- Bird

Popping out of the darkish concerning the Whiskered Screech-Owl

Let’s begin together with her astonishing eyes. They had been enormous. If human eyes had been as massive in our faces, comparatively, we’d have eyes the dimensions of enormous lemons. The yellow of her eyes was so intense, they appeared to glow, electrical and incandescent. They had been the one splash of colour on her grey, well-camouflaged physique.

I held her legs between my fingers and lifted her to my face, eye-to-eye with a Whiskered Screech-Owl, one of many least-studied and most mysterious of all 19 owl species in the US.

I had joined David Oleyar, a raptor biologist with HawkWatch Worldwide, and his analysis staff within the Chiricahua Mountains in southeastern Arizona, the place he conducts what could be the solely systematic examine that features the species. “It’s one of many teams of birds we confer with as ‘data hole species,’” he says. “The mix of their small measurement, secretive nature, and nocturnal habits make them a problem to work with.”

Plus, Whiskered has a extra restricted vary than its cousins, the widespread Jap and Western Screech-Owls. In the US, Whiskered is discovered within the mountains of southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico — the area’s famed Sky Islands which are biodiversity hotspots and magnets for uncommon species. The fowl’s vary continues south all through the mountainous forests of Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and to northern Nicaragua.

Oleyar had captured the feminine in a mist internet as a part of his examine. She was so small: about 6 inches lengthy and weighing 86 grams (3 ounces). I used to be about 1,000 occasions her measurement. Her eyes had been framed by white eyebrows that swept into cute little ear tufts. She checked out me with solely an off-the-cuff, virtually dismissive regard. I’d like to know what she noticed, taking a look at me. However her wall-eyed stare was wild and impenetrable. This expertise was not about connecting with an owl. It was all about her intense animal presence.

Whiskered Screech-Owl
A Whiskered Screech-Owl clamps down on a department earlier than flying into the woods. Picture by Charles Bergman

‘A ver owl-ly place’

Oleyar has kindly blue eyes, a white beard, a prepared chortle, and an affable, straightforward method. He’s HawkWatch’s director of long-term monitoring and neighborhood science and is predicated in Utah. Final yr, I spent per week in mid-July with him on the Southwestern Analysis Station, close to Portal, Arizona. The Chiricahuas, Oleyar says, are an owl hotspot. “It’s probably the most species-rich location for owls in North America,” he mentioned. “It’s distinctive on the planet. It’s a really owl-ly place.”

The station sits amongst spectacular red-rock cliff faces and sprawling pine-oak forests. Thrice a day, the clanging of a triangle dinner bell referred to as us to meals, like one thing out of the outdated west. We ate at picnic tables with view of a hardworking Acorn Woodpecker feeding a big and demanding chick in its nest gap in an Arizona sycamore. An Elf Owl had nested within the cavity a number of years earlier, Oleyar mentioned.

David Oleyar, a raptor biologist with HawkWatch Worldwide, collects knowledge about screech-owls and different species of the Chiricahua vary. He leads monitoring research from the Southwestern Analysis Station, close to Portal, Arizona. Picture by Charles Bergman

He research six owl species on the station: Elf, Flammulated, Northern Pygmy, Northern Noticed-whet, Whiskered Screech, and Western Screech. Chatting after lunch, I requested him why he had chosen to review small owls and never simply owls normally.

“Other than the overall allure of those little owls, they’re largely unstudied,” he defined. “Particularly in comparison with the massive owls.”

The Whiskered Screech-Owl is an effective instance. “There are few, if any, different long-term research of the Whiskered,” he mentioned. His mentor, Fred Gehlbach at Baylor College, did some work on the species, however his major curiosity was the Jap Screech. “That’s it, for probably the most half,” Oleyar mentioned.

The Whiskered’s restriction to such a small space in the US makes it extremely sought by birders. Companions in Flight estimates the worldwide inhabitants is 200,000 birds, about 500 of which reside in the US. Arizona is residence to the majority of the U.S. inhabitants; solely 20-25 pairs are recognized to happen in New Mexico (within the Peloncillo Mountains), in response to New Mexico Avian Conservation Companions.

BirdLife Worldwide doesn’t present a inhabitants estimate, and it describes the species as “growing.” In contrast, American Chicken Conservancy says the owl is “lowering,” and the 2016 version of the State of North America’s Birds report included the owl on its Watch Record.

“These are one of the best estimates these teams have,” Oleyar mentioned. “They’re coarse at finest and spotlight the necessity for extra efforts to survey this species and the opposite small owl species.” That’s one of many causes his challenge is engaged on inhabitants numbers, ranges, and modifications over time amongst small owls.

Educators Kathleen Morrow, a participant in EarthWatch’s Educate Earth program, admires a newly banded owl earlier than letting it go. Picture by Charles Bergman

Working with academics

Throughout my week on the station, we had been joined by a gaggle of 10 elementary and highschool academics who had been there to volunteer and study small owls. The academics had been learning with Oleyar as fellows in EarthWatch’s Educate Earth program. It embeds academics with world-class scientists on analysis expeditions. They work as neighborhood scientists, studying analysis protocols, gathering knowledge, and gaining an appreciation of how data is gleaned. Via the inspiration they achieve with the owls, they work on lesson plans that may convey science to life for his or her college students.

“Any program that brings academics to the sector to expertise conservation whereas engaged on plans for partaking their college students in the identical has immense worth,” Oleyar mentioned.

The academics got here from all around the nation, largely working in city faculty districts with various pupil populations. A number of taught biology or chemistry, whereas others taught artwork and English Language Arts, and one was a grade faculty librarian.

Kathleen Morrow, a biology instructor at Thomas Jefferson Excessive College for Science and Expertise in Alexandria, Virginia, spoke of the significance of science schooling, notably within the present political local weather. “It is a uncommon alternative to demystify science and what scientists do each day,” she mentioned. “And it provides an opportunity to attach with nature in a deeper and extra significant means. We want extra of those experiences, particularly for younger folks.”

It’s exhausting to think about a time in our historical past when an emphasis on science literacy in faculties may very well be extra vital or related.

Throughout our week learning owls, the indicators of the local weather disaster had been inescapable. Europe was struggling by way of a “warmth apocalypse,” and rivers just like the Loire in France had been drying up. And nearer to residence, a 22-year megadrought has the reservoir at Lake Mead on the Colorado River at 30 % capability. Water ranges are approaching “useless pool,” that means the water could also be too low to circulate by way of Hoover Dam.

In fact, within the wider cultural local weather, hostility to science is rising. The pandemic laid naked a virulent anti-science sentiment in our nation.

It might be straightforward to really feel cynical. But these academics gave me a measure of hope. They sought deeper and extra significant experiences in nature and wished to make a distinction on behalf of our fragile planet. That’s heroic for my part.

Whiskered Screech-Owl
A Whiskered Screech-Owl receives a leg band as a part of the HawkWatch examine. After being caught in a mist internet, owls are rapidly weighed, measured, banded, and launched. Picture by Charles Bergman

Doing owl science

We discovered science by doing science, continuing on two tracks: owl surveys at night time and the seek for tree cavities by day.

For each actions, Oleyar taught us what we would have liked to know in school periods, and we put it in observe within the area. For the nightly owl surveys, we discovered how you can establish owls by their calls, how you can play again calls, how you can enter knowledge, and how you can use a mist internet to seize owls.

Every night time after dinner, we headed into the mountains. Often, we divided into two groups. One staff went with Oleyar, one other along with his colleague, Jesse Watson, who manages HawkWatch’s banding packages. Watson’s staff additionally included Kassandra Townsend, a Ph.D. candidate working with Oleyar.

To say we appeared for owls at night time is deceptive. You don’t actually “look” for owls at nighttime. You hear for them. We adopted a rigorously orchestrated protocol for utilizing recorded playbacks, involving a number of minutes of silent listening at nighttime, punctuated by playback of the calls of the owls. We performed the calls of every of 5 species. (The Northern Pygmy-Owl is just not included as a result of it’s largely diurnal.)

Whiskered Screech-Owl makes a gentle cadence of 5 to eight hoots, like Morse code, altering pitch on the finish. The decision is the one dependable approach to distinguish the Whiskered from the intently associated Western Screech-Owl, which supplies a bouncy name.

When an owl responded, we broke out the mist internet and waited for the silent thud of an owl crashing into the web, as unmistakable because the tug on a fishing pole if you’ve received a tough strike. And each bit as thrilling. There adopted a flurry of bouncing headlamps and science in motion. The owl was disentangled from the web, weighed, measured, banded, and launched. All with outstanding effectivity.

The spotlight of the week for everybody, unquestionably, was the chance to carry the lovely little owls and allow them to go.

Going into the ultimate night time of our surveys, we had caught 9 owls. Each one was a Whiskered Screech-Owl. I used to be stunned. I’d thought we might seize extra species, which led to the inevitable query: Why solely Whiskered?

Oleyar was not solely certain. “It’s the primary time we’ve had a gaggle right here this late in July. It is likely to be as a result of it’s one of the vital ample species of owls within the space.”

We had been all desperate to see different owls. An Elf Owl? A Flammulated Owl?

However no regrets in any respect. I got here to like the plucky little Whiskered Screech-Owls. And we had been all glad to assist Oleyar collect numerous knowledge on the enigmatic little birds.

Nonetheless, each night time we went out questioning what different species the darkness would possibly cough up.

The forests of Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains are residence to screech-owls and lots of different fowl species, attracting birders year-round. Picture by Charles Bergman

Relying on tree cavities

All six of the small owls share one habits in widespread. All of them nest in tree cavities. They don’t make them. They don’t even alter them. They depend on woodpeckers and different creatures to make cavities, or they discover a gap in a damaged department.

They take the cavity as they discover it.

Which means cavities are the ecological middle of the little owls’ world. They’re the important thing to understanding the owls’ habitat and conservation. And maybe they’ll inform us concerning the various assemblages of the owls over time as they reply to local weather change.

What makes cavity for owls? Do they compete for them? Are cavities a limiting issue for small owls?

The cavities took us to the nitty gritty of the analysis challenge. In a number of workshops, we discovered the talents required to map cavities and collect knowledge on them. Oleyar taught this materials like a grasp class in wildlife conservation strategies and knowledge assortment.

We discovered to establish the numerous species of oaks, pines, and junipers, in addition to the Arizona sycamore and Fremont cottonwood. We discovered to measure their girth or dbh (diameter at breast peak). We discovered to put out examine plots and characterize the plots by tree species, tree sizes, and numbers of bushes, in addition to cover cowl.

We practiced in search of cavities and coming into knowledge corresponding to GPS coordinates, peak of the cavity, species of the tree, and bearing.

A digicam hooked up to a protracted pole peeks into a possible nest cavity for owls. The digicam permits biologists to examine cavities while not having to climb bushes to verify nests. Picture by Charles Bergman

We discovered to make use of an revolutionary digicam hooked up to the top of a protracted pole. Inserted into the cavity, it despatched a video to a small display that we held in our palms. It enabled us to see inside cavities to find out their contents (which we hoped is likely to be a roosting owl or chicks). Oleyar referred to as the digicam a “recreation changer” in owl research: It eradicated the necessity to make harmful climbs up bushes to verify nests.

Then we rated every cavity on a scale of 1 to five (5 being the best). If the cavity appeared promising, we gathered but extra knowledge on microhabitat — together with close by tree species and temperature contained in the cavity — as a part of Townsend’s Ph.D. analysis on cavities.

On the final full day, we went into the sector and put the entire course of collectively: from laying out plots to coming into knowledge on bushes to mapping cavities. To this point, Oleyar has mapped 2,150 cavities in bushes. He has discovered that within the Chiricahuas, 30 % of the nests are in Arizona sycamores.

As he defined, the cavity examine will allow “a sharper deal with conservation points.” Save the cavities, save the owls.

The influence of studying science from the within was highly effective. Brianne Loya, a tenth grade biology and chemistry instructor at Phoenix Union Bioscience Excessive College, described the final day within the area as “placing all of it collectively.” This was not nearly studying new concepts or info, she mentioned, “however about how science ‘is aware of.’ This was very significant to me.”

Oriana Nir, a ninth grade English Language Arts instructor in Boston Public Colleges, discovered the expertise of the week transformative. She felt nice “contributing to data by way of citizen science.” However the experiences went deeper. “I’ve reimagined who I’m in relation to the pure world,” she mentioned, “and what I can supply others in discovering and preserving the wonders of this world.”

Via a rigorous software of scientific technique, we had been studying to see a tree the way in which an owl would possibly see it. We discovered numerous cavities. Just one appeared actually promising. I hoped an owl would nest in it the next breeding season.

Educator Oktay Ince, a participant in EarthWatch’s Educate Earth program, holds a newly banded owl earlier than releasing it. Picture by Charles Bergman

Group Owlsome

“Jackpot!” Lauren Hubert exclaimed. She is a science instructor in Phoenix. It was about 1:30 a.m. on what proved to be our fifth and remaining owl survey. Our two groups had simply reunited after our surveys. That night time, I used to be on Oleyar’s staff, which the academics referred to as “Group Owlsome.”

Hubert, who was with the opposite squad (dubbed “Jesse and the Owls”), was ebullient. Along with listening to all 5 species within the protocol, her staff caught a Western Screech-Owl, the one owl captured that was not a Whiskered.

Our staff heard 4 species and had three captures, however solely two had been new owls. One was a recapture. After being netted as soon as, it adopted us as we labored our means down the mountain and was netted a second time.

We captured 12 Whiskered Screech-Owls for the week. Three had been recaptures. All through the summer season, Oleyar caught 22 Whiskered Screech-Owls, six of which had been already banded.

As we walked by way of the night time from one playback location to a different, Oleyar instructed me that they’re not prepared but to attract conclusions about owl conservation and forest administration. The 2022 season was the fifth yr of the challenge in Arizona out of a hoped-for 15 years. He expects to publish quite a few research from the analysis and says it gained’t be too lengthy earlier than the primary works are submitted to tutorial journals.

Not one of the small owls is federally listed. A number of do have safety on the state and native ranges.

It could be that local weather change is already affecting inhabitants numbers and relations among the many species. The big variety of Whiskered Screech-Owls suggests they “have gotten extra ample.” That is pure hypothesis, Oleyar emphasised, however it could be “successful the competitors with the smaller Flammulated Owls for nest cavities.”

As for me, I made a decision to return early within the subsequent breeding season, when the owls of different species are extra lively. I wish to see if the great cavity we discovered will get used as a nest. Possibly, too, I’m taken by these owls. Generally, as soon as is just not sufficient.

Whiskered Screech-Owl at a look

As a gaggle, screech-owls do make screeching sounds that they’re named for, however they’re not as widespread as their different vocalizations. Whiskered Screech-Owls give quite a lot of trills and whistles which are utilized in pair bonding, to declare territories, and to promote nest cavities. When predators or intruders are close by, the owls produce a sequence of calls that improve in depth relying on the circumstances: from a hoot to a bark to a screech.

The identify “Whiskered” comes from the bristles on the ends of the fowl’s facial feathers, that are tough to see except you’re holding a fowl within the hand.

The screech-owl prefers montane pine-oak and oak forests and canyons with oak and sycamore bushes. The species is discovered at elevations from 1,000-2,900 meters (3,280-9,514 toes) from southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico to northern Nicaragua.

Since 2018, eBird customers have reported the fowl at a number of canyons in Arizona, together with Cave Creek, Madera, Huachuca, Ramsey, and Miller and on Mt. Lemmon. In New Mexico, most reviews have come from Clanton Canyon.

This text seems within the Could/June 2023 concern of BirdWatching journal.

Birders information to southeast Arizona

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