Katie McVey about jumped out of her skin when she spotted that long-eared owl cleverly disguised as a stick.
Long-eared owls try to look like sticks to deceive bird watchers and other predators.
McVey, a biologist at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, is really into owls, and the long-eared is one of the more reclusive.
We were on the Owl Prowl portion of this weekend's annual Great Salt Lake Bird Festival. My total up-close-and-personal experience with owls is Chitters at the Ogden Nature Center. I had no clue Antelope Island even had owls, let alone of such variety.
Why? Because owls are good at hiding, especially from dolts like me.
Plus, there are so many birds to see easily. This was a problem Sunday because McVey tried to focus on owls, but birders get excited by anything with feathers.
The three vans of bird fans had to stop to look at avocets, cormorants, a black-bellied plover and the odd ibis or stilt.
McVey tolerated this with poorly disguised impatience ("Do not stop for Franklin's gulls!"), but when a van bristling with camera lenses pulled over for yellow-headed blackbirds, she lost it.
"Those are yellow-headed blackbirds!" she hollered. "They are everywhere! We need to go look for owls!"
We went to look for owls.
The wet spring has turned Antelope Island into mosquito city, but Sunday's wind blew them away. All we had to do was lean into the breeze as we pondered the burrowing owl burrows not too far from the visitor center.
McVey was the perfect guide. She chattered about how much weight a 7-ounce female loses when it lays a dozen eggs (25 percent), how burrowing owl chicks hiss like rattlesnakes when something enters their hole, and how cute burrowing owl chicks are compared to barn owl chicks, which are ugly.
Burrowing owls live in abandoned groundhog and badger holes. To keep human children on Antelope Island from kicking rocks into the nests, the park doesn't advertise burrow locations.
McVey knows where the nests are, though, and easily spotted Mama Burrowing Owl sitting on her hole 50 yards off to the side.
From the road, the owl looked like dry sage, but it spooked as we wandered close to ponder why she lined her burrow entrance with cow poop. It moderates temperatures, McVey said, and attracts insects to eat.
As we chuckled at her housekeeping, Mama Owl glared from a rock off to the side.
Great horned and barn owls were easy. Nesting boxes for both are in the rafters of a barn the island uses to store hay.
The long-eared owls were the hardest. They nest in an abandoned magpie nest far south of the historic ranch house, and knowing where the nest is was just the start.
The female was in the nest, on eggs, hidden. The male, McVey said, would be perched outside somewhere, but where?
"Long-eared owls can make themselves about as thin as my wrist, so look for a stick," she said, and we regarded, with dismay, our surroundings: thickets of dead sticks the size of her wrist.
The wind blew and dusk came on. A few hardy mosquitoes aimed at our noses and eyes. We scanned with binoculars and wondered, "Is that knothole one?"
Even after McVey sang out, and we gathered, it took me several minutes to find the critter.
"Look at that stick."
They're all sticks.
"Look on top."
The vertical stick or the horizontal stick?
"The vertical stick. The one with eyes."
And there he was.
Wasatch Rambler is the opinion of Charles Trentelman. You can call him at 801-625-4232 or email him at email@example.com. He also blogs at www.standard.net.