It had been a great weekend. My husband and I had just arrived home from seeing the Eagles in concert in Tahoe. The Eagles are my husband’s favorite band and he had never seen them live. Even though I had to be up since 3am to go do our monthly news spot that same day, this may have been the last opportunity to see them so we went. We left right from the news to drive to Tahoe for the concert that night, saw the awesome show that evening and the next day drove back to Redding. I had just sat down on the couch with my cats to relax after the whirlwind weekend when the phone rang. It was one of my trainers, “Cricket is in a tree.”
Earlier that evening, two of the trainers were doing an outdoor, evening show at the Antler’s Campground, about a half an hour North of Turtle Bay. We had done shows there many times and Cricket, the barn owl, would fly at each one. This time, however, he decided to fly past the trainer and up into a tree. Flying off into a tree isn’t totally unusual for him and he always comes down fairly quickly, but it had been a half hour and, being away from home base, they thought they should let me know. “Do you think you are good or do you need backup?” I asked. The trainer replied, “I think we are okay for now, it is still light out and he isn’t very far up in this tree. We will call you back if we need anything or he comes down.” We hung up the phone and I sat back down onto the couch. That didn’t last long. Within fifteen minutes the phone rang again, “He moved to another tree and is higher up now. The sun is going down and we are starting to have trouble seeing him. I think we could use your help.” We jumped up, grabbed our stuff and headed out the door. Before we could go to the campsite, we made a quick stop at work to pick up supplies, like gloves, a creance line, mice and rats.
When we arrived, there he was, high up in a pine tree. It was dusk and all we could see was his silhouette. The sun was going down quickly and he had absolutely no interest in coming down. We knew it was going to be a long night, but we were not quite prepared for how long.
As the sun disappeared below the horizon and darkness settled over us, we knew we were in trouble. Antler’s Campground sits on a cliffside overlooking Shasta Lake. If he started flying around, we wouldn’t be able to see him and navigating the area safely was going to be a challenge. No longer able to see him, we would periodically shine a flashlight towards him to make sure he was still there. Over and over we checked and there he sat, high up in the tree. We knew we had to make a plan for the night. It was only a matter of time before he would start flying around as he was an owl, after all, and he was going to get active at any moment. There were five of us there: my husband Wayne, Adrienne, her husband Kevin, Ashley, and me. We were going to need to make shifts as it could be a long night and, at that time, we still had the baby beaver and bobcat kitten at home needing to be taken care of too. So we called Lindsay for the night shift, sent Ashley home for sleep, sent Kevin home to take care of the bobcat kitten and put out calls to some of our volunteers. Now that we were confident that everything was covered, it was time to sit, watch, follow, and wait.
We stood in a circle with the tree in the middle waiting for him to fly. Every time we shined that light up at the tree, there he sat, motionless until 9:30pm. That’s when it happened, “Where is he?” one of us called out. “I don’t know,” said another. “Can you see him?” “No, I can’t!” “Did anyone see him fly?” Well, that answer was obvious, we had not. Luckily, we always free fly Cricket with a telemetry transmitter attached to his ankle so that we can track him should we ever find ourselves in this very situation. We don’t know how long he had been gone, but not only did we not see him in the darkness, we could not hear him either. The silent flight of the owl is no myth and we were experiencing it firsthand. We turned on the receiver and started to follow the beeps. “Be careful, the cliff is on that side of us,” one trainer points to our right side. “How far away?” I asked with great concern. “Not very.” So we continued carefully and followed the beeps right to him. He was sitting up in another tree as comfy as could be. This pattern continued throughout the night. We would create a circle perimeter, shine the light periodically until he was gone and then follow the beeps to him. Following the beeps in the dark was quite an adventure with the cliffside nearby, rattlesnakes active in the tall grasses and tents scattered about. We had gotten so turned around wandering in the dark that we had no idea where we were anymore. At one point, I ran right into a tent. It was about 2am and I was sure I was going to get shot! “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, we are just looking for our owl!” How many people can say they heard that while they were camping?
At about 3am, it was time for a few people to get some sleep, so Adrienne and Wayne went to their perspective cars to get some shut eye while four of us remained traipsing through the campground. Time seemed to move very slowly as the night went on. The darkness had an eerie silence to it and we were very disoriented. Around 5:30am, we heard a sound in the distance. It was quite unmistakable as it made its way closer and closer, louder and louder. A train was approaching and Cricket was listening too, but he had never heard one before. As the grumbling sound approached with the squealing of the metal on the tracks, Cricket took off in a startling flight. We had done this all night long, so it was time once again to break out the receiver and start the hunt. As the beeps got stronger and we got closer, we looked around but could not find him. We continued to look, but nothing. “He has to be right here,” I said to the others. “The signal is strong here.” But the trees were quite tall and leaves were full and we just couldn’t find him. For over thirty minutes we searched. I held the receiver and circled the tree. There was a strong signal all the way around. I lifted the receiver high in the air towards the top of the tree and then made my way all the way down to the ground. The beeping was louder the lower I went.The most sickened feeling I have ever felt came over me at that moment. I looked at the ground and there was his telemetry transmitter laying on the ground under the tree. In his abrupt take-off, the transmitter had fallen off. Cricket was gone and there was no way for us to find him.
We needed more eyes. We woke up Adrienne and Wayne and all six of us started searching. At least the sun was coming up so we could see a little now. We searched and searched for hours to no avail. Around 8:30am I made a call to Turtle Bay’s Guest Experience Officer, Carrian, to gather up as many people as possible to help search for him. One thing you can always count on is Carrian’s organizing the troops in a moment of crisis. She was on it. Around 11am people would start showing up to help. In the meantime, we continued to look at every single tree. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack. At one point, the camp host came out to help and said they thought they had seen him. With great excitement we went to see, but it was a turkey vulture. I was exhausted and the hopelessness was beginning to set in but we had to keep looking.
At about 9am, one of the campers came over, “Your owl is in a tree right over here.” “Where?” we said reluctantly. “He was in a tree right above our campsite.” Of course we were skeptical and I didn’t want to waste time on another false lead, but I sent Wayne over just in case. Shocking as it was, the man was right! “It’s him, right over here,” Wayne yelled to us. Still in disbelief, we all went running over, but before we could get there, he took off flying. “Keep your eye on him,” we yelled. Thankfully, he didn’t go far and settled in a tree 15 feet up. As our backup started to arrive, we created a large perimeter and gave instructions as to what to do. Essentially, keep your eyes to the sky in case he flies, yell so everyone knows he is going and do not lose sight of him. When I say we are supported at Turtle Bay, I really mean it. It wasn’t just animal care and volunteers who came to help. No, we had Creative Services, Guest Services, Development and even our Finance Department there helping. We sent Adrienne, Lindsay and Wayne home to sleep. Carrian set up shifts so that we would have people all day and night. She brought coolers of food, water, and snacks. She brought phone charging cables, radios, flashlights, and blankets. We pretty much set up camp and had our very own Turtle Staff Campout under a little tree watching an owl! And that’s what we did, hung out and watched Cricket who ever so thoughtfully went to sleep.
I knew we were in for the day. After all, he had been flying around all night and it was time for some rest. “He will most likely be asleep until dusk. As soon as the sun starts to go down, he will get active and I bet he will finally be hungry enough to come down.” I rolled out a yoga mat that somebody brought, laid down under the tree, and drifted off to sleep. Every once in a while I would awaken when I heard the murmurs that he opened his eyes. I’d get up, swing a mouse around a little to see if he was at all interested, be ignored, and go back to rest. I “slept” like that for an hour or two and then I was back up for the duration. Then, at 7pm, almost exactly 24 hours from when he flew off, Cricket woke up. He started looking around and I knew he must be hungry. We started calling him with the glove and a mouse. He looked around and stretched, “ He is going to fly,” I called out. Sure enough, he tucked his wings and took off right towards me but flew passed me, circled around and landed in another tree. “He is trying to come down, but it’s too steep,” I advised. So I stood back a little distance, held my glove up and he took off flying towards me again, but it was still too steep. Standing about 25 yards back to my left, stood Lindsay. As he passed me, he descended more and more as he got closer until his legs stretched out as he flared his wings back and landed right on Lindsay’s glove! We all gave a huge sigh of relief. We knew that there was no way to follow him at night without the telemetry and were thankful that it was over now, with him back safe and secure.
As he sat shaking on Lindsay’s glove unwilling to eat the whole mouse offered it was apparent the last 24 hours was as hard on him as it was on us.
Over the years I have managed quite a few fly offs, but none were quite like this: in a campground, at night, at the edge of a cliff, overlooking a lake. Never had I experienced the level of support from co-workers who came out in droves to help. This is one recovery we will never forget.
Sharon Clay, Curator of Animal Programs
“One Touch of Nature Makes the Whole World Kin”