BANGOR, Maine — For some cross-country skiing enthusiasts, there’s nothing like heading into the woods on a crisp moonlit night.
Beautiful trails. Pristine snow. Peace. Quiet.
Idyllic, perhaps, until a great horned owl swoops down out of a tree, talons outstretched, and smacks you on the head.
For the past several weeks, local cross-country skiers have learned, one by one, that touring the Rolland F. Perry City Forest in Bangor may lead to unforeseen consequences.
Out there on East Trail, near the Veazie Railroad bed, is an owl. An ornery owl. An ornery, territorial, get-out-of-my-neighborhood owl who, in fine Maine fashion, can be a bit brusque when it encounters interlopers.
According to frequent visitors to Bangor’s city forest who have begun keeping count, at least eight skiers (and a few romping dogs) have been targeted by the marauding owl — or owls — over the past three weeks.
Jim Allen of Bangor is a frequent visitor to the forest who had heard about owl attacks while chatting with fellow competitors at last weekend’s Caribou Bog Ski Tour and Race.
On Tuesday, Allen joined the ranks of those who have ended up on the wrong end of an irked owl.
“I’m coming down out near the railroad bed. It’s dark,” Allen said. “I’ve got my headlamp on, and all of a sudden, I felt a whack in the back of my head and this stinging and I understood what everybody else was talking about.”
Allen said he never got a good look at his furtive attacker.
“I didn’t hear a thing and just caught a glimpse of a shadow after I’d been hit,” Allen said. “I didn’t sit around to see if anything was sitting up in the trees. I screamed, waved my poles and left. With my heart in my throat.”
The owl didn’t leave a mark on Allen, who credited his thick winter hat. Others haven’t been so fortunate.
Dan Cassidy, a local physician and avid night skier, has been documenting the cases after an owl swooped toward him in Orono in January.
“Three [skiers] ended up with small lacerations,” Cassidy said, but none needed stitches to close the wounds.
Cassidy was able to get a good look at the Orono owl and identified it as a great horned owl. He and the state’s top owl biologist surmise that great horned owls may be the culprits in Bangor as well.
“[Great horned owls are] thought to be the most likely,” said Charlie Todd, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “It’s the boldest nocturnal raptor and the one that has the best reputation for the occasionally bizarre.”
Todd said great horned owls are the largest owls that live in Maine, although larger great gray owls may visit occasionally. Great horned owls lay eggs in Maine between the third week in February and early April, he said.
“So we’re in that window of time that they would have committed to a nest and may be tending to eggs,” Todd said.
A breeding pair of great horned owls likely will work together, with the larger female tending the nest much of the time and the male looking for food, Todd said.
Female great horned owls weigh an average of 4 pounds, males a pound less, Todd said. And while that may not sound very large, it’s large enough.
“As always, with talons and a hooked beak, they seem a lot bigger than they really are,” Todd said.
And while Todd said that he thinks many cases of owl attacks on humans aren’t actually attacks at all — owls may simply be swooping down upon prey that was stirred up by human interaction — he admits that in this case, the evidence seems to indicate a nearby nest.
“The frequency of the events is beginning to sound suspicious,” Todd said. “It may be a bird whose sensitivity is piqued because of the stage of the breeding cycle that it’s at.”
If that’s the case, Todd said, the aggressive owl activity could end at any time.
“Birds can behave differently based on their stage of sensitivity,” he said.
Todd said he heard about the incidents only in the past week and plans to look into them more fully. Included in his plan: heading into Bangor’s city forest and playing recorded owl calls in order to elicit a response and determine how many owls are present, and where they are located.
Many incidents occurred this week — Cassidy said five encounters took place on one evening — and Bangor City Forester Brian Dugas was prepared to post signs warning skiers to avoid the East Trail.
Those plans changed when Dugas heard of a Thursday night incident on Grouse Trail, about a mile away from where other skiers had experienced owl encounters.
“From what I’ve gathered, [owls confront humans] when they protect their nest, so I’d say [the Thursday incident] was a different owl,” Dugas said.
With at least a pair of owl hot zones to deal with, Dugas decided to post warning signs at each of three entry points to the forest, letting skiers and hikers know about the owl situation.
Dugas, who has been working at forest for two years, said the recent incidents aren’t unheard of, but are rare.
“One of my arborists said that quite a few years ago there was an incident of an owl thumping a bicycle rider in the back of the head and that was the only time we’ve heard of this,” Dugas said.
Cassidy said cautioning skiers that owls are present was an important step, and he said he hopes skiers choose to avoid the trails where the owls are apparently nesting.
Allen has been back in the forest twice since his Tuesday encounter, and said he has had other wildlife experiences in Bangor’s city forest.
Last year, he saw a black bear. And several years ago, a hawk struck his head while he was cycling.
The owl incident, however, was one he’ll remember.
“They say … there’s no sound at all when an owl flies. So you don’t hear them coming,” Allen said. “I believe it. Because I never knew anything was coming. I was just skiing merrily along.”