If you follow professional football and have a few years on you, no doubt youve heard of the Immaculate Reception, that last-minute snag by Dwight Clark from a Joe Montana pass that propelled the San Francisco 49ers into the Super Bowl decades ago and set Montana firmly on the path to legendary status.
On a spongy marsh bank off Monie Bay under brilliant skies, Maryland Department of Natural Resources wildlife manager Bill McInturff made an even more impressive catch: snatching from midair an adult barn owl that had been spooked from its nesting box. It happened so fast, in an amazing surreal blur of motion, that I wasnt sure it happened at all. But other Natural Resources folks, including Lynda Wiley, who was generous enough to ask me along on the barn owl banding project, also saw McInturff snag the owl.
We were led by Scott Smith, Natural Resources regional manager on the Eastern Shore, an expert on raptors as well as one the states foremost herpetologists. The drill was simple: Scott and his assistant, Wes, would approach the plywood box, which is about the size of a doghouse and attached to posts raised off the ground five feet. They would stuff a sweatshirt in the exit hole. A second, latched door allowed the biologists access to the birds. To deter raccoons and other predators and squatters, the bottom of the box is wrapped with sheet metal.
When we peered into the box (which smelled horrible but doesnt bother the owls because they have no sense of smell), the owls hissed with such ferocity youd think we had unearthed a den of vipers. It was easy to see why these almost strictly nocturnal animals conjure up other-worldly images among many cultures. Apaches believed an owl dream foretold impending death, and California Newuks believed that after death, the wicked were doomed to become barn owls.
Each of the five boxes we visited contained at least two chicks ranging in age from less than a week to nearly six weeks old or nearly full-grown adults readying themselves to leave the nest. Two boxes had six young birds and one box had seven along with both the mother and father. That Smith called pretty unusual, which is biologist-speak for very cool. We then held the birds carefully as Smith banded their legs.
Seeing these creatures up close, I was amazed by the size of their eyes. They are so big relative to their body size that if we had the same proportions, our eyes would be the size of grapefruits. Barn owls are prodigious hunters. I saw this firsthand as Scott showed me the cache of prey. It was huge and entirely comprised of meadow voles. Local trappers mistakenly believe that barn owls hunt young muskrats, which can lead to problems.
Owls use their keen hearing to hunt. Their ear openings are at slightly different levels on the head and set at different angles. Short, densely webbed feathers frame the face, turning it into a dish-like reflector for sound. This configuration gives the barn owl sensitive hearing and allows them to triangulate sounds to locate prey in total darkness. Once quarry is found, barn owls make short work of it, often swallowing bones and skull whole. The indigestible parts are formed into pellets that are disgorged about the nest.
Id seen a fair number of many sorts of owls in my witching-hour outdoor jaunts, but I had never held a live bird. Scott and his crew gave me an owl fix that should last well into the decade. Thanks in part to their efforts, the population of this amazing bird should remain viable for years to come.
Fish Are Biting
Last week, Natural Resources Angel Bolinger reported that trolling the Gas Docks continued to produce most of the rockfish catches, but that chumming has not been productive on The Hill.
Snapper bluefish are beginning to show up, says Ricky from Bunkys Charters in Solomons. He also reports that anglers targeting croaker and perch at Drum Point and Point Patience have had success.
The black drum run should hit our area, and the stretch from James Island to the Stone Rock is a traditional bet, although Eastern Bay has produced some in recent years. Soft and peeler crab are preferred bait.
Nice sea trout are being caught in Tangier Sound, along with some redfish in the grass flats.