Yellowstone Reports

Printer-friendly version

The Boreal Owl Story

Triumph and Frustration
by Dan Hartman

July 29, 2015

     When one writes a story, he needs a beginning, a main subject and an ending to wrap the whole thing up.

     Well, I got a swell beginning, somewhere in the middle I lost my way and the ending?  Oh, there will be one.  But not the one I envisioned.

     By early March I knew we had a special owl year ahead.  It started last summer when constant rain kept the vegetation green until fall.  A mild winter followed which kept the rodent population at a high and low snow levels made the hunting easy for the owls.

     As I ventured out into the night, singing boreals filled the darkness.  By mid March, I figured I'd heard 14 different individuals.  Over the next couple of weeks I was starting to narrow down locations for nesting sites.  One in particular which wasn't too far from our cabin, ended up being very interesting.  And frustrating.

     I first heard it February 8th and to my surprise it was singing it's prolong song.  That meant it had already found a mate!  I continued to hear it most of my nights out, then by early March it began localizing to a certain area.  I would snowshoe in and scan the trees for a cavity, but always came up empty.  Then one day I happened to be standing just right and spotted a jagged opening high in a live spruce.  It was mostly covered by a nearby tree, but it was there. I checked it a couple days later and noticed gray fluffy feathers clinging to the cavity edges.  Then the next day I'm sure I glimpsed an eye.  On March 19th, I went in at dusk and finally saw the owl come out and perch just ouside the cavity.  That removed all doubt.  This was a boreal owl nest.  It was now March 19th.

     A few days later, a wind storm blew over the spruce hiding the cavity.  Now the hole was completely exposed to the morning sun.  I would continue to hear the owls calling every now and then.  Once I was even there when she flew in.

     From that time on, I never heard or saw the owls again.

     At another location, I started hearing a male every now and then up a steep ravine then one night it moved a couple hundred yards to the west and sang a prolong song not far into the timber.  The next day I snowshoed in and found a cavity, but nothing else.  A couple nights later, I heard him across the road even farther west.  This time the owl perched in an area to the south and called over and over.  Once again my wife dropped me off in daylight and I snowshoed in.  As I approached the location I'd heard it calling, a grouse suddenly exploded to my right!  I caught movement and looked up.  A boreals face was peering from a cavity high above me!  It was March 20th.

     Every week or so, I would get dropped off and walk in to check on the nest.  Most times she would pop her head out and give me a look.  I was checking owl research from Europe one day when I came across a researcher named Haartman from 1975.  He reported martens had robbed almost 50% of his boreal nests.  As luck would have it, I was out that night listening for owls.  As I passed my latest owl nest area a marten darted across the road in my headlights.  I parked and watched it as long as I could.  It appeared to be heading straight for the boreals nest!  My blood ran cold.  Now, I'm a big marten fan, but in this time and place it was my enemy as I was now allied with the boreals.

     I was much relieved when I went in a few days later and she popped out of the cavity.  Whew!

     I last spotted her at the cavity May 7th.  This makes sense because she should be perched somewhere outside the cavity when the chicks are 2-3 weeks old.

     As it turned out, I was on crutches at fledging time.  May 19th til June 1st.  As soon as possible I walked in and circled the area.  I found no sign.

     I had other hot spots.  One by one I circled the areas but found nothing.

     How could something that started so promising end so quietly?

     Looking back, I know I could have done more.  But actually, I was spread pretty thin.  I spent the bulk of my time at the pygmy owl nest.  After all it had been 14 years since my last one.  Then there was the great gray nest with 3 chicks.  And a second great gray nest near Pebble Creek.  Also the late great horned nest near Beartooth Lake.  Of course, my leg failing me was a huge factor.

     The other day I walked in to a spot I felt could conceal a possible boreal nest.  This owl was still calling May 1st so I assumed it probably didn't find a mate.  I started searching the spruce stands below a cluster of cavities I'd found earlier.  Since I was looking for month old sign, I knew the white wash could be faded and pellets hidden in the deep grasses.  Suddenly I spotted splattered white wash.  Actually three trees had white wash beneath them.  Maybe the chicks perched here for a time?  I would need more proof.  Poking through the undergrowth I discovered a small pellet.


View slide show

Boreal Owl Nest

Boreal Owl Peering At Me

She's In There !!!

Feathers Line The Cavity

Great Gray Owl Nest

She Flys In

Great Horned Owl Nest

Chick Pellet