In this Feathered Tale, TRC staff recount their first sightings this fascinating species.
It's not hard to stay awake for the "night shift" at TRC, with a heavy pack and miles to hike. Hiking through the night in search of owls is always a gamble on what you will hear and find. Some nights are filled with nothing but silence or the sounds of creaking trees, others with owls calling from every direction. Sometimes the sounds of a baby bear cub crying for mom are even on the list. As exciting as all of these sounds are, nothing compares to the call we are listening for, the Flammulated Owl. Flammulated Owls are nearly impossible to see due to their tiny size (less than 5 inches tall!), near perfect camouflage, and strictly nocturnal habits, but they will hoot in response to a recording of their own species.
On this particular night we started off our hike the usual way: cold, dark, and with high hopes of hearing a Flamm. As we made our way higher up into potential habitat, we were greeted with the male territorial call. The night was off to a great start. We continued to hike into a beautiful old Aspen stand filled with plenty of snags and moths -- perfect for Flamms. Soon, another territorial call caught our ears...and it was close! We came to a stop, looked at each other and decided to try to pull off the impossible and catch sight of a Flammulated Owl. He was consistently calling, but when we approached, our headlamps seemed to scare him into silence. Once it was obvious that we were not a threat, he started calling again and the pursuit was back on. Making our way through the dense undergrowth until it was as if we were right under him, we quickly scoured the trees. Suddenly, a flash of feathers appeared as he flushed out of a tree and into a tall dead aspen about 15 meters away. He remained perched there for a short time as we both stared in awe and disbelief. Moments later, we noticed him starting to focus on something with the iconic owl head bobbing and tilting, and before we knew it he dropped down and swiftly caught a moth in our headlamp light. We could hardly contain our excitement! From there he flew into another tree out of sight. After standing in disbelief and listening to him continue to call off through the woods, we continued on with our surveys not sure whether that had actually happened or if sleep deprivation was finally catching up with us. For the Flammulated Owl field crew at TRC, this was one of the greatest wildlife encounters we could ever hope for.
I interned at TRC for six months before I ever saw a Flammulated Owl. Before that day, I didn't even know this species existed. I probably had passed within feet of one in the forest, but they are so small, well camouflaged, and nocturnal that most people never notice them. Hours away in Pocatello, a group of middle-schoolers playing on a soccer field had found a tiny owl, alive but unresponsive. With the help of several volunteers and Idaho Department of Fish and Game, the owl made his way to Teton Raptor Center.
When he arrived at the TRC clinic, he could barely open his eyes. We examined the small bird and found several tiny puncture wounds, likely the result of a cat attack. Cat attack wounds are notorious for developing nasty infections. Dr. Heather Carleton diagnosed the bird with a severe infection and prescribed a round-the-clock schedule of antibiotics. As the intern living on site, it was my job to wake up at 1:00 am and administer the antibiotics. The owl was so small that I could hold him in one hand and administer the injections with the other. He was too sick to struggle. Miraculously, the owl began to improve. First he opened his eyes, then he stood a perch, and then he began to hoot "alarm barks" when he saw a human. We ordered a box of mealworms and crickets to accommodate his insectivorous diet and watched his strength return. After two weeks, we put him in a large chamber to see if he could fly, and found him ready for release! We hope that somewhere in Pocatello, he is still hiding quietly by day and hunting moths by night.
Above: The Flammulated Owl patient aces the flight test
Prior to 2016, no breeding Flammulated Owl had ever been located in Teton County, but several injured Flamms were admitted to TRC for rehabilitation and one fledgling was photographed in the Hoback area in 2013. In the spring of 2016, with the support of Teton Conservation District, TRC initiated Flammulated Owl surveys to determine whether breeding individuals are present in northwest Wyoming. After conducting nighttime callback surveys at 160 locations in Jackson Hole from May-June, we recorded 18 detections of Flammulated Owls and located 14 potential nesting territories! We hope to build on this initial census to document nest sites and productivity and to better define habitat associations for Flammulated Owls in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Keep an eye out for these elusive, small owls in the Jackson area!
Read our full research report here: