Anyone can spot birds of prey in Grass Valley: an immature bald eagle on that fir tree, a harrier skimming that cow pasture, a kestrel sitting on that phone pole. Just bring binoculars.
But to see the long-eared owl, best fire up a computer.
The nocturnal hunters have become daytime video stars, thanks to a new remote camera. The solar-powered rig also has an infrared feature, so it can see the owl family feeding at night.
“We’ve been running this study of long-eared owls for 27 years,” said Owl Research Institute member Matt Larson. “It’s one of the longest research programs in North America, and this is the first time we’ve ever been able to see them at night.”
ORI partnered with California-based Explore.org to set up the long-eared owl camera and another spy post on a great horned owl nest near Charlo. The sites join more than 40 other wildlife cameras Explore.org has linked through its “Pearls of the Planet” initiative.
“We’ve been trying to find ways of getting people connected with the world,” said Amber BiGiallonardo, Explore.com’s media coordinator. “It’s so hard to do. Everyone is so busy, they never take the time to sit back and enjoy nature.”
Other cameras watch whale feeding sites, penguin habitat and salmon runs where Alaskan brown bears hang out. There are zoo pandas and fish in public aquariums, famous surfing beaches. Each site has a file of greatest-hits photos and videos as well as the streaming video of what’s happening now.
And in Montana, now means owl chicks. The great horned owl nest has already picked up more than 70,000 hits from watchers around the country. Commenters on the long-eared owl page have sent in hundreds of questions and observations.
Long-eared owls like to settle in old magpie nests. Magpies build globe-shaped twig balls in willow thickets and other dense woody areas, leaving a little portal to squeeze in and out. The owls wait until the magpies have raised their broods, and then take over.
Sometimes, the owls collapse the top domes of the magpie nest to make an open bowl. Other times, they keep using the portal. The magpies don’t care – they build a new home each spring while the owls reuse old ones.
A dozen yards into the thicket, Larson points out the setup. It’s much easier to find the pole with the camera than it is to find the mama owl, just a few feet away. She stares intently at the intruders, her finger-long “ear tufts” jutting above her eyes like a bug’s antennae. Her flared tail covers a clutch of two hatched chicks and two or three more incubating eggs.
“The male’s roosting somewhere around here,” Larson said. “Only the females incubate. There’s a strict division of labor. The male brings the food. The female sits. Sometimes at night, she leaves briefly to defecate or drop a pellet, but that’s about it.”
Pellets are the undigested remains of the owl’s last meal. They look like a rabbit’s foot made of mud, with little bones sticking out.
“Often there’ll be a full skeleton of a vole inside,” said Jess Larson, Matt’s wife and fellow Owl Research Institute colleague. “We love dissecting the pellets with kids.”
Finding one near the nest site on Tuesday was tricky. That’s because the Larsons had already gathered all they could for a “science-palooza” at Frenchtown Elementary School on Thursday evening. They will have a table of computers with the streaming nest videos and lots of other owl info to peruse.
Another challenge comes from wandering cows. The long-eared owl camera was on the fritz on Monday, and Katie LaSalle-Lowery of Centric Internet Services came out to inspect. In the new snow, she saw tracks of cattle moseying up to the solar panel and its trailer full of deep-cycle batteries. At least one had bumped the microwave dish that beams the video signal to an antenna on Dean Stone Mountain.
A quick defensive setup with some fence posts and bailing wire should keep the owls on the air and the cows off the signal. But they can still sometimes be heard by the camera’s sensitive microphones, which also pick up songs from passing warblers, sparrows and other birds.
“This winter, we had a good handful of owls living in here,” Matt Larson said. “There were at least seven or eight. We caught and banded the male of this nest, but we don’t know about the female. She might be banded, but we don’t want to disturb her and find out.”