Following Forest Owls in the Western U.S.

Expedition Briefing

 

Download Packing List for Arizona     Download Packing List for Utah

 

The Research

In the western U.S., climate change and land use practices are altering the habitat of many wildlife species, including many small owl species like the Flammulated Owl (Psiloscops flammeolus), the Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus), the Elf Owl (Micrathene whitneyi), the Whiskered Screech-Owl (Megascops trichopsis), and the Northern Pygmy-Owl (Glaucidium gnoma).

Wildlife, including the owl communities we study, are particularly vulnerable to the effects of a changing climate, as they have synced their reproduction and/or migrations to coincide with events within multiple ecosystems that are often great distances apart. When just one aspect of either ecosystem changes, it can throw off this timing and affect the conservation status of the entire species.

Independent of climate change impacts, we still know very little about some of these small owls species given their mostly nocturnal and secretive nature. Are some species more abundant, or do they do better in certain forest types than others? How do they interact with other owls? When do they breed, how many eggs do they lay, how many young do they typically raise?

Most owls seek out tree cavities, hollow openings such as those carved by woodpeckers, to nest in. But climate change may also threaten their habitat. Scientists predict that within this century, aspen and other types of forest may all but disappear in many areas. Natural tree cavities will likely disappear along with them, affecting not only owls, but also other species that rely on these cavities for shelter or breeding. We are taking two approaches to address this issue: 1) we will inventory and study the dynamics of cavities in different forest-types, and 2) we will eventually investigate the efficacy of introducing nest boxes as a tool that could replace/augment natural cavities and help to keep some owl populations afloat. While this strategy has been effective in Utah, where Flammulated and Saw-whet Owls regularly use nest boxes, in other regions, nest boxes are not commonly used by Flammulated Owls, Whiskered Screech-owls, Pygmy Owls, or Elf Owls.

It is currently unknown why this strategy might work in one location but not in others for certain species. One explanation might be that lack of cavities leads to higher rates of nest box use and that is what we see in Utah. To shed some light on the question, we plan to document natural cavity and owl densities in Arizona for several years and then add nest boxes to the mix later. Understanding which strategies are effective in different settings will enable managers to protect owl habitats across their ranges.

Research Aims

Despite being culturally very popular, very little information exists on the breeding ecology and habitat relationships of many small owl species.

You will help the research team to achieve the following objectives:

  1. Document habitat-specific productivity of owls in both Utah and Arizona. Specifically, teams will help to answer the following questions:
    • Has productivity of Flammulated Owls at Utah sites changed over time?
    • Do Utah and Arizona sites differ from each other or from other published studies of the species we encounter and monitor?
    • Do rates of nest box use differ between species and sites?
  2. Identify potential impacts of climate change on breeding phenology within and between sites. Specifically:
    • Has the timing of the first egg, hatching, or fledging changed over time at either study site?
  3. Document the availability of natural tree cavities and how it relates owl community dynamics and to the use of nest boxes at each site.

How You Will Help

You will assist with all components of the study including: nighttime surveys for occupied territories, natural cavity surveys, nest box checks and searches (where applicable), and habitat measurements.

Teams that visit at different times of the season will experience different stages of the breeding season. Some will be there for territory establishment and egg laying, others for incubation and early brooding, and others for late brooding and fledging. During each of these times, volunteers may also get to experience banding of adults and young, either in the nest or during nighttime trapping using mist nets.

Specifically, you will help to:

  • Survey for and Capture Owls at Night. Listen for the low-pitched ‘boop’ of the Flammulated Owl, the telegraph-like call of the Whiskered Screech-Owl, or the high-pitched, maniacal ‘laugh’ of the Elf Owl as you use recordings of their calls to attract them. You’ll help to set up and take down lightweight mist nets with pockets that catch and hold the owls. When you catch one of these little birds, you’ll help the researchers take its measurements, photograph it, and attach a band before releasing it back into the wild.
  • Measure the Habitat. Search for natural tree cavities and record their GPS locations. Search cavities for evidence of owl usage using mirror poles or specialized video cameras. Measure tree height and vegetation in surrounding habitat.
  • Search During the Day and Night for Owl Nests by zeroing in on calls of adults and young.
  • Survey Insect Prey potentially available to owls using specialized traps.

Arizona site only:

  • Deploy Radio Transmitters and Track Owls to Locate Nest Sites and Gather Other Movement Data. Some territorial owls have difficult to locate nests; in these cases we may attach small radio transmitters to the owls prior to release. Volunteers will then work with the scientists using a radio telemetry receiver and antenna to locate the nest sites.

Life in the Field

Utah Site:

Upon arrival in Salt Lake City, we’ll travel by van to the field house located near Ogden, UT (~50 min). After getting settled and eating we’ll talk about safety, project goals and how they relate to global conservation issues. When we begin our fieldwork, project staff will introduce and demonstrate each new task. We’ll work with you until you’re comfortable with any new activities. We will also supervise to ensure data quality. You will spend days and nights in the aspen and coniferous forests of Northern Utah. During free time, you will have the opportunity to bird and explore the area.

Weather and research needs can lead to changes in the daily schedule. We appreciate your cooperation and understanding.

DAILY ACTIVITIES
  • Day 1: Arrive at Rendezvous Site, Travel to Accommodations, Project Intro, Welcome Reception
  • Day 2: Travel to study site, study overview, training on habitat measures, nest cavity survey techniques, and data logging. Nighttime trip to sites for survey training, possible owl trapping using mist nets.
  • Day 3: Continued training on habitat measures and cavity surveys/searches.
  • Day 4: Nest cavity checks / Habitat measures/ Nighttime Surveys or Trapping
  • Day 5: Nest cavity checks / Habitat measures / Nighttime Surveys or Trapping
  • Day 6: Nest cavity checks /Nighttime Surveys or Trapping/ Last night with the Owls/ Farewell Dinner
  • Day 7: Travel to Airport / Head home with new skills, ecological knowledge, and satisfaction with your contribution to conservation.
Arizona Site:

Upon arrival in Tucson, we’ll travel by van to the Southwestern Research Station (SWRS) near Portal, Arizona (~3 hours). After getting settled and eating we’ll talk about safety, project goals and how they relate to global conservation issues. When we begin our fieldwork, project staff will introduce and demonstrate each new task. We’ll work with you until you’re comfortable with any new activities. We will also supervise to ensure data quality. You will spend part of each day and night in the riparian, oak, and coniferous forests of southeastern Arizona. During free time, you will have the opportunity to bird and explore the spectacular setting around SWRS.

Weather and research needs can lead to changes in the daily schedule. We appreciate your cooperation and understanding.

DAILY ACTIVITIES
  • Day 1: Arrive at Rendezvous Site, Travel to Accommodations, Project Intro
  • Day 2: Travel to study sites, study overview, training on habitat measures, nest cavity survey techniques, and data logging. Nighttime trip to sites (sometimes by food, sometimes by vehicle) for survey training, possible owl trapping using mist nets.
  • Day 3: Continued training on habitat measures and cavity surveys/searches.
  • Day 4: Nest cavity checks / Habitat measures/Nighttime Surveys or Trapping
  • Day 5: Nest cavity checks / Habitat measures /Nighttime Surveys or Trapping
  • Day 6: Nest cavity checks / Nighttime Surveys or Trapping/ Last night with the Owls/ Farewell Dinner
  • Day 7: Travel to Airport / Head home with new skills, ecological knowledge, and satisfaction with your contribution to conservation.

Accommodations and Food

Utah Site:

* Please note that not every expedition has couples’ or single's accommodations available. Please call or email Earthwatch to check for availability prior to reserving your space(s) on the team.

Teams will stay in a comfortable rental home in the Snow Basin region or in Ogden Utah, about 10 (or 20) miles from the Snow Basin study site. The house has hot water, electricity and Wi-Fi. There is a shared kitchen and outdoor grill. The home has spacious common areas inside and outdoors. There are multiple rental homes that may be used, but all offer similar accommodations and amenities.

* Earthwatch will honor each person’s assertion of gender identity, respectfully and without judgement. For both teen and adult teams, where logistics dictate single-sex accommodations or other facilities, participant placements will be made in accordance with the gender identity the participant specified on their Earthwatch Participant form and/or preferences indicated in discussions with Earthwatch.

One of the study sites is about 15 minutes from the accommodations. The other study sites are about 45–55 minutes from the accommodations.

SLEEPING

There will be 2–4 volunteers per room with shared bathrooms. There are full and single beds. Couples accommodations may be possible depending on the size and gender composition of each team. During larger teams it will be harder to accommodate special room requests.

BATHROOMS

There will be shared full standard bathrooms with hot water.

ELECTRICITY

There is electricity at the accommodations, but not at any field site. You are welcome to bring your own electronic equipment (cell phones, digital cameras, laptops, etc.), but you will be required to limit your use of cell phones or laptops to recreational time only.

PERSONAL COMMUNICATIONS

There is Wi-Fi at the accommodations. There is usually a landline for emergencies. Calling cards will be required Please make any long distance calls from the landline telephone.

FOOD AND WATER

Meals will be prepared at the house. Volunteers and staff will share meal preparation and clean up duties. Some meals may be taken at local restaurants. Some days the team will prepare packed lunches/dinners to eat in the field.

The following are examples of foods you may find in the field. Variety depends on availability. We appreciate your flexibility.

TYPICAL MEALS
  • Breakfast: Cereal, oatmeal, bagels, eggs, toast, fruit, yogurt, coffee/tea, juice.
  • Lunch: Sandwiches, chips, fruit.
  • Dinner: Pasta and other grain dishes, grilled/roasted meats, salads, vegetables and pizza.
SPECIAL DIETARY REQUIREMENTS

Please alert Earthwatch to any special dietary requirements (e.g., diabetes, lactose intolerance, nut or other food allergies, vegetarian or vegan diets) as soon as possible, and note them in the space provided on your volunteer forms.

This project can cater to vegetarian diets easily, as well as vegan, gluten-free, and lactose-free diets with advanced notice. Given the proximity to services, with ample notice we should be able to accommodate most dietary needs.

Arizona Site:

You’ll stay at the Southwest Research Station (SWRS), which houses scientists from all over the country studying the ecology, behavior, and evolution of many different organisms in the area.

SWRS has a couple of washers and dryers for guests that are available at a small cost ($1.50 per load at the time of publication).

SLEEPING

* Please note that not every expedition has couples’ or single's accommodations available. Please call or email Earthwatch to check for availability prior to reserving your space(s) on the team.

You’ll sleep in dormitories and share single-sex rooms with two to four twin beds in each. There are no private rooms for singles. It may be possible to accommodate couples if arranged in advance; please inquire with Earthwatch. All bedding and towels will be supplied.

* Earthwatch will honor each person’s assertion of gender identity, respectfully and without judgement. For both teen and adult teams, where logistics dictate single-sex accommodations or other facilities, participant placements will be made in accordance with the gender identity the participant specified on their Earthwatch Participant form and/or preferences indicated in discussions with Earthwatch.

BATHROOMS

The dormitories have shared bathrooms with showers separated by gender. Hot water is available at all times.

ELECTRICITY

Rooms do not have televisions or telephones, but there are electrical outlets for any personal devices such as digital cameras or laptop computers. You are welcome to bring your own electronic equipment (cell phones, digital cameras, laptops, etc.), but you will be required to limit your use of cell phones or laptops to recreational time only.

PERSONAL COMMUNICATIONS

The station is equipped with Internet capability, though the signal can sometimes be weak and unreliable. The study areas and SWRS do not have reliable cell phone service. There is cell service in Portal, AZ, which is five miles away. The SWRS does have phone line for which members can buy a calling card. In extreme emergencies the station number +1-520-558-2396 can be used. The station does have free wired and wireless Internet and encourages visitors to communicate via Skype. Note that occasional service outages can occur but are uncommon.

FOOD AND WATER

The Southwest Research Station offers a full service cafeteria. Teams will eat with other station members during set meal times (7:30 a.m., 12:00 p.m., 6:00 p.m.). The station offers guests that will be in the field during the day the opportunity to prepare their own sack lunches or dinners and we will take advantage of this option some days. Water is potable at the station.

The following are examples of foods you may find in the field. Variety depends on availability. We appreciate your flexibility.

TYPICAL MEALS
  • Breakfast: Cereal, oatmeal, bagels, eggs, toast, fruit, yogurt, coffee/tea, and juice
  • Lunch: Sandwiches, chips, fruit
  • Dinner: Pasta and other grain dishes, grilled/roasted meats, salads, vegetables, and pizza
SPECIAL DIETARY REQUIREMENTS

Please alert Earthwatch to any special dietary requirements (e.g., diabetes, lactose intolerance, nut or other food allergies, vegetarian or vegan diets) as soon as possible, and note them in the space provided on your volunteer forms.

Vegetarian fare is available if requested.

Project Conditions

GENERAL CONDITIONS

For weather and region-specific information, please visit Wunderground.com and search for your project location.

Essential Eligibility Requirements

All participants must be able to:

  • Take an active role in your own safety by recognizing and avoiding hazards if and when they arise (including, but not limited to, those described in Earthwatch materials and safety briefings). Comply with project staff instructions and recommended safety measures at all times.
  • Be able to effectively communicate to the staff if you are experiencing distress or need assistance.
  • Be comfortable being surrounded by a language and/or culture that is different from your own.
  • Be able to get along with a variety of people from different backgrounds and ages, often in close proximity, for the duration of your team.
  • Follow verbal and/or visual instructions independently or with the assistance of a companion.
  • Enjoy being outdoors most of the day in variable weather, in the potential presence of wild animals and insects.
  • Be comfortable walking on and off trail at night, using headlamps, but occasionally turning off lights and standing still in the dark while conducting broadcast surveys.
  • Carry personal daily supplies such as lunch, water (2 liters), and some field equipment (10–20 lbs./4.5–9 kilos).
Utah Site:
  • Tolerate cold temperatures and/or rain.
  • Traverse uneven, rocky terrain.
  • Move through low, thick vegetation over variable terrain with inclines sometimes at high altitudes.
Arizona Site:
  • Tolerate hot temperatures and a dry, arid environment.
  • Traverse uneven, rocky terrain sometimes at an incline for 2–8 (4.8–14.4 km) miles per day, with an average of 3–5 miles (6.4–8 km). The hiking distance to arrive at a site is generally less than 3 miles at one time, but once at the site, you will be on your feet traversing the area for hours at a time, which will equal a greater total distance covered.
  • Move with good balance through low, thick vegetation over variable terrain.

Health and Safety

EMERGENCIES IN THE FIELD

Earthwatch has a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week emergency hotline number. Someone is always on call to respond to messages that come into our live answering service.

IMMUNIZATIONS & TRAVEL VACCINATIONS

Please be sure your routine immunizations are up-to-date (for example: diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, rubella and varicella) and you have the appropriate vaccinations for your travel destination. Medical decisions are the responsibility of each volunteer and his or her doctor. Visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization for guidance on immunizations.

If traveling from countries or region where yellow fever is endemic, you must have a certificate of vaccination.

Project Risks and Precautions

UTAH SITE:
Hiking

Teams will be walking up to 3–9 miles/day (5–16 km), possibly uphill, through rough terrain, or at high altitude. Equipment up to 10–20 lbs. will be carried during the day; this could include eight foot extension ladders, measuring tapes, insect traps, extra water for the group, and mist nets and poles. Participants must wear hiking boots with ankle support and long pants. Individuals unable to walk on and off trail in the forest to measure habitat characteristics and access nest boxes and cavities will have difficulty with this expedition.

Climbing

Ladders will be used to access nests. Volunteers will climb ladders to conduct work with a spotter. Research staff will secure the ladders to the trees. Individuals with fear of heights and that are unable to climb a 16 foot. ladder to access nests, can still enjoy this expedition but will miss out on this activity.

Night work

Some work will be conducted in the forest after nightfall. Volunteers will never conduct fieldwork at night alone and are advised to bring headlamps. Individuals that have extreme fear of being out in the forest in the dark will have difficulty with some aspects of this expedition.

Elevation/Extreme temperatures and dehydration

Temperatures can be cool. Working at high altitude puts team members at risk for altitude sickness and at greater risk of sunburn and dehydration. Be prepared to drink plenty of water, wear protective clothing (such as long sleeves and a wide-brimmed hat), and use lots of sunscreen. Volunteers will be reminded to drink sufficient water in and out of the field. Night temperatures can drop- bring warm clothes and layers that can be added/removed as needed.

Altitude

The field sites are at various high altitudes. Teams may work at sites that are at an elevation of 6200–7000 ft. (1890–2134 meters). During the expedition, volunteers are advised to drink plenty of fluids, take frequent breaks, moderate alcohol consumption or caffeine consumption, and speak up when feeling light headed, dizzy, groggy or nauseous. Volunteers who may feel these effects will be held back from fieldwork, and brought to seek medical attention if necessary.

Animals

Though unlikely, volunteers may encounter snakes, moose, black bear, or mountain lions. Volunteers must follow instructions from the field staff, follow predetermined paths, and stay within the project sites. Volunteers are advised not to approach dangerous wildlife. Volunteers will travel in groups, and never alone.

Plants

Stinging nettles, thorned plants and rough vegetation, and downed woody debris may be present in the study sites. Volunteers are advised to wear long pants, ankle-high hiking boots, long socks, follow field staff closely and stay to predetermined paths and research areas. First aid kits will be carried into the field. Leaders will call out when a fallen log or other hazard is noticed when travelling and ask volunteers to pass on this info to anyone following them.

Insects

Mosquitoes, ants, wasps and ticks are present. Volunteers will be briefed on how to inspect for tick bites daily. If you are allergic to any insect bites or stings, please bring medication with you into the field (at least two Epi-Pens, antihistamines, etc.) as appropriate.

Transportation

We will travel on public roads with few traffic issues, but risks inherent in road travel still apply. All volunteers will have a seat belt and must wear it whenever the vehicle is in motion. Volunteers are not permitted to drive.

 

ARIZONA SITE:
Hiking

Teams will be walking up to nine miles per day (14.4km), possibly in rocky, uphill, rough terrain, or high altitude. Equipment up to 10–15 lbs. will be carried during the day; this could include eight-foot extension ladders, measuring tapes, insect traps, and mist nets and poles. Staff and volunteers will share the responsibility of carrying equipment. Participants must wear hiking boots with ankle support and long pants. Individuals unable to walk on and off trail in the forest to measure habitat characteristics and access cavities will have difficulty with this expedition.

Climbing

Individuals with fear of heights and that are unable to climb a 16 ft. ladder to access nests, can still enjoy this expedition but will miss out on this activity.

Night work

Individuals that have extreme fear of being out in the forest in the dark will have difficulty with some key aspects of this expedition.

Elevation/Extreme temperatures and dehydration

It will be very hot and dry, so heat exhaustion, dehydration, and sunburn are serious hazards. Working at high altitude puts team members at risk for altitude sickness and at greater risk of sunburn and dehydration. SWRS is at an elevation of 5400 ft. and the research sites can be as high as 8500 ft. Be prepared to drink plenty of water, wear protective clothing (such as long sleeves and a wide-brimmed hat), and use lots of sunscreen. Volunteers will be reminded to drink enough water in and out of the field. Night temperatures can drop—bring warm clothes and bring layers—it will be warm when moving but can be surprisingly cold (even in southern Arizona) when we are stationary during surveys/trapping.

Animals/Plants

Though unlikely, you may see rattlesnakes in the desert and scrub habitats. Other hazards include cacti with sharp spines, scorpions, stinging wasps, and ants. Some plants and arthropods in the area are dangerous. Avoid grabbing cacti or arthropods. Wear appropriate footwear, e.g., hiking boots, and watch your step as you hike in these areas. Deer, bear and cougars are also present in the area, though rarely encountered. Do not approach wild animals and follow field staff instructions.

Insects

Biting and stinging insects and ticks are present. Inspect for tick bites daily. If you are allergic to any insect bites or stings, please bring medication with you into the field (at least two Epi-Pens, antihistamines, etc.) as appropriate and alert expedition leaders about your condition.

Transportation

We will travel on public roads with few traffic issues, but risks inherent in road travel still apply. All volunteers will have a seat belt and must wear it whenever the vehicle is in motion.

Personal Security

SWRS is a generally safe region for travelers; however, do not leave valuables unattended in public areas. We are working close to the US/Mexico border and therefore will encounter border patrol agents in the field and run the risk of encounters with individuals in the field that are migrating through the wild and do not wish to be encountered. We will discuss this possibility during safety briefings.

Swimming

There is a pool open to guests at SWRS. There is no lifeguard on duty. Adults may swim in pairs at their own risk.

Travel Planning

RENDEZVOUS LOCATION

UtahSalt Lake City International Airport, Utah

ArizonaDoubleTree Suites by Hilton, just outside of the Tucson International Airport, Arizona

* Additional information will be provided by Earthwatch to meet your team. Please do not book travel arrangements such as flights until you have received additional information from Earthwatch.

ABOUT YOUR DESTINATION

Earthwatch strongly recommends that travelers investigate their destination prior to departure. Familiarity with the destination’s entry/exit requirements, visas, local laws, and customs can go a long way to ensuring smooth travel. The U.S. Department of State's Traveler’s Checklist and Destination Guides are helpful resources. For LGBTI travelers, the U.S. Department of State's LGBTI Travelers page contains many useful tips and links.

COUNTRY AND PROJECT ENTRY REQUIREMENTS

Entry visa requirements differ by country of origin, layover, and destination, and do change unexpectedly. For this reason, please confirm your visa requirements at the time of booking and, again, 90 days prior to travel. Please apply early for your visa (we recommend starting 6 months prior to the start of your expedition). Refunds will not be made for volunteers cancelling due to not obtaining their visa in time to meet the team at the rendezvous. You can find up to date visa requirements at the following website: www.travisa.com.

If a visa is required, participants should apply for a TOURIST visa. Please note that obtaining a visa can take weeks or even months. We strongly recommend using a visa agency, which can both expedite and simplify the process.

Generally, passports must be valid for at least six months from the date of entry and a return ticket is required.

Resources

ARTICLES/WEBSITES
BOOKS
  • The Hidden Lives of Owls: The Science and Spirit of Nature's Most Elusive Bird (Leigh Calvez)
  • Walden Warming (Richard Primack)
  • A Sand County Almanac (Aldo Leopold)
FIELD GUIDES
LITERATURE CITED
  • Lawler, J.L., S.L. Shafer, D.White, P.Kareiva, E.P.Maurer, A.R. Blaustein, and P.J. Bartlein. 2009. Projected climate-induced faunal change in the Western Hemisphere. Ecology 90(3): 588–597.
  • McCallum, D.A. 1994. Flammulated Owl (Otus flammeolus). In A. Poole and F. Gill [EDS.] The birds of North America, No. 93, Acad. Nat. Sci.,Philadelphia, PA and Am. Ornithol. Union, Washington, D.C. U.S.A.
  • Parmesan, C. and G. Yohe. 2003. A globally coherent fingerprint of climate change impacts across natural systems. Nature 421:37–42.
  • Peterson, A.T., M.A. Ortega-Huerta, J. Bartley, V.Sanchez-Cordero, J. Soberon, R.H. Buddemeier, and D.R.B. Stockwell. 2002. Future projections for Mexican faunas under global climate change scenarios. Nature 416:626–629