As many of you that follow me on Instagram or Facebook already know, I had quite the day on Saturday. It began as most winter days begin, with me driving down a quiet road in the mountains looking for wildlife to photograph.
As it happened, I had a small film crew (more about that in a few paragraphs) with me and as we drove by what looked like an odd-shaped lump in a snowbank on the side of the road, the cameraman sitting in my front seat stared hard at it and said, "What's that? It looked like an owl!"
I had already had my eye on the lump from a distance and had written it off as a bit of tree that had been deposited there by a snowplow, but indeed, as we drove by it and the cameraman made his remark, I clearly saw what appeared to be some type of owl sitting on the bank covered in frost.
I slammed on the brakes and did a quick u-turn to have a better look. Sure enough, it was a frost-enveloped great horned owl just sitting there on the bank at the edge of the road! Excitedly, I grabbed my 500mm lens and trained it on the frosty owl and started to fire off pictures. But right away, something seemed "off" about the situation. I stopped shooting and said to the cameraman, "Something's wrong, it looks like it might be injured."
The owl was covered in ice and frost -- right away, I knew something was wrong
I got out of the car and slowly approached the owl. It didn't even blink an eye until I got within five feet of it, at which point it suddenly opened its eyes wide and began to try to get away from me. It took a few staggered steps in the deep snow and then fell over onto its back and lay splayed upside down on the snow with its wings wide open. Instantly, I knew that it was seriously injured and that I had to do something to try to help it.
For those of you that have seen great horned owls before, they are not small birds. An adult great horned owl can be up to two feet tall and is equipped with massive, sharp talons and a ridiculously strong beak that can tear flesh off of bone. I raced back to my Pathfinder and started clearing space for the owl in the back. I then grabbed the only blanket I had and slowly approached the owl again. This time it managed to right itself for a second and hobble off a few feet in the snow, at which point I got a good look at what appeared to be a cut on its back. I eased in and slowly placed the blanket over the owl, then wrapped my arms around it tightly enough to know that it couldn't pierce me with its talons. Then I carried it like a child to my car with only its face sticking out of the blanket.
It is an odd thing to hold a wild owl in your arms. I had never done it before, but it was a strange mix of euphoria and concern that swept over me as I placed it gently into the back of my vehicle on top of a bed of camouflage netting that I had laid down. I made sure the owl was still wrapped up safely, then closed the hatch.
The camera crew and I had to decide immediately what to do, and within seconds I made the call to get back into cell range as quickly as we could so that we could figure out who/where to take the owl to.
We jumped into our vehicles and started winding down the curvy gravel road towards civilization. After about ten minutes, I stopped for a quick check on the owl (we couldn't see it from the front because it was tucked in behind my back seat). I popped open the hatch and was shocked to see the owl just sitting there on top of everything, completely unwrapped and out of the blankets, calming looking over at me as if it was totally normal for a great horned owl to cruise around in the back of an SUV. "Uh, OOOO-kay..." I quickly closed the hatch.
For the next half hour, we drove carefully along a few mountain roads, hit pavement, and finally, hit cell range. Two calls later, we were headed to the Calgary Wildlife Rehabilitation Society to drop off our owl.
We still had an hour to drive, so we started doing interviews (the small two-person camera crew with me has been following me around for a year making a web series that we will be releasing in January 2016 -- stay tuned for all kinds of details I'll be "exposing" about the show in the coming month!) about the adventure that had just fallen into our laps. We had started the morning hoping for a moose or big mule buck; we were ending it with an owl and a rescue mission!
As we turned on to the busy Trans-Canada Highway, we wrapped up the in-car interviews and almost immediately started hearing 'sounds' coming from the back. What kind of sounds? Well, the sort of sounds that might indicate that a great horned owl was feeling like it might start moving around, perhaps even flying around. Of course, as I had mentioned earlier, we couldn't actually see what the owl was doing back there, so we just had to hope that we weren't going to suddenly have an owl with a four-foot wingspan attempting to fly around in my Pathfinder while we were driving on a four-lane highway.
By the time we arrived at the rehab society, I was completely emotionally-invested in our 'no-so-little' owl. And when I opened my hatch to see it sitting there nonchalantly, I couldn't help but think that he (she?) was going to make it. As a kid, I used to dream of saving wildlife and having my own pet [insert anything cool here]. Now here I was with an owl in the back of my vehicle about to deliver it to a wildlife rehabilitation center. The little kid in me couldn't help but dream ahead to the day I would get to release the owl back to the wild and watch it fly away into the forest.
The wildlife tech at the rehab society graciously took the owl from me at the front door and listened to our two-minute account of finding the owl and thinking that it may have been hit by a car. She popped into the back with it and emerged a few minutes later to tell us that it did indeed have some lacerations on its left shoulder and that they would have an on-call veterinarian come in to take a look at the owl in the next day or two. She said she would let us know as soon as they knew what was going on.
And so now we wait. It's been twenty-seven hours since we dropped her off (the tech confirmed that the owl is a female!) and the vet still has not had a chance to get by and examine her, though the person I just spoke to indicated that they expect the vet to be in later today. In the meantime, I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a happy ending to all of this!
I just got an email from the Executive Director of the society with an update on our beautiful owl. The veterinarian assessed her last night and she had severe lacerations and puncture wounds on her back consistent with an attack from a larger bird, likely an eagle. They put her under anaesthetic for surgery to repair the damage, but unfortunately she didn't make it.
I don't really have anything else to write at this point. I guess I'm just glad that we at least tried and that she died with people trying to help her, rather than freezing to death on the side of a road.
I wish this story had a happier ending. Sorry everyone.
I've now had a day to digest the news and I wanted to thank the Calgary Wildlife Rehabilitation Society for doing everything they could to help our owl and for helping wildlife in the Calgary/Canmore/Banff area, in general. I think most of us take organizations like this for granted; so, if you're feeling sad after reading this story, maybe you'll consider looking up a wildlife rehabilitation society or center in your own area and making a holiday donation or volunteering your time (I donated $100 to the Calgary society on the spot on Saturday, so match me if you will!).
I'm also excited to announce that I have been invited back to the Calgary society with my small film crew to follow up on our story with some of the owls and hawks that they have there that are on the road to recovery. Stay tuned for a full episode (including footage that will melt your heart from this Saturday's attempted rescue) in early 2016.
And finally, thank you to all of you for your comments of support on Facebook and Instagram during the rescue as I live-updated along the way. They were very much appreciated.