Surprise clutch of owls delights, but delays heron project

Published: Thursday, Aug. 23 2012 5:39 p.m. MDT

Rocky Mountain Power begins to replace the power poles in a great blue heron rookery at the Great Salt Lake Nature Center at Farmington Bay on Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012. A lineman discovered barn owl chicks in a nesting box so the work was halted until the owls mature.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

FARMINGTON — When the fierce windstorm blew through Davis County in early December, the gale-force winds toppled several nesting platforms for the great blue heron — large, majestic birds that often make Farmington Bay their home year-round.

Diana Vos, director of the Great Salt Lake Nature Center, has been waiting for months to get the platforms replaced and sturdier new poles put in so the herons have ample room for the collection of nests — called a rookery.

On Wednesday, as that project coordinated by the state Division of Wildlife Resources was just getting started, it came to an abrupt end with an unexpected discovery.

"What a surprise," she said. "We have a nursery; and we couldn't keep doing our stuff."

Vos said inside a nesting box were "three little heads of barn owls that popped up. They can't be more than a few days old."

The appearance of the chicks so late in the season is unusual, she added.

"It is possible for owls to have more than one brood again in a season, but not typical," she said.

Crews from Rocky Mountain Power, which had hauled in six 40-foot poles for installation, will now have to wait until at least October before they can return.

By then, the owls will have matured enough to be on their own. In the interim, Vos said any more disturbances of the nesting box could deter the mother from returning at all.

She hopes the ground stays dry enough that when crews can return, they will be able to maneuver along the tiny strip of land without getting bogged down in the swampy mud.

That way, the poles and platforms can go up to accommodate the groups of great blue heron that will begin building their nests in February and stay to raise their young. Standing at more than 4 feet tall, with wing spans of 6 feet, the giant birds have become a popular attraction at the center, where Vos said loyal fans often visit daily to take a gander at them.

"People will come in, drive through the parking lot and then leave. There are a lot of people who track that colony," she said.

The nature center is on the extreme edge of the Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area, which hosts 60 species of birds that build nests there each year. More than 200 species of birds can be spotted at the bay, and some five million birds make a stop each year.

In addition to the surprise clutch of owls this year, Vos said the center hosted another unanticipated birth about a month ago. She had what she thought was a large male garter snake when a young visitor spotted a small head poking out from underneath a water bowl.

When the watering bowl was lifted up, there were 15 wiggling babies.

"It floored me," she said. "Some words of surprise slipped out of my mouth."

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GSL Nature Center

For information about the Great Salt Lake Nature Center, go to www.greatsaltlakenaturecenter.org. Hours of operation are posted, as well as volunteer opportunities.

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com Twitter: amyjoi16

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