MISSOULA — Denver Holt of the Owl Research Institute (ORI) pulls his Suburban over to the side of a snow-packed dirt road outside of Missoula. He and researcher, Matt Larson, and volunteer, Andrea Darling, hop out of the rig and step carefully over a barbed wire fence. They have the landowner’s permission to poke around in the adjacent large willow thicket to look for owls.
Larson and Darling flank the thicket, eyes keen for camouflaged birds. To a casual observer, there doesn’t seem to be anything alive in these woods, but a pole topped with a camera mount proves that owls have been here.
The webcam belongs to Explore.org and is trained on last year’s long-eared owl nest. Holt worked with the Annenberg Foundation to bring six fluffy owlets and their parents to the computer screens of hundreds of thousands of people. The owl cam will go live again in March when owls will be raising chicks.
On this 15-degree day, the sky is socked-in with the inversion layer Missoula is famous for. Despite the white on white land and sky, and the willow thicket-colored birds, the owl folks spot several long-eared owls. They are not yet in the nesting phase, but they are present.
Holt fell into owl research while working on a wildlife degree at The University of Montana. A friend found an owl nest north of the university in the Rattlesnake area. Holt and another friend started keeping an eye on the nest.
“There weren’t a lot of owl researchers, then or now,” Holt said. “We skipped classes, monitored the nest, and published two papers.”
“I started out saying, ‘I think I’ll study these guys and now we have the longest long-eared owl study.”
This year the ORI researchers are celebrating the 30th anniversary of their long-eared owl study, the longest running, year-round research project on this species in North America. It’s also the 25th anniversary of their snowy owl study, the longest running breeding study in North America, and the second longest in the world. Holt and Larson, and in the past other researchers, spend over a month in Barrow, Alaska each summer, monitoring snowy owl chicks for up to 14 hours a day.
ORI has banded over 1,800 individual long-eared owls and found over 220 nests during the course of the study. The original question was whether the communal breeding roosts were made up of related individuals. They aren’t. “In fact,” Holt said, “It is very rare to find any related individuals.” And while they find owls roosting on the same branches from year to year, it’s different owls each time.
From that first question, sprang many others. ORI looked at clutch size, hatching success, fledgling success, food habits, nest site characteristics, molt, and migration. They’ve done DNA and other molecular studies. They’ve quantified stress hormones, allowing them to evaluate the research impact on the owls. Holt and others at the ORI have published nearly 100 scientific papers based on their research.
Long-term monitoring projects are important, according to Larson, because they allow researchers to see real trends.
“If you take five years here and five years there, you can get really different stories,” Larson said. “Over 10 years, it’s another story. There isn’t an end story, it’s constantly changing.”
“Some of the best data we have on birds comes from long-term studies,” Holt said. “Things like the Christmas Bird Count, hunter waterfowl harvest data, and breeding surveys.”
What they know, based on the studies, is that both long-eared owl and snowy owl populations are declining in their study areas. What they don’t know is why.
“Everyone blames development for the decline in long-eared owls, but their habitat is expanding in the Mission Valley and numbers are still going down.”
After identifying that there are owls in the willows, the ORI crew sets up two nets, stretching almost the width of the thicket and about eight feet high, specially designed for safely catching birds. Larson stands quietly in the bushes near the nets while Holt and Darling circle the thicket and try to flush the owls into the nets.
The state of Montana claims 14 species of owls — more than any other state. Eleven species breed in the Mission Valley, where ORI is located adjacent to the Ninepipes National Wildlife Refuge.
In addition to the long-eared and snowy owl projects, ORI is busy with eight other research studies. Research isn’t the only thing staff members do. ORI staff host adult and children’s education events, take people into the field through Holt’s Wild Planet Nature Tours and Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, visit classrooms, speak at conservation events, and collaborate with federal, state, and local groups to facilitate wildlife and habitat protection.
On the first attempt to catch owls in the net, three long-eared owls fly right into it. Larson quickly and gently removes them from the net and passes them around until each person is holding an owl.
Named after its prominent “ear” tufts — really feathers to aid in camouflage — the long-eared owl is medium-sized and looks like a slimmer version of a great horned owl.
Larson checks for bird bands (tiny metal bracelets on the owls’ legs with an identification number), measures wing length, weighs the birds, approximates their ages, and enters all the information into a field notebook. The three owls are already banded, and the group recognizes the largest female as one they have captured a couple times previous.
After all the owl measurements are taken and entered, the owls are quietly released back into the willows. They fly to a perch and take up right where they left off before they were interrupted.
Larson spends at least a couple days each week in the field monitoring owls, more during breeding season and when in Alaska studying snowy owls.
In part, Holt started the ORI and became an independent researcher because of his strong belief in the importance of field work and long-term studies.
“How can you be an expert when you only go out into the field as a graduate student and then sit in the office for the rest of your career?” Holt asked. “When we are losing our field expertise, how can we be trusted?”
For his part, Holt plans on continuing the longterm studies. He believes they are reaching milestones in the research, but there is still work to be done.
“I feel like I have to monitor (long-eared and snowy owls) until it’s me or them,” Holt said.
Owl Research Institute: http://www.owlinstitute.org/
Explore.org’s long-eared owl cam: http://explore.org/live-cams/player/long-eared-owl-cam
From the Great Falls Tribune, January 27, 2016.