A northern hawk owl, a species rarely seen in the Inland Northwest, was reported dead on tribal lands near the Okanogan River last week after it had attracted scores of birdwatchers from as far away as Oregon.
The bird’s carcass, discovered by birders as it hanged by cord from a tree, was removed on Wednesday by Colville Tribe officers. The bird is being sent to a diagnostic lab to determine the cause of death, said Henry Hix, the tribe’s Chief of Natural Resource Enforcement.
A resident near the site was reportedly disgruntled with the parade of birders toting binoculars and cameras near his home.
Birders contacted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about the dead bird, since the northern hawk owl is protected under the federal Migratory Bird Act.
The case has been turned over to Colville tribal authorities because the incident occurred on the Colville Indian Reservation and the property owner is a tribal member, officials said. An investigation is underway, Hix said.
“Birders in online forums such as Tweeters have condemned and convicted the man, but I’m wary of making any judgments before there’s an investigation,” said Kim Thorburn, a Spokane Audubon member as well as a Washington Fish and Wildlife commissioner.
Factors to consider are that hawks and owls often are often killed by vehicles, she said.
“And birders are known to pose a problem in some cases when they get a rare bird alert on the Internet and rush from far and wide to the site, especially when the site is on private land,” Thorburn said.
Jon Houghton, a master birder and member of the Seattle Audubon Society, told KING5 TV he drove four hours to see the rare owl on Jan. 7 near Cassimer Bar Road. The road is near the confluence of the Columbia and Okanogan rivers on a peninsula that’s just within the Colville Indian Reservation.
“It was a superb bird, a very beautiful bird,” Houghton told a reporter on Monday. Northern hawk owls are one of the rarest owls and are almost never seen south of their normal habitat in Canada and Alaska.
Houghton told the Associated Press that he tweeted his experience online but advised others who might want to catch a glimpse of the bird to respect private property. The bird could be seen through binoculars from a public road.
Other birders who had brought the bird to his attention had mentioned to him that the property owner did not want anyone taking photos of anything on his property.
But that information did not get through to some birders who learned of the hawk owl sighting online through eBird, including Sandy and Herman Schreven of Cheney.
The Schrevens were among the steady stream of birders that visited the area. They saw the bird alive about 12:30 p.m. on Jan. 9. A man came out of a home along the road and appeared to be writing down their license number as they drove away, Sandy Schreven said.
“I had read about on owl and figured this might be my one chance to see one,” she said.
Using an eBird map that pinpointed where it was spotted, the Schrevens drove nearly 3 hours and spotted the owl on top of a tree as they drove down Cassimer Bar Road.
“We went past a house and saw a sign that said no photos allowed,” Schreven said, noting that she did not realize they were on tribal lands.
She said they stayed on the road but drove farther to be out of sight in an attempt to avoid giving impression she might be looking at the house with her binoculars.
“We looked at the beautiful bird for about five minutes and then decided to leave hoping that if we came back later the bird might move so we could get photos of it,” she said.
A blue pickup was in the road as they drove past and the man appeared to be writing down their license plate number, she said.
While they were having lunch by the river a half mile away, Herman Schreven said he heard a gunshot, but he didn’t think much of it.
When the couple returned to the site about 2 p.m., they found the bird hanging dead from a tree, she said, noting that other birders had been to the site while they were away.
Schreven posted her experience online and he incident was reported to wildlife officials.
“Tribal law prohibits killing of northern hawk owls,” said Jim Boyd, Colville Tribe chairman in a media release.
“Our officers are collaborating with U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials to complete an investigation” and “determine what legal action is appropriate.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.