The Blaine County Journal News-Opinion - We've Got The County Covered

Local volunteer Toni Collins gives a 'hoot' about owls


July 8, 2020

Toni Collins volunteered the last two years as a "citizen-scientist" collecting date about Short-eared Owls, a climate-endangered species common to the open-country of western states. She joined 600+ volunteers across eight western states to conduct the three-year study.

Many readers know Toni Collins who works at Finley's Food Farm in Chinook. Some may know she's an avid outdoor photographer, especially for wildlife. Likely few readers know Toni's a "volunteer, citizen-scientist" who's been collecting data for a regional study of Short-eared Owls (SEOWs) over the past couple of years. With a minor in biology from Pacific University, working with the study was an opportunity to apply some of what she had learned in college. Six hundred volunteers across eight western states worked on the three-year study about the owl.

About the Western Asio Flammeus Landscape Study (WAfLS Project)

The goal of the WAfLS Project is to "assess the population status, trends, and threats against the Short-eared Owl...." Volunteers make scientific field observations and record their findings. The results will be used to make recommendations to conservation agencies for ways to restore the diminishing species. Short-eared Owls weigh roughly a pound and are described as "about the size of a crow."

A grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is funding the study in California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. The Owl Research Institute, based in Charlo, is the coordinating agency for Montana's part of the study. Earlier the National Audubon Society declared the owls as "climate-endangered."

Toni got interested in volunteering for the study after encountering a Short-eared Owl on a cold day in February about three years ago. She explained, "It was my day off and I wanted to get some photos. At a crossroads along Red Rock Road I saw an owl on a fence post and took a picture of it. Back home I identified the owl from one of my bird books as a SEOW."

Two weeks later she saw a post on Facebook asking for volunteers to collect data for the Montana portion of the SEOW study. She added, "It was the first owl I'd ever photographed. The encounter was kismet. After learning this beautiful bird needed help, I realized I could help."

How the data collection about Short-eared Owls (SEOW) is conducted

Researchers created and mapped 442 random grids in areas of typical SEOW habitat in the eight states in the study (see copy of a grid sheet used by volunteer observers). The grids measure roughly nine by five miles with eight to eleven observation points-noted on the grid sheet as large dots. The eight to eleven observation points on each grid are on public roadways so volunteers can step out of their vehicles to make and record observations. Each grid was surveyed shortly before on certain dates and times of the day during March-May, breeding season for the Short-eared Owl.

Before an observation trip to the field volunteers download an electronic grid map to a device using a GPS app (Avenza Maps). Toni explained, "Once I downloaded the map I would drive to the grid area. At the area the device signals me, then I get another signal for each observation point." At each observation point the volunteer had five minutes to make observations and record them on a data collection sheets. Along with GPS coordinates, notes are also made about the type of habitat in the area (grass, shrubs, farm land, livestock grazing, etc.). One section is strictly for "Observed Short-eared Owls." In the first year of the study 71 owls were observed among the 399 grids across eight states. Montana had 43 grids surveyed that year and 15 owls were recorded.

Toni said, "Part of why the observations are made in the spring is to record the courtship flight." The mating flight may occur 500 feet above the ground." Toni explained, "In the online training we learned to identify various calls of the owls and were reminded 'always look up' as well as around you."

In Toni's case, the first year of the study she had a grid route along Clear Creek Road south of Chinook. There she had "two recordable sightings" on two different visits. She thinks it might have been the same owl both times. In 2020 she had a grid northeast of Harlem, along Wayne Creek Road and another grid due north of Rudyard. She had only one "unconfirmed sighting" on the Rudyard route.

She added, "These owls like to perch on fence posts. There were lots of fence posts along Clear Creek. North of Rudyard it's all open, dry land farming with no fences."

Locals may recognize this grid map of an area northeast of Harlem in the Wayne Creek area. The dots along the roadway indicate stops where a volunteer with the WAfLS Project would make observations about Short-eared Owls. Montana had 43 such random grid areas included in the eight-state study.

Toni explained, "Each of the two ninety-minute surveys on a given grid must occur on certain dates and times. Observations outside those limits make the data invalid." She added, "One of my biggest challenges was doing my observations on my day off. Strong winds and heavy rain or snow officially limit observing. If my day off was during bad weather it was difficult to observe at the right times." Last year she figured she spent about 26 hours driving to the grids, doing the observations and inputting the data she gathered. She drove nearly 400 miles in the process.

Asked if she would be a volunteer observer again, Toni said she would. She added, "I learned a lot about other birds as well as the owls. That helped me be a better 'birder,' something I've been doing for some time. She also had opportunities to photograph other birds and wildlife while out and about.

Want to learn more or volunteer?

The Owl Research Institute is a source for information about owls in Montana. Find information about current research, opportunities to volunteer and general information about all owls at the Institute's website:


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