Monday, May 26, 2008

OMG It's Nature: Spotted Owls and Dachshund-eating Coyotes

Today, let's visit two of Santa Clarita's top predators: Spotted Owls and coyotes. One eats Dusky-footed Woodrats; the other eats, well...

The Spotted Owl Fan Club

Northern Spotted Owls are high-maintenance drama queens. The endangered fowl demand old growth forests, the kind with trees too big to see all at once, the kind that swirl with ethereal coastal mists and attract people who hike barefoot and weep at the sight of particularly beautiful fungi. These forests aren’t exactly everywhere—essentially just the Pacific Northwest and pricey bits of coastal real estate, like Marin County. They also take a very, very long time to grow. Worse, these are the sort of forests that loggers love to log and stake their livelihoods on. Unsurprisingly, the persnickety habitat demands of the Northern Spotted Owl have made them a controversial bird (especially back in the 90s), dear friend to treehuggers and much-despised foe of loggers and developers.

Down here in Santa Clarita, our Spotted Owls are made of tougher stuff. Indeed, our owls—California Spotted Owls, to be precise; one of three sub-species[1]--have weathered fire after fire, 115-degree summers, and the insipid banter of SCV hikers for years. The Signal has been reporting on them every once in a while since at least 2006[2]. And not only are the owls getting by, they’re making babies! This year’s baby left its nest earlier in the month. It won’t be adept at flight for at least a couple of weeks to come, so its parents are forced to remain in the spot where their spawn perches. The cute, fuzzy baby and predictably-placed parents proved to be all that was needed for the formation of an (unofficial) Spotted Owl fan club.

Birders and bird watchers from all over LA and Orange Counties are driving to Placerita Canyon Park to catch a glimpse of the Spotted Owls. There may be fewer California Spotted Owls in the world than there are students at Valencia High School[3], so an all but guaranteed chance to see them is a real boon for the feather-inclined. On nearly any morning, hike the Waterfall Trail of PNC to its terminus and you’ll find yourself three Spotted Owls and perhaps as many birders. The rarity and high visibility is the real draw as Spotted Owls don’t have much in the way of personality. But there’s still a definite Spotted Owl aura that is—pardon my diction—neat to experience.

Few things should motivate the typical Santa Claritan to leave their air-conditioned abode, and Spotted Owls are not likely one of them. But if you’re an unusual Santa Claritan, visiting this family is an opportunity you’re privileged to have in your own backyard and one you may wish to act on.

Photos not by me but by a friend who is a big old fan of Spotted Owls. And yes, these are the very birds in SCV. Don't let the thoughtful expression of the parent (above) fool you; Spotted Owls aren't exactly the brightest crayons in the box.

The Coyote Not-Fan Club

Katie-Mae is the name of Kathi Beadle's beloved dachshund. Her dog was recently eaten by coyotes that apparently jumped a wall into the backyard. Beadle's letter to The Signal was featured on the 25th, and can be read here.

A few excerpts:

"No bark, no howl, no warning, only the treacherous scowl of the coyote staring back at me from over the block wall as I searched for my pet in futility."

"Stories of small dogs and cats snatched by the heinous creatures seem to be more prevalent this year than in the past."

Now, I feel really bad for Ms./Mrs. Beadle. I lost my dog last year (to cancer, not coyotes), and it sucks. There is no way around this.

Beadle's letter is a very useful reminder for dog-owners to be on alert, but are we really still villainizing coyotes (e.g., "heinous creatures")? We live in Santa Clarita and cherish our undeveloped wildands. But it's a lively, vibrant wilderness, one that still rustles with foxes, coyotes, cougars (not just the kind desperately trawling at Elephant Bar), and even the occasional black bear. Putting dogs outside is a risk, but I'd rather live in a valley where that risk is present than one devoid of any animals with a killer instinct.

[1]The other is the Mexican Spotted Owl, which lives in both Mexico and parts of the US--plus there are two additional sub-species found only in Mexico. It's confusing, isn't it? But all of these sub-species can potentially interbreed and are still very much "Spotted Owls." They just look a bit different from one another and are geographically separated.
[2]I can't prove this as the Signal's archive isn't searching for me right now; suffice it to say they've been talked about for a while, usually when they're refound after Placerita's most recent fire.
[3]Again, this is complicated. But based on Cornell's Birds of North America account on the species (by R.J. Gutierrez et al.):
"A minimum of 3,050 individuals detected between 1970 and 1992 (GutiĆ©rrez 1994a). One thousand eight pairs and 436 single birds known to occur in the Sierra Nevada; 598 individuals known from 15 other populations (range 6–270 individuals/population; Beck and Gould 1992, LaHaye et al. 1994)."

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