View similar articles:
By Location:
EdwardsEssex CountyMaloneTri-LakesTupper Lake
By Category:

Every winter, from November through April, Drs. Francis and Frederick Hamerstrom went to Texas to study Harris Hawks and then continued into Mexico to study osprey on the Baja Peninsula. The Hamerstroms, world renowned biologists, were my mentors when I went to graduate school in the mid-1980s.

During their absence in 1986, I was chief gabboon (or apprentice) on Fran’s 25-year harrier project. When they traveled south, I had the immense privilege of taking care of their house. While they were gone, my responsibilities were to protect their house, pay their bills, take messages, care for Porferio (their owl that lived on the front porch) and check their mail.

My buddy Dale told me that the most important job was not to burn the house down. Dale had house sat the year before, so I had confided in him when I was put in charge of their home.

It was a real thrill spending time in and exploring their historic home. Their rustic building in central Wisconsin had been built before the Civil War and was the Mecca to all of us who worked on northern harriers.

The Wisconsin Falconers’ Club also met at their house every winter, and while they were gone, I had the additional honor of playing host to that organization.

The big weekend finally arrived in mid-December when a dozen falconers swept into Plainfield and converged on the house. Many of the guys brought their birds, so it was not long before several hawks were sitting on perches in the living room — four red-tailed hawks, a northern goshawk and two peregrine falcons.

Porferio was watching all of us from the porch. It was a great experience for me to be sitting there next to the crackling woodstove and listening to tales of their experiences. It seemed like each guy was trying to outdo the previous storyteller, and the adventures kept getting more and more outrageous.

I slowly relaxed and listened contentedly to the incredible stories as the golden beams of firelight shimmered throughout the dark room. The scent of burning oak hung heavily in the room as my mind visualized each story as it was recounted.

Tom sat beside the woodstove watching the flames dart and dance in the still evening as he listened attentively to the others as they spun their yarns. I had liked Tom immediately upon meeting him. Like me, Tom was a young guy who had moved to Wisconsin from New York, and both of us cared passionately for the birds of prey we worked with. So it was not surprising that I had developed a kinship with him and was looking forward to hearing his tale.

Finally it was his turn to tell his story. Everyone sat quietly anticipating the next remarkable tale. As the bitter winter winds howled outside and the naked branches of the lilacs next to the house rustled against the old building, we huddled around the glowing woodstove as the warm fire crackled within and he began to weave one of the most amazing tales I have ever heard.

It seems that Tom and his friend, Ron, had gone out earlier that year to catch and band a large snowy owl that they had seen in northwestern Wisconsin near their home. They had left just after sunrise so that they could have plenty of time to catch this diurnal owl.

The day was extremely cold, with beautiful, bright blue sunlit skies. By the time they reached the area where they had last sighted the owl, the sun had climbed high in the sky but the temperature was in the single negative numbers, and it was not warming up. It was one of those days when the intense cold instantly numbed one’s face.

Both men showed little concern for the cold as they drove down country roads in Tom’s old pickup searching for their elusive quarry. Gradually, the winds began to gather strength and the old truck was buffeted by strong gusts. Occasionally, the wind blew up a cloud of fluffy white snow crystals, and their view of the road was obstructed.

They had to be crazy to be on the roads with weather like that, but they were on a mission and they would not be deterred. Slowly and carefully, Tom maneuvered the truck along the road that was zigzagged with snow drifts.

The tension had been building for the past two hours as they had searched in vain for the owl. It was not a guarantee that they would be able to find it, and they were beginning to worry. Both of them had to work the next day, and they were not sure when they would be able to make another attempt at catching the winter visitor.

“There it is,” yelled Ron with relief in his voice as he pointed at a lone white object perched on top of a telephone pole about a half-mile down the road. The object seemed to glow pure white, and it drew their eyes to it.

Tom edged the truck to the side of the road and rolled to a stop. The crunch of ice being broken by the truck’s tires had barely died before they started scheming. Both eagerly grabbed their binoculars and stared at the snowy owl.

“I think it is a female!” Tom announced.

Female birds of prey are larger than the males and this bird appeared enormous. The guys both breathed a sigh of relief because they had found what they were looking for.

For several minutes they just sat and observed the bird from the warmth of their seats and dreamt about the catch. As they watched, their minds took in the surroundings, and they started formulating a plan to catch this behemoth.

The owl sat quietly on its perch, surveying the landscape in search of prey. They could see little wisps of steam rise from the bird’s nostrils each time it exhaled warm air into the frigid sky. They knew that the harsh conditions could make it favorable to catch the bird because the colder the temperature, the more calories the owl must burn in order to stay warm.

In other words, the owl needed to catch more food to maintain its body temperature. That is why a cold bird is more likely to come down to a prey item placed underneath it. After several minutes of heated discussion, the guys had decided that they were going to try an old Indian method of catching the owl. Holding onto a tethered pigeon, one of them would be buried in the snow. When the owl came down to grab the pigeon, the person buried under the snow would then grab the owl.

The only thing left to determine was who would have the pleasure of being buried in the extremely frigid snow and who would sit in the nice warm car, watching from a distance. (Years later, I tried this same technique on a snowy owl and now know from experience that it would not be long before the buried person’s fingers would burn from the cold and lose all feeling.)

Being true raptor banders, both were hoping to be the one buried in the snow. After several minutes of impassioned discussion, they finally cut cards for the honor of catching the bird. Tom lost, so he had to watch from a distance as Ron attempted to catch the owl.

They bundled up and prepared for the blast of extreme cold which would hit them when they opened the doors and stepped out of the truck into the frigid Wisconsin winter. The snows shifted around them as Tom helped his friend dig a depression and then buried him under the snow. Little by little, Ron’s red parka disappeared under a sparkling blanket of cold snow.

With numb fingers, Tom placed the tethered pigeon in his buddy’s grip, and with a word of encouragement, he hurried back to the truck. With a quick glance over his shoulder, he noted that the snowy was still perched on the next pole (snowy owls are amazingly tolerant of human activity and do not flush quickly).

The owl’s bright yellow eyes watched his every movement as he moved through the swirling snow back to his truck.

Excited about the prospect of catching and banding a large snowy owl, Tom hopped in his truck and slammed the door on the chilly cold. For several minutes, he sat breathing warm air on his hands and watched as the owl inspected the horizon.

The owl did not appear to be bothered by the cold wind and swirling snows all around her. She just sat and stared over the fields as her feathers were ruffled by the cold arctic air.

With frozen fingers, Tom groped to find the keyhole and inserted the key in the ignition. The engine rumbled and protested against the cold. With Tom’s well-practiced flutter of the gas pedal and crank on the key, the old Ford finally spluttered to life, and the low familiar rumble of the engine muffled the sounds of the gusting winds. He took one last look at the bird and started moving down the road toward a tiny country diner they had passed. The diner was about a half mile from the owl.

Slowly he weaved the truck around the snowdrifts that crisscrossed the road and eventually he reached the diner’s parking lot. He had decided to grab some hot chocolate for himself and his frozen friend to warm up with after completing the mission. He pulled into the parking lot of the tiny, rundown diner and took a quick glance up the road. He could make out a white dot on top of a pole where the owl sat; the diner offered a great view of the corner where the owl and his friend waited.

“Good,” he thought, “at least I will know if something happens.”

Tom didn’t want to be gone very long, so he quickly stepped into the poorly lit building.

As he left the blindingly white snowy landscape and stepped into the dark diner, he had to let his eyes adjust to the darkness. He slipped a little on the ice that had formed at the entrance of the tiny building. Catching his balance, he had just enough time to smell the undeniable aroma of recently cooked bacon and coffee before someone grabbed him and pushed him against the wall.

To his horror, he felt a knife at his neck. A quavering voice stammered in his ear, “Just take it easy son, the sheriff is coming.”

He felt someone checking his pockets, and then he was steered to a booth and forcibly pushed onto a bench. As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he could see that a heavyset, unshaven middle-aged man, wearing a greasy apron, smoking a cigarette and holding a large knife, was standing beside the booth.

In the background, he could hear a hysterical female’s voice talking to some unknown party. He made out a few words about a cold-blooded murder.

The man with the knife was speaking to another woman in whispers as they looked tensely at him. The woman was clearly a waitress at the diner, and she looked at Tom with total fear in her eyes.

“Why did you do it?” she blurted out as her hands shook.

By now, Tom finally realized that there had been a terrible mistake and tried to tell them what was actually going on, but they would not listen. The man nervously held up the shaking knife in a clearly menacing manner and told Tom to be quiet.

It seemed like eternity to Tom as he sat still, watching the man puffing on his cigarette and holding the knife in shaky hands. The room was beginning to fill with the smoke from the cigarette, and he could hear the sizzle of bacon cooking in a skillet in the kitchen.

Finally, a siren could be heard getting louder and louder as the patrol car approached the diner, and the woman’s eyes darted to the window. Tom heard the car tires squawk to a halt outside the building and the hurried crunching of heavy feet on the snowy parking lot.

Bright light flooded the room as the door burst open and two uniformed men carrying guns rushed into the room. He felt a blast of frigid air on his face and heard the heavyset man with the knife say, “Don’t worry sheriff, we got him.”

The two officers quickly grabbed him and pulled him off his seat. Before he could begin telling his story, he was spun around, and his arms were pulled behind his body. He heard the click of the handcuffs and felt the cold metal against the skin of his wrists.

Now the sheriff stood next to him and started asking him questions while the deputy moved toward the others. Still in shock from everything that had happened to him, he feebly tried to tell the sheriff what really was going on. The sheriff was very dubious of his tale and Tom was aware of distance voices as the deputy was talking to the staff.

He heard the woman who was on the phone saying, “I saw him bury the other guy in the snow at the corner!”

The other woman and man were shaking their heads in agreement and throwing furtive glances at Tom.

Tom tried in vain to set the sheriff straight, explaining that they were only trying to band a snowy owl that was perched on a pole just down the road … he didn’t kill anybody.

The sheriff stared incredulously at him and declared, “We are going to take a ride down the road and check this out.”

Both the deputy and the sheriff grabbed an arm and walked him out to their patrol car. The sunlight was blinding, and the cold seemed to penetrate his very bones as they moved to the car. The handcuffs felt like they were cutting into his wrists as he was steered toward the car.

Before he knew it, he was unceremoniously stuffed into the back on the patrol car, and they were plowing through the drifts toward the owl. With every drift came a loud flump from the front of the car. Tom’s head snapped forward with each drift. Time stood still, and each time the tires slammed into a snowdrift, the sound seemed to match his beating heart.

Flump, flump, flump … they move ever closer to the corner. Tom thought that it has to be just a bad dream. Flump, flump, flump. It seemed crazy that less than an hour before, he and Ron had been cutting cards for the chance to grab the owl. Flump, flump, flump. He felt that in literally less than an hour, his life had been turned inside out. Flump, flump, flump.

As they neared the corner, Tom began to protest his innocence and state emphatically once and for all that they were banding owls. The sheriff and the deputy both wore grim expressions on their faces as the cruiser rolled to a stop, close to the location where his friend lay buried in the snow.

As they began opening their doors, it happened.

Right on cue, the owl made its move and slipped from the telephone pole, dropping toward the tethered pigeon. From the cruiser some 20 yards away, both officers starred in total disbelief as the owl hit the pigeon, and Ron popped out of the snow, grabbing for it with frozen fingers.

There was a flurry of huge white wings, and snow flew everywhere as he snatched at the owl. The bewildered sheriff and deputy stared at each other and then back at Tom who was screaming, “See I told you so!”

To this day, I still do not know if they caught that owl, but Tom definitely had the best story that year.

Mark Manske is a public school educator, a falconer, a licensed nuisance wildlife control officer, an adjunct college professor at Paul Smith’s College and a retired wildlife rehabilitator. Check out his website at