State biologists are asking the public for help finding nesting great gray owls.
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks monitors owl populations in March and April using “call-back surveys.” The survey involves going out into the forest, playing a recording of an owl, and listening for a reply, said Lauri Hanauska-Brown, nongame wildlife management bureau chief.
The surveys can be difficult during that time of year given variable snow conditions. Once the birds nest, they also tend to become less vocal and even more challenging to monitor.
“We’ve had an interest in great gray owls for a number of years because they’re hard to find and not an easy species to survey in a rigorous way,” Hanauska-Brown said.
The state classifies the owls as a species of “greatest inventory need.” The designation does not necessarily mean the birds are in decline, but that FWP has seen interest in the birds and a need to gather more data on them.
Often called the “ghosts of the forests,” great gray owls are some of the most charismatic species in the wild, Hanauska-Brown said.
“They’re super cool so usually people pay attention to them,” she said. “They’re really big, even bigger than a great horned owl, and they have these big beautiful features. They’re also pretty docile and really very tolerant of people, so you get some great photography of them because they allow you to.”
Hanauska-Brown recommends that those photographing nesting birds give the birds some space and then leave the area afterwards.
Because they may be a rare species, FWP is asking for public reports of great gray owl nests. The information will be kept confidential and can be reported to regional nongame biologists. The agency is specifically looking for nesting locations rather than individual birds.
Great grays nest in a number of different types of forests.
Hanauska-Brown noted that the owls prefer broken snags for nesting locations where they can sit at the top and be a little bit exposed. The nests typically consist of the features of the location as the owls do not build large nests like eagles, she said, adding that the birds are also known to sometimes use the nests of other birds.