LAKE ARROWHEAD, Calif. — Chocolate brown and covered with white spots, the pair of spotted owls were barely visible in the dappled sunlight of a thickly wooded canyon a few miles north of here in the San Bernardino Mountains.
Still, wildlife biologists Bill LaHaye and John Stephenson moved quietly beneath the owls' perch and used a long metal pole with a nylon noose to snare the birds and bring them to the ground without harm. The biologists fasten a numbered metal band around the leg of each owl they capture.
The banding operation is part of a two-year study the men are doing under contract to the U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Fish and Game. It was initiated last year when Snow Summit Ski Corp. expressed a desire to expand its ski runs. Forest Service officials tentatively approved the expansion on condition that the company help pay for the $80,000 owl study.
LaHaye said the study will answer "some of the many questions we have about these birds in Southern California."
Indeed, the spotted owl, which is usually associated with the humid forests of Northern California and is listed as a "sensitive species" by the Forest Service, was considered a rarity in the San Bernardino Mountains before LaHaye and Stephenson began their study in April. Since then, the men have banded 69 of the nocturnal raptors and sighted at least 24 more.
"They're hard to find unless you know how to hoot them up," said Stephenson, adding that he and LaHaye have spent many a night tramping through the local forest and imitating the owls' "Hoo, hoo-hoo, hoooo."
The completed study will be used to "make informed management decisions regarding development, timber harvesting and mining in these mountains," LaHaye said. "You see, the spotted owl is what we call an indicator species. . . . We can monitor the spotted owl population and have a reasonable idea of what is happening to other species down the food chain."