Join our staff on a night-time audio survey in search of the elusive, and adorable, flammulated owl.
As the warm sun set over Klickitat Canyon in the East Cascades, Natural Area Manager Lindsay Cornelius, Stewardship Assistant Sanoe Keliinoi, and Conservation Lead Nate Ulrich prepared to go to work. The crew packed audio equipment, datasheets, and warm clothing into their bags, opened up their map, and set out into the dark forest. Nighttime is the right time to hoot for flammies!
Flammulated owls, known affectionately as flammies or flams, are nocturnal birds that prefer a forest stand with at least 50 percent of pure ponderosa pine covering. The owls are tiny—smaller than a robin, but larger than a sparrow—so it’s far more likely to hear one than to actually see one. They have a low-sounding hoot that makes them seem larger and farther away than they actually are, helping them avoid larger predators. The pint-sized critters subsist off of moths, grasshoppers, beetles, and other insects, and occupy tree cavities such as woodpecker holes.
In the East Cascades, the lack of fire and logging has resulted in less pine in the area, making for less-than-ideal owls habitat. While flams are federally listed as a species of concern due to habitat loss and fragmentation, they have received little study in Washington. The Land Trust team’s survey represented an opportunity to contribute valuable data to efforts to protect the species regionally.
After trekking in the dark through shrubs and thick forest, the team decided to monitor seven different areas close to the old-growth forest stands on site where the owls might be looking for mates.
“We were unsure if this part of Klickitat Canyon was even suitable habitat for the owls as it’s not the kind of “pure” pine stand these owls prefer,” said Keliinoi.
Uncertain of whether the excursion would yield results, the team got situated and each assumed a different role. One person held the caller, an audio device playing a pre-recorded flammulated owl call, to try and compel any flammulated owls in the area to hoot back. Meanwhile, another took notes, and the third team member followed the protocol for surveying the owls. The process was relatively simple: the team listened in silence and played the caller to the four cardinal directions for ten minutes. The first two minutes were completely silent, and for each of the remaining intervals, the call would be played for 30 seconds followed by listening for an owl to respond for 90 seconds. Then they’d repeat the process in the other remaining directions and note when an owl would hoot.
“We heard them at every location and they were loud,” said Keliinoi. “It felt a little like being a little kid again with the giddiness that comes with hearing the first big ‘Whoo’!
If you listen closely (you might need to turn your volume up), you can hear the owls hooting and our teams’ excitement about the response.
The team was thrilled to hear how loud and frequent the owls called back. They reported that the flammies are located in an area that isn’t “perfect” habitat for the species, but the findings show how adaptable the owls are in imperfect conditions. This survey paints a bigger picture of the conservation mural that huge, open landscapes offer a multitude of benefits for all kinds of wildlife. The connectivity of these landscapes supports the resilience for species that are able to travel across them.
“I’m grateful to Sanoe and Lindsay for lending their bionic hearing capacity—they picked up the calling at all seven stations. Most of the calls were outside my hearing range so I had to take joy from their excitement and pointing, ” said Ulrich. “We learned a lot about what we are listening for and how to set up recording stations for effective listening without being up until 2:00 am.”
With stay-at-home orders becoming more relaxed in mid-May, our conservation and stewardship team members were able to dig deeper into their fieldwork, this survey being one of the first real field days since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the US. That said, the team was able to maintain social distance while out on the land.
“These special jobs, like surveying for owls, have become a bit of a treat,” said Keliinoi. “There can be a bit of guilt that others can’t have these experiences, but I am glad that I can be a messenger to let them know that these species are out there.”
The Klickitat Canyon area is critical for a vast array of wildlife. The area’s oak woodlands and pine-oak forests support more than 200 species, including the flams, woodpeckers, and the salmon and steelhead that migrate up the Klickitat River. One of our goals in the broader Klickitat River area is to protect the lands from development while finding solutions that allow farming, ranching, and forestry to continue. By hooting for flammulated owls, we can better understand how these birds behave, how they inhabit in the forest, and how we can further protect the species in balance with our overarching conservation goals.
“It’s a good reminder that these species live and thrive even when we aren’t there to witness it,” said Keliinoi.
Nature’s unpredictability makes land stewardship challenging work. A day in the field could reveal setbacks to restoration efforts, or surveys that are less fruitful than the recent outing of our intrepid flam team. Nevertheless, our land stewards work tirelessly each day to contribute to the bigger picture of conservation and restoration. Sometimes, it’s easy to get caught up in day-to-day work, but we are able to see the raw benefits of the work we do and are reminded of the mission we are trying to uphold.