Within the first few minutes of my first conversation with Chris Brinkman, any reservations I had based on his bulky camera equipment in close proximity to “my” owls quickly faded. It was clear that he had authored the appeal to let the newly fledged owls be. As he explained, it’s not uncommon for people who notice baby owls on or near the ground, or even sitting in low branches, to want to “help” by intervening. This is almost never the correct course of action, he explained. Unless it’s clearly injured (bleeding, broken wing) or being chased by a cat or dog, the fledgling should always remain in its parents’ care. Since this was an especially publicly situated nest, he felt it warranted a notice of some type, explaining that all of this is perfectly normal fledgling barred owl behavior.
During this, our inaugural conversation, I was able to photograph the first and quite newly fledged barred owl. It sat not more than 25 feet from us and some other folks, testing its wings and periodically dozing.
As I snapped pictures and chatted with the impromptu local barred owl admiration society, several thoughts and questions filled my awe-inspired brain:
- This baby is perched at no more than four feet off the ground. Seems precarious!
- I wonder how soft this fledgling feels?
- I’m seeing not so much a bird, but a floofy football.
- Am I cheating if I photograph a bird from such close range?
- Seriously, this bird is so close to the street!
- I can’t believe this is happening less than a half-mile from my home.
And so on. All the while, another nestling peered out at the world from its nest cavity, contemplating its own departure.
This was when I learned that the parents are never very far away as their young begin to fledge. The adult female vigilantly sat in a nearby tree, keeping watch over the young owls. The male was a bit farther away, but also monitoring intently.
After about an hour of chatting, photography, and fan-girling, I headed home. This was April 16. Over the next few weeks, I continued to bird the ravine as I normally do. On evenings walks, the hissing begging calls from the babies always brought a smile to my face—as did the sight of the parent birds, who never were very far away from their developing fledglings. The owls felt less like my personal project as several neighbors had learned about the nest, thanks to Chris’s sign. This reassured me that the two young owls would be okay, after all.
Following a wonderful trip to a birding festival in early May where I’d seen a variety of warblers and other migrants, I resolved to bird the ravine with fresh eyes. And so I did. I decided to challenge myself to sharpen my ability to bird by ear, and to practice simply being more patient, to wait and peer a little longer at my surroundings.
About 400 feet or so north of where the barred owl nest was, I scanned the stream, hoping to catch a bathing bird. I stopped when I noticed what appeared to be a brown paper bag. With rising dread, I realized it was, in fact, one of the adult barred owls, sitting in the water. And it was not moving. I snapped a few photos. I fretted, and contemplated what, if anything, could be done.
And this is when I contacted Chris Brinkman, in the hopes that we might be able to come to the aid of this owl before it was too late.