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Reclusive owls get social in West Anchorage

Michelle Theriault Boots
A great gray owl is one of many owls people have observed near the coast in western Anchorage.At least five species of owls have been seen around the Anchorage area the winter of 2012.
Doug Lindstrand / www.douglindstrand.com
A great gray owl is one of many owls people have observed near the coast in western Anchorage.At least five species of owls have been seen around the Anchorage area the winter of 2012.
Doug Lindstrand / www.douglindstrand.com
A great gray owl is one of many owls people have observed near the coast in western Anchorage.At least five species of owls have been seen around the Anchorage area the winter of 2012.
Doug Lindstrand / www.douglindstrand.com
A great gray owl is one of many owls people have observed near the coast in western Anchorage.At least five species of owls have been seen around the Anchorage area the winter of 2012.
Doug Lindstrand / www.douglindstrand.com
A great gray owl is one of many owls people have observed near the coast in western Anchorage.At least five species of owls have been seen around the Anchorage area the winter of 2012.
Doug Lindstrand / www.douglindstrand.com
A great gray owl keeps watch over potential hunting grounds as a FedEx plane approaches Ted Stevens International Airport. At least five species of owls have been seen around the Anchorage area the winter of 2012.
Doug Lindstrand / www.douglindstrand.com
A northern hawk owl is one of many owls people have observed near the coast in west Anchorage.At least five species of owls have been seen around the Anchorage area the winter of 2012.
Doug Lindstrand / www.douglindstrand.com

A strange owl summit is unfolding this winter in an out-of-the-way patch of Anchorage.

Near Cook Inlet, where Northern Lights Boulevard gives way to a city recycling lot, a substance-abuse rehab center and Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, rarely-seen species of owls have been spotted, day after day, perching on tree branches and hunting over snowy fields.

What's even more unusual, birders and biologists say, is that the species -- grand, reclusive great gray owls, nocturnal boreal owls, Northern saw-whet owls, Northern hawk and short-eared owls -- are almost never found in the same area.

"It is definitely unusual to see smaller owls hanging out with larger owls," said Sue Guers, a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Bird Observatory in Fairbanks.

The owls appear to travel but return to the airport area. According to breathless reports on online birders' forums and on Facebook, they have been seen along the coastal trail, in Kincaid Park and as far south as Huffman Road. Some have reported seeing the five species of owls in a single day.

For birders, biologists and wildlife photographers the owls' presence is a boon and a mystery.

No one can quite explain the phenomenon, said Bob Dittrick, an owl expert and the owner of a wilderness birding tour company who has been studying owls in Alaska for nearly three decades. But strange owl sightings are happening in the Lower 48 this winter, too. Snowy owls have been spotted as far south as Eugene, Ore., far below their usual range in Alaska and Canada.

"It may not be the same phenomenon at all," said Dittrick, who lives in Eagle River. "But it's kind of funny they're seeing snowy owls down there and we're having a strange thing happen here in Anchorage."

Owls like airports, says Dittrick, because they often offer wide-open fields with unmanicured grass, a prime habitat for voles, a favored prey.

Owls can actually hear the voles rustling under feet of snow, Dittrick said. And the recycling yard beyond the Clitheroe Center would be a natural haven for other small rodents, who burrow in piles of tree limbs and wood pallets.

But waist-deep snow may be straining even the owls' acute hearing and eyesight, making it more difficult for them to hunt, Dittrick said. That would explain why usually secretive and even nocturnal species like the boreal and great grey owl have been photographed in broad daylight.

"They could be desperate for prey," he said. "And forced to hunt more hours."

One thing is clear: People want to see them.

Nearly every day, a handful of photographers and birders can be found parking their cars on the roadside that leads up to the Clitheroe Center and walking on hard-packed trails to spots where the owls tend to gather. The staff at the Clitheroe Center says photographers have kept a respectful distance from the locked rehab facility so far.

Among them is Doug Lindstrand, a professional photographer and artist who spends his days, year-round, watching and photographing wildlife.

The owls don't seem to be bothered by the drone of jets taking off and landing on the runway so close it makes the ground shake. He's caught them perched on top of barbed-wire fences.

He returns every day to look for them. Who knows when they'll leave?

The most amazing part, he says, is the people who don't even realize what's in their midst.

Skiers glide by them on the Coastal Trail without even seeing them, while wildlife photographers lurk behind snow piles with telephoto lenses.

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.


By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS
Anchorage Daily News