This summer I am doing an internship with flammulated owls (Otus flammeolus, or little flame, named from the coloration on their backs) in Manitou Experimental Forrest. The study has been going on for the last thirty years—thanks to the incredible drive of Brian Linkhart, one of my profs at CC—and focuses on demography and habitat use of these unique little owls.
My typical day looks like this: I wake up around 11am, leisurely make breakfast, play on the computer a little, and chat with people until 1pm (technically we’ve been using military time though) when we start work with data entry at the office. Around 3pm, we load into vehicles and spend the “morning” peeping trees: we use 50 ft long collapsible hastings poles with cameras attached on the end to peep into trees that have cavities in them to see whether there are flams in them or whether they would be suitable in the future. We also look for new cavity trees to enumerate. Flams cannot build their own cavities to nest in, so we can come back to the same cavities year after year to check. Then, we return to the lodge for a couple of hours for dinner (we take turns in pairs cooking for the whole group but we all usually help out a little each night) before going out for the night work. This usually involves visiting known nests to capture males or females using a net on the end of a hastings pole or check on egg status with a peeper (or just starting last Friday, band and check in on nestlings). The following photos show part of how we process the birds:
At night we also try to establish nest sites and territory boundaries by lure netting (a mist net set up in a general area) or songposting (basically just chasing after singing males). We get back anywhere between 12:30am to 2:30am, have a late night snack, hang out for a bit, and go to bed. It’s physically exhausting, but I’m learning so much, and it’s still kind of amazing to be able to call this my job.
Last night I had a very bizarre animal encounter. Matt and I were spotmapping for one of the male owls in Missouri Gulch and I had stopped in an aspen drainage to call for him. I was sitting below the tree, headlamp off, listening for a response that would not ultimately come, when I heard the grasses rustling to my right. In the moonlight, I watched them move and thought first that maybe for some strange reason the owl was moving on the ground. My next thought was that it might be a snake. I turned my light on and was trying to figure out whether I should lean forward or back, when a little rodent blundered through the grasses straight towards me and then stopped just a foot or so away, it’s head beneath a small branch, as if it thought it’s whole body was hidden. I think it was likely a vole. It was about as long as from the base of my hand to the tips of my fingers, and didn’t have a tail that I could see. I bent over, almost on all fours, to try to see the head under the stick, and met small black eyes and buck teeth. It was completely frozen. I moved closer, expecting it to move away at any moment. Its fur was messed up on its back, showing a sort of grayish patch on an otherwise reddish brown coat. I scooted closer. It didn’t move. Finally, I had the impulse to reach my hand out, partially to see if that would scare it away. Instead, it let me touch it (more like poke it, really), lightly on the back without moving. I poked it again and it sort of twitched, but still didn’t move away until I stood up. I thought it was funny, and was really excited at being able to touch it (even though it might not have been a great idea). I was surprised at how it had come directly to me and then didn’t move, it felt like something out of a fantasy book.
What came next, however, I think was a bit weirder than that.
We moved on about five to ten minutes further up the drainage to call and wait for the owl’s response again. We sat down and had just turned out our lights to listen again, when I heard a rustling in the grasses. I turned my light on to see the exact same rodent (we could recognize it by the patch on its back) came scurrying out of the vegetation, right up to my boot, almost touching it. It paused only for a second this time before turning and running off into the forest. I was somewhat alarmed at the strange behavior—both flattered and a little concerned that the vole had followed us a relatively long way. Matt joked that it was trying to lead us somewhere, perhaps to Narnia. I just hope it didn’t have rabies.
Today is not my day. I had to wake up early to go to the dentist to figure out why I’d been having bad tooth pain since the beginning of the weekend. It was way earlier than I was hoping to go, it wasn’t good news (even the potential of having to get a root canal is scary), and the pharmacy took an entire hour to fill my prescription. Then, in the afternoon during fieldwork, I fell on a bunch of boulders, ripped my pants, and hurt my knee. I thought I’d just bruised it until I saw some staining around the rip, and then realized I’d cut it as well. It didn’t hurt, but it made me feel stupid. One of the visiting researchers showed me a scar he’d gotten in fieldwork, and it made me feel a little better—getting injured on the job doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t know what you’re doing.
Last week I took my first turn as “Master Flam,” or the person who receives calls over the radio from the people peeping cavity trees and updates the data sheet. I felt like I was pretty bad at it, but I did have a bit of company while I filled it out: a snake (probably a garter snake since they’re more common in the area). Matt nearly stepped on it, but I spent some time sitting next to it, observing it in the few seconds between calls. Encouraged by the fact that it was probably not venomous (it wasn’t), I decided to touch the tail, something I was never able to in Costa Rica since I didn’t really want to try out their world famous antivenom. I think I would really like a pet snake if I didn’t have to feed them mice, they’re such interesting animals; they’re scales feel so interesting and it’s cool that you can really feel their muscles working. It didn’t really respond to my touching it, but it did seem to really dislike some wandering ants that started crawling over it. I could see its muscles twitching in (what I guess must have been) irritation as they crawled over it, and the next time I looked up, it was gone.
Flams are such fun birds. They are easy to handle because of their small (yet not completely diminutive) size, and it’s entertaining to be able to get so close and interact with them. Each one has a very different personality: some are very aggressive, trying to bite a fingernail cuticle or the skin between the thumb and forefinger (they know where it hurts) or claw with their little feet*, while some basically go comatose as soon as they’re caught. I can’t usually tell the difference between their calls, except for one male that Brian dubs the “Victor Victoria” because his hoots go up at the end like a female owl’s call, but especially when you sit at a nest site trying to catch them, you can tell how individual each one is. For instance, one of the nest sites I visited a couple of times, the female (who had been previously banded so seemed to know full well why we were there and was not happy to see us) was very aggressive. Usually, I never hear females vocalize (their calls can be so quiet that sometimes you can only clearly hear it if you’re under the cavity), but this one was pissed and gave us scolding calls almost continuously. The way I described the call in my field notes (before I knew what it was) was as a very strange call that sounded like a woman screaming quietly. It has also been described as an angry cat noise or a girl crying. Basically, it sounds a little eerie, definitely upset, and not at all like the soft, single hoot of the males. Scott, who has been working for the project for nine years now, told me that it gets easier and easier to tell individuals apart by their mannerisms; they even have favorite trees and branches to perch on as they enter a nest area.
*A side note about their feet: they are really strange looking. When they grab something, their toes curl up together in an amazingly folded-in grasp. This is also why it is a pain to get them out of the nets, since they can hold on so well and don’t like to let go.
We’ve started looking at pertinent literature together as a group each Friday. I really like it because it gives me a much better theoretical basis for understanding the project. I feel like I’m fitting puzzle pieces together—the more I learn about their ecology, and the more I get a grasp on each of the different territories and current questions in the research, the more fun it is. It’s like a mystery trying to figure out the who, what, when, where, and why of each territory movement, mating pair, or odd behavior. I’m really learning as I go, and it can be frustrating when I have trouble keeping the maps straight in my head, or when I don’t know all of the calls, or when I just don’t have the experience to understand what’s going on, but the veterans and Brian are really helpful explaining things, and I figure it’s a very good sign that at the end of each night, I just want to know more.