A citizen science effort to monitor an understudied and declining grassland and wetland associated species.
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.
In a seminal paper, Booms et al. (2014) found range-wide, long-term Short-eared Owl population declines in North America using 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.
Addressing Conservation Priorities
HWI staff, professional volunteers, and citizen scientists conduct spring surveys in March and April, 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 March and once in April at dusk in appropriate habitat (grassland, wetland, shrubland, and agriculture) across the entire state of Utah.
HWI and Utah Division of Wildlife Resources will collaborate with Idaho Bird Conservation Partnership and Intermountain Bird Observatory to establish Short-eared Owl population size estimates in Utah and Idaho for use in State Wildlife Action Plans (SWAPs). As the survey expands in geographic scope, HWI will work with our partners in Idaho and other states to prioritize habitats and areas of greatest conservation priority for the species. HWI and its partners will also lay the groundwork for a long-term, citizen science monitoring program to collect better survey data and evaluation population trends of Short-eared Owls and other grassland associated species such as Northern Harriers and Ferruginous Hawks. This project also has the potential to begin tracking population trends within 5-years of its initiation to better determine the magnitude of population declines, which will inform the urgency of future conservation actions.
Click here to read the 2016 field season Annual Report.
Thanks to our many volunteer who donated their time and mileage for this project!