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By Graham Sorenson, BC Projects Coordinator, Birds Canada

Western Screech-Owl Photo: Ren Ferguson

Many migratory bird species are still enjoying their tropical wintering grounds, while other birds that stay in Canada through the winter are busy just surviving the cold. Canada’s owls, however, are poised to begin their early-spring courtship routines. And with the start of the owl breeding season, hundreds of volunteers across Canada will head out onto rural roads at night to participate in the Nocturnal Owl Survey (NOS). These volunteers are trained to collect valuable population information that can be applied to owl conservation, and to follow protocols that minimize disturbance to owls in the process.

This survey has been running in Ontario for over 25 years, and this coming spring marks the 20th year for many other provinces. “It’s hard to believe that we are approaching the 20th year of the Atlantic Nocturnal Owl Survey!” says Dr. Amy-Lee Kouwenberg, the Atlantic NOS coordinator for Birds Canada. “Even more incredible is that we have nine volunteers who have conducted their survey route or routes and submitted the data for every single year of the program’s existence. That is a tremendous amount of Citizen Science and we thank you for your dedication!” The story is the same across Canada – hundreds of volunteers donate their time year after year to help document and conserve this secretive group of species.

For some, like Blaire Smith in BC, the survey heightened their interest in birds. “During my first Nocturnal Owl Survey in 2015, I had the luck of hearing the unique whistling call of a Western Screech-Owl,” recounts Blaire. “It sounded like a bouncing ball accelerating as it bounced closer and closer to the ground. This was my ‘spark’ bird and I have been fascinated with birds ever since.”

In Saskatchewan, first-time owl surveyors Korinne and Vaughn Bengert were delighted to see pair of Great Horned Owls on their route, which is by no means a guarantee on a nocturnal survey! “We didn’t expect to actually see any owls so this was very exciting,” they said afterward. “We really enjoyed doing this!”

Barred Owl Photo: Kathleen Curran/GBBC

Results from the Nocturnal Owl Survey

In 2019, a total of 688 routes were surveyed across the participating provinces and territories. Northern Saw-whet, Great Horned, and Barred owls were the most commonly detected owl species in every region. In the territories and in northern BC, Boreal Owls were also commonly reported.

Out of the 16 owl species that breed in Canada, ten were detected during the 2019 Nocturnal Owl Survey. The species that were detected tend to be more strictly nocturnal and vocalize more regularly compared to the Snowy Owl, Northern Hawk-Owl and Short-eared Owl, which were not detected during the survey. These three species are often silent and regularly seen during the day. The other three undetected species were the Burrowing, Barn, and Spotted owl, all species of conservation concern.

So what happens next with the information gathered by owl survey volunteers? Dr. Danielle Ethier, Bird Population Scientist at the Birds Canada National Data Centre, has some news that’s sure to excite NOS participants and others who are interested in owls: “In 2020, [we] plan to put the Nocturnal Owl Survey data to good use! Specifically, our intentions are to clean, compile, and generate species-specific population trends, similar to those produced for the Canadian Migration Monitoring Network and Raptor Population Index. These results will give us a better understanding of how owl populations are doing in your region. A personal thank-you to all the volunteers who made this research possible!”

Looking for More Owl Survey Volunteers

We are always looking for more volunteers, but the need is greatest in the “Priority” areas mentioned below. If you are interested in joining the survey, please contact the Survey Coordinator in your region.

Thank you to all of the regional survey coordinators and survey participants who contributed to this article!

Eastern Screech-Owl Photo: Leesa Beckman/GBBC

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