I’ve mentioned in the past how bad I am at spotting owls. (That might have something to do with my typical 8:30 pm bedtime.) Well, a couple of weeks ago a birding friend called, asking if I wanted to join her and some others for an evening with Colorado College researcher Brian Linkhart, who has been studying Flammulated Owls for the past 30 years. We’d be traipsing through the Manitou Experimental Forest (west of Colorado Springs) in the dark, accompanying Brian and his student researchers as they netted and banded the tiny owls.
Of course I said yes!
The shadows were getting long when we arrived at the research site, an hour from home. We stopped to check in, met the students who would be accompanying us, then slathered on bug repellant, grabbed binos and camera, and piled back into the car. As we bounced along the forest service road, we chatted about the owls we hoped to soon see.
Flammulated Owls are our smallest owl species, only six inches tall (without heels). They’re only here in the summer, arriving in May and leaving in October. Exactly where they go is a mystery that Brian is hoping to solve. At this point, we just know they winter somewhere in southern Mexico and Central America, making them the long distance champions among North American owls.
Their preferred habitat is healthy, mature Ponderosa-Douglasfir forest mixed with aspen, exactly what we were driving through. They nest in abandoned woodpecker holes, especially the larger cavities made by Northern Flickers. (When you’re startled awake at dawn by a bird hammering on your metal gutters, it helps to remember that Flickers can be beneficial.)
Successful males control a territory of 50 to 60 acres, with 75% of them returning to the same spot they occupied the year before. They love to sit high in a tree overlooking their domain, hooting to announce their ownership and hopefully attract a mate. If a female appears interested, he’ll take her around to several potential nest sites, preferably at the bottom of the slope near a stream. He’s hoping she’ll go in and investigate at least one, indicating her approval and willingness to tie the knot. The happy couple sticks together for the entire season. If they’re successful at raising a family, the females will often return to the same mate and territory the following year.
We were heading for a dead pine tree that had been spotted earlier. There was a hole in it indicating a nesting cavity about 50 feet off the ground. Its location and surroundings made it a likely candidate for a Flammulated Owl nest.
As the light faded, Brian grabbed a long extension pole topped with a large, homemade “mist net,” the same flimsy, hard-to-see nylon netting used in catching songbirds for banding. While a student with binoculars guided him from the road, he raised the net high into the tree and positioned it directly over the hole. (You have to look carefully to see the yellow pole in the photo.) Then we waited.
It grew dark enough that I could barely see through my binos. Then, an owl appeared at the hole. She stood for a while, surveying the surrounding forest for potential predators, then launched herself off the tree—and right into the net. Got her!
Brian hurried back to the car, then patiently extracted the flummoxed owl from the net while we held flashlights. She was already banded—a recapture. Brian looked her up in his record book, and we learned that this was her third year on the same territory. That was surprising, because her owlets had been eaten by squirrels the year before.
Not wanting to keep her away from her nest, our owl was quickly weighed and measured. Then Brian asked if I’d like to release her. Of course I would! As he handed me the tiny bird, I marveled at how beautiful she was, and how light. She was really just a puffball of feathers, armed with a sharp beak and talons. Incredible! I opened my hand. She sat for a moment, then spread her wings and headed off to find dinner for her family.
(To be continued next Monday…)