Meet the tiny owls that nest at Snowbasin, keeping Utah wildlife researchers busy

Studying the small owls has taught researchers about Utah’s changing environments.

At Snowbasin, sturdy wooden boxes decorate aspen tree trunks every mile or so. During the summer, lumps of gray fluff with several pairs of wide black eyes cuddle inside of them: flammulated owl chicks.

This year, the boxes are inhabited by a record number of flammulated owl families, said Markus Mika, the field team leader for Hawkwatch International’s project studying the birds. Between four research sites — one within Snowbasin, one in Mantua, and two off Liberty Avon Road — Mika’s team is tracking the chicks in 24 nests.

Flammulated owls are relatively widespread, according to the Audubon Society, migrating north from Mexico during the summer, where they nest as far as Canada. They are one of the few owl species with dark eyes, compared to their cousins with yellow irises, and they get their name from two ruddy markings that go down their backs, which look like flaming “racing stripes,” Mika said.

Although they’re not currently a threatened species, studying the owls has taught researchers a lot about Utah’s changing environments.

More owls than ever

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Researchers Makenna Magdos and Aubrey Schwonek measure baby flammulated owls together.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Makenna Magdos, undergrad conservation biology student, holds a baby Flammulated owl, near Huntsville, on Tuesday, July 11, 2023.

Working with Hawkwatch and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, the most nests Mika has studied before was 17, he said. More commonly, he works with about a dozen. But this year, all of the boxes his team has placed are full.

“Twenty-four nests and being a little overworked is not a bad problem to have,” Mika said.

Each morning, Mika and his team drive out to the nest sites and check on the chicks. Using a contraption involving a pole and a baseball hat, Mika carefully covers the owl entrance hole to the wooden boxes as he opens up the top to gently hand the babies off. The conservationists and researchers working with him then measure wingspan and weigh them, noting any abnormalities, before putting them back in the nest. When they’re old enough, they will be tagged so the team can recognize returning owls.

As this happens, each owl mom and dad are often somewhere in the trees watching the process, Mika said. The researchers have gotten screeched at before, but never attacked — flammulated owls are the second-smallest owl species in the world, a little bigger than your hand at 7 inches tall. Humans are too big to go after, Mika said.

He’s been studying the owls at these sites for almost 25 years, watching populations shrink and grow. With infrared cameras placed near the box openings, he and the other researchers track their breeding, feeding and parenting habits. Though Mika has studied other birds, flammulated owls are especially compelling to him.

“The experience of holding these birds, looking in their eyes,” Mika said. “There’s just something deeply moving when I watch them behave.”

Changing habits, changing environments

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Three baby flammulated owls captured by a camera that peers into their nest.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Markus Mika, the field team leader for Hawkwatch International’s flammulated owls project, handles owl chicks at Snowbasin.

Nikki Wayment, executive director of Hawkwatch, often comes along on Mika’s trips into the mountains to find the birds. Recently, they’ve been finding something unusual in the nest boxes: dead songbirds. Typically, the flammulated owl diet is made up of insects, but they can go after other larger prey when necessary. Over the past few weeks, the team has found evidence of rosy finch skeletons and even a half-eaten blue sparrow in the boxes.

“Taking on a small deer mouse or a small bird is a huge effort for them,” Wayment said. “We’re learning about the flexibility and determination of these birds.”

With more advanced camera data, the researchers can now track how much the owls feed on larger prey compared to the typical beetles and moths in their diet, Wayment said. It can also clue them in to how competitive food resources are in a given area.

The team has recently set up insect traps around Snowbasin, called malaise traps, to figure out what the population looks like and if the popular owl prey species are not as common this year.

Makenna Magdos, an undergraduate researcher from the College of Southern Nevada, wanted to be a part of the project because she wanted to learn about how the behaviors of the flammulated owl can predict such shifts in an environment. While studying conservation biology, she’s noticed the public eye can be drawn to more popular birds like bald eagles and peregrine falcons.

“A lot of times with these smaller animals, they can be an indicator of bigger problems within the ecosystem,” Magdos said. “It’s important to keep track of these things, especially with these little birds you might not think about.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A baby flammulated owl flaps its tiny wings in a researcher's hand.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jason Tendler checks the feathers of an adult flammulated owl by blowing on its stomach.

On a broader scale, the state of Utah uses conservation data like this to determine what action the Division of Wildlife Resources can take to aid natural areas. Adam Brewerton, a wildlife conservation biologist for northern Utah, is in charge of getting the approval for teams like Mika’s to do research on public lands.

One of the takeaways from the decades of flammulated owl research has been a need for greater levels of aspen regeneration to provide natural habitats for the birds. For instance, only one family of birds that the team is currently studying is nesting in a natural aspen tree cavity, as opposed to the handmade nesting boxes. That isn’t necessarily an indicator that the birds are no longer settling in organic spaces, Brewerton said. They could just be well-hidden.

But the state can still take action. Prescribed burns typically trigger quick aspen growth, he said, and the division can also build natural barriers to elk, deer and other grazers to prevent saplings from being eaten as they grow.

Studying the nesting habits of the owls is important for Utah residents to understand what’s happening in their mountain ecosystems, Brewerton said. When Hawkwatch collects data on what tree species the owls prefer from year to year, and what insect species they feed on, it helps with overall habitat regulation.

“They’re kind of at the leading edge of the research for the species,” Brewerton said. “We authorize and permit their work, but it’s more of a partnership.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) An adult Flammulated owl peeks out from her nest, near Huntsville, on Tuesday, July 11, 2023.

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