pretty wise. But you can also add tenacious survivors to their list of esteemed credentials.
Over the years spotted owls have been left homeless across the nation’s timber farming lands, served-up as dinner for hungry ravens, and occasionally fallen victim to careless tree trimmers. Their numbers have dropped three percent over the last 15 years. Yet their population in their stronghold of Marin County has held steady. Point Blue Conservation and Science researcher Renee Cormier estimated there are 200 spotted owls living in Marin. And she should know. She counted them.
“It looks like an owl was perched here for a decent amount of time recently,” Cormier said recently, inspecting the base of a tree in the Giacomini Open Space Preserve in West Marin. Cormier had recently spotted an adult pair of spotted owls and their owl chicks in the vicinity. Now she and a fellow researcher were coming back for a status check.
“We track populations to assess the health of the spotted owls,” Cormier said hoisting a pair of binoculars.
Cormier said there are only about 4000 Northern spotted owls left in lands ranging from Marin County to Southern British Columbia. In 1990, their dwindling numbers caused the federal government to list them as “threatened.” Marin County represents the species’ densest nesting region.
“It’s great to have a population like this in Marin,” said Cormier, “where the population is stable and they’re producing a lot of young.”
The research team regularly shares its data with managers of the Marin County Water District and the Marin County Open Space District which oversees the preserve. The agencies use the group’s data to avoid scheduling work near nesting locations during the nesting season.
On a recent day, soon after setting-out to count owls, Cormier easily spotted the dark silhouette of an adult owl napping inside the leafy foliage of a tall tree. But finding the owl’s two offspring required a bit more detective work. She scanned nearby trees looking for the two juveniles but finding none, veered off the dirt path and into the rugged foliage.
“Owls themselves, they tend to be perched very camouflaged next to the trunks of trees,” Cormier said. “So we get a good workout sometimes crawling over and under logs and running up hills.”
Eventually the researchers spotted the white furry outline of a ropy-poly juvenile owl, occupying an upper tree branch, scanning the human visitors. After diving back into the brush to search for the second sibling, Cormier soon discovered it was perched in the branch just below the first.
Often times, Cormier said she will resort to a good old fashioned owl call to try and summon the birds - but on this occasion demurred out of fear she might also attract hungry ravens. Despite the threat by ravens and fellow barn owls, humans remain the spotted owls most potent adversaries. Rats poisoned with rodenticide can also poison owls that feed on them. Often young owls that fall from their nest get scooped up by well-meaning people who come across them on trails.
“They’re going to look like white fluffy creatures,” said Melissa Pitkin, Point Blue’s outreach director, “and they’re going to be really appealing but you definitely want to leave them alone.”
With at least three-fourths of the owl family accounted for, Cormier called the day’s mission a success. After a morning scrapping with shrubs and sharp branches — it was off to the next forest to pay a visit to the next family.