An orphaned owl returns to the Anchorage wilds

An orphaned northern saw-whet owl returned to the wilds of Anchorage on Sunday after two months in the care of Bird Treatment and Learning Center. The raptor fluttered from the gloved palm of a birder and into the woods of Ruth Arcand Park.

Karen Higgs, Bird TLC’s avian care director, said the owl was found on the ground near Westchester Lagoon near a deceased adult owl in late March. She said the bird had hatched earlier this year.

“He probably was what we call a ‘brancher,’” Higgs said. “They’re out of the nest and they’re just learning how to fly.”

Though she referred to the owl as “he,” Bird TLC caretakers don’t actually know the sex of the bird, and they don’t name the birds they intend to release, Higgs said.

The owl is called “22-046,” meaning it is the 46th bird to come into the clinic this year, Higgs said.

When the saw-whet arrived, it received pain medication and topical treatment for mild skin irritation near its beak and some scrapes on its feet, Higgs said. It was otherwise considered a healthy orphan. At the clinic, the owl had time to mature, do flight exercises and practice hunting.

“Because he’s a youngster, we had to make sure he could recognize live food, and kill it, and consume it,” Higgs said. “So he did mouse kindergarten, and he passed the test.”

Bird TLC turned to social media to hold a one-day auction ahead of the release. The high-bidder had the chance to set the bird free. Lauren Evans bid with hopes of giving her partner, Chris Cornelius, an avid birder, the chance to participate. Cornelius has been a birder for a decade.

“I was sitting at breakfast yesterday morning … and made sure it put in the winning bid at the last second,” Evans said. Her $175 bid was successful. Laura Atwood, executive director of Bird TLC, said the money will contribute to the nonprofit’s general operations for bird care.

On a trail in a wooded area of Ruth Arcand Park, near Abbott Road, Higgs delicately handed Cornelius the owl. Cornelius said he could hear the bird click and feel its talons grip his palm through the gloves. The pupils in the owl’s big yellow eyes shrank in the bright sun. Cornelius separated his cupped hands and the tiny owl launched westward.

“Oh man, it was great holding him in my hand,” Cornelius said, who said he had only spotted a saw-whet in the wild once before. “It’s just a gorgeous owl. Special creature.”

Once free, the bird flew only about 50 feet before landing on the forest floor right next to the trail. A small audience followed, then a Bird TLC volunteer shooed it a little further away from the pedestrian area, up to a nearby leaning tree. There the owl remained as most spectators retreated to their cars.

Janice Troyer, a rehabilitation and education volunteer, lingered to watch it through binoculars.

“You want him to be successful, so it’s scary, kind of,” she said.

Higgs said the owl would likely seek a safe place to be at night. A successful life in the wild isn’t guaranteed, she said, but neither is it for any wild saw-whet owl.

“I think it went great. It made me a little nervous that he was so close to the trail, but then he took flight,” she said. “His flight looked beautiful.”

Marc Lester

Marc Lester is a multimedia journalist for Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at mlester@adn.com.