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Family reunion 40 feet up as volunteers return rescued owl to Sonoma County home

A downy, young great horned owl clutched a branch well up a eucalyptus tree alongside Sonoma Mountain Road on Wednesday and gazed down at a flurry of peculiar human activity.

A handful of bird rescuers and looky-loos flocked there above Bennett Valley for the return to the tree of the owlet’s sibling. That bird fell nearly two weeks ago, perhaps because its family nest about 40 feet up was so shabby.

“They’re not the greatest nest-builders,” said Jeremy Nichols, president of the Bird Rescue Center, which took in and fed many mice to the fallen owlet. “They’ll take over an old crows’ nest or ravens’ nest and put some sticks on it.”

John McChesney lives across the narrow country road from the tree and savors watching the family of owls. He said the parents lived for two years or so in a former hawks’ nest in another tree and for some reason moved before their eggs hatched in late March.

It was April 15 when Bennett Valley firefighter Matt Tognozzi brought a baby owl into the Bird Rescue Center off Chanate Road, near the former Sutter/Community hospital. Tognozzi’s father, Arnie, had found the little bird in the middle of Sonoma Mountain Road, carefully captured it and delivered it to the fire station on Bennett Valley Road.

The Bird Rescue Center’s director of avian care, Ashton Kluttz, determine the owlet was not hurt in the fall, and she estimated its age at just 21 days. Nobody at the rescue center, bustling now with all manner of young birds, recalled ever taking in such a young great horned owl.

This one promptly began swallowing mice offered by center volunteers who hid their faces, lest the owlet begin associating food with humans.

Birds of prey specialists Brad Marsh and Natalie Getsinger quickly devised a plan to return the fallen owl to the tree and to provide its family a sturdier nest - a wicker basket.

“Our goal is always to return them to the nest,” Marsh said from the shoulder of Sonoma Mountain Road. “The parents do the best job of raising them.”

Essential to his and Getsinger’s mission to return the owl to its family and sibling was Sebastopol arborist Merlin Schlumberger, who frequently this time of year voluntarily ascends trees to re-nest baby raptors: owls, hawks and such. Wednesday’s outing would have happened earlier this month, but Schlumberger was away.

Shortly after the rescue team and several spectators arrived on Sonoma Mountain Road early Wednesday afternoon, the adult owl that had been in the nest flew off. The Bird Rescue people said that parent was no doubt watching from nearby. The other parent was not to be seen.

The sibling of the rescued owlet, unable to fly but adept at walking by clutching a tree branch with its talons, stood several feed above the nest. And watched.

Schlumberger tossed a rope up over a branch near the nest, then climbed it. He hauled up the basket and secured it right over the nest. Raptor specialists Marsh and Getsinger then attached to a line the sturdy orange bag that held the rescued owl.

The heavily gloved Schlumberger pulled it up, carefully lifted out the bird and placed it in the basket, then descended the tree. The little owl peeked over the basket’s rim but didn’t climb out.

Its brother or sister watched the entire process and never moved from its perch.

If all went according to plan, the entire family gathered in its new home shortly thereafter.

Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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