Time out: owls captivate crowd in Orono

I was lucky to snag a seat in the front row. The crowd was growing rapidly as Grayson Richmond, caretaker at Birdsacre, carried three wooden boxes to the stage.

If I hadn’t read “Live Owl Presentation” on the 76th annual Eastern Maine Sportsmen’s Show schedule, I wouldn’t have been able to guess what those boxes contained. Still, I felt a thrill when Richmond opened the first box and out flew a tiny owl, tethered to a string.

BDN photo by Aislinn Sarnacki Northern saw-whet owl

BDN photo by Aislinn Sarnacki
Northern saw-whet owl

The northern saw-whet, about the size of a softball and weighing 2.3–5.3 ounces, perched on Richmond’s pointer finger and stared out at the audience with one beautiful yellow eye. The bird had lost its other eye before being brought to Birdsacre Stanwood Wildlife Sanctuary, and Richmond can only guess how — a wire, a car antennae, perhaps a branch. Even so evidently scarred, the delicate bird was stunning. Its feathers formed an intricate pattern of white and light brown. It’s single eye — a wide black pupil, surrounded by a vibrant yellow iris — seemed to be looking straight through me. That’s the thing about owls. Their wide faces and forward-facing eyes make them seem appear forever attentive, inquisitive — human, even.

Once he had the owl comfortably settled on his finger, Richmond began to speak to the audience in a calm tone, as if he were simply having a conversation. The way he presented facts about owls, with metaphors and short stories, catered to all ages within the audience. Richmond shared the fascinating observations he’d had while working with the sanctuary’s owls day after day, offering insight that even expert birders would find enlightening.

I never realized that Maine is home to an abundance of tiny northern saw-whet owls, which perch in trees at about eye level to humans because larger birds (predators) tend to perch higher in the trees. But these tiny owls blend in so well, Richmond said, that people rarely spot them, even if they’re sitting right in front them.

BDN photo by Aislinn Sarnacki Grayson Richmond and a barred owl.

BDN photo by Aislinn Sarnacki
Grayson Richmond and a barred owl.

Gloves were required for handling the larger barred owl, which also has beautiful patterning of white and dark brown. In the woods, I’ve heard the owl’s call, which is often described as “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?” But I’d never seen the owl up close. Its large dark brown eyes appeared pitch black, making the beautiful raptor appear a bit more mysterious and dangerous.

Then came the great horned owl – by far the largest of the three — with tan, black and white markings and long black ear

BDN photo by Aislinn Sarnacki Great horned owl

BDN photo by Aislinn Sarnacki
Great horned owl

tufts. Its curved, grey beak opened slightly as the bird began to deliver a soft call. I watched with fascination as the white feathers on its throat puffed out with each hoot. The bird’s head turned as its wide yellow eyes shifted from Richmond to the crowd.

If you’ve ever wondered by owls turn their heads so much, it’s because they can’t move their eyes. Instead of being ball-shaped, owls’ eyes are tubular, which prevents them from turning in their sockets, according to www.owls.org. That’s why having a flexible neck is so important. To observe their surroundings, owls can turn their heads about 270 degrees without moving their shoulders.

When it came to the great horned owl, the one thing that struck me was its feet (though not literally, thank god). They were absolutely enormous and covered with tiny feathers, which reminded me of some of the giant birds featured in prehistoric animations. Richmond explained that the great horned owl uses its strong feet to strike its prey, stunning it or even killing it before carrying it away to be eaten.

BDN photo by Aislinn Sarnacki The feet of the great horned owl.

BDN photo by Aislinn Sarnacki
The feet of the great horned owl.

The three Birdsacre owls each have a medical issue that makes them non-releasable, meaning they won’t survive long if released into the wild. They either can’t capture their live prey or aren’t afraid of humans. Therefore, their permanent home is at Birdsacre Stanwood Wildlife Sanctuary in Ellsworth, where they act as ambassadors of their species through educational programs.

Birdsacre, a 200-acre wildlife sanctuary with walking trails and wildlife displays, is located off Route 3 in Ellsworth, by China Hill Restaurant. The sanctuary is open, supported by donation, during daylight hours, seven days a week, year round. The Homestead Museum and Nature Center and seasonal, running from June through September, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., and is dependant on volunteers. For information, call 667-8460 or visit www.birdsacre.org. For a trail map, visit www.birdsacre.com/trailsmap.html.

Aislinn Sarnacki

About Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.