Biologist doesn't mind losing some sleep doing owl study

Posted: Wednesday, May 03, 2000

KENAI (AP) -- Liz Jozwiak has been losing some sleep over her job lately.

A wildlife biologist and bird rehabilitator at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, she has been surveying the peninsula's owl population.

The closest many Alaskans get to the nocturnal birds of prey is a hoot in the night or a shadowy glimpse of wings in the dusk. Jozwiak gets much closer, and this spring she had a unique opportunity to get up close and personal with a hawk owl.

A week ago, she released the bird into a forest east of Ninilchik after it had recovered from a wing injury.

''This is one of those rewarding things,'' she said. ''After spending months rehabbing, we get to release the critter. What makes it all worthwhile is to see them go back to the wild.''

The owl had a dislocated wing, apparently from colliding with a power line, she said.

Snowmachiners Judy and Levi Phipps and Justin Rainwater found the bird Feb. 19 sitting in the snow in the Caribou Hills. They picked it up when they realized it could not fly and traced its tracks back to a spot under the intertie. They took the owl to a cabin and gave it to Ed and Lila Krohn, who delivered it to the wildlife refuge headquarters in Soldotna.

Power lines can be a major hazard for birds of prey, Jozwiak said. The lines can electrocute or hit birds, especially ones with large wingspans. She called them ''silent killers.''

''We don't know how may raptors die,'' she said. ''There are no systematic surveys.''

Jozwiak said the refuge tries to help injured birds, especially if the damage is caused by human activities. It works with a network of licensed specialists who rehabilitate wild birds.

Refuge personnel took the owl to Bart Richards, a Soldotna veterinarian who works with wildlife. The bird also spent time at the Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage and testing its wings in a flight pen belonging to Sterling rehabber Cindy Sherlock, before returning to the refuge pens to prepare for release.

The bird had been healthy when injured and was fattened under human care.

When Jozwiak released her grip on its talons, it swooped into a dead spruce tree. It peered in all directions with its wide, golden eyes, then soared away over the Deep Creek valley.

''It was in pretty good shape. This is one lucky hawk owl,'' Jozwiak said. ''Unfortunately, he or she has missed the breeding season.''

The refuge receives up to 30 injured birds a year, she said, including two- to 10 eagles and a smattering of great horned owls. The refuge also has had a murrelet and a sharp-shinned hawk.

''It nailed me in the knuckles right through my leather gloves,'' Jozwiak said.

But the bird she released this week is the first hawk owl anyone ever has turned into the refuge.

Hawk owls are uncommon and little known, she said.

They get their name from their un-owl-like behavior. They hunt by day, watching for prey from atop snags and hovering while hunting mice in the grass. They prefer diverse habitat with mixed forest and grassland. About 90 percent of their diet here is meadow voles, she said.

Biologists in the refuge are noticing an unusual increase in sightings of the hawk owls.

Jozwiak speculated that they may be becoming more abundant, perhaps in connection with the spruce bark beetle epidemic's thinning of the spruce forest.

The biologists keep tabs on such ecological shifts by monitoring which species live on the refuge.

That's why Jozwiak has been checking out the Kenai Peninsula's wild night life this spring. She walks the woods during prime owl hours between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. listening for their calls during their breeding season.

She can tell who's who in the woods because she knows whose ''hoo'' is whose. Jozwiak can distinguish between the five types of owls in the area -- the saw whet, northern boreal, great horned, great gray and hawk owls -- by their calls.

Pygmy and snowy owls occasionally are spotted in the area, but they're just visitors, she said. ------

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