As Mike Gregg heard the wind howling across the open spaces of the Mid-Columbia on Sunday, he knew it was going to be a good day. Gregg, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, was headed to the Umatilla Chemical Depot to help the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of British Columbia capture baby owls to take back to Canada to expand and diversify the country's breeding program.
Burrowing owls are considered a "species of concern" by Fish and Wildlife in the United States, but in Canada they are listed as endangered.Among the now-empty earthen igloos that once held munitions and chemical weapons for the Army, 125 artificial burrows have been added to attract burrowing owls since 2008.
The program is helping. In 2008 there were just four known pairs of the burrowing owls left from the species that had flourished there decades earlier.
But this year, 65 known pairs have been counted on the depot's sage and grass lands.Gregg was right about the wind.
Many of the fledglings at the depot hatched four to five weeks ago and are getting big enough to start wandering. But not in Sunday's strong wind, which kept them conveniently inside their burrows.
James Rebholz, a Fish and Wildlife biologist, pushed a home-made plunger into plastic piping that formed an entryway of about 10 feet into an underground burrow.
On the end of the plunger was a round plug of soft foam, meant to keep the birds from running out of the pipe.Burrowing owls would be found there, the crew of Fish and Wildlife employees and Canadians knew. A soft hissing could be heard from underground as the plunger snaked toward the underground nest cavity.
"In a group they sound like a rattlesnake," said one of the biologists watching.
Then Paul Williams, of the British Columbia conservation society, lifted a dirt-filled bucket set flush with the ground to serve as a porthole and allow easy access to a manmade burrow.
Williams, lying on his stomach, extended his hand down through the porthole and carefully felt around the edges of the burrow.
"Hold on. Hold on. We got him," he said."That's a mean one there," said Don Gillis, a retired natural resources manager for the Army, as Williams lifted out a fighting fledgling, all fluffy feathers and big round yellow eyes.
Williams doesn't wear gloves because the birds are too small to cause any harm, although he does get "the odd pincher" with an aggressive beak, he said.
The crew found a couple of fledglings in the burrow, but took just one for the Canadian breeding program. Keeping the captive breeding population as diverse as possible is the goal.
"We need new blood," said Williams, who works as an animal care supervisor at the British Columbia Wildlife Park, one of three breeding facilities that will receive the birds.
Biologists did find one burrow with three eggs left to hatch and four gray birds the size of ping-pong balls, one so newly hatched it was still wet.
That likely was a second clutch after the first hatch was lost, but most of the fledglings found and captured were big enough to feed on the grasshoppers prevalent this month at the depot. They are large enough to still be hanging around the nest but no longer be fed by their parents.
Back at the depot buildings by early afternoon, each of the seven birds collected so far was checked and banded with the green and gold tag that identifies them as a new Canadian "citizen."
Lauren Meads, a site coordinator from the British Columbia conservation society, started the process with a quick spray to kill pervasive fleas, then swaddled each in a cotton cloth as if it were a baby. Except in this case, it was the head that was covered and the claws left free so they could be banded.
"We wrap it just so it doesn't struggle," Williams said. "It calms it to have its head covered so it doesn't see what's going on."
Then the birds are weighed -- the first one weighs 126 grams or about 4.4 ounces -- and freed from the cloth and put back into animal carriers to await the ride north to British Columbia.
Williams is hoping to collect at least 12 fledglings, but has a permit to take up to 24 back to Canada. They will live in captivity, with their offspring introduced into the wild.
Part of the reason for the decline of the burrowing owls is the decline in badgers, both in British Columbia and the Mid-Columbia.
Burrowing owls move into burrows already dug by badgers and other animals or use manmade structures such as culverts for nesting. Pesticides can affect their egg production, and the encroachment of farms and homes reduces habitat, Williams said.
Gillis, working with Fish and Wildlife, introduced manmade nests to the Mid-Columbia as he noticed the decline of birds at the depot. The practice since has spread to the Tri-City area, with Energy Northwest being the latest organization to add manmade burrows this summer to land near the Columbia Generating Station north of Richland.
But the 17,000 square miles of the depot may have the largest population of the burrowing owls now in the Northwest."This really is owl central," Gregg said. "For whatever reason they really like this ground."The Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of British Columbia is hoping their offspring like Canadian grassland just as much.