All this talk of protecting the last wild population of greenback cutthroat trout reminded me of an OutThere story about a study of Colorado’s flammulated owl population.
We live in a special area, indeed.
Here’s the story, lightly edited/updated by Dave Philipps. It originally appeared July 30, 2006.
Keeper of the flam
Brian Linkhart tromped through a stand of ponderosa pines, scanning patches of open sky for UFOs.
“And by that I mean unidentified flammulated owls,” the Colorado College professor said with a wry half-smile as he ducked under a low aspen bough in the Manitou Experimental Forest north of Woodland Park and hurried on, carrying what looked like a 55-foot butterfly net.
He was short on time. The tiny owls — each weighing less than a common robin — start their day at sunset, and he had to reach a particular old gnarled aspen before dark. It would be his first stop during a busy night catching, evaluating and releasing as many owls as possible.
Linkhart is the undisputed expert on the flammulated owl. As he describes it, scientific awareness of the bird when he started studying it 25 years ago was “anecdotal” — a serious insult in the precise world of field biology.
Now, after decades of late nights, his study has started to change the image of the “flam,” as he calls it, from an obscure hoot in the dark to a species that can be used as a barometer of forest health from Colorado to Guatemala.
“This is an indicator species,” Linkhart said as he walked through the woods in late June. “When it’s doing well, chances are the rest of the ecosystem is doing well.”
Likewise, if Linkhart can figure out what the owls need to thrive, he may be able to give national forest officials something crucial: hard data on what it would take to rehabilitate local forests, which have been vexed by decades of fire suppression, bugs and disease.
But how do you figure out what a flammulated owl needs to thrive? Most people have never seen, or even heard of, the flammulated owl. And most never will. The tiny raptor lives in remote old-growth pine forests and comes out only at night to hunt moths by moonlight.
It flies without so much as a whisper from its feathers and calls with a deep, eerie echo that sounds miles distant even from a few feet away.
The bird’s plumage does such a convincing impression of tree bark that people right next to it might not spot it.
The U.S. Forest service classifies it as a “sensitive species,” not endangered, but rare enough to be worth watching.
When Linkhart began his study in 1981 as an undergraduate, the flam was one of the least understood birds of prey on the continent.
Every summer since then, he has returned to this swath of undisturbed forest shortly after the owls arrive in spring.
All summer, he tracks nearly every detail of their lives, including mating habits, feeding habits, the average number of minutes between food deliveries to the nest and the number of fledglings that return from the long winter migration to Mexico.
In 2003, he expanded his research to include groups of owls in younger forests and singed islands in the Hayman fire burn area.
To keep up with so many nocturnal subjects, Linkhart hires undergraduate research assistants who work long hours unsupervised in remote parts of the forest. He treats them with collegial respect. They, in turn, call him Brian, and usually come back year after year.
“It’s cool working with him,” said Erin Evers, a 2006 Colorado College graduate spending her third summer with Linkhart. “Every year something new happens. You never really figure it all out, which makes it interesting to return.”
Every fall, Linkhart attempts to piece all the data into a better understanding.
“When you amass such longterm data,” he said, “you can see things that you had no inkling of at first, and start to ask the really important questions.”
Many of the questions point to larger issues. Is old-growth forest really that important? Are the birds affected by global climate change? What will happen if a century of forest fire suppression continues?
He’s starting to piece together answers:
The birds do seem to do best in old-growth forest, he’s found.
And warming weather has affected them — they nest an average 11 days earlier than they did in 1981.
As for continued fire suppression by humans, Linkhart said, “We’ll have to wait and see how the flams react, but they appear to be highly dependent on the fire cycle.”
In the field, Linkhart wears weathered hiking boots, neat but frayed gray Carhartt pants, and a tan field-biologists’ vest stuffed with tools and notebooks.
His initial interest in flams was fueled, in part, by his love of the outdoors. The experimental forest provides researchers with comfortable cottages, but Linkhart prefers to lay his sleeping bag on the forest floor each night, where he can see the stars and hear the owls.
This is where he is at home. Even in the dark, Linkhart can find every nesting tree in his 2,988-acre study area. He can mimic the males’ hoot well enough to draw in other owls.
As the sun sunk behind a ridge, he pushed through brush and branches on the way to his first nest. Suddenly, he slowed to a quiet creep. Above, in an old woodpecker hole in the gnarled aspen trunk, he knew, a female was sitting on three eggs.
Linkhart tiptoed to the aspen and gingerly lifted his long butterfly net until the twofoot metal ring at the opening of the net was directly over the woodpecker hole.
The study area is home to about 21 nesting females. They sit on their eggs day and night, leaving only briefly at dusk when nature calls. That’s the only chance Linkhart has to nab them. They fly out of the hole, directly into his net.
He stood as still as a stick, waiting. Five minutes passed. Then 10. Then 15.
A hermit thrush chimed its last song from a wooded hillside. A bank of clouds in the distance faded from orange to pink to lavender.
This female had escaped him twice this year already by checking out of the nest early. Just as it started to look like she had ditched him again, she appeared in her entryway, scanned the forest, and flew into the net.
“We got you, girl. We got you,” Linkhart said as he fished the owl out of the trap.
She fit in the palm of his hand, a perfect scale model, as if Linkhart had opened a series of Russian nesting dolls shaped like owls and found her at the center.
He slipped the owl into an old trimmed sock, so that her head and talons stuck out either end, then he attached the sock to a tiny scale and weighed her — 66.5 grams, about as much as a CD case.
He pulled a small needle from his vest, stretched out the owl’s wing and took a drop of blood he would use later to test two theories about UFOs.
Females pick a mate by the quality of his territory. They sit on their nests while the males spend the night bringing them beakfuls of insects.
Males with lousy territories rarely attract a female.
Linkhart thinks these bachelor males may be the owl version of a backdoor man, winging in to mess around with a female in a good territory when the resident male isn’t looking.
“But recently I observed something completely different,” he said as he drew blood from the female. “I observed what I believe was a UFO male helping the resident male feed the female. This is very unusual in raptors.”
Are the males cheating or helping? A little bit of blood for paternity tests from parents and chicks will eventually answer the question, and also probably open a can of very wormy questions to consider in the future.
Maybe old-growth nesting habitat is not as critical as Linkhart first thought — maybe it is even more critical.
In the forest, the tiny owl began to nip at his fingers.
“We don’t want to hold her more than 10 minutes. It freaks her out,” he said.
He slipped her out of the sock and set her on his palm, where she sat dazed for a second, then flew silently away.
Linkhart moved on to the next nest. And the next. He is usually out until 2 or 3 a.m., five days a week.
The hours he spends in the dark, buggy woods produce only a small trickle of data with little immediate significance: a number here, an observation there.
Sometimes there is nothing. This year, after a month of gathering data, a week of cold, stormy nights hit the study area just after the owlets hatched. The moths didn’t come out in the rain, so the males had nothing to feed their families.
More than 90 percent of the owlets died. So did the hopes of collecting their blood samples and settling the UFO question before next summer.
It all can seem a little pointless in a modern world that demands immediate results. It’s not sexy. It’s not flashy. Even when the owls cooperate, it’s hard work.
That’s the nature of field biology. Gathering data often is thankless. No one was cheering on Charles Darwin as he measured finch beaks in the Galapagos.
But in time, the data will shed light on how the world works, Linkhart hopes. That is payment enough, especially at a time when forest managers in Colorado are struggling with overgrown forests increasingly plagued by fire and disease.
The Pike National Forest recently began a 10-year, 22,000-acre program to thin crowded stands of even-aged ponderosa pines.
“We’re trying to restore the forest to what it should be,” said Forest Service field biologist Steve Tapia.
More space between trees makes it harder for pests such as fungus and pine beetles to spread, and decreases the odds of a catastrophic fire like the 2002 Hayman fire.
The remaining pines should, at least theoretically, grow taller and live longer, and begin to resemble the forests of 150 years ago.
When foresters put together the plan for the massive thinning, they relied heavily on information from scientists like Linkhart.
“We wouldn’t be able to make as clear decisions without them,” Tapia said.
When he looked at how the plan might affect the flams, he saw that, based on Linkhart’s work, a more open forest would probably help them.
Already, Linkhart has shown that the success of the species is probably tied to the pattern of frequent forest fires that swept the Front Range for thousands of years, creating uneven-aged stands of forest.
These fires have been suppressed for the past century, filling in the forest with young trees and making it harder for owls to hunt.
Linkhart likes to talk about the detailed mechanics of his research, but when asked for the big picture, he doesn’t hesitate.
“It’s about the land. We need to make smart decisions when it comes to the land,” he said. “Maybe we’ll learn that allowing certain changes in the forest will have serious repercussions. Maybe not. What better way to make these decisions than with long-term data?”
It’s part of what keeps him coming back.
The other part is the owls.
“After years of recapturing the same individuals and seeing them again and again, I enjoy seeing what happens. I enjoy them,” Linkhart said. “I don’t imagine they feel the same way about me.”
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