By Sonya Vartabedian
---- — PLUM ISLAND — Forget high-profile moms-to-be Duchess Kate Middleton and Kim Kardashian. Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island has its own celebrity baby watch under way.
A great horned owl nesting her eggs in a grove of pine trees at the refuge has created such a hoot that wildlife officials have temporarily closed off the observation area where she’s taken up residence to avoid disturbing her.
The active owl nest was discovered about two weeks ago near the Bill Forward Wildlife Observation Blind, setting off a flurry of activity among birders and other wildlife observers, said Matt Poole, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s visitor services manager at the refuge.
Curiosity-seekers with spotting scopes and photographers with long telephoto lenses have been jockeying for a glimpse ever since.
“It spread like wildfire,” Poole said of the news. “Parker River is such a big birding and photography destination and once word starts getting out through the Internet, everybody and their uncle finds out about the opportunity to get really close to a charismatic animal like an owl.”
But Poole said refuge officials started growing concerned for the owl and her eggs earlier this week when overzealous observers began trampling beyond the public trail into protected areas.
“Our mission is always wildlife first, people second,” Poole said. “The only thing we can do is keep people out of there until the eggs have hatched and the birds have fledged.”
It’s not particularly unusual for a great horned owl to nest in the region, Poole said. In fact, there’s been an owl nest in roughly the same grove of pine trees near parking lot four of the refuge in the past.
But the precise location of the nest this time has in part created the problem with public disturbance. While the nest site is accessible, the owl is perched about 15 feet off the ground in a crowded area of pines, making it hard to get a clear view of it in between the tree trunks.
“It’s pretty well obscured, even with the best of efforts, even with spotting scopes,” he said.
That awkward vantage point has led some watchers to overstep allowable bounds and venture beyond the trail into off-limit areas to catch a peek.
“If there’s a charismatic animal within a very accessible area and you don’t have to work hard to get right under it, people are going to flock to it,” Poole said. “But you’re always going to have people who want to push the envelope a little bit, even if there is a clear area where they can or cannot be.”
Poole said disturbing a bird particularly when it’s nesting can have unfortunate consequences.
“If you disturb it to a point where it abandons its nest, the eggs may no longer be viable if they start getting cold,” he said.
Dave Larson, education and science coordinator at Mass Audubon’s Joppa Flats Education Center in Newburyport, caught a glimpse of the great horned owl while leading a guided tour on the refuge last Saturday.
“We walked down with the group and there were a million elbows and everybody was trying to see what was going on,” he said. “It was very hard to see the nest unless you knew exactly where it was. The fact that it was in a grove of fairly closely set, youngish pines, you had to sort of get the right angle and look between the right set of trunks to spot it.”
Even then, he said he witnessed people ignoring signs and venturing where they shouldn’t.
Larson said he was somewhat surprised at the nest the owl had chosen to rear her eggs. Owls don’t build their own nests, but take over ones abandoned by other species, he said. He suspects this particular nest was last used by a crow or a larger hawk and was a tight fit for the owl.
“The owl is about as big as the nest,” he said. “It doesn’t look like a particularly good choice for this particular bird.”
Poole and Larson said it’s unclear how many eggs are in the nest or how long it will be before they hatch. While the wintry weather the last couple days can provide a stressor for owls, Larson said raptors are built to endure the conditions.
“Great horned owls are pretty tough,” he said. “They get snowed on all the time. But these sort of conditions are going to be tough on any nesting species.”
Poole said the refuge is considering offering some limited guided access to the nesting site over the next several weeks. Information on any programs that are organized as well as updates regarding the status of the Bill Forward Blind closure will be posted on the refuge website at www.fws.gov/northeast/parkerriver/.
In the meantime, Poole said there are multiple opportunities for enthusiasts to view active great horned owl nests via a number of online “raptor nest cams.” He directed interested observers to www.ustream.tv/okcowlcam, www.livewildlifecams.com/Ms%20Harvey.html and www.ustream.tv/channel/WolfRiverCam-New-London.
And for more facts about great horned owls and their natural history, he suggested checking out http://extension.umd.edu/publications/pdfs/fs802.pdf and www.ncwildlife.org/Portals/0/Learning/documents/Profiles/greathornedowl.pdf.