Montana Owl Workshop Apr 25—30, 2013

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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I would not have thought last year’s Montana Owl Workshop could have been matched. After all, we saw 8 species of owls, and Victor Emanuel was with us. Yet, to my surprise, this year we again saw 8 species. Indeed, we got Barn, Great Horned, Great Gray, Northern Pygmy, Northern Saw-whet, Boreal, Long-eared, and Short-eared. The only differences were the Snowy Owl we saw last year and the American Barn Owl we saw this year.

The Barn Owl roosted calmly in an old barn. Based on its color, it looked to be a female. In between the horses and mules and their droppings, we set our scopes and viewed the owl from 50 feet. As usual, Great Horned Owls were common and we found at least 10 nests with moderate to large-sized chicks—superb looks. The density of Great Horned Owls here is one of the highest I know of anywhere, with a pair about every square mile, or equivalent to every old farm house with mature trees.

I didn’t think last year’s Great Gray Owl observation could be topped, but it was tied. We put ourselves in good position for an evening observation, and one of our participants noted a large low-flying bird gliding through the forest. Within five minutes we had it. We rolled everyone under the barbwire fence, hiked to the meadow, and viewed the owl for an hour. As if that weren’t good enough, we heard a second owl and found it perched high in a fir tree within the forest. It was a pair and they were courting.

Once again we scored well with elusive cavity nesters. We watched a male and female Northern Pygmy-Owl hanging out near a nest. Here they preened, copulated, and flitted around the area. Later that morning we found a nesting female Saw-whet Owl. She sat at the cavity entrance and obliged us for several minutes before becoming bored and dropping back down. As always, the search for the Boreal Owl is a hard one, and during our last opportunity, within the last minutes of the tour, at the last nest box, on the last day, in a blizzard—we found a female. She also obliged us for several minutes and dropped back into the cavity. In each of these cases we viewed the owls from less than 100 feet and had outstanding scope looks.

We found a nesting Long-eared Owl, but she was very difficult to observe. However, this was a great example of the owl’s cryptic life style and behavior. Fortunately, as part of a long-term study, we were able to observe researchers band adults and discuss the Long-eared Owl project, the need for wildlife research, and adaptations in owls. This portion of the trip is always educational as it lets the public know why we conduct wildlife research and some of the methods used, and presents a first-hand look into this profession.

We rounded-off the species list with some good looks at Short-eared Owls as they cruised over the grasslands in moth-like flight. Short-eared Owls have declined dramatically in North America, so any looks at this handsome open country species are welcomed.

The owl workshop is a unique trip. It is far more than birding and field marks, as it introduces the participants to methods they can use to find owls. We delve into owl life history, evolutionary adaptations, and ornithology in general. It also gives a bit of insight into the world of wildlife research and wildlife researchers.