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Barney and Blanche: a tale of barn owls nesting

by: Mark Timken, owl painting by Beatrice Timken

Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.  —Rebecca Solnet, 2016, p. 4

“Look! An owl!” my partner exclaimed with surprise and excitement, pointing at a large, white bird the size of a seagull gliding away from us into the dusk. It was a cool evening in March 2017 and we were out for a final farm walk of the evening with Gus, the blocky-headed, cream-colored golden retriever. I definitely saw the owl and knew it to be a barn owl, but my internal skeptic reared up and doubted whether the owl had been perched on the deck of our owl nesting box before being surprised by our evening wander.

Like pieces of a puzzle quickly coming together, I started to make connections from some recent odd but significant events. A few nights earlier, on a similar evening stroll, I heard the most intriguing, magical sound I have ever heard. It sounded like Santa Claus and his sleigh being pulled by reindeer—a strange, jingling sound—up by the road. I felt chills erupt on my arms and I guessed that the sound was possibly a courtship song by a male barn owl and, quite possibly, we had just disturbed his partner checking out our owl box as a potential nesting site.

As a kid I always longed to live on a farm on an island. It is one of those unexplained childhood fantasies where, in retrospect, you feel like the future is luring you toward a specific ecological niche, a place the earth wants you to tend and care for. Amazingly, as an adult, and in the most serendipitous way, we found and started an organic vegetable farm and a family, on an island in the Salish Sea.

I must admit to blundering around as a rookie farmer my first year, although I was very aware of the weight of my new stewardship responsibility for the land; this initially included a unique and unexpected relationship with birds. One of the first things I did when we moved to the property was put up a hummingbird feeder. I have been feeding year round ever since and the number of hummingbirds has swelled. I also open up the bay doors to our barn on or around the spring equinox each year to make the space available to barn swallows. Again, their numbers have increased dramatically. It is not exactly Capistrano but exciting nonetheless to have a constant patrol of swallows who were born here and migrated thousands of miles to return here, working above the land, nabbing potentially crop-damaging insects. Some particular species of birds are a farmer’s best friend—the pollinators, aerial feeders, and rodent controllers.

About that time I read and learned about barn owls and how farmers in California were successfully putting up nesting boxes to attract owls to their orchards to control rodent populations without needing to use pesticides. Immediately after reading the article, I ordered two large wooden boxes that high school students were making as a fundraiser and eagerly put them up at a specific height off the ground and facing away from the prevailing wind as directed.

Then I waited. And waited. Nothing. I did some exploring around the island and tried to find the notorious barn owls behind the elementary school and the ones by the private grass-strip airport. There were barn owls on the island but for some reason they weren’t interested in my nesting boxes or this land. It seemed that I had the perfect habitat—open agricultural land and fields, mixed with forest. Years went by. I continued my efforts to improve the health of the land by using compost, planted hundreds of trees and small native shrubs, and pulled invasive plants. Eventually one of the nesting boxes rotted and fell down during a wind storm. The other box was listing badly and I had just recently been considering taking it down because it reminded me of the failed and, what I thought, hopeless project. That was until we saw Barney that night on our walk.

I am curiously aware of our human need or even compulsion, consciously or not, to anthropomorphize animals among other things. I am not proud of this weakness in myself but was simply unable not to name the owls who finally, after 10 years of not-so-patient waiting, took up residence in the nesting box a stone’s throw away from our house. They were virtually neighbors! I convinced myself it would have been rude not to name them! It took me a while and I solicited names from my family until we eventually settled on Barney and Blanche.

Barney and Blanche: A painting made by Mark Timken’s daughter Beatrice Timken.

After the first Barney sighting, the next night around sunset, I set up my naturalist research camp. All I could think of was Jane Goodall and photos of her African research camp, notebooks, journals, gas lanterns, and her patiently sitting observing chimpanzees. I pulled out an old Crazy Creek chair, got my enormous binoculars, camera, water bottle, cell phone, warm hat, and gloves and encouraged a sleepy Gus to come outside with me; we plunked down maybe 75 feet away from the box out in the open for the best viewing. I felt like I was at a drive-in movie theater
waiting for the show to begin, minus the popcorn, head swiveling wildly in anticipation. I waited. Nothing.

Gus got fussy and eventually dug a huge hole, flinging dirt all over me, excited with his project, but no sign of Barney or Blanche. And then I got tired and the reality of an early morning had me retreating back to the house, dragging all of my stuff. The next night I pulled my camp back further away under an old willow tree that my daughter used to climb called Mother Ruby (I guess the naming thing is an issue).

Eventually, Barney dropped out of the sky like a moth, fluttering in a sing-song way with his familiar jingle, and landed in an old cherry tree next to the nesting box. He had some kind of unidentified rodent lifeless in his beak. I heard a sound from inside the nesting box. It was Blanche begging for food. It was then that I noticed, through the binoculars, Barney was looking right at Gus and me. He knew we were there and the night before we were simply too close for him to start his nightly rounds. He had waited us out. This would become a useful technique for Barney to gain some privacy. It was our first lesson in boundaries with our new neighbors and it would not be the last.

Last fall I volunteered as a Salmonwatcher for the Vashon Nature Center and was in contact with Kelly Keenan, the coordinator of the program. After I felt like I had enough evidence and proof of my discovery with the owls not to embarrass myself, I contacted Kelly for her support and wisdom. My primary concern was the condition of the nesting box. It looked like it was about to fall down at any moment and was in need of further support and maintenance. Kelly encouraged me, much to my concern and anxiety, not to disturb the box or the area now that we
believed Blanche was incubating her eggs.

Kelly generously allowed me to borrow a trail camera with night video capabilities to help understand more of what was happening. Each morning I would visit the camera attached to a ladder in front of the nesting box, retrieve the memory card, and review the videos of the night before on my computer. These 10-second video clips look like X-rays in the dark night sky, but proved to be my window into the world of barn owls and provided incredible details and insight that would have been lost to me prior to this type of technology.

The baby: a barn owl nest box adventure from Vashon Nature Center on Vimeo.

The camera did prove what we initially believed—Barney and Blanche were using the nesting box and Blanche had finished laying eggs and now remained in the box, completely dependent on Barney for her survival. Kelly told me of another nesting box that she was monitoring across the island; she had a theory that potentially fledged barn owls from that box had found my nesting box and knew this type of establishment to be a safe and respectable place
to raise their young. My courting had paid off.

This is where I have to admit that I started to worry and become overly attached to the success of this endeavor and my anxiety about the necessity of its success. There were times at night during winter storms when the wind was blowing so hard, pummeling the house, that I would think of Blanche alone in the rickety box swaying around and I was convinced it was going to fall over, dashing the hope of more barn owls in the world. My mind went to extremes
—dashing the hope of all species. Each morning, much to my disbelief, the nesting box remained standing and the process unfolded just as it was intended.

One afternoon I got a text from Kelly reporting that a male barn owl had been hit by a car and killed. Barney, I immediately thought. It took me two excruciating nights of watching at the camp and video checking to confirm it was not Barney but indeed another unfortunate victim or victims, considering the impact of a single parent in this type of situation. I anxiously thought of raccoons, crows, mink, neighbors who use rat poisons, all the possible ways an owl could die. I had fantasies of rushing out in the middle of the night in the wet and wind trying to rescue owlets from predators, desperately attempting to alter the course of nature. Like the parent of a newborn child, I was exhausted and stressed and eventually I had to come around to the fact that this might not work out the way I wanted it to. There simply were no guarantees.

There is a process of life and death happening and I am witness to it in an intimate way but I have little control over the outcome. I am aware of the external, collective anxiety around climate change and the almost desperate need for “good” things to happen in the face of what is perceived as being all the “bad.” Part of my process included going to a place of imagined hopelessness before I could swing back to find hope again.

Drop in: a barn owl nesting box adventure from Vashon Nature Center on Vimeo.

Eventually all the collective team-work paid off for Barney and Blanche. Three gigantic, rodent-laden owlets emerged in May with incessant, raucous, and distinct begging calls. The peaceful nights of watching the nesting box from under Mother Ruby changed quickly as Blanche also emerged and proved to be a fierce and intimidating mother determined to protect her offspring from harm. She has a terrifying warning scream that, when emitted, sends me immediately in the opposite direction, instinctively ducking, covering my head with my arms complete with visions of having my skull ripped open, even though she has never actually attacked anyone, not even Gus. My once glorious research camp has now been reduced to a partial view of the nesting box from my closet and, of course, the ever- important nightly video haul.

There is something magical about going from zero barn owls to five flying around the farm that adds a distinct flavor of wildness and giddy chaos. The newly emerged siblings, in their floundering initial attempts to learn how to fly, launched themselves clumsily into nearby trees and practiced landing on the roof of the house, skittering and thumping across the metal above our heads. Neighbors expressed concern and curiosity about “all that noise” coming from our farm; do you know anything about those owls, they inquired. There were barn owls everywhere,
on fence posts, in the trees, on the roof, flopping in and out of the fields. Eventually the plenitude of owls shifted, the siblings fledged, one by one, until only Barney and Blanche remained and, with no pomp or celebration, they started mating again; a second brood is on the way. Can I say that again—a second brood is on the way!

In retrospect, watching owls became a necessity, a strange fascination, and triggered a certain primordial excitement—a genetically programmed longing for connections with the rest of the living world (Clinebell, 1996, p. 41). There is something vitally important for me about sitting outside, with Gus nearby chewing on pieces of random wood, at dusk, most nights, that is grounding and helps alleviate a collective, gnawing anxiety about the helplessness at the edge of the environmental abyss. The longer I sit and observe, the more I can feel my nervous system relax, which is followed by more presence and awareness to what is occurring around me—the sights, sounds, smells.

The genetic longing I feel is to be deeply reconnected to the ecological systems and to help promote a healthy and viable system, a system that produces bountiful, healthy food for humans, elegant swallows, darting, pollinating hummingbirds, and magnificent barn owls, to name a few. If I am paying careful attention, I am aware that something hopeful is unfolding all around me and I am playing a part in making it happen. When Barney and Blanche selected this farm, this land, to raise their family, it in some way confirmed and validated for me that my conservation efforts were paying off, as owls are indicator species—they indicate the health of the land.

Putting up the owl boxes was hope in the form of action. Sure, I could sit here and hope that owls would nest on the farm. By putting up the nesting boxes I made an offering to the mystery, a courting gesture, that said—you are welcome here and I will do my part. I didn’t know what the outcome would be, but I did it just the same. I have been told that owls can hear a human heartbeat from a spectacular distance. Sometimes I wonder if Barney and Blanche can hear my heartbeat accelerate when they show themselves at twilight. Maybe they can sense my intention to help them and my deep curiosity about them. I can’t help but feel grateful that I am in a reciprocal relationship with these owls—an amazing partnership with beauty and wildness.

Mark P. Timken is a nature-based psychotherapist and a founder/stakeholder of the Vashon Wilderness Program.

References
Clinebell, H. (1996). Ecotherapy: Healing ourselves, healing the earth. Binghampton, NY: Haworth Press.

Solnit, R. (2016). Hope in the dark: Untold histories, wild possibilities. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books.

Meeting the Lion: A Vashon Nature Center Blog Series: Part 1

Vashon Nature Center - Sunset

by: Kathryn True

Vashon-Maury Islands have been host to a cougar for the past year. In the absence of an on-island state wildlife office, many islanders have turned to Vashon Nature Center for questions about the cougar and to report sightings. As we hit the one-year anniversary of the big cat’s arrival, we wanted to reflect on this year of living with a cougar. This blog series is not intended to make a case either for or against the cougar being here, but to encapsulate from a natural history perspective how islanders live with and experience one element of our varied wildlife. Through human stories about living with the cougar, we hope to shed some light on our expectations and fears, how they shape the world around us, and how nature shapes us.

Footprints of Vashon-Maury’s current cougar resident in the sand. photo by: Bob Lane

A year ago, on a fir-scented summer morning somewhere on the Kitsap Peninsula, a young male cougar woke up with his mother and siblings for the last time. He was restless. Recently, on more than one occasion, he’d come upon the scent of another male cougar, and it was now time for him to follow growing urges to find his own territory—to make his own home. Maybe he wrestled with his sister, maybe his mom licked his head one last time, or maybe he set out without looking back. This is the natural order of things for a male mountain lion—to leave home before the age of two, locate and mark a territory, find females, and reproduce. This was much easier to do before widespread human development—former forest lands turned unpredictable mazes of roads and fences, are an ever-thickening obstacle course of homes, and humans.

The young cougar headed east, and sticking to wooded areas he sought cover as he wended away from his natal forest. It smelled more and more promising as he moved away from a loud strip of black land whizzing with metal boxes, and he finally reached a beach and looked east; a sea of salt water lapped at his paws, rounded stones pressed between his toes. In the distance, a wide swath of green was enticing, though he’d have to swim to reach it. He didn’t mind swimming, so in the promising light of a July half-moon, he set off dog-paddling—or cat-paddling, as it were. Breathing heavily, he focused his gaze on the land ahead, surprising a passing sea lion, and powered through the intense currents of what he didn’t know as Colvos Passage. Exhausted, he finally he pulled himself onto a deserted island shore.

Below are stories of the first two cougar reports Vashon Nature Center received last summer. Subsequent posts in this series will cover additional cougar encounters and impressions from islanders. We extend a heartfelt thanks to those of you who shared a story, photo record, or your expertise with us. There is one perspective we regret not being able to include—that of the big cat himself.

First sighting: Dilworth, July 26, 2016

On a glowing evening late last July, islander Suzanne Fiala and her sisters relaxed in lawn chairs in her yard sipping iced tea and soaking in each other’s company after picnicking at Lisabeula. It was a rare reunion for the three women who were raised on a 160-acre ranch in northern Idaho, and now live in Denver, Bellingham and Vashon. Growing up with bears in the garden and elk bugling through their dreams, wildlife was commonplace in their family’s remote outpost situated between Sandpoint and Coeur d’Alene.

Well-settled on two acres in the Dilworth area in northeast Vashon, Dr. Fiala, a family practitioner who works for Kaiser, has lived here 11 years and knows well the likely wild mammal suspects on her island property: deer, raccoons and squirrels. Her three rescue dogs, a pit bull, Boston terrier and pug mix, keep them wary. So, she thought her sister was mistaken when she said there was a cougar strolling along the edge of the property about 100 yards away. As they turned their attention to the northern fence line, the sisters saw that it was indeed a mountain lion. None of the women were scared, being familiar with cougars from their childhood, and they stared transfixed by the beauty of the giant cat as it sniffed its surroundings.

Fiala, a self-described animal lover and conservationist, was excited because she knew this was a rare occurrence on Vashon. Before any of them could grab a phone to take a photo, the cougar had passed along the edge of the pasture and disappeared into the trees behind a barn.

“We had a very clear line of vision and it was very much a cougar,” Fiala says. “It didn’t appear hungry and seemed extremely comfortable in its surroundings. It sauntered the way cougars do, with a long, looping tail practically touching the ground. It did not go towards my neighbor’s sheep and stood there less than a minute.”

The sisters were the first to see the cougar that has been making Vashon-Maury its home over the past year. The lion is a source of wonder, fear, joy and anger. Since arriving on our shores last summer, he has been making a living along the beaches and in the woods of our wilder areas, occasionally crossing roads surprising drivers and pedestrians.

Suzanne Fiala has followed the cougar’s adventures in stories in The Beachcomber, finding it both sad and troubling that it is viewed as a nuisance, and that people and animals have at times felt threatened by it.

“I have no fear or worry when I’m out walking. I fear more for the cougar’s safety than that of islanders. I recognize that wildlife has its place and is being encroached upon, and I see no reason to kill this magnificent animal,” she says. “We are a small community and I’d hate for us to clash with an animal that could potentially be a danger to small animals or small children. With our over-population of deer, it’s hard to see why it would attack something else unless it was an unusual situation. I wish they would live trap it and relocate it—and I hope it goes back where it came from to run with other cougars. I hate to see it destroyed.”

This sentiment is shared by many islanders, but Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife cougar biologist Brian Kertson explains relocating is easier said than done.

“’Removing’ the cougar would take one of two forms; relocation or, more likely, euthanizing the animal. Both options require locating and capturing the cougar, and that is easier said than done. Vashon is not a large island, but there are still a lot of places for the cougar to hide or go undetected,” Kertson says. “Additionally, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) does not have personnel stationed on Vashon, so any capture attempt would require circumstances that ensure the cougar would still be on-site when a team arrives. Unless those circumstances present themselves, removing the cougar is not an option.”

He adds, “Regardless of whether Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife removes this cougar, Vashon’s residents need to recognize their island is home to a variety of carnivores, and living with these species requires that people adjust their behavior accordingly.”

“Studies have shown that it is quite normal for a young male cougar to move into a smaller temporary territory that is safe from big aggressive older Tom cats,” says Vashon Nature Center Director Bianca Perla, an ecologist. “I believe he has found his refuge here. Perhaps he is biding his time until he gets big enough, strong enough and experienced enough to venture out and fight for a bigger territory on the mainland with access to mates. Territorial space is scarce, he can’t just move in anywhere he wants to, or be dropped anywhere we want to drop him. If he leaves the island, no matter where he goes, he will have to fight to stay there. It is not an easy life, and the best thing we can do for him is give him the space and understanding he needs to live.”

Second sighting: Bate’s Walk at Paradise Cove, Aug. 5, 2016

It is one of Bobbie Erwert’s favorite summer-day rituals on the island—the 5 a.m. walk with her Maine Coon cat, Buddy. He likes exploring outside, so she walks her indoor cat on a leash to protect him from wild animals like raccoons that populate the area. Bobbie’s husband, Bill, has been coming to the family beach home on Bates Walk at Paradise Cove since the early 1960s, and the couple has spent part of the year on the island for nearly 40 years.

On Aug. 6 of last year, Bobbie and Buddy had just rounded the corner of her boathouse when she heard a loud snorting coming from the water to the west. She and Bill had watched deer cross Colvos Passage before, but at first glance the large animal swimming her way looked big enough to be a horse. It continued to approach and when it finally reached the shore and exited the water onto the beach, it looked exhausted. The tide was high and there was not much exposed sand, so it was quite close to the bulkhead. As Bobbie registered the animal’s long tail and pointy ears—she knew she was looking at a mountain lion.

“I’d never seen a cougar in the wild before. It froze and looked at me,” she says. “I know better now, but I grabbed my cat and ran.”

Rushing into the house, she shook her husband awake, but by the time they returned to the beach, the mountain lion was gone. They quickly called Camp Sealth—a Campfire Camp located just south of their cabin, fearing for unsuspecting campers, and alerted neighbors to the cougar’s presence.

Vashon Nature Center’s Wildlife First Responder Kelly Keenen visited later that day to look for tracks, but any evidence had been washed away by the high tide.

A year later, Bobbie Ewert doesn’t think of the cougar often, and she still enjoys her early morning summer walks with Buddy. And she says if she does see the big cat again, she knows now not to run.

These first cougar reports initially created a mystery—one sighting was on the north end of the island on land near Dilworth; and the second, nearly two weeks later, was of the cougar swimming across from Colvos … did we have two cougars, or only one that attempted to leave and then returned? We will never know for sure. However, current evidence from Vashon Nature Center’s WildCam network (a fleet of motion-sensing wildlife cameras placed around Vashon and Maury) indicates only one wide-ranging male cougar now present on the island. We have never had a cougar’s photo snapped at the same time on two different cameras. We have evidence from one video capture that this cougar is male, and while it is somewhat hard to tell individual cougars apart, the general physical proportions in photos and track measurements consistently point to one individual.

Future posts in this series will include the perspectives of scientists, farmers, naturalists, and others. Subscribe to our blog to be notified when new articles are posted.

Featured image: A view across Colvos passage from Paradise Cove at sunset. This is the route we speculate from sightings that the cougar may have swam. photo by: Bianca Perla

Resources for Living with wildlife

Vashon Nature Center has recently learned of several livestock injuries (including to pony, miniature donkey, and pig) that might be due large predators. All animals have survived. We currently have cougar, bear and coyotes on Vashon as well as dogs– all of which can cue into livestock as food. At the center, we have great empathy for the challenges these animals may pose for farmers and pet owners. At the same time, from what we have learned from animal predator experts, the increase in large carnivores seen on the island is unlikely to be a one-time occurrence. It is something that will continue to happen into the future. Because they can swim here, it is impossible to guess when new animals will arrive on the island.

Let’s make a renewed effort as a community to work together and take responsibility for keeping our pets, livestock and ourselves safe. WDFW and other agencies like King County can help us with large carnivores but they cannot do everything. Ultimately and in the long run it’s up to all of us. At the Nature Center we continually discuss how we can help. Here are some things we can offer:

–We’ve created a general information pamphlet on how to be safe in areas with large carnivores that has been vetted by wildlife scientists: http://vashonnaturecenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Large-Carnivore-Flyer_20160420.pdf

–Contacts for WDFW agency personnel are available here: http://vashonnaturecenter.org/living-wildlife/

–We are working on an active livestock management guide that will be reviewed by wildlife agency experts as well as local farmers. Expected release is August. Some effective techniques we can recommend right now are available on our cougar page under how do I protect my livestock: http://vashonnaturecenter.org/cougar/

—-We post the 5 most current confirmed sightings of the cougar from our wildlife camera network on our website. We post sightings because they are a good reminder that large carnivores are here. However, we don’t recommend using sightings as a livestock protection tool because large carnivores can change location within a matter of hours: http://vashonnaturecenter.org/wildlife-sightings-highlights/

–Islanders can email or call in sightings of coyotes, bear, cougar and more. Over the long-term these sightings help us assess wildlife use patterns and identify when new animals show up. We share information from this sightings database with WDFW and other agencies including King County and the Land Trust: info@vashonnaturecenter.org

–We are starting a natural history series about the cougar on our blog. It will include stories of personal encounters along with local challenges and success stories in livestock management.  We hope to provide insight into the diversity of experiences this community has had with the cougar over one year and how he has shaped both our fears and triumphs.

A small portion of this work is supported by a King County Service Area grant. A huge thank you to our largely volunteer staff, advisers and our island community that make most of this possible!

Let’s continue to work together to better understand island carnivores and to learn tools and strategies to reduce the number of livestock predations. Islanders are known for standing together to creatively address challenges that come up in our community. Living with wildlife is possible here. Please help us spread the word, share suggestions, have conversations and give neighbors a helping hand if they request it. We want to keep all island animals safe including human, domestic, and wild.