We've been hearing a Great Horned Owl frequently the past week, sitting in the big willow tree behind our place. I haven't seen them in several weeks but, as avid birders, today we had the chance to spend a most interesting and rewarding hour with a pair of GH owls.
SORCO (The South Okanagan Rehabilitation Centre for Owls) released two GH owls in the riparian area adjacent to our park this afternoon. These were young owls which had come into its care in March of this year. One had been blown from the nest at a young age, the other was a fledging who'd gotten tangled up in barbed wire and stripped all the feathers and skin off one wing, and required medical care and rehab before release.
Both youngsters have done well, have learned how to hunt catch mice and rats and are now at a point where they should be able to fend for themselves. Since the Trout Creek neighbourhood down the way, with its mega-million-$-mansions, is in the middle of a rat invasion, the folks at SORCO thought it a perfect habitat to release the young and hungry owls into.
The birds arrived in dog crates in the back of an SUV, and appeared to be very unimpressed with our gawking and their status as film stars. There was a long line-up for a chance to take photos of the caged birds. The one was too dark, but this one was better.
The release was scheduled for 2:00 pm. By 1:30 a sizable crowd was beginning to gather, and by 2:00 there must have been about 75 people there to witness the release.
We gathered in a large circle to watch Ken Fujino, SORCO's Executive Director, as he took the first owl from its crate and told us about the work SORCO does to rehabilitate birds of prey, including BC's 14 Owl species. Of the 16 species of owl in Canada, 14 are found in BC, and most of those are also found in the Okanagan.
Ken also said that it takes an average of $900 a bird to care for the injured and ill raptors which come through the clinic doors, and that they care for about 60 birds a year. They have an impressive 98% survival rate rearing baby birds, and about a 50% survival rate with older, injured or ill birds. And government funding dropped by 18% this year, leaving them in a tight financial spot. They had a donation box. At the end people were shoving $10s and 20s and even bigger donations in. It's a good cause. They rescue all the different types of injured and ill birds of prey found in the Okanagan; eagles, ospreys, hawks, falcons, vultures and owls.
Ken took the owl out of the box and held it by the ankles. It didn't panic, but you could tell it wasn't mentally composing fan mail to the SORCO director either, even though his knowledge of owls is extensive. It's apparently hard to impress an owl, who (judging by its expression) is so impressed by itself that humans are of about as much interest as the nearest fencepost.
As Ken talked the owl alternated between attempts at escape, giving Ken the stink eye and pretending it was somewhere else. But after five minutes, and lots of opportunity for photos, Ken lifted the bird and tossed it aloft. The crowd burst into applause. The bird soared beyond the line of huge trees which grow along the lakeshore, and we lost sight of it.
The second owl was much the same. It flapped a lot, and I came home with an incredibly delicate fluff of down it shed as it beat its wings. Again lots of time for photos and Ken set the owl free. I got a picture of it against the bright blue autumn sky. It lit in a nearby tree and turned its back to us, perhaps to gaze at the open expanse of water before it.
We have a resident Great Horned Owl who raises a brood here every spring. I have seen her several times from quite close (20-30 feet) and she is huge. Her wing span must equal my arm span. Great Horned Owls mate in Jan, chicks hatch in March, and by May and June the mother has them out of the nest and in the trees around us, fattening them on any mouse or vole foolish enough to poke head above ground when an owl is hunting.
The sight of a Great Horned Owl soaring in absolute silence is awe-inspiring. SORCO is dedicated to making sure that's a sight today's children will still be able to see when they are adults.