Short-Eared Owl Survey

THE RAPTOR INITIATIVE


Join other citizen scientists conducting spring surveys of the short-eared owl, in March through May, taking advantage of the unique courtship flight behavior of Short-eared Owls that makes them particularly visible during this time of year. Watch the short video clip below of this amazing and unique courtship behavior. Surveys are conducted once in early Spring and once in late Spring/ early Summer at dusk in appropriate habitat across eight Western states.

The Short-eared Owl primarily relies on large, intact native grasslands for survival, but is also found in wetland, shrubland, tundra, and agricultural habitats. A highly nomadic species, Short-eared Owl population densities are incredibly variable and track outbreaks of their primary prey: voles. Their reliance on habitats with little tree cover means they are almost exclusively ground nesters. Due to their nomadic nature and cryptic habits, comparatively little is known about this geographically widespread but uncommon raptor.


The Short-Eared Owl Survey Citizen Science Program

A citizen science effort to monitor an understudied and declining grassland and wetland associated species.

The WAFLS (Western Asio Flammeus Landscape Study) program began in 2015 with an Idaho state-wide program and a limited pilot in northern Utah (Miller et al. 2016). In 2016, the program expanded to an Idaho and Utah state-wide program.  In 2017, it once again expanded, this time into the neighboring states Nevada and Wyoming. The program objectives include: 1) identify habitat use by Short-eared Owls during the breeding season in the Intermountain West; 2) establish a baseline population estimate to be used to evaluate population trends; 3) develop a monitoring framework to evaluate population trends over time; and 4) evaluate if these objectives can be met by using a large network of citizen science volunteers through contributory public participation in a scientific research framework.
 
The citizen science program has chosen to focus on four measures to better understand and prioritize actions associated with the conservation of this species: 1) better define and protect important habitats; 2) improve population monitoring; 3) better understand owl movements; and 4) develop management plans and tools.
 

What Volunteers Do

Observers survey along designated points separated by approximately ½ mile (800m) along secondary roads from 100 to 10 minutes prior to the end of  twilight, completing as many points as possible (8 – 11 points) during a 90-minute span.
 
At each point observers perform a five-minute count, noting each individual bird minute-by-minute.  For each observation of a Short-eared Owl, observers record whether the bird is seen, heard (hoots, barks, screams, wing clip, bill snap), or both, and what behaviors are observed (perched, foraging, direct flight, agonistic, courtship). At each point observers also collect basic habitat data, and note the proportion of different habitat types (e.g. tall shrubland, low shrubland, cheatgrass mono-culture, etc.)

 

When surveys occur in Wyoming:

Wyoming
 Elevation below 5000ft.
 Elevation 5000 - 6000ft.
 Elevation 6000 - 7000ft.
 Elevation above 7000ft.
Visit 1
 March 10 - March 31st
 March 24 - April 14th
 April 7th - April 28th
 April 14th - May 5th 
Visit 2
 April 1st - April 22nd
 April 15th - May 6th
 April 29th - May 20th
 May 6th - May 27th 

 

Training

Volunteers must attend either an in-person or online training. Training will include in-depth explananation of the process, and will include video presentations, descriptions and explanations of protocols, and the distribution of identification guides. Training times and locations will be announced when volunteer sign-up is opened.


Biology of Short-eared Owls:

The Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) is a global open-country species often occupying tundra, marshes, grasslands, and shrublands (Holt et al. 1999, Wiggins et al. 2006). In North America, the Short-eared Owl breeds in the northern United States and Canada, mostly wintering in the United States and Mexico (Wiggins et al. 2006). Swengel and Swengel (2014) conducted surveys for this species in seven midwestern states, finding Short-eared Owls breeding in larger intact patches of grassland (>500ha) with heavy plant litter accumulation, and little association with shrub cover. Within Idaho, Miller et al. (2016) found positive associations with shrubland, marshland and riparian areas at a transect scale (1750ha), and with certain types of agriculture (fallow and bare soil) and a negative association with grassland at a point scale (50ha). However, until now habitat use has not been broadly explored within the Intermountain West of North America.

Project Navigation

Want to Volunteer?

Citizen scientist sign-up and detailed information about participating in the program will be announced soon.


Mission

Long-term Short-eared Owl population declines have been observed in the North America Breeding Bird Survey and Christmas Bird Count data. While the evidence for a range-wide population decline in Short-eared Owls is convincing, the magnitude of the decline is uncertain because of relatively poor survey data. The primary threat to the species is thought to be the loss, fragmentation, and degradation of intact swaths of native grasslands and wetlands; however, the specific mechanisms behind their declines are unknown and warrant further study. Several pressing conservation priorities for Short-eared Owls have been identified, including: 1) define and protect important habitats, 2) improve population monitoring, 3) determine seasonal movement patterns, and 4) develop effective management plans and tools.

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