The male short-eared owl circles upward, often hooting as it soars. Then the bird claps its wings under his body, making an audible sound, and plummets toward the ground.
In the nick of time, he pulls out of the dive and soars upward again to repeat the sequence.
Meanwhile, the female owl sits on the ground below, watching the antics and, apparently, deciding if the display is sufficient to keep her interest in the male.
According to Rob Miller, research biologist at the Intermountain Bird Observatory at Boise State University, the display is unique and quite amazing.
“I’ve only watched it on a video so have not seen it myself,” Miller said. “I keep hoping to witness it, though. It is just one of a number of characteristics that make the short-eared owl so interesting.”
Miller is coordinator of the Western Asio Flammeus Landscape Study or WAFLS (pronounced waffles). This study, now in its third year in Idaho and Utah and starting its first year in Wyoming and Nevada, seeks to better understand the habitat needs of this medium-sized and distinctly colored owl while also getting a better handle on their numbers.
In each of the four states, volunteers conduct surveys at a total of 207 designated grid locations, including 50 sites in Wyoming. Miller explained that the grid sites were selected based on the location of suitable owl habitat, which is open sagebrush and grassland areas.
Each grid must also include a public access road that allows a 5-mile driving route for the survey.
Bryan Bedrosian, Senior Avian Ecologist at the Teton Raptor Center in Jackson, serves as the Wyoming Program Director for the study. Bedrosian said the response for volunteers to conduct the surveys has been outstanding.
“We already have all 50 grids covered,” he said. “I’m very pleased with the response. This is considered a ‘Species of Greatest Conservation Need’ in Wyoming so we’d certainly like to get data on their numbers in the state.”
Short-eared owls nest on the ground, making them difficult to locate. Miller said they’ve been reported to show very little loyalty to one nest site from year to year, so checking at previous nesting sites doesn’t always do much good in finding the birds. The birds are easiest to spot during courtship, so the surveys are conducted in early spring when such displays occur.
In 2016 in Idaho and Utah, more than 200 volunteers, both citizen scientists and professional biologists, took part in the surveys. This year, that number will double with the addition of Wyoming and Nevada.
“We simply could not do this project if not for all the volunteers,” Miller said. “They are the key to the success of the project. To collect such data across four states and targeting the narrow courtship period would not be possible without the volunteers.”
Locally, Lindsey Sander, a graduate student in the Wyoming Cooperative Research Unit at the University of Wyoming, is one of those volunteers.
“I got involved to help gather more information about short-eared owls,” Sander said. “As a wildlife biologist myself, I know how important and difficult it is to collect data for relatively rare species across their range. Using citizen science volunteers seems like a great solution to that problem.”
Sander will conduct the first of two surveys on a grid west of Laramie beginning in mid-April; surveys are already underway in grids at lower elevations. Regardless of location, all of the volunteers follow a strict protocol.
To date, the first surveys have been run in 73 grids, including eight in Wyoming. Only six owls have been seen so far with none in Wyoming. Miller said the detection rate is lower than expected but there are still a lot of grids to cover. Other recreational wildlife viewers who are out and about this spring should be on the lookout for this rare species. Miller describes the non-courtship flight pattern of both the male and female as “hoppy.”
“The owl has a very distinct flight pattern,” Miller said. “It resembles that of a butterfly.” The owl is also unique in that it will lay up to 10 eggs. Survival rate is based on food availability so that the owl can readily adapt to seasonal conditions with high reproduction in years of food abundance. While rare, Sander said she has been lucky to see this species of owl a couple times and they are worth trying to find.
“I have seen short-eared owls in Nebraska and western Wyoming in the past,” Sander said. “They are so massive and silent, gliding low across the shrubs when you are lucky enough to see one.”