Andrew Fisher, a wildlife biologist for the engineering firm AECOM, walked into the Eagle River Nature Center a few years ago with a proposition. He wanted to put up nesting boxes for northern saw-whet owls.
Fisher lived most of his life in sunny locations like Kenya and California. When he moved to Alaska in 2015, he knew he needed a winter hobby. An avid birder, he figured building and maintaining owl boxes would keep him entertained in the dark months.
Staff at the nature center, which maintains trails and public-use facilities in Chugach State Park, were receptive. They asked Fisher to track down owl boxes that were installed by Boy Scouts more than a decade ago.
When Fisher found and cleaned out the old boxes, he noticed most of them had not been used. He relocated the boxes to areas that had a good blend of mature spruce and birch trees. He hoped the habitat would entice more of the 7.5-inch-long owls.
The first year, in 2019, one box out of 19 had a successful nest. In 2020, four boxes had active nests and a total of 14 owlets.
Fisher says there is very little known about the movement of northern saw-whet owls within Alaska. He and a biologist from the Department of Fish and Game banded all 14 of the fledgling owls in 2020. This year, he put up 24 boxes and plans to again band all of the nestlings. “The idea is to eventually start to build up a greater understanding regionally of what the owls are doing and ultimately to inform conservation and additional information on the species range in Alaska,” Fisher says.