Citizen Science and the Short-eared Owl


The other citizen science project WC and Mrs. WC are involved in this spring is a Short-eared Owl study for the Intermountain Bird Observatory. We have two assigned study areas, where we count Short-eared Owls and observe their behaviors.1

Short-eared Owl, Delta Agricultural Project, Delta Jnction, Alaska

Short-eared Owl, Delta Agricultural Project, Delta Jnction, Alaska

Short-eared Owls are extremely cosmopolitan. WC has seen them on the North Slope of Alaska, Hawai’i, the farm fields around Delta Junction, nesting on the Denali Highway, hunting Galapagos Petrels in the Galapagos Islands, migrating through Panama, on the Carribean island of Trinidad, in farm fields in Ecuador and in Tierra del Fuego on the tip of South America. In fact, they are found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. Idaho is both a migratory corridor and a breeding area for the species.

The census involves laying out a survey track, with stops half a mile apart, over a distance of five miles. At each stop, you observe for exactly five minutes, counting every Short-eared Owl you see and noting the bird’s behavior – hunting, resting, moving through or whatever. Each study area is selected to give a variety of habitats, and the study areas are spread across the state of Idaho.

Our first survey area was up in the Weiser River Valley, in north-central Idaho, an area called Weiser Cove.2 Two different surveys at the assigned study tract in Weiser Cove produced exactly zero observations of of Short-eared Owls. It’s data, but it’s not much fun.

Our second survey, in Camas Prairie,3 in southcentral Idaho, had better results: we actually observed a Short-eared Owl during the survey, and one southeast of the sturdy area, prior to the survey. The bird we saw in the survey was hunting, from a somewhat higher altitude than WC is used to, over rolling hills near the west end of the survey.

Short-eared Owl, Camas Prairie, Idaho

Short-eared Owl, Camas Prairie, Idaho

The flight of this species is very distinctive, moth-like and buoyant with slow, deliberate wing beats. Unlike many other birds, on the upstroke sometimes the wings almost come together vertically, like a butterfly at rest. It is a graceful and elegant flight.

Short-eared Owl, Camas Prairie, Idaho

Short-eared Owl, Camas Prairie, Idaho

Why this study now? Based on breeding bird survey data, Short-eared Owls are believed to be in decline in the intermountain west.

Short-eared Owl population trends, 1966-2003, based on Breeding Bird Survey data

Short-eared Owl population trends, 1966-2003, based on Breeding Bird Survey data

But Breeding Bird Surveys may tend to undercount the species. Short-eared Owls are crepuscular – they are most active in twilight – and highly nomadic. They tend to follow vole and other rodent populations. And their nests are well-concealed. The purpose of the project WC and Mrs. WC are involved in is to try and develop better data over time to monitor population trends.

From our point of view, it’s a chance to help out with avian research on a charismatic species, and have an excuse to get out in some of the more remote parts of Idaho and look for birds.

Short-eared Owl, Shaw Creek Flats, Alaska

Short-eared Owl, Shaw Creek Flats, Alaska

Not that WC and Mrs. WC need a lot of excuses, but still.

 

 


  1. It probably doesn’t need saying, but they aren’t “ears.” They are just feather tuffs. And on the Short-eared Owl, they are generally not visible unless the bird is making a threat display, as in the first photo. 
  2. For some reason, the folks who named places around Idaho disliked the word “Valley.” Weiser Cover is a river valley. 
  3. Not a prairie. A rift valley, north of the Snake River Plain. See note #2. 
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