Montana Owl Workshop Apr 20—25, 2012

Posted by Victor Emanuel

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Victor Emanuel

Victor Emanuel started birding in Texas 69 years ago at the age of eight. His travels have taken him to all the continents, with his areas of concentration being Texas, Ari...

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For over 20 years VENT has operated the Montana Owl Workshop. This unique tour is not offered by any other organization. This past April I had the privilege of co-leading this wonderful tour with its creator, Denver Holt.

The first morning of our tour, in an area of Ponderosa pines just outside Missoula, we looked for our first owl, the Northern Pygmy-Owl. We had superb studies of a male near the pair's nest hole. As would be the case with every owl we saw, we didn't just look at this owl. We learned a lot about its ecology and life from Denver, one of the world's foremost experts on owls. Later that morning we searched for Long-eared Owls in a private prairie to which Denver has access. His research team netted a Long-eared Owl. We watched them weigh the owl, band it, and take blood samples. I was given the honor of releasing this owl.

In the afternoon we drove north to the Mission Valley, one of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen. After checking into the Ninepipes Lodge, we continued north to Polson. The outskirts of that town had been the site for a remarkable wintering concentration of Snowy Owls. A few were still present a few days before our tour commenced. We hoped they would still be there, and, to our delight, they were. In fact, we saw five of these marvelous creatures before going to Polson for a superb Italian dinner.

Great Gray Owl

Great Gray Owl— Photo: Steve Hendricks

The next morning we drove to a road north of Polson where Denver and his assistants had seen a Great Gray Owl as they scouted in preparation for our tour. We had no luck that morning, but did enjoy a great breakfast at a lodge on a lake that contained numerous Red-necked Grebes, and American and Barrow's goldeneyes. After breakfast we walked through an aspen grove where we saw two Northern Saw-whet Owls and another Northern Pygmy-Owl. All were poking their heads out of their nest holes. Late that afternoon we drove roads in the Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge where we saw Great Horned Owls on their nests, as well as Short-eared Owls engaged in courtship flights. The Short-eared Owl was the sixth owl species we had seen and studied.

On our final morning of birding in the Mission Valley area, we returned to the road where Denver and his team had seen the Great Gray Owl. Imagine what a thrill it was when Denver radioed us as follows: "GREAT GRAY ON THE FENCE POST RIGHT NEXT TO MY VAN." We got out and watched this incredible bird, one of the great birds of the world, for NINETY minutes as it hunted for voles. It was an experience none of us will ever forget.

That afternoon we birded the Ninepipe Refuge, enjoying an abundance of waterbirds including Trumpeter Swans, avocets, and a male Eurasian Wigeon.

Our final owl effort was at the high mountain passes south of Missoula where we saw two Boreal Owls poking their heads out of nest boxes. The Boreal is the most difficult owl to see in North America. It was our eighth species of owl and provided a capstone to a fantastic and very educational week of seeing and studying owls.