Montana Owl Workshop Apr 25—30, 2014

Posted by Denver Holt


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, a nonprofit organization located ...

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Our 2014 Montana Owl Workshop was another fun trip. Although we didn’t get 8 species as in 2013, we saw 5 species and heard one additional species, for 6 in total.

We were optimistic for a great owl year in 2014. Indeed, during early winter small mammal populations and owl numbers appeared very abundant. However, as the season progressed, western Montana experienced a very cold, snowy, and prolonged winter. Deep snow and extreme cold appeared to have an effect on many animal species, including owls. Owl Institute researchers recorded numerous dead owls, apparently succumbing to the extreme weather. And for those individuals that survived, there was little sign of small mammals after the spring snow melt. These small mammals are what most species of owls prey upon in our study areas.

Consequently we struggled to find five species, including Great Horned, Long-eared, Short-eared, Boreal, and Northern Saw-whet. We only heard Northern Pygmy-Owl briefly. Although Great Horned Owls nested late, and some pairs failed at nesting, we did find a few nests and had outstanding viewing at one nest that was about ten feet off the ground. We also 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.

After searching and inspecting about 100 woodpecker holes, we were thrilled to finally have a female Northern Saw-whet Owl peer from her nest cavity. This was very timely, as the group, although enthusiastic, was exhausted. How quickly they forgot about the previous five hours of searching with no success. Although heard on two occasions, we could not locate the Northern Pygmy-Owl. After pairing-up, they are very difficult to find during the breeding season.

Our nest searches for Short-eared Owls also turned up nothing—not even a sighting. However, we drove and walked several back roads and finally saw a few owls foraging, skirmishing, and performing courtship flight. Our group was awed by one male as he performed his song and courtship flight—also known as “sky dancing”—from several hundred feet above us. Here, he hooted, dropped and clapped his wings under his body, and then rose up to begin again. We also got good looks at Short-eared Owls perched on fence posts and rock piles.

Finally, on our last day, we trudged over six feet of snow on several short walks and found Boreal Owl. Indeed, we found two nesting Boreal Owls in the last two nest boxes we checked. Each female made an appearance for several minutes before dropping back into the box. This was a life owl for most of the group, and we had superb viewing.

Although this was a very difficult year for finding owls, our group was resilient and tough. They worked exceptionally hard and had some satisfying looks at this elusive group of birds.