Montana Wolf

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Entering Owldom

It took several hours to drive from Libby to the Owl Research Institute near Charlo, MT. I was on my way to join Denver Holt and his seasoned assistants on the Long-eared Owl study. I relished the solo road trip down gravel roads along the swift-flowing Thompson River. I turned east onto Highway 200 and followed the impressive Clark Fork and Flathead Rivers; detoured across the Bison Range and arrived at his home and research center late afternoon. For a birder, paradise.

I was smack dab in the middle of thousands of waterbirds, raptors, songbirds and owls in the Nine Pipes Wildlife Refuge, so named for the Flathead Indian family. Birds on water, birds on wing, air exploding with calls and song. Denver had mentioned that I could stay in his writer's cabin. That, alone, was cause for excitement. I had no way of knowing, however, that this cabin was perched Thoreau-like, at the edge of a small pond. Across the pond were mature, newly-leafed willows and a tangle of tree snags. On those snags was a great horned owl family -- parents and two chicks -- who, according to Denver, spent the days and nights hopping around the branches, testing wings and balance.

There are 250 owl species in the world. There are 19 in Canada and US; of those, 15 are found in Montana. That's more than any other state. Great horned owls are ubiquitous across the North America, but to see them close, outside my window, was a game changer. One night I watched for four hours until darkness stole my view. So happens, that was the night the larger one learned to fly.

The mother had been hanging out with the chicks all day; the father showed up at dusk, whereupon mom departed and returned within minutes with a bloody body of a white feathered bird. She landed on a bare branch several feet from the chicks, making them come to her. She gave the bird to the larger chick for a few moments, then embarked on a tug-of-war to take it back. She then shredded it and fed the larger chick. The flesh disappeared down the gullet as Dad showed up with a vole. The larger chick quickly swallowed it, as the smaller chick looked on from a branch above. Then, mom showed up again, this time landing in a snag across the pond. The challenge was clear: fly to eat, and fly he did. Once the larger chick passed his flight test, the parents returned to the original tree and fed the smaller one. It was obviously not his time to fly yet.

I was witness to a flawlessly choreographed lesson. For the next two days I joined Denver and his team banding long-eared owls near Missoula, complete with its own set of miracles. Yet, I could not wait to return to watch 'my' family. By the second evening, both chicks flew tree to tree. For the first time ever, I witnessed chicks perched side by side, leaning, preening and playing with one another as mom looked on and stood watch from the tip of a high dead limb.

The newsworthy part of my sojourn was the long-eared owls. But it was the writer's cabin on the pond that stole my heart, and the owls whooooo, I swear, recognized me and began to show off by the time I  departed four days later.


  1. Great shot of the fledgling owl, mom! You're so lucky!

  2. Oh, what a treasure chest for you to find right there in Montana. Hope you can go back again. The photos are amazing. You must be writing more about the owls for some publications.

  3. Email from Carol (who can't get post to work): Oh my....I am so in love with your writings and photos that you share. What an unbelieveable experience. You are blessed with those kinds of opportunities and the ability to touch the hearts of your friends by the way you can write those stories for us. My heart just sings with those opening you create for me, into your world.