Montana Owl Workshop Apr 26—May 01, 2016

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 2016 Montana Owl Workshop was another fun trip. We saw 5 species of owls, including Great Horned, Northern Pygmy, Northern Saw-whet, Long-eared, and Short-eared. We had terrific encounters as all species were breeding. In addition to seeing the owls and discussing field marks, we delved—in great detail—into evolutionary adaptations in owls and how owls cope within the environments they occur.

On our first morning out, ORI (Owl Research Institute) researchers guided us to two Northern Pygmy-Owl nests. At the first nest we had brief looks at the male, while at the second nest the female peered from her tiny two-inch circular nest cavity entrance. She was very obliging for about 15 minutes and then retired back into the cavity, presumably to incubate eggs or brood chicks.

Later that morning, and after searching about 25 trees with potential nest holes, we were pleased to see a female Northern Saw-whet Owl perched at her nest cavity. We could see much of her body and enjoyed detailed study of her plumage and that gorgeous Saw-whet Owl face. This nest was in an old Pileated Woodpecker nest hole. As with the Pygmy-Owl, once the owls realize there is no threat from the people below, they drop back into the nest cavity to tend to eggs or chicks.

It’s not often we see Pygmy and Saw-whet owls at nests on the same day. It was the only time we saw these species on the trip. At our high elevation nest box study, our only roadside Boreal Owl nest failed before our group could see it. Reasons for the failure were unknown. 

Great Horned Owls were relatively abundant. We observed them along roadsides and in farm yards, and located several nests with chicks. We had many outstanding looks at this species, and it sometimes became a workshop competition as to how many we could find in one day.

Short-eared Owls were observed conducting a variety of behaviors, ranging from hunting low over grasslands to engaging in territorial skirmishes with neighboring Short-eared Owls. We also had some great looks at aerial courtship displays, also known as ski-dancing. Many of the Short-eared Owls were very obliging as they sat on fence posts and afforded us wonderful looks with the spotting scopes.

Our group was also able to witness ORI researchers capture and band Long-eared Owls. Additionally, we had fine looks at a Long-eared Owl female on a nest, and were able to observe researchers band and take measurement data on the male. This study is one of the longest and most detailed of this species in the world—30 years and counting.

Except for Short-eared Owls, overall owl numbers were down in 2016. It’s always difficult finding owls; however, our group was resilient, worked hard, and eventually had very satisfying looks at several species. Unfortunately, we missed Barn Owl, Great Gray Owl, and Boreal Owl, but look forward to next year.