April 7, 2013 “The search for owl”

Some really odd things happen in war.  In retrospect, they seem pretty silly.  There are way too many examples, the list is endless but one that comes to mind from back in World War II was about a plan about implanting rats with explosives to infiltrate Japanese locations.   The same operation also theorized using migrating birds for the same purpose.

In 2002, we were also basically at war, although it was never officially declared.  The terrain and the weather in Afghanistan made for some difficult training and logistics even for us not to mention some of our NATO partners.  One of these were the Germans.  Now I don’t know much about the new German Luftwaffe but after sharing this tale, as well as thinking about our own Air Force, I now have my doubts.  You see, the Germans were out west training on low mountain flying, now with the Alps one wonders how or why they ended up in New Mexico, but they did.  They would buzz up the mountain passes with their loud British made Tornadoes to train…but there was a problem.

The Mexican spotted owl lives in the mountains they decided to use in the Gila National Forest in NM and are an endangered species.  Certain groups called foul and the Air Force had a problem.  They put out bids and GeoMarine was the winning subcontractor for a tens of million dollar plan to study the effects of Tornado fly-byes and nesting success of the spotted owl.  This was no small project, nobody knew where their nests were.  Using their expertise, I suppose with marine animal sonar, they developed a plan.   Many employees were hired including Dan, a contact I had gotten from a contact, besides about to be a spotted owl nest locator, Dan and his wife Deb run a bed and breakfast in Glenwood, New Mexico called D & D’s Organic Haven.

The project took three years until actually the Germans ditched their loud aircraft for the sleek Eurofighter.  Teams would go out at evening in the forest and call owls.  When they got a reply, they would mark in what direction it was and then night teams would go out and mouse them.  Mousing owls?  The morning team would call them to locate them from the point at evening and then lay out white mice for the owls to take back to their nests.  The finders would then follow the owls.  Once marked, the nests would have a permanent nest watching team.  Eventually these long lived owls would see humans and expect a mouse.

Then one needed to see how low flying planes would affect them so they would call in the coordinates and then the Germans would fly over.  They would observe behavior and make a report.  Unfortunately, the Germans and sometimes our own pilots would miss the mark, sometimes by miles.  As they say, there is no greater oxymoron than military intelligence. The last year yielded forty nests, which shows how few of these birds actually exist now.  In the end the birds acted just like they had experienced a loud clap of thunder, startle but go on with what they were doing.

The support staff had trailers in the woods, lodging brought in, basically an entire support operations for this and for what?  German pilots and owls?  How many millions did this cost us, both to Geo Marine, which I’m sure padded the expenses and for the cost of fly-overs?  I ponder a question:  there are many mountains just south of here which are likewise uninhabited and look a lot more like Afghanistan than these mountains but with an important difference, they do not have owls!  Why did they not just move the planes fifty miles south?

Well Dan, has developed a niche for himself, and now, even after this military project is done, the US Forest Service hired him to see if any owls nest in tracts of forest for controlled burning, or for other reasons.  This summer he is going to a forest north of Phoenix.

Dan took Troy , my COO, and me up Hail Canyon south of Reserve NM, an old faithful nesting spot and we called Spotted Owls.  One difference was that due to fires, the Forest Service had hauled in gravel to enlarge the track trail that led to the area for fire trucks.  Fires of 2012 now done, the gravel all came back to the bottom of the hill during a flash flood.  I have never see so much moved gravel due to the effects of the water.  I guess they had to protect the nesting grounds but better still, they were just idiots.  There is one certain way in these parts to get cursed at.  That is to admit to any of the local ranchers that you work for the Forest Service.  Everything, is the fault of the Forest Service, here, lost jobs, climate change, forest fires, etc. that is if you listen to the local ranchers.

It was tough walking but we finally made it to the spot over boulders and across ravines.  It took five minutes but we got our response and despite efforts to locate the bird, we didn’t but it answered quite a few times.  Apparently we should have brought mice or maybe the sight of a man named Olaf, calling owls with his cell phone app, was too much for an appearance.  It counted just the same for my purposes, and I was deeply appreciative of Dan’s guidance.  We also heard saw-whet owls everywhere in the forest.

Troy drove home and despite narrowly avoiding hitting Elk, appropriately at the Ranger Station in Reserve, apparently the Forest Service is also the cause of elk versus car accidents as well, I made it back safely with another bird on my list.   Dan had dusted off his owl calling technique for another summer hiking and hooting in the southwestern forests and Troy, well I was never sure if Troy was just happy to be done so he could go to bed at the bed and Breakfast, relieved a cougar didn’t eat him,  or if he actually thought it was fun.  I guess I won’t ask him.

Hooters to you,


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