Benefield: Tiny owl takes 60-mile ride from Annapolis to Forestville in bin full of wine grapes

The tiny owl was rehabbed and returned to the wild after finding itself 60 miles from home.|

They knew by the color that something was off.

The half-ton bin of syrah wine grapes should have been nothing but a sea of black and deep purple.

“This was grayish brown. Something was odd, something was different,” said Tiaann Lordan, winemaker at Hartford Family Winery.

Lordan was at the winery’s Forestville facility to receive the truckload because syrah grapes are the last varietals to be harvested and they “often need a little more attention,” he said.

So he was right there for the discovery.

The cellar worker operating the forklift that night in October was moving one massive box of grapes from the top of another when he spied something he initially thought was a piece of wood.

But it wasn’t.

It was a tiny western screech owl staring up from the top of the bin full of grapes — the bin right below another half-ton bin.

After somehow getting caught up in the harvesting of the grapes, the little guy had accidentally hitched a ride from the vineyards up by Annapolis, and was a reluctant traveler for the approximately 60 mile drive south.

The winding route couldn’t have been easy on him, and Lordan said he looked a little worse for wear.

“He didn’t look right,” he said. “It’s eyes were half-closed. It was definitely distressed. I didn’t know how injured he was.”

Lordan is a winemaker but he is also a bird enthusiast.

So much so that he knew this was a western screech owl and he recognized that he wasn’t doing great.

He wondered how he had made his way into the bin.

Knowing the screech owls are nocturnal carnivores, Lordan surmised he might have been hunting the moths that are drawn to the lights used to illuminate harvest operations.

Or maybe he was after lizards or mice that were trying to get at the grapes just as they were being loaded.

But he was kind of guessing. What he did know is that the owl needed care.

“I didn’t know how injured he was,” he said. “I gently moved him into a box. I was trying to be as gentle as possible if he did have something wrong somewhere.”

And he also knew who to call.

Lordan had been to the Bird Rescue Center of Sonoma County with his daughter on a school field trip. He knew they would know what the owl needed.

“I knew owls are one of the most common things they get,” he said.

But not in bins of grapes.

“We’ve been around long enough that we have seen a lot of things,” said Ashton Kluttz, executive director of the Bird Rescue Center.

“We’ve seen songbirds eating the fruit or eating insects, some barn owls … then falcons,” she said. “But the screech owl popping up in a grape bin is probably one of the last one on the list of expected finds.”

He was a curiosity.

“They feed on smaller rodents, insects, any combination of those, so it makes me wonder what in the world happened to the little guy,” she said.

Precautions are still in place to ward off cases of avian flu, so the folks at the rescue center quarantined the owl immediately.

“Being a raptor, a screech owl is on the list, so we had to quarantine him,” she said.

But on first examination, the owl looked like he had handled his adventure fairly well.

“He was generally in good condition when he came in,” she said. “He was a little dehydrated but he was nice and plump. He probably wasn’t in the bin too long before being rescued, he had some scrapes from trying to get out.”

But there were a few other things the folks at bird rescue were keeping an eye on.

“He had a little bit of an issue gripping with his toes,” she said. “Sometimes that can indicate a central nervous system issue.”

So the next day when the owl was listing to one side, they became worried.

“It was, OK, he might be high risk,” she said.

They continued to monitor him.

By Day 3, the issue totally cleared. The owl seemed fine.

“He was pretty good to go pretty much right away, just letting us know he did not want to be there,” she said.

But they continued to monitor him.

Soon they began testing his abilities to live on his own.

“Could he hunt live prey, could he perch well?” she said. “We really just try to emulate whatever nature area that they would be in.”

All told, his stay was about two weeks.

A staffer arranged to head to Annapolis and set the owl free as close as possible to the site where they believed he was caught in the grape bin.

“It’s important to try to get them back to where they came from,” Kluttz said.

So a supervisor from the Bird Rescue Center drove north at night to the spot in the vineyards the folks at Hartford Family Winery said those last syrah grapes were harvested.

Lordan, for his part, had been calling the Bird Rescue Center for the entirety of the owl’s stay, getting health updates and potential release dates.

“I was very interested in knowing what was going to happen with this little owl,” he said. “They probably got tired of me.”

He wanted to go for the release, but couldn’t make it work.

“Our supervisor said that it just seemed he really knew he was back home,” Kluttz said. “I have songbirds that become vocal as soon as I’m driving to a location. (The supervisor) said it was evident that he knew he was back home and that once he was released he made a beeline to a certain grove of trees like he knew exactly where he was going.”

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or On Twitter @benefield.

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