Part Three: Journey’s New Home

Journey. Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

The next call concerning a grounded Great Horned Owlet came from Melinda. Her husband, an excavator, had brought home this baby from a job site in Thurmont, MD the night before. He had found it on the ground and observed one of its parents defending it from a hawk before retrieving it. Melinda fed it raw beef that evening and morning, and then had to leave it at home when she went to work. She called Second Chance later that morning and was referred to Owl Moon Raptor Center. When I spoke to Melinda I advised her of my goal to return it to its parents, either in the existing nest or an artificial one. In the interim I would pick it up and take it to Owl Moon where it would receive a complete diet of whole mice. Raw beef may be okay in an emergency, but raptor chicks need the whole animal (including bones and organs), for proper nutrition, and will quickly develop metabolic and developmental problems on a diet of raw beef. Melinda agreed, and when I picked the owlet up she told me she would call me with the address and contact information of the people who owned the property where the owlet was found.

The only word I got back was a text saying that trees were being cut down on the nest site property. The tree cutting explained why the baby ended up on the ground, but it provided no useful information for reuniting this owlet with her parents, which was still a possibility even in light of the tree cutting. Alas, this baby, only two to three weeks of age, was now officially an orphan. She needed a foster nest. An orphan can be placed with other parents as long as the chicks are close in age. The foster parents will care for it as if it is one of their own. This was a problem because it is already late in the nesting season for Great Horned Owls in our area. Most young owls, like Twilight and Gylfie, are already leaving the nest. I put out a call for help to all the birding folks I know. I got a great response, but days passed, and no suitable nest was found.  Each passing day increases the risk of a lone young orphan becoming habituated, or worse, imprinted to people. I was taking every precaution to minimize human contact, but I needed to get her with other owls soon, for this baby to have any chance of success in the wild.

Meanwhile, I had visitors! A troop of 12 young Girl Scouts (Brownies) from Iamsville, MD arranged to visit Owl Moon Raptor Center for an ambitious nest-building project. This project was the culmination of a lot of planning and organizing by the girls, and its completion would earn them their Journey Badge. They arrived on Saturday, April 14, in several vehicles, and began unloading the supplies they had gathered and purchased: 12 laundry baskets of camouflage colors, and at least that many trash bags full of green twigs and branches they had clipped from trees and shrubs in their yards. We talked about the need for these nests, and how they would be used to reunite young raptors with their parents. I showed them an example of what we were making, and they went right to work. It is not easy for little fingers to weave twigs through openings in a laundry basket and between other twigs. I was impressed by their strength and determination to do a good job, and persistence to get the job done. We opted to work in teams with parents assisting, and managed to complete seven beautiful nests in only two hours’ time! The girls lined each one with a soft bed of pine needles they gathered and carried from my neighbor’s yard with her consent.

Before we concluded, I showed them photographs of my raptor patients, including the orphaned nestling great-horned owl. I asked the girls to come up with a name for her, and after several great suggestions and discussion, they decided to call her “Journey.” It was the perfect name. The owl was just beginning her life’s journey, as the Brownies were completing their Journey Badge. I told them I hoped Journey would be the first to use one of their nests.

The troop works on nest baskets. Photograph by Pamm Shankman.

Regan and Chasie working on a nest. Photograph by Pamm Shankman.

Wendy and Valerie weaving branches. Photograph by Pamm Shankman.

Abby examines her nest. Photograph by Pamm Shankman.

Abby and Charlene test out their final product. Photograph by Pamm Shankman.

Yup! These baskets should be comfy enough for owls. Photograph by Pamm Shankman.

The troop shows off the results of their hard work. Photograph by Pamm Shankman.

After the Brownies had completed their nest baskets I brought Squeak-toy out for some job training. As an education bird he will need to be relaxed and comfortable in front of groups. Photograph by Pamm Shankman.

As luck would have it, the very next day fate intervened. I got a call from Second Chance about a baby owl found on the ground in Potomac, MD. When I returned the call I spoke with Lee, who had found it on her front walkway that morning. She was not sure what species of owl she had. As I drove to Potomac, I prayed that it would be a healthy great horned owl, the same age as Journey. Lee led me to a box they had sheltered the owlet in, under a tree in their yard. I held my breath when I looked inside. He could have been Journey’s brother!

We searched for the nest by looking on the ground for the remains of prey, such as bones, fur, and feathers, and owl droppings. It was easy to know when we found it. A good chunk of the nest was on the ground on the driveway below a tall White Pine. Owls don’t build their own nests. Instead they use the old nests of crows and hawks, which are often in pretty poor condition. What remained of this nest was at the top, in the crotch of two large limbs. We scoured the yard, and the remaining nest, for a possible sibling, as there are often two and occasionally three chicks in a brood. None were found. This made for an ideal fostering situation for Journey. We could put her in a nest basket with this owlet, who was named “Alan” by Lee’s daughter, Lily. Alan’s parents would take care of both chicks. We would have to wait until the next evening to put the nest basket in the tree, as it was too late to arrange for Jason and Mike to climb that evening. I took this Alan back to Owl Moon, and introduced him to his new sibling, Journey.

That night Journey and Alan were introduced. Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

Jason and Mike already had the climbing ropes in place in a tree near the nest tree when Lee Prouty and I arrived the next evening. We had decided against putting the nest basket in the original nest tree because it overhung the paved driveway. The chosen tree overhung the lawn, and would provide a soft landing should one of the owlets come down a second time. Lee (the finder) and her daughters, Lily and Lexi, looked on and took pictures while Ken Smith, a licensed raptor bander, banded both owlets. Then I gave each owlet a parting meal of mice to hold them over until mom and dad took over feeding duties.  We proceeded with re-nesting, just as we had done with Twilight and Gylfie. Only with Journey and Alan, who were about three weeks younger, we didn’t worry that they would try to “flee the scene.”  They settled into their new nest immediately.

Jason climbs the tree we have chosen to site the nest basket in. Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

I hold Alan so that Ken can band him. Photograph by Ken Smith.

Journey and Alan, banded and well fed, now ready to ride up to their new nest in a soft cooler. Photograph by Ken Smith.

Lee Prouty and I hung around with Lee and Lily until after dark, watching and listening for evidence of the reunion. We heard lots of calling, both adult and juvenile over the next hour or so. Some of the calling was coming from the nest tree, which was an indication that perhaps Alan had a sibling after all. Then we saw an adult fly into the original nest and heard signs of a juvenile responding to a meal, which all but confirmed that we had inadvertently added a third chick to the brood. Great Horned Owls have triplets of their own sometimes, but I would have thought twice had I known in advance. However, under these circumstances, with no good alternative for Journey I probably would have gone ahead anyway. That evening, having just received a meal from me, Journey and Alan were quiet.

Tuesday morning, Lee, Lexi, and Lily were up early, with binoculars on the nest at first light. They “were thrilled to see the wide wingspan of the mother in the new nest attending to her baby, as well as her newly adopted baby!” Alan was back with his parents, and Journey’s new journey had begun!

Birding in the Atchafalaya Basin

Norbert and his lucky crew of six, about to set off on our boat tour.

The National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association (NWRA) 2012 Symposium was every bit as gratifying as I had hoped. The first day, Tuesday, was a long one however. I had to leave my house at 4:30 am to catch a 7 am flight to Baton Rouge, LA via Charlotte, NC. My friend and fellow rehabber, Roxy Brandenburg, was on the same flight, and we were both excited to be arriving in time for a tour of Cypress Island Swamp. The Nature Conservancy manages Cypress Island Preserve; 9500 acres of cypress and tupelo trees dripping with Spanish moss, and bottomland hardwood forests at Lake Martin. The preserve is part of the Atchafalaya Basin; America’s largest river basin swamp.

You could mistake this alligator for just another hummock in the swamp. Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

Cypress and Tupelo trees draped in Spanish Moss and their beautiful shimmering reflection in the swamp water. Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

Atchafalaya Basin branches off the Mississippi River and extends 135 miles to Atchafalaya Bay, where it eventually empties into the Gulf of Mexico. You may remember hearing about it last spring, when the Mississippi River was flooding its banks and there was talk of opening up the floodgates into Atchafalaya Basin to save many homes and towns from the floodwaters. The growing delta of the Atchafalaya River is the destination of thousands of water birds that migrate along the Mississippi Flyway. More than 300 species overwinter in the diverse habitats it offers, and hundreds more use these habitats to sustain them on their migration to points further south in Mexico and South America. For more information about this incredibly important wetland check out this website: http://www.basinkeeper.org/.

Roxy and I arrived in Baton Rouge in time to dump our bags at the hotel and grab a quick lunch (our first taste of the incredible Cajun cuisine that was to be another highlight of the NWRA Symposium) before catching the tour shuttle. Unfortunately the early morning flight caught up with me. I fell asleep on the bus and missed most of the scenery en route to the swamp. I awoke as we passed through a quaint little town called Breaux Bridge, which proclaims itself the “Crawfish Capitol of the World,” and is full of history and local culture including antique shops, beautiful architecture, restaurants, and live music. I wish I could have stayed and visited, but from there it was a only a short drive to the Cyprus Island Swamp. http://tourism.breauxbridgelive.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=12&Itemid=43

Our first stop was The Nature Conservancy’s Cypress Island Visitor’s Center, where we disembarked for a quick bathroom break. Most of us, eager to go back to where we had just passed hundreds of Great Egrets in the trees and on nests, got right back on the bus to proceed, but I later learned that one person was rewarded for her dallying. She walked down to the water’s edge where she disturbed a black snake napping on the shore. When she got out her camera to take a picture, the snake opened its jaws to reveal an enormous “cotton” mouth. She had inadvertently disturbed a Water Moccasin, and had snapped a great photo of its signature mouth!

A Great Egret in hunting mode. Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

Back at the rookery, a Audubon Society volunteer had kindly set up about 8 spotting scopes in a row, each one focused on a fascinating sight in the swamp, including an Alligator, a Snapping Turtle, a Brown Water Snake in shed, a Great Egret displaying his incredible plumage to the females, a Little Blue Heron, a Roseate Spoonbill, an Anhinga, and a Crested Cormorant. The birds he had focused on were among hundreds that had already arrived and begun the ritual of courtship and nesting. He told us that, in the next month, these hundreds will become thousands, and more species, including Cattle and Snowy Egrets, White Ibis, Little Green and Great Blue Herons, and Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night Herons will arrive, and the young will be hatching and visible in the nests. What a sight that will be! http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/louisiana/placesweprotect/cypress-island.xml

A Great Egret in breeding plumage, getting set to display. Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

A Little Blue Heron flew into a tree when we passed him in the boat. Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

Roseate Spoonbill in flight over the swamp rookery. Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

Anhinga in flight. Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

A Crested Cormorant. Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

From there we drove a short piece down the road to the docks and broke into smaller groups for our boat tour. I managed to place myself in the smallest boat, a group of six, and we followed Norbert, our 76 year-old native “swamper” guide, to board. My pictures tell the rest of the story. We saw many of the above-named birds in hunting mode, and alligators and turtles galore. The sun had just emerged following a day of record rains (up to 15 inches!) and the reptiles were out basking. The alligators ranged in size from about 8 feet to 14 feet, and Norbert explained that the age difference was roughly 100 years! An 8-footer being 50 years old, while a 14-footer is 150.

A fourteen and a half footer, about 150 years old, probably the oldest alligator we saw. Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

A lazy alligator (about 8 feet long and 50 years old), wondering if we dare disturb his rest. Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

One of the oldest of the alligators we saw, showing his age by the "double chin", and the classic "crocodile smile." Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

Turtles galore, covered in algae, out basking in the sun after a day of record rainfall. Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

Midway through the tour, Norbert parked the boat in some floating water hyacinth (an extremely invasive non-native plant that requires intense management to keep waterways open), and showed us the minute flowers of Spanish Moss, and how they pollinate by wind. In our nearby surroundings, we saw a 6-foot alligator, a “chameleon” Green Anole Lizard change color, and another Brown Water Snake.

A Green Anole Lizard turned brown in perfect camouflage against the bark of the Cypress. Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

Norbert then got out some tattered clippings of a National Geographic article that showed him as a younger man in the swamp. He had grown up in the swamp, and raised his own kids on a diet of wild swamp critters, including alligators, turtles, beaver, and raccoon.  Last but not least, Norbert pulled out a jug of his very own Moonshine, and poured each of us a shot! It was surprisingly good!

Norbert, our tour guide, showing us that it was an appropriate time (somewhere) for him to share a taste of his very own moonshine! Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

Finally, Norbert took us to where a few spectacular trees, less desirable as timber due to their prolific branches, grew to the ripe old age of 1500 years!  He explained that Cypress is extremely slow growing due to its wet growing conditions, so while these trees have an enormous girth of 10+ feet, they are deceptively old for their size. We also saw the Cypress “knees”, an emergent part of the roots that allow the trees to breathe air, and Norbert explained how the knees are desirable for creating elaborate carvings, and so most had been cut. Somehow the trees had managed to live on. That concluded our wonderful boat tour, and we returned to the docks to board our bus for the ride back to the hotel.

An ancient Cypress tree, roughly 1500 years. Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

Cypress knees, emergent roots that allow the trees to breathe in an aquatic environment, prized by woodcarvers. Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

One of our tour guide, Norbert's, favorite old Cypress trees, because "it looks like it is smiling." Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

The next day, Wednesday, the NWRA Symposium kicked off with an awesome keynote speech and slide presentation given by C.C. Lockwood, a free-lance photographer who spent the better part of the last thirty years living in the Atchafalaya Basin and photographing its unique flora and fauna. He has written several incredible books and produced an award-winning film on the Basin, published by National Geographic.  It turns out that it was C.C. Lockwood who had photographed Norbert as a young man, in the old tattered National Geographic clippings he so proudly shared with us. C.C. Lockwood’s latest honor is that one of his photographs; of Cypress trees set against a beautiful sky reflected in the water, was selected for the US Postage Stamp celebrating the 200th Anniversary of Louisiana Statehood.  It will soon be available at your local post office.

These were two highlights of the Symposium for me, but it was only the beginning of a week of superb presentations and informative discussion about a wide range of important topics relating to wildlife rehabilitation ranging from Care of Opossum Neonates and Rehabilitating Sea Turtles to acquiring fish and insects for feeding wildlife, and Getting the Most out of Eagle Scout Projects. Some of my favorite presentations were Physical Therapy in Aquatic Birds (easily translated for use in raptors), Treatment of Lead Intoxication in Bald Eagles (over 85% of all the Bald Eagle patients received at The University of Minnesota Raptor Center have at least some lead in their blood, and most have clinical signs of lead poisoning), Strigiformes – Why Owls Aren’t Just Raptors by Another Name, Infectious Diseases of Raptors, Reuniting and Fostering Raptors, Triaging Injured Wildlife, and Beyond the Individual – Rehabilitation of Species, a thought-provoking presentation and discussion about the difficult choices required to save a species.

I’m sure that, as 2012 unfolds, you will hear more about my experiences and education at the 2012 NWRA Symposium. Meanwhile, I have returned to Maryland and Owl Moon where I am enthused and invigorated to get back to the work of rehabilitating raptors!

-Suzanne Shoemaker