Disclaimer: This Dave Horne rescue story does not have a happy ending.
The story begins with Horne and his dog, Benelli the Labrador retriever, duck hunting in Bells Flats on Friday. The tide was out, and the ducks were not rich, so the two compadres went for a walk. By Sargent Creek, on the ocean side, Horne spotted a white object in a bush. Intrigued, Horne and Benelli investigated. They were not prepared for what they saw in the bush — a snowy owl.
Benelli sniffed the owl. The bird did not startle. It remained in the bush. Suspecting the owl was injured, Horne notified the Kodiak office of Alaska Fish and Game and continued the walk.
While resting, Horne spotted a bird flying around and assumed it was the owl — let’s refer to the owl as Hedwig. Horne returned to the bush, and Hedwig had vanished. Figuring that Hedwig was OK, Horne and Benelli returned to duck hunting.
Horne and Benelli jumped in the truck with no luck hunting for ducks and headed back toward town. Driving over the Sargent Creek Bridge, Horne took one final look at the ocean. High tide had begun. Wait, it couldn’t be. Was that Hedwig 20 yards offshore stuck in the tide? It was Hedwig. Horne immediately braked, sending the truck to a screeching halt. Horne backtracked, parked and headed to the marshy area in his chest waders.
“It (the water) was chest-deep. I was pushing the edge of my waders,” Horne said. “I was just hoping it wasn’t going to get any deeper.”
Horne sloshed his way to Hedwig, which had its wings out attempting to get to shore, but the bird was not making any headway with the wind blowing out. Horne to the rescue. He picked up Hedwig and wrapped it in the extra coat he packed with him. He carried Hedwig back to the car and sat it on his lap. The owl was hidden by the coat and not moving.
Horne called ADF&G and told them the situation. The person he talked to recommended putting Hedwig back where he found it. Since that location was 20 yards offshore and Hedwig was soaking wet, that wasn’t an option. Horne was instructed to bring Hedwig to the ADF&G office on Near Island.
Hedwig was an instant celebrity upon arrival.
“I brought it in, and there were five or six biologists standing around me,” Horne said.
This is where Horne’s story with Hedwig ends. He had his photo taken with the bird and went about his day.
“It was great to do — I certainly had never seen one and certainly had never held one in my lap,” Horne said.
The story of Hedwig continued. Fish and Game immediately contacted Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. Enter Robin Corcoran, wildlife biologist for the refuge. She was responsible for escorting Hedwig to the Kodiak Benny Benson State Airport to be transported to the Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage.
Hedwig was dropped off by 1 p.m. and was on the evening Alaska Air flight to Anchorage.
This was when the story turns, like when a beloved animal dies in a movie. For those looking for a happy ending, stop reading now.
“Unfortunately, the snowy owl died about 10 minutes after the Bird Treatment and Learning Center volunteer picked it up at the Anchorage airport,” Corcoran wrote in an email. “The bird had no sign of injuries — it was just extremely underweight.”
Corcoran suspected Hedwig was a young male, which are smaller than females. It was white with some black in the body plumage. According to Corcoran, older males are pure white, while females get darker with age, with lots of black barring.
On average, snowy owls weigh 4 pounds. Hedwig weighed less than 4 pounds.
“With the kennel, that bird only weighed 7 pounds at the airport,” said Corcoran via phone on Tuesday. “I would just be guessing, but just from the feel of the bird in my hands, you are talking 30 to 40% underweight.”
Corcoran has never seen a snowy owl in Alaska until this bird. However, she said snowy owls were a common sight when she lived in New York. Snowy owls are a migratory bird, and according to Corcoran, irrupt to the south in large numbers.
“They are a wandering species and show up in some really neat places. … It gets really exciting for birders,” Corcoran said.
According to Wikipedia, the once-estimated 200,000 snowy owl population has dwindled to 100,000, with the number of successful breeding pairs fewer than 28,000. Rick MacIntosh, Kodiak’s bird guru, said the last photo of a snowy owl in Kodiak was taken in November 2012 by Jeanne Friel at Narrow Cape.
“I’m guessing there might be one seen somewhere in the archipelago every few years, but most sightings don’t go public,” MacIntosh wrote in an email to the Daily Mirror.
MacIntosh highlighted two snowy owl sightings in Kodiak. On Oct. 24,1996, the bird made the Daily Mirror’s front page after it was photographed in the rigging of the fishing vessel Zachary R in the Dog Bay harbor. The other sighting was in the winter of 2001-2002 when a bird hung out by the harbor dumpsters at night hunting rats.
MacIntosh said there is only one summer record for the area and snowy owls are not suspected of nesting in the archipelago. Corcoran said the recent wind storm could have blown the owl into the area.
Horne, who rescued two fishermen from an overturned boat near the mouth of the Buskin River in July, was saddened when told about the death of Hedwig.
“Don’t know what to say,” he responded in a text message. “Glad I got to see him before he was lost.”