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Boreal Owl Study

The Search Begins
by Dan Hartman

March 20, 2016

     My boreal owl study has gotten off to a slow start.  My high for one night has been five, with only two of them singing in Yellowstone.  I admit the weather could be a reason.  If it hasn't been snowing, the wind makes listening impossible.   When it is wind still, the temperature has plumetted.
     Still I'm surprised by the silence.
     Usually at this time of year, I'm snowshoeing in to hot spots where the owls are calling night after night.  This year I really haven't got any places that scream, "look here!".
     My last two times out I've heard only one boreal singing.  However, several horned owls are calling.
     The other day I noticed a boreal was singing in the same place one called twice last year.  And also back in 2010.  Curious as to what the attraction was, I decided to snowshoe in for a look.
     I parked about a quarter of a mile from where I wanted to enter the timber, then walked down the road to save energy.  I had marked the spot where the owl called in the night to know approximately where I wanted to go.
     Within a few yards from the highway, I discovered I wasn't alone.  Ermine tracks were everywhere.  In fact, every place I searched the rest of the morning had already been checked out by my ermine friend.  I also came across many fox and coyote tracks.  Obviously food for the boreal owl must be present.
    As for cavities, I found a few early in some isolated aspens, then didn't find any more until I climbed higher upslope.  This is the area where the owl called from so I slowed down and really started to pick the forest apart.  I soon found cavity after cavity.  However,none of them had the appeal I was looking for.
     Something at my feet caught my attention.  A horn tip was sticking out of the snow.  I reached down with my ski pole and flipped it up to the surface.  It was the horn from a 7 to 8 year old ram.  What was it doing here?  I doubt if a bighorn would be this far from the cliffs.  The horn was probably carried here by a coyote or wolf.
     Looking up, I realized I was standing between two huge snags.  Each one had cavities that could serve as the entrance to a boreals nest.  Of course one can't see what's behind the cavity.  The space inside would have to drop a foot or so and be at least 6-8 inches across.
     I circled on east and eventually came out just above my car.
     It felt good to be back on the hunt.  Will I be as successful as last year when I discovered two boreal nests by March 20th? I don't think so.  
     Still, it'll be fun trying.

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View slide show

Rams Horn

Ermine Tracks

Ermine Tracks

Aspen Cavity

Horn Tip

Nesting Cavity?

Cluster Of Cavities

Fox Tracks

Snow Covered Nest

Another Good Cavity

Grouse Tracks