Montana Owl Workshop Apr 23—28, 2009
Posted by Denver Holt
Our 2009 Montana Owl Workshop was once again a fun and successful program. This workshop is not a birding identification tour, but rather a more science-based approach to the study of owls, and birds in general. In essence, we teach ornithology, using owls as the medium. Participants joined researchers in their daily routine trying to locate owls during the nesting season. It's better than reality television.
Using owls, we discussed avian mating systems, avian migration strategies, avian color, avian voice, morphology, physiology, and a host of other questions related to natural selection and the evolution of birds. We further delved into adaptations in owls. How do they hear so well, see so well, fly silently, and camouflage themselves? We discussed the predator/prey relationship between the owls and their small mammalian prey called voles. Unfortunately, vole species in our area were still low in their population cycles. We also discussed the number of owl species in the world, and how modern molecular techniques for describing a species are used.
On this tour, we enjoyed 30 minutes of viewing a Northern Pygmy-Owl as it called in response to our whistles. We were able to "scope it" full frame and watch as it puffed its white throat out during each call. Participants then observed as we captured a Long-eared Owl. We recorded standard biological data on body mass, age, sex, and wing and tail measurements. We discussed the ethics of research and banding, and the value of research. We addressed what researchers do with the results, among other topics.
During our roadside surveys in the open farmlands, participants were able to observe the ease at which we can find Great Horned Owls, as we identified over 10 nests and counted young owls in each of those nests. On the other hand, however, participants also experienced the anguish of trying to find Great Gray and Barred owls as we hiked through thick coniferous forests in search of these large yet elusive species. Spirits lifted however, as we encountered Short-eared Owls involved in all kinds of behavior. The male owls were fighting over territory boundary, courting for females, and providing food for nesting females. We were even able to observe copulation. We hiked the bottom of cliff faces looking for evidence of breeding Barn Owls and climbed into several historic nest holes only to find that the nests had been abandoned, or there was no attempt at nesting. The low vole numbers were the likely cause. After investigating 50 plus holes in trees for Northern Saw-whet Owls, we were finally rewarded with a female looking out of the cavity entrance. And finally, after driving 150 miles one-way, our Boreal Owl was not there. A week earlier the owl was at the nest. Although we do not know why the owl was gone, the anticipation of checking 20 cavities for a short glimpse of a Boreal Owl made us all forget about the four feet of snow we were falling through. Nonetheless, it was a great tour.
Although not a birding tour, we did manage to record 92 species of birds, 9 species of mammals, and 1 species of reptile. Highlights for birds included Snow Goose, Barrow's Goldeneye, Ruffed Grouse, Common Loon, Peregrine Falcon, Prairie Falcon, Caspian Tern, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Red-naped Sapsucker, Clark's Nutcracker, Pygmy Nuthatch, American Pipit, Pine Grosbeak, Red Crossbill, and Evening Grosbeak. Highlights for mammals included yellow-pine chipmunk, river otter, and elk.