Do you know about our new Forest Owl study?

23 November 2016

by Dave Oleyar, HawkWatch International Senior Scientist

As cold temperatures finally begin to arrive, I’m entering data and thinking back to this summer and the inaugural season of our Forest Owl Study in partnership with the Earthwatch Institute, and long-time collaborator and friend, Markus Mika, of the University of Wisconsin La Crosse.  Our goals are document and better understand how populations of small owl species are influenced by climate change and by forest type in western North America. By ‘small owl’ we are talking about species such as the 38 gram Elf Owl, the 60 gram Flammulated Owl, the 68 gram Northern Pygmy-owl, the 80 gram Whiskered Screech-owl, the 110 gram Northern Saw-whet Owl, and the ‘hulking’ Western Screech-owl that weighs in at 200+ grams in some locations. All of these owls, and many other species of wildlife, use tree hollows for both roosting and nesting. Processes like windstorms, decay, fire and excavator-species including many woodpeckers create these tree hollows, or cavities. If we want to understand how secondary cavity nesters including small owls respond to forest type and to climate change, we need a better understanding of how cavity availability and the dynamics of the ‘cavity population’ vary in response to these things as well.

To these ends, 56 citizen scientists ranging in age from 17 to 83 years young joined us on seven different Earthwatch expeditions from May-July this past summer. Among this group were 20 amazing high school students from the Los Angeles area, who spent 2 weeks with us. Our two study areas encompass a variety of forest types, elevations, latitudes, and owl communities. In northern Utah we work in the majestic Wasatch mountains where we encounter a diversity of birds and three species of tiny forest owls in beautiful groves of Aspen and mixed-conifer forest. Other wildlife encountered include bobcats, deer, elk, beaver, flying squirrels, and moose. In southeast Arizona we work in the amazing Chiricahua mountains, a bonafide birder’s paradise, where the extent of southern ranges for many North American species overlap with the northern range boundaries for many central American species creating a biodiversity hotspot for insects, mammals, reptiles, bats, and birds-- including six small owl species!

During each expedition we searched for and mapped cavities; surveyed for, trapped, and banded adult owls; monitored owl nests found in cavities and nestboxes; and measured vegetation around cavities. We’ll do this each year going forward to get an estimate of productivity for each species in the different forest types they use, to see how frequently the same individuals are encountered over the years, and to document how the timing of these events is shifting in response to climate change. We’ll take a similar approach to tree cavities in reference study plots---what are rates of cavity loss and gain over time, how do cavity characteristics change over time, and does forest type matter?

This first season was a resounding success—we gathered more cavity and owl data than expected. More notably I was overwhelmed by the energy, dedication, and eagerness to work and learn that every volunteer brought to the project. To see the wonder in faces of all ages when we successfully caught, banded, and sent a Whiskered Screech-owl or Flammulated Owl back into the night; to see young adults (and not-so-young-ones too...) pushed beyond their comfort zones and grow as they gain an appreciation for wild places and the creatures they contain; and to hear multiple times from the backseats of our vehicles “Stop! There’s a nice hole in that tree- we should check it out!” gives me great joy and hope that these efforts will have a conservation impact not only because of the data we gather, but because of the information and awareness that our participants take back home. Something to be thankful for and a small, yet reassuring thing during these uncertain times.

If you are interested in taking part in this work or giving a loved one an amazing experience, Earthwatch is booking expeditions for 2017 and 2018.  Click the logo below for details and registration.

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