Rehabilitated snowy owl released over Barrow tundra

A scrum of Barrow kids and a batch of tourists were on hand Tuesday to watch the city's mayor release a wayward snowy owl that had been nursed back to health at the Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage.

An Anchorage resident found the owl in Anchorage last fall. It was weak and hungry and far removed from the North Slope where snowy owls are fairly common, said Bob Harcharek, mayor.

About 20 kids were on hand, along with a dozen bus-bound tourists who applauded for the owl as it flew to freedom over the North Slope tundra, and hopefully, it's first wild meal in months.

"It took a couple minutes to exit the cage and realize there was freedom," said Harcharek, noting that the owl then flew to a tundra hill and appeared to be looking for lemmings, a favorite food of the bird.

Helping was Blair Marlowe, Bird TLC board member, who had flown north for the release. She said the animal was pretty weak and hungry when it was brought to the bird shelter last fall, according to Jake Neher, news director at KBRW.

"They're leaning toward the idea that it flew down to Anchorage looking for food, but they haven't ruled out the possibility it was removed from its habitat," Neher said.

Harcharek said he'd scouted for the past two weeks for the proper release site, and chose the stretch along Nunavak Road outside town because he hadn't seen owls there lately.

"We put him in an area where there's no competition," he said.

The owl was weak and tired when an Anchorage resident found it on the road near her house, Harcharek said. She knew there had to be a problem and brought it to Bird TLC - find it at www.birdtlc.net - Alaska's pre-eminent wild bird rehabilitation facility, Harcharek wrote in a media statement earlier in the week.

"On admission to Bird TLC, the snowy owl showed no signs of injury or trauma but had a very thin keel (an extension of the breastbone), which is indicative of starvation. So the volunteers who staff the facility began a very careful re-feeding program that allowed the snowy owl to gradually gain weight and strength," Harcharek wrote.

Here's more from the original press release:

"Once the snowy owl had his belly full, he started to show his true personality, a personality that indicated a distinct dislike for humans. Even those volunteers bringing plumped up dead rats into him for dinner found themselves facing hisses, flashing eyes and fluffed out wings. Most volunteers knew not to venture too far into his mew but to toss the rats from a distance.

The fact that the snowy owl so intensely dislikes human contact is a good sign for his rehabilitation and release back into the wild. It means he hasn't imprinted on people and so will not hang around where they are.

With the owl back to its full weight and able to fly and feed himself recently, Marlowe agreed to transport the snowy owl to Barrow where. It was particularly appropriate to release the bird in Barrow since the Inupiat name for the traditional village is Ukpeagvik, which means "place of the snowy owl.

Harcharek included a personal note: "It's always exciting to be able to participate in releasing a wild animal back to its natural habitat. Here in Barrow we are very lucky to be surrounded by such amazing wilderness that we can pretty much go out any road and let the snowy owl free and know he'll find the food and shelter he needs."

On a personal note, Blair Marlowe did this release trip at her own personal expense. Yea Blair!!!!!!