Welcome to another edition of Marsh Musings. Thanks to all of you for the great feedback you have been sending us. We love hearing your thoughts about the articles and subjects you would like to see written about in the future. This week we are excited to write about perhaps one of our most memorable adventures yet; the finding of an injured snowy owl.
The adventure began a few weeks ago when a Kansas Wetlands Education Center graduate student and myself were out collecting water samples in Cheyenne Bottoms. While we were out, we noticed a multitude of neat birds soaring around, including three snowy owls that were chilling out much closer to the road than usual. Immediately filled with excitement, I grabbed my phone and called Dr. Witt like I always do when a great photo opportunity arises. Unfortunately, he was unable to head out with his lens due to an unfortunate event; a heated bridge tournament that he could not walk away from. Oh, the predicaments of being retired.
Later that afternoon, my phone started ringing with what I thought was good news. Dr. Witt was on the other end of the phone and shared with me that he was 40 or so yards away from a snowy owl in the Bottoms. Without delay, I was already reaching for my camera. A snowy owl only 40 or so yards away. I had never seen one up close without the help of binoculars, and I had certainly never taken any good images of one. The situation was perfect for getting the snowy owl picture I had been longing for. I couldn’t wait to jump in the car and go, and then he finished his sentence.
A lump in my throat grew as he told me about how he was capturing great images, but upon zooming in on the owl, realized the bird was not acting right. In fact, the bird looked in despair and would not even open its eyes. Perhaps it had been bombarded by the visiting Northern harriers, a not uncommon occurrence at the Bottoms. No matter the reason, I could barely wait to see the owl. I instantly ran to gather supplies, jumped in the van, and headed to Pool 2.
Dr. Witt guided me to the spot, and I arrived moments later to find the placid owl resting in some vegetation along the edge of the pool. Its right wing lay outstretched in a strange position next to its body. It made no attempts to move and even the blink of an eye seemed to be far too taxing. I knew whatever we were going to do, we had to do it fast. I strapped on my waders, grabbed some towels, and trudged out into the muck to see if the owl was indeed injured.
I walked slowly and carefully through the water and vegetation, all the while trying to stress the bird as little as possible. As I lessened the distance between the owl and myself, it became more overwhelmingly evident with every step that the owl had been injured. Its right wing had severe damage to it and it made no effort to open its eyes or show an inkling of interest in me until I was about two to-five feet away.
At this distance, it was unmistakably clear that the owl needed help as soon as possible. I approached the owl from behind and wrapped it safely in the towels while doing my best to avoid its clacking beak and sharp talons.
Note: extreme care should be taken if you suspect an animal is injured. Call your local biologist or rehabilitation center before picking up wild animals because doing so can lead to harm of the animal and yourself.
I picked up the owl and made my way through the mud to where Dr. Witt and his Jeep owl ambulance awaited us. Suddenly I stopped, we looked at each other and smiles filled each of our faced. It was in that split second that both of us realized how unique and special a moment it really was. It was a surreal feeling and the very moment that has fostered our passion for nature and our love of writing these articles. We were rescuing a snowy owl!
We drove as quickly as we could, without speeding of course, to the Great Bend Raptor Center, where the owl was received quickly and taken into immediate surgery. Unfortunately, despite doing all they could, the owl did not make it through the surgery. Afterwards, it was determined that the owl had been shot, not attacked by another bird, and our smiles quickly dissipated from our faces.
Although that day was filled with excitement and sadness, the memories we shared will not soon be forgotten. From cradling and trying to save such a marvelous, breathtaking creature to experiencing the pain of an animal dying for no reason.
Cheyenne Bottoms is filled with experiences that memories of made of, whether that be attempting to save an owl, watching the circle of life unfold before your eyes, or trying to catch a glimpse of an elusive species. Head out to the Bottoms today and make a memory of your own.
Eric Giesing is the director of education for Fort Hays State University and Dr. Dan Witt is a retired M.D. and a wildlife photographer/enthusiast.