David Horst column: Baby owl bed check dangerous duty

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New London

I have seen Don Baumgartner hold a bald eagle in his lap, the huge bird’s treacherous talons stretched out in front of him.

I’ve seen him handle an adult osprey — a fish-killing missile — without breaking a sweat.

So when I saw fear in his eyes as we approached the nest of a great-horned owl, I knew this was dangerous duty.

Not dangerous for me. I was hanging back by the entrance to a large metal building shooting photos. Don, wearing two leather jackets, arm-length gloves and a European-style firefighter’s helmet, prepared to climb a ladder up to the nest of a great-horned named Ms. Harvey and snatch her off of her three babies.

Great-horned owls are more aggressive than eagles, he said. “They kill everything.”

Ms. Harvey, in fact, smelled of skunk.

Don has volunteered with bird rehabilitator Pat Fisher for more than 20 years. We are in the woods behind Pat’s home near New London. This is also the site of The Feather, her nonprofit shelter for injured birds.

The purpose of this fool’s errand was to check the health of the owlets, weigh them and band them so their movements can be tracked as they grow and leave the nest.

As soon as we emerged from the building, Ms. Harvey flew off the nest. I spotted her perched 30 feet away. My assignment was to warn Don if she returned.

In an earlier foray toward the nest, Ms. Harvey had flown at Don as he crouched on the ground and struck him hard enough to knock him over. He didn’t want her taking another shot while he was on the ladder.

Ms. Harvey was seized in a case of illegal activity in 1997 and brought to the Feather. She had been raised indoors but was able to adapt back to the wild, though she didn’t go far.

Before Don had set his ladder against the tree, Ms. Harvey returned and took up a defensive position in the nest.

Don ascended cautiously. When he reached into the nest, Ms. Harvey grabbed his gloved arm and Don grabbed back, feeling the owl’s talon penetrating the leather.

He brought her down, careful not to injure her — or to give her the chance to do the same to him. He deposited her into a cage for safekeeping and returned for the babies, lowering all three of them down in white, plastic buckets.

Back in Pat’s kitchen, a crowd awaited, half a dozen in person and 335 viewing the live web feed provide by wolfrivercam.com.

The month-old babies — Winkin, Blinkin and Nod — weighed in at 718, 843 and 974 grams (1.5 to 2.1 pounds). They’re all feather down. To be honest, they’re fairly ugly, but cute ugly, like a vintage VW Beetle or a Mini Cooper.

Don, with help from Chuck Petters, another 20-year volunteer, affixed the leg bands.

Among the spectators was Alexis LeMarche, a sixth-grader from Seymour Middle School. Not only did she get to watch, she was asked to hold a baby owl. She described the experience as — what else? — awesome.

“I like this place,” she concluded.

It’s an easy place to like, for the adventures I’ve had there and the less- adventurous routine Pat Fisher takes on every morning and every evening to provide food and care for owls, cranes, eagles, vultures and other birds mistreated by humans or treated badly by fate.

She’s a rare bird.

Article source: http://www.postcrescent.com/article/20120415/APC0204/204150541/David-Horst-column-Baby-owl-bed-check-dangerous-duty?odyssey=mod%7Cnewswell%7Ctext%7CAPC-Sports%7Cs

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