This story is the second in a series of stories by Richard Spinney about his experiences transporting injured and sick wild birds for Avian Haven bird rehabilitation center in Freedom, Maine. Spinney lives in Brewer with his wife of 48 years. He retired from the U.S. Coast Guard after 20 years’ service, sold real estate for 23 years while also teaching adult ed algebra for 10 years, was a contributing editor of The Maine Genealogist for a few years and the treasurer of The Maine Genealogical Society for 14 years. He has volunteered for Avian Haven since the summer of 2016.
“Good morning, Richard. Are you available?”
I had anticipated the greeting and the question before answering my phone. I’ve programmed my little flip phone to chirp like a bird whenever Avian Haven calls or sends a text message.
“Yes I am,” was my reply.
“I’m trying to set up a relay from Sherman to here in Freedom,” explained Diane Winn, co-owner of Avian Haven.
It was a beautiful May day. The views along the road are very nice, and there’s not much traffic. It was a good day for a drive. So I told her, “Oh, I can go up there or meet somebody on the way. What’s up?”
There was a man cutting down a dead tree, and when it came down, out came two small owls. Diane presumed they were either barred owls, which have brown eyes, or great horned owls, which have yellow eyes. She did not question the size. The man said they had yellow eyes, so Diane concluded they were nestling great horned owls. There was no sign of the parents.
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The warden was on his way up to collect the two birds. I called the warden and explained who and where I was. He had to go up to Island Falls to get the birds, and we agreed to rendezvous in Sherman. It was a good plan. The timing was nearly perfect. Within a few minutes of my finding a parking spot near the exit, the warden arrived. He walked to my car, but without a box containing the owls that I had anticipated.
“I just got a call,” he said. “He found a fifth bird. I need to go back and get it. He’s quite a ways from the exit at Island Falls, so I’ll be awhile.”
One of my adventures in the Coast Guard was to help the admiral’s aide plan the admiral’s visit to numerous stations in Maine. To plan this was a piece of cake in comparison.
“What about having the fellow meet us at the Island Falls exit? I’ll follow you up, and that will free you to go about your other business,” I said.
It must have been ESP or something because as I was about to call Avian Haven with an update, Diane called.
“How about a SITREP?” she asked.
I smiled to myself. SITREP. That’s Coast Guard talk for “Situation Report.” I’d been giving her lessons. I told her we were going up to get a fifth owl.
“Five!” she exclaimed. “Those aren’t great horned owls then!”
(The clutch size of great horned owls is between one and four eggs, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)
I told Diane I would call her back.
The rendezvous went as planned. There were five little owls in a box with a flimsy cover. I draped a towel over it to make it dark inside and that would help calm the birds. I headed south along I-95. All was quiet. Then, somewhere north of Howland, I heard a rustling sound behind me.
“The natives are restless,” I thought. I looked in the rear view mirror and saw that I had a back-seat driver. An owlet just sat there quietly between the two headrests, looking straight ahead. I gradually slowed down and pulled well off to the right in the break-down lane. I checked the box and moved the towel so it again fully covered the box. The other birds seemed calm enough. I quickly took a couple photos of the bird behind me, then off I went.
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Soon, the phone chirped. It was Avian Haven. I pushed the button on the dash to answer. “Where are you?” Diane asked. I told her that I was passing through Howland north of Old Town.
“There’s a bald eagle with a warden in Old Town,” she said. “Can you call him?”
I couldn’t while driving so we agreed she would phone the warden and arrange for us to meet at the exit north of Old Town. “He can help me put this escapee into the box again,” I said.
The “great horned owl” that was really a northern saw-whet owl was put back into the box, the box was reinforced with duct tape, and a dog crate containing the eagle was placed next to the little box in the back seat. The rest of the drive was uneventful with my six passengers: five owls, each weighing under 3 ounces, and an adult bald eagle weighing over 50 times as much as each owl. It was a good day.