Montana Owl Workshop Apr 22—27, 2010

Posted by Denver Holt

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Denver Holt

Denver Holt is a wildlife researcher and graduate of the University of Montana. He is founder and president of the Owl Research Institute and the Ninepipes Wildlife Researc...

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Our 2010 Montana Owl Workshop was perhaps our best ever. We recorded eight species of owls and had very good observations of seven species. 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 to our participants, using owls as the medium. Participants joined researchers in the daily routine of trying to locate nesting owls.

Using owls, we discussed avian mating systems; avian migration strategies; avian color, voice, morphology, and 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 prey. Small mammal populations were increasing; consequently, breeding owls were more abundant in 2010.

We observed a female Long-eared Owl quietly incubating eggs on her nest. We then observed the Owl Research Institute team capture the male Long-eared Owl, as part of their 24-year study. They 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.

Some of our observations included a nesting pair of Northern Pygmy-Owls (we watched as the male was mobbed by nuthatches and chickadees); several Great Horned Owls and their young perched on nests; and a Great Gray Owl perched on a fence post—we observed it for an hour from about 100 feet. We had outstanding looks at Short-eared Owls perched at 50 feet, and in both hunting and courtship flights. As always, we checked numerous tree cavities for nesting Northern Saw-whet Owls, and on our last day found two nests. Similarly, and also on our last day, we observed two Boreal Owls at their nests. We had great views as both species peered down from their nest holes.

Although not seen, we heard the distinctive hooting of a Barred Owl on an evening walk. We hiked the base of several cliffs and climbed into several old nest holes looking for evidence of breeding Barn Owls. Unfortunately, our quest for Barn Owls came up short, as this species seems to have disappeared from our study area in 2009 and 2010.

When traveling in between sites looking for owls, we managed to record a total of 92 species of birds, 11 species of mammals, and 1 species of reptile. Highlights for birds included Barrow's Goldeneye, Gray Partridge, Common Loon, Horned Grebe, Eared Grebe, Black-necked Stilt, Bonaparte's Gull, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Spotted Towhee, and Evening Grosbeak. Highlights for mammals included yellow-pine chipmunk, 3 river otters, and pronghorn.