A day after he rescued a drowning owl on Lake Lanier, a South Forsyth boater was still marveling over the unusual encounter.
Brendan Mazur was aboard his small recreational tugboat near Bald Ridge Marina around daybreak Sunday when he noticed what appeared to be a large bird floating in the calm, cold water.
“There’s no telling how long it was afloat, but he was obviously distressed,” Mazur said Monday afternoon.
When what turned out to be a Great Horned Owl saw the boat approaching through the fog, Mazur said it “was determined to get aboard.”
“He started flapping and attempting to tread water with his talons toward the boat,” he said. “But he was exhausted and after a couple of attempts to help him aboard, I decided to lower the swim ladder and backed up to him.”
Mazur, a lifelong boater, said the owl “jumped right onto the highest rung of the ladder” and he then put the boat in gear to slowly idle the bird to shore.
“The funniest sight was that it looked like an owl water skiing,” he said.
Scott Frazier, a wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, confirmed the bird was a Great Horned Owl by viewing photographs Mazur took of the rescue.
Frazier said that is one of three types of owls most common in North Georgia, with the others being barn owls and barred owls.
“The Great Horned Owl is our largest owl, and they’re not particularly smart, but they’re very good nighttime predators,” Frazier said.
According to Frazier, falling into water can cause problems for owls since they aren’t as adept at taking off from it as some birds.
“You have to be able to get your wings up above the surface of the water to flap to be able to fly,” he said, adding the department doesn’t see many cases such as this one.
While not a common occurrence, Sgt. Lee Brown with the DNR said it is possible for owls to get stuck in lakes and ponds.
“Their feathers are not like a duck’s, the water doesn’t just roll off,” he said. “Their feathers have a different texture.”
He said that softer texture could cause owls to get trapped as the water soaks in and weighs them down.
While it’s impossible to know exactly what caused the owl to become trapped in the water, Frazier said it may have become confused.
“They’re not terribly smart, so perhaps (if) some critter is swimming across the water surface, that owl is just as likely to think it’s running across the ground and try to pounce on it,” Frazier said.
“They’re known for not being brilliant, as far as recognizing, ‘Hey, that’s water’ and ‘I can’t take off from water’ and that sort of thing.”
According to Mazur, when the boat got about 50 yards offshore Sunday morning, the owl went in the direction of nearby Mary Alice Park. But a 3-foot sea wall kept it from reaching land.
“I followed him all the way ... and after futile attempts at the wall, it stood shaking in 6 to 8 inches of water, completely exhausted,” Mazur said. “I then docked the boat at the ramp and made my way back to the sea wall.”
Finding the bird floating lethargically, he lowered a large tree branch near it.
“It made no attempts to grab it, his wings just draped each side of the branch like a wet towel,” Mazur said. “But the effect balanced the bird and allowed me to lift him up onto the sea wall.”
No longer shivering, the owl started twitching every few seconds and was unresponsive. Mazur feared the worst.
He wrapped the bird in a towel from his boat and placed it in the pilot house under a heater.
“He twitched for 10 minutes and then resumed shivering ... he shivered for about 30 minutes and then stopped,” Mazur said. “His breathing had steadied but he was exhausted. He slept there for four hours.”
About 11 a.m., Mazur gathered up the bird in the towel and walked it back to a park pavilion with an open roof.
“I raised him up onto the truss where he leaped for the timber and perched himself,” Mazur said. “I’m keeping my talons crossed that he’ll make it. He was very determined.”
Frazier said Mazur is fortunate the owl was exhausted when he wrapped it in a towel.
“Of all our birds of prey, none has a more debilitating grip than a Great Horned Owl,” he said. “When they get tired, they’re less likely to attack you. So he’s lucky the bird was tired or willing to be rescued or some combination of the two.”
Overall, Frazier said it seems as though Mazur “did everything right” in using caution when handling the bird, giving it a place to rest and then returning it to a perch. But he did remind the public to always be careful when dealing with wildlife.
“We encourage people to provide reasonable assistance (to animals) like this guy did, but to always be aware that even these little birdies can hurt you,” he said.