Whoooo are you? Who? Who?

An unusual homecoming happened Thursday on North Whidbey. Just five people were waiting to see a lone prowler return. But no screeching jet engine broke the early evening stillness.

Everything was silent as a rehabilitated barred owl was released.

Of course, owls usually are silent — their hunting depends on soundless attacks. The wings and feathers of these nocturnal raptors barely whisper as they slide through the air. And the barred owl’s streaked coloration and deep brown eyes make it almost invisible in the woods.

“Just look at him. Isn’t he amazing,” Donna Painter breathed as she watched the owl fly from cage to alder branch.

“The owl should be really happy here,” Kevin Mack of Lynnwood-based PAWS said, looking at the alders and conifers ringing marshy areas of Dennis and Donna Painters’ property.

PAWS, Progressive Animal Welfare Society, has a wildlife rehabilitation program. On Dec. 22, someone left the injured barred owl at the center in Lynnwood, saying only that it was found on Whidbey Island.

The owl’s leg was fractured and needed splinting. The leg healed properly and as soon as PAWS staff saw that the owl could catch and consume prey in the outdoor flight cage, it was time to let it go.

“All the information the person left was the owl came from Whidbey,” Mack said. “But we didn’t know where: North, Central or South Whidbey.”

While PAWS prefers to release rehabilitated animals as close to their home territory as possible, in this case the release site had to be as close as possible to correct habitat.

That’s how the Painters became involved. Since rescuing a grebe years ago and taking it to PAWS, they have been avid supporters of the society.

The couple purchased acreage on North Whidbey with forest, meadows and marshes. Steve Erickson of Frosty Hollow Ecological Restoration is working with them to map vegetation. They will be replacing exotic plants with native ones and improving the meadow and marsh areas to make them even more attractive to wildlife.

Thursday evening the barred owl and a few robins seemed to be the only critters around.

“Oh, it’s alive with birds,” Donna Painter said as she led a brief tour of the land. “We have rabbits, deer and coyote too.”

Soon, croaking frogs and chattering squirrels sounded their presence.

Barred owls eat a variety of prey from amphibians to rodents, so if the released owl decides to hang around North Whidbey, it should have plenty to eat.

“The owl may head for its old territory,” Mack said. “But this property looks like it has everything an owl could want.”

Last year, Mack oversaw the rehabilitation and release of more than 1,100 animals in Western Washington.

“I have a great job,” he said as he lugged the empty cage back to his truck. “But nothing I do works if people don’t maintain habitat so we can release animals.”

Dennis and Donna Painter hope their land will be a good home for lots of wildlife returnees.

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