UMATILLA — David H. Johnson found his passion for owls one moonlit night in Minnesota.

Now, an international owl expert, Johnson was only 11 then, camping in a pup tent. He heard the whinnying sound of a descending screech owl, and then the bird landed. He could see the owl’s silhouette through the canvas.

“For 20 minutes, he called,” Johnson said. “I was inside. He was outside. We were inches apart.”

From that time on, he said, owls became “ever-present in my life.” He loves their silent flight, eye structure, predatory nature and diversity around the world.

Johnson, the director of the Global Owl Project, jokes that he even looks like an owl with his body shape, Groucho Marx eyebrows and nocturnal tendencies.

Johnson started coming to the former Umatilla Chemical Depot in 2008 to rescue a fading population of burrowing owls. On this windswept sagebrush prairie dotted by concrete bunkers that once held deadly chemical weapons like sarin and mustard gas, the owls once thrived. When the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife relocated some pronghorn antelope there, things changed. The antelope did well at first, them declined, probably because of inbreeding in their isolated territory. Coyotes were blamed initially though, Johnson said, and trapping began. Badgers got caught up in the traps along with the coyotes, and since burrowing owls depend on abandoned badger dens for nesting, the owl population crashed to only two or three nesting pairs.

Johnson and others came to the rescue, placing artificial burrows made of buried 55-gallon barrels, 10 feet of flexible drainage pipe and a plastic bucket. A mesh floor prevents pocket gophers from stealing eggs.

The next year, the number of pairs rose to nine and continued improving each year.

“We had a high of 65 pairs,” Johnson said. “We’re now hovering between 43 and 55 pairs.”

What started as a rescue mission evolved into a research opportunity. Johnson and his fellow scientists banded the birds, recorded their calls and attached geolocators to determine their migration routes.

Sites, in neighborhoods of two or three burrows, are spaced about a quarter-mile from one another. On Wednesday, Johnson and his intern, Anya Nelson, checked on four of the 43 active nesting sites. At one of the locations, they parked their van and trekked to the first site and its two burrows. Johnson carried a pair of 10-foot-long plungers. Nelson lugged a bucket filled with tools for banding and digging. Johnson kneeled in the sandy soil and inserted a plunger in the front entrance of one burrow and slowly pushed it through the tunnel. The procedure gently herded the owls into an inner chamber. That done, Johnson popped out a plastic bucket serving as a cork to the chamber and reached in. Soon, he held a wide-eyed owlet in each hand. Nelson quickly banded them on their left legs. Johnson set them in front of the tunnel entrance and they scurried back inside.

Johnson broke apart a pellet to see what the owls were eating and saw evidence of darkling beetles and other insects. Usually this time of year, they would be eating grasshoppers, but the snow pushed everything back and those insects are slow in arriving this year. That’s one reason 30 percent of the nests failed this season, he said, in the second worst year since the burrow program started.

Over the years, researchers and volunteers banded more than 1,600 owls and placed geolocators on many. Capturing the adults takes ingenuity. The females are lured into traps by the call of young birds on an MP3 player. The males are drawn into dirt-covered traps inserted at the entrance to their burrows.

“To attract males, we play the call of a pesky, underweight male. We appeal to their male pride,” Nelson said. “They strut around a while and then go in.”

Johnson was able to discover where the owls migrate in the winter. The results surprised him. The females, as expected, migrated south. The males, however, flew north to Eastern Washington. Johnson theorized that they want to stay close in order to return to the nesting area first to reclaim their burrows.

One experiment involved the pipe used to create a tunnel connecting the burrow entrance to the chamber. They outfitted some burrows with 4-inch pipe and others with 6-inch. He found the owls nested more in the four-inch burrows, but lost more babies.

“With the 4-inch pipe, predators could pick the chicks off easier,” he said. “With 6-inch, the chicks run into the tunnel two abreast. With the 4-inch tunnels, little Joey on the end gets it.”

He is in the midst of researching the birds’ vocalizations.

In front of one of the burrows, Johnson picked up a spadefoot toad. The owls decorate burrow entrances with the skeletons and other artifacts, such as corn cobs, onion skins, clumps of grass, pieces of concrete, coyote scat, fabric and the occasional glove.

Johnson will return next year to the depot. In the meantime, he won’t lack for things to do. After finishing up on Thursday in Oregon, he headed to Montana for an interview with National Geographic. He is working on an upcoming Smithsonian exhibit on owls and he works on Global Owl Project conservation projects all over the world. He is away from his Washington, D.C., home about half the year.

At the depot, Johnson hopes to eventually work himself out of the burrow-making business. One day, he hopes, the badger population will recover and take over the job.

Wherever he is, Johnson will likely never lose his fascination with owls. As he drove between burrows at the depot on Wednesday, he spouted cool owl factoids with unceasing enthusiasm.

“The oldest owl we know of in the fossil record is 67.3 million years old,” he said with a look of awe. “They were here at the time of the dinosaurs. The largest owl, extinct now, came from Cuba and was a little over a meter tall. The smallest is the elf owl in the desert southwest. It’s the size of a sparrow.”

Johnson shook his head in wonder. This creature never gets boring, he said. “Everything about them is so fascinating.”

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Contact Kathy Aney at kaney@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0810.

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