GRASS VALLEY - Probably not coming to a diet bookshelf near you: "How to lose weight and get fit chasing owls."

The exercise regimen followed by members of the Owl Research Institute has produced a remarkably healthy club of field workers, despite the beak bites, talon tears, twisted ankles and occasional hawthorn spike in the face.

" ‘Accomplished researcher' is just a funny term for ‘glutton for punishment,' " team member Mat Seidensticker said. Known as "One-T" to distinguish him from colleague Matt Larson, Seidensticker joined Denver Holt's owl project 10 years ago as an undergraduate student. He's since spent nine summers in Alaska chasing snowy owls, and now has his own master's degree project on flammulated owls.

And that's not even half the time Holt has spent doing the same thing: 2011 marks the 25th field season for the Owl Research Institute.

"When we started 25 years ago, initially we had a question: Why did owls come together and roost communally in the wintertime, and are they related groups?" Holt said. "That led to a fairly complete study of their natural history. We know where they like to nest, what habitats they like to be in and we know that 99 percent of the time, these communal roosts are not related individuals. The reason we can tell you that is we banded birds and recaptured them over the years. And when some do come back, they're mating with a totally new individual that we have no idea where it came from."

Over the past quarter-century, Owl Research Institute members have banded more than 1,500 birds in the Missoula and Mission valleys. They've dissected thousands of owl pellets to find out what they were eating (mostly voles). They've catalogued the kinds of habitat the owls like, the flowers and bugs that grew there, the other critters that compete with them, and the changes on the landscape.

They've snowmobiled around Lost Trail Pass in search of boreal owls and cross-country skied into Glacier National Park for hawk owls, tramped 15 miles a day across the Alaskan tundra for snowy owls and jogged across cow pastures in Missoula's Grass Valley for long-ears.

***

Last week, Seidensticker, Matt and Jessica Larson and Holt were once again on the hunt for long-eared owls on a Grass Valley ranch. Their tactics were simple and strenuous. Find a winding gully that cuts from the upper to lower benches of dry riverbed. Send someone to the upper end and someone to an observation post. The upper-end person then jogs through the gully, while the observer watches for flushed owls. Switch and repeat until a gully with sufficient owls is found.

Step two is a little less intense (at least for long-ears). Set up lines of nets at the lower end of the gully. (When pursuing flammulated owls, the nets have to be set between tall trees, which must be climbed first.)

Step three looks a lot like step one: Go back to the upper end of the gully and drive owls into the nets. Then work as fast as possible to band the birds, collect measurements and feathers, and release them before they are over-stressed (this is where the biting and tearing comes in).

"The thing is, there often aren't any marks to show for it," Jennifer Larson said of the owl bites. The crew handles owls with bare hands to ensure they don't over-squeeze the small birds. Despite a painful pinch, a long-eared owl's beak rarely breaks human skin. On the other hand, Matt Larson's nose was bleeding slightly from a hawthorn scrape.

The observation run revealed seven owls in a single gully. Jennifer scooted back up above the birds and then started driving them toward the nets where Holt, Seidensticker and her husband waited. They trapped three owls.

Hoping to get more, Jessica ran the gully a second time. A fourth owl joined the captive group.

Long-eared owls have heads about the size of a softball mounted on a body a little thicker than a soda can. Their name comes from a set of feathered tufts on their heads which have nothing to do with ears (which actually lie behind their facial disk like gills on a fish). Their eyes are bright yellow or orange, with a transparent third eyelid called a nictating membrane that rides at an odd angle under their upper lids.

The team measured the owls' weight and size, used a color chart to guess sex, checked their eye condition (some show pupil damage, probably from in-flight accidents) and take feather samples for DNA analysis. Each new owl gets an identification band.

"It takes time to develop a project," Holt said. "It often takes three years - three seasons - before we get a grasp on it."

***

In Seidensticker's flammulated owl study, the idea was to hike into the Rattlesnake Wilderness north of Missoula and check tree cavities for owl nests. But the birds weren't there.

So the second season, they brought in pole cameras that can reach high into trees to check for nests. But they learned the nests were actually higher than expected.

On the third season, they had to bring in block-and-tackle gear to hoist themselves high enough into the trees to check the nests. And what they discovered is that some flammulated owls make breeding calls even though they're not breeding.

"What it told us is you can't just go out and do surveys and just listen for birds to see if they're breeding," Holt said. "That wasn't really the truth. We had to follow up and see if they're reproducing. In the third season, we finally got it down. We understand the areas that they occupy, where they might be singing from, and check those cavities closest to where they're singing from and use various methods to determine if they're breeding."

The results get published in a variety of scientific journals and help land and wildlife managers make decisions on everything from logging sales to subdivision reviews. Unlike hawks or badgers or other forest dwellers, Holt said owls seem to be a better diplomat to the human world.

"You know why people like owls?" Holt asked as he crunched through the snow to the next gully. "They look like us. We can relate to them."

That relationship extends to much more than just owls. Behind those big eyes and noselike beaks is a creature whose condition reflects the status of everything around it. A healthy long-eared owl has eaten lots of voles - mouselike rodents whose populations swing with the quality of the grasslands they feed on. And its presence means the scrub thickets that also harbor rabbits, songbirds, deer, foxes and other grassland creatures is intact.

Scientists could study voles and grasses, too, but few people are interested. By the same token, arctic seals are the best barometers of arctic sea conditions, but the public cares much more for the polar bears that eat them. So the big predators become the ecological representatives of all the plants and animals they depend on.

"When the Craigheads got 12 years of grizzly bear data, that was a big deal," institute development director Caroline Deppe said of the famous Yellowstone National Park bear researchers. "To have 25 years of data on owls - that's a big deal. It's stuff no one else has time to collect."

But it's information needed by decision-makers at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, U.S. Forest Service, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Montana Natural Heritage Program, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Blackfeet Tribe, among others.

"And it lets us get into the values of using data instead of emotional arguments," Deppe said. For example, owl population numbers appear to be in steady decline in the Missoula Valley. The easy hypothesis is that development is crowding out the birds.

But the Mission Valley to the north shows a very similar population drop, without the same amount of human incursion. That indicates more complex factors may be at work, such as long-term shifts in rainfall or snowpack.

Given their fine physical fitness, the Owl Research Institute members show no signs of slowing down after 25 years. But Holt remains concerned about the consistent downward trends of all the owls he's studied.

"At least if they disappear, we'll have the history," he said. "Maybe we need to keep going, just to see the end."

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at (406) 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com. Photographer Michael Gallacher can be reached at (406) 523-5270 or at mgallacher@missoulian.com.

 

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