Lab finds second chick of threatened owls

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By Roger Snodgrass

A new little offspring of a pair of Mexican spotted owls has just been found at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The laboratory is a known habitat for two nesting couples, and now both pairs of the threatened species have new chicks.

The Mexican spotted owl is one of a handful of threatened species at Los Alamos. Their habitat is protected and they coexist with the nuclear weapons business under special conditions and dispensations.

“The law requires that none of our actions adversely affect a threatened or endangered species, unless we go through a consultation process with the Fish and Wildlife Service,” said Leslie Hansen, a biologist and a team leader responsible for the endangered species act at the laboratory.

Hansen and other team members in the environmental protection division at the lab systematically survey all the potentially suitable habitats every year.

The biologists make night expeditions along the rims or bottoms of the canyons, playing recorded owl calls, while stopping and listening for a response. During the breeding season, the nocturnal owls respond, giving the investigators clues about where they might be found.

“We go out four times in each place, or until we find an owl,” said Hansen. “if we find one, we go back later and see if they nested successfully.”

The chicks are visually located during the daytime. They are photographed but not banded or handled.

Sometimes, according to a report by David Keller, who photographed both new chicks this year, multiple visits are required to an area where the owls have been heard before the nest can be found and the inhabitants glimpsed.

The birds mate in March and lay their eggs in March or April. After a 30-day period of incubation, the chicks hatch.

After another four or five weeks they’re ready to fly, but meanwhile they can be observed on occasions when they jump out of the nest.

The Mexican spotted owl has been designated as a threatened species since 1993. A more controversial cousin, the Northern spotted owl, was blamed for shutting down logging on millions of acres of forest in the Pacific Northwest.

Hansen said the Mexican spotted owls prefer areas of the lab that do not have public access and the fact that a relatively large area has been 50 years, probably has something to do with the owls’ presence.

“The fact that there is no cattle grazing and that the space is undisturbed is also attractive,” she said.

One of the biggest threats is severe wildfire.

Hansen said a lot of Mexican spotted owl habitat was destroyed during the Dome Fire in 1996 and the Cerro Grande Fire in 2000, but not in the areas of the laboratory that were spared from damage.

In 2005, the lab reported three spotted owl chicks for the first time after the fire.