Whatcom wildlife center rehabs, releases great horned owl

The small group gathered on a field on Crabapple Lane watched as wildlife rehabilitator Alysha Elsby gently threw a great horned owl into the blue sky, and then clapped as the bird flapped its wings and flew into a nearby tree.

“She’s beautiful. All right. Be free,” they cheered Wednesday, July 1, as the female owl was released back into the wild.

“She gave us a show,” said Sarah Trudeau, a wildlife care technician for Whatcom Humane Society’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.

The field east of Bellingham belonged to Denny Nieuwendorp, who called the center May 6 after he and a neighbor saw the great horned owl tangled in fishing line and hanging about 25 to 30 feet up on a willow tree on his property. Her left wing was stretched tight over her head by the fishing line that was wrapped around the tip of her flight feathers; her talons were scrabbling on a small branch.

“It was in a precarious situation,” Nieuwendorp said.

The tree wasn’t big enough to allow rescuers to climb up to retrieve the owl, so Nieuwendorp called someone he knew, Dan Adams, the owner of Mt. Baker Cable, who sent a bucket truck.

“I got more animal friends out here than I do people friends,” Adams said of his decision to send the truck. “It was a no-brainer.”

The bucket truck raised Joe Lalonde, a Bellingham Parks and Recreation Department employee and longtime wildlife center volunteer experienced in raptor rescue, up to the owl. Making soothing noises and moving slowly, he cut the line and freed the owl.

“ I think it was so tired, so worn out, it didn’t put up any fuss,” Lalonde said. “That bucket saved the day.”

The dehydrated owl, which was about about 3 years old and weighed 6 pounds, was put into a carrier and taken to the rehabilitation center.

Her patagial ligament was hyper-extended from hanging for so long by her wing, and the metacarpal bones in the wing were broken from the pressure of being pulled, explained Elsby, who manages the rehabilitation center.

The owl’s ligament was put back in place, and the wing was put into a sort of sling-splint so it could heal and allow her to once again fly silently and hunt properly.

The rehabilitation center cares for about 1,400 injured and orphaned native wild animals a year from its space at Nugents Corner, but helping a great horned owl is rare.

“Great horned owls are really elusive,” Elsby said.

On Wednesday, the group waiting for the release got an eyeful up-close when Elsby pulled the great horned owl out of the carrier and released the bird, which flew into a wooded area on Nieuwendorp’s land as he watched in admiration.

“It was great,” he said afterward. “Wildlife has its place on Earth. They’re beautiful creatures.”

Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com.