“Everyone Ready? I’m Going to Open the Box.”
The Short-eared owl erupted from the carrier and winged rapidly across the open expanse before us...
I held my breath as he slowed and began gliding back and forth at the far end of the snow-covered field. He seemed to be orienting himself to the familiar surroundings of the Washington County Grasslands Wildlife Management Area (WMA). Minutes later he flew off into the setting sun.
I looked around at the huge smiles on the faces surrounding me. Most of FIBA’s field trip participants had never seen a Short-eared owl. Not unusual, considering these state endangered owls have almost been extirpated (exterminated) from New York State - and the northeast U.S.
“There are no words,” said an emotional Lehman when asked how it felt to release the now healthy Short-eared owl. “It was just a joy to see him fly, knowing all the work I put in gave him his life back.”
Only a Few Dozen Short Eared Owls Remain in New York State
I understood how she felt. Seeing one of only a few dozen owls remaining in the state released back into the wild brought tears to my eyes. It gave me a sense of awe - and a feeling that the struggle to conserve their habitat is worth the sacrifices we've made.
“It was almost like a reverence,” said field trip co-leader Rich Speidel. “Seeing him go back into his natural habitat – it isn’t something we normally see.”
“Amazing!” said FIBA member David Hasko. “My family is still talking about it.”
How the Short Eared Owl Was Rescued
The little male Short-eared owl sought shelter from the bitter cold weather that began in late December in the rafters a local hardware store. The store’s owners left the door open, hoping he’d fly out.
An employee used a lift to reach the owl after it’d been there two days. The owl was so weak (that) he let the man pick him up and wrap him in his jacket. The owner then called wildlife rehabilitators Dave Larrow and Cathy Lehman, a Fort Edward couple with extensive experience caring for birds of prey.
“He was just starving,” said Lehman. She had to force-feed him the first night, but after that, he started eating on his own. “He was eating three to four mice a day. It’s more than he’d usually catch in the wild, but he needed to get some fat back on him. He went through an awful lot of mice!”
Larrow said it snowed every time they were going to release him, or he would’ve been released sooner.
A Safe Haven for Endangered Birds, The Washington County Grasslands
The Washington County Grasslands Important Bird Area/ IBA is critical to the survival of Short-eared owls in New York State. It provides important breeding and wintering grounds for ten of eleven of NY’s most imperiled grassland birds and dozens of other species, including snowy owls, Northern harriers, American kestrels, upland sandpipers, Eastern meadowlarks, and bobolinks.
Wintering raptors depend on abundant prey populations. They can’t go without food for long or expend too much energy finding it before they become too weak to hunt. Young birds like this Short-eared owl are more likely to starve during cold weather because they are less skilled at catching prey. Deep snow cover like we had this winter makes locating and catching prey even more difficult.
DEC’s Wildlife Management Area, located in the heart of the IBA, did not seem to have its usual abundance of mice and voles. It had been heavily hunted by dozens of owls, harriers and hawks last winter.
How You Can Help Protect Short-Eared Owls, Snowy Owls and Others
FIBA’s Alfred Z. Solomon Grassland Bird Viewing Area saw increased activity by Snowy owls, Rough-legged hawks, and other wintering birds this year. However, only 14 acres of 100 acres we actively manage for the birds have been permanently protected. Fundraising for additional land purchases is underway.
We can help Short-eared owls and other imperiled grassland birds by conserving the critical habitat they need to survive. If we can conserve enough habitat, we can ensure they have an abundant supply of food year-round and safe areas to breed and raise their young. Learn more about FIBA's work to protect Short-eared owls and see more photos of the release at: www.ibafriends.org
Laurie LaFond has spent the last eight years working to restore Short-eared owls and other imperiled grassland birds in New York State. She founded the 501(c)(3) nonprofit land trust Friends of the IBA (FIBA) to conserve critical habitat these birds depend on for their survival. Thanks to an amazing group of volunteers FIBA now manages over 100 acres of prime habitat in the Washington County Grasslands IBA. They are partnering with NYSDEC and local landowners to conserve more land. LaFond serves as the organization’s executive director.