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7. Alan Van Norman - Extraordinary Owl Hunter

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At 62 years of age, soft spoken with a distinguished face (piercing gray-blue eyes, a cleanly trimmed beard and a full head of thick gray hair) and a solid, stocky frame; Alan Van Norman lives in North Dakota, one of the most remote states in America. Until he retired last month, he walked 3 miles from his home in Bismarck to his job as a neurosurgeon at Sanford Hospital five days a week. So, it might be surprising to learn this gentleman has traveled to some of the most remote, rugged and dangerous places on the planet, threaded through jungles at night on the sides of treacherous volcanoes, been mugged, robbed, and jailed--all with one simple goal in mind: to photograph rare and elusive Owls.  

Part 1 - The Comoros 

Right now, I'm thinking about his trip to the Comoro Islands, or the "Comoros," an archipelago of volcanic islands situated off the south-east coast of Africa, to the east of Mozambique and north-west of Madagascar.  This island group has four main inhabited islands, three of which comprise the independent country of The Comoros and the fourth, Mayotte, belongs to France.  Each of the four main inhabited islands has an endemic Scops-Owl found only on that island.  Alan cobbled together a trip to all four islands with the assistance of various people who had searched for and seen these four owl subspecies. None of these birders were fortunate enough to see more than one of the subspecies in their attempts.  

What intrigued Alan was that each Owl is found only on its own island, and these islands are located only about 60 miles from each other. He wondered, “How could four Owls evolve as distinct species with such similar species so close?” I asked Alan why he was so curious about these birds and he responded, “They are a great example of evolution:  they live so close to each other yet on each island, all the owls sing only the call on that island and, although similar, on each island the owls have a unique plumage pattern specific to that island.  Why don’t they fly to the other islands?  Perhaps they do but because of the unique songs and plumage patterns they are seen as foreign and fail to breed.  And of course, since I can’t find published pictures of them, they are an interesting challenge for me.” 

Of course, this all makes sense. But I wondered and asked Alan what the challenges were. He said, “It can be very dangerous to look for these birds. First you are walking around with a lot of expensive equipment, in the middle of the night, off-trail in a very steep and rugged landscape, in a very poor country. You can fall and break a leg or damage your equipment; you can get bitten by some pretty nasty animals or insects; and you can get mugged.”  

I had not considered mugging an issue, probably because whenever I go birding in the states, it’s always in a benign area where people love nature. But he is traveling to remote islands where the indigenous population may be leery of Americans. They may also be impoverished, so camera equipment can be worth a huge amount of money.  They may be engaged in illegal activity themselves and walking around at night with camera equipment, so you may be seen as a threat.  

Typically, Owls are located during the night and therefore Alan usually used a local guide. Why? Because logistics are extremely difficult. You have property owners who may not want you on their land. Most of the time you hope you have a 50% chance of obtaining their permission. If you don't get it, the likelihood of getting arrested or shot is not zero. Some areas are quite lawless and unsafe. Getting lost can be an issue. And often the owls are rare or uncommon, at best, so it’s helpful to go to an area they have been recorded at least once before.   

For the Comoros, there was only one French-speaking naturalist guide Alan could find. And, on the first leg of his journey on Mount Karthala, his guide got lost. Alan had to intervene to get them back to where they started. After 3 hours working back, they found the correct trail in just 10 minutes.  

Another problem was that, in order to travel between the four islands, he was dependent upon the irregular and unreliable local airlines. The scheduled flight that he planned to take between the second and third island was cancelled without explanation and the next available flight was not for another week. So, he and another local guide scrambled and found two kids who had a speedboat. They promised to take him and all his equipment across 60 miles of open ocean. 

The boat turned out to be very primitive, a 14-foot fiberglass shell without seats powered by a 40 cc outboard motor. Just as they were about to leave, the local police decided he was breaking the law and arrested everyone. They were taken to a jail where they waited for the only available government official on the island, an assistant to the minister of tourism, to hear their case. Once he heard the details of the arrest, he yelled at the police, "Why are you harassing these people?" The officers only answer was, "Because they might damage the land." He scolded the cops for wasting his time as well as that of the American. "Take his name, phone number and other details. If you discover he damaged the island then come to me, otherwise don't wake me up over trivial stuff like this." 

They set out late that afternoon. The boat bounced up and down over the waves. The engine over heated and died four times. Luckily, after cooling down, it restarted. It took them 3 hours to get to the third island arriving just before dark.  Relieved to be at their destination, off they hiked, up the side of the mountain into the darkness in search of one of the rarest and least-known owls on earth. 

Part 2 - Coming in the next iBirder WINGSPAN Newsletter

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