Montana Owl Workshop Apr 20—25, 2018

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, a nonprofit organization located ...

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The winter of 2017/2018 was once again a harsh one in western Montana. Once it started, winter snow was almost continuous. In fact, record amounts covered the mountains and valleys. And, as I write this report on May 10, much of the snow pack above 5,000 feet is just beginning to melt.  In fact, normally at this time of year we can drive to most of our Boreal Owl nest boxes; however, this year we are still using snowmobiles.

Winter numbers of vole-eating owl species started out good, but as spring approached, owl numbers declined, and nest numbers were few. It appeared that prey populations must have declined rapidly, and many owl species had left the area. Also, like last spring, we found dead Barn, Great Horned, Long-eared, and Short-eared owls. For those that nested, they laid fewer eggs AND experienced nest failures.

Yet, despite this second consecutive harsh winter, some owls did manage to survive and begin breeding. Species that have a more diverse diet, or do not specialize on voles, did okay. For example, in our first year of Great Horned Owl nest study, we found 50 nests. We also found a few Saw-whet and Pygmy-owl nests, but no Boreal as of writing.

Nonetheless, our group was able to find and observe or hear, Western Screech, Great Horned, Northern Pygmy, Great Gray, Northern Saw-whet, Long-eared, and Short-eared owls. We also had one of the best Short-eared Owl courtship flight displays in many years. Although we searched for Barn and Boreal owls, none were found. 

Perhaps the highlight was observing the nesting Great Gray Owl. All of the participants got wonderful looks at this obliging female.

It was a great trip, and I’m looking forward to next year’s tour!