Two woman standing in a forest

Provincial Biologist visits Cortes Island; Second Western Screech Owl discovered

A provincial biologist visited Cortes Island over the weekend. Emily Upham-Mills is an ecosystems biologist with the Ministry of Water, Lands and Natural Resource Stewardship and an important member of the team working with the Friends of Cortes Island (FOCI) on the Western Screech Owl Project

Helen Hall, Executive Director of FOCI, explained, “Emily very kindly came up on the weekend to talk to the community. This project is really important for FOCI. We’re doing really interesting scientific work and that data is going back both provincially and federally. It puts us in the spotlight with this particular species. It’s a project that’s running for three years. We’re in the second year of trying to discover whether there are Western Screech Owls on Cortes Island.” 

Up until a few weeks ago, there has not been any reports of Western Screech Owls on Cortes Island since 2017. That changed when Sabina Leader Mense, and her husband Dennis, discovered one of the elusive owls in the northern part of the island. Then, on Saturday, at a meeting with about  30 members of the community, Leader Mense announced the discovery of a second Western Screech Owl.  

HH: “We’ve been working with Emily since the start of the project. Her role is to work on a number of different species at risk, and to work with partner organizations like us to get conservation work happening and to engage with community groups.” 

“It was key for us to work in partnership with the ministry in order for us to obtain the grant, and also for them to bring in a whole load of resources that we need. They were able to loan us some of the recording units we have been using. The ministry were also able to advise us on where to conduct our surveys, and how to conduct them.”

Emily works closely with another important member of this project, the Pacific Megascops Research Alliance.

The Western Screech Owl project is also being funded by the Federal Government’s Habitat Stewardship Project.

HH: “This project raises our profile with biologists that we’re working with, also with the federal grant giving body. We are hoping that other projects might follow this one.”

Saturday morning, some key FOCI leaders took Emily on a hike.

HH: “Sabina, Autumn, Emily and I went out to a patch of older growth forest near Basil Creek. We were putting up an autonomous recording unit (ARU). We have a number of recording units in that forest for the next two weeks, to see if we can record any Screech Owls at night. We wanted to show Emily the kind of ecosystem that we were working in and also just to get her to see what we are doing on the ground.”

CC: Did she have any comments about the area?

HH: “She thought it was potentially good habitat for Western Screech Owls, so also a really useful place to put up autonomous recording units.” 

“We had a wonderful presentation at Linnaea Education Centre on Saturday afternoon. There were about 30 people, and Emily was able to give us a really good overview about Screech Owl distribution and conservation. The Western Screech Owl was once abundant in coastal BC, but there’s been a steady decline in their numbers since 1990. What they’re trying to do is to figure out why?” 

“There have been a number of different reasons suggested for their decline.” 

“Barred Owls have come from the east coast of Canada into coastal BC. We’ve had a huge amount of fragmentation of forest habitat in BC because of all the forestry work that’s gone on over the years. That has opened up the habitat. Barred Owls prefer these fragmented areas and have moved in. Emily talked about a study in Washington State where it showed a clear increase in Barred Owls over the last few decades, and correlated with that was a decline of Western Screech Owls. Barred Owls predate Screech Owls.” 

“Emily explained that they also believe Screech Owls have declined because of development in urban areas, and because of roadkill.” 

“What it’s done is push Screech Owls out of  areas they like, into less optimum areas – but areas that Barred Owls are not found in.” 

“Emily also mentioned that what they’re doing and what we are doing, is contributing to the Screech Owl Recovery Strategy that has been produced provincially.”

There are four object objectives. One is to protect Screech Owls and enhance their habitat. Two others are to monitor them and assess threats to them.  The last one is to try and address gaps in their knowledge, which is partly why the work that we are doing here on the Discovery Islands is really useful to them.”

“They’re currently working with five projects on Vancouver Island, but they’re really curious about this area, between Vancouver Island and the mainland, and the types of habitats we have here. They are  trying to work out whether this area is an area where you find Screech Owls. And if so, why are they here?” 

“So Emily gave us a great presentation on the context and the background of Western Screech Owls.”

“She was followed by Sabina Leader Mense who talked about the survey work that’s been going on this spring, and in particular how she managed to locate some Western Screech Owls on the north of the island.”

“Sabina showed us slides of her trip out by boat up to the north of the island. She used a skiff to go out at night along what we call a transect (a predetermined route) along the west coast of the northern part of the island – playing screech sounds every 800 meters. On two of those trips, in different parts of the northern peninsula, she actually heard a call back. Amazingly too, she also heard a call back from Read Island. The sound traveled over water.” 

“Next, Autumn Barrett Morgan came up and did a little piece on soundscapes. I know she’s just been on Cortes Currents talking about soundscapes, but she talked about the experience of being out in the forest, listening to sounds at night, and playing these Screech Owl sounds into the forest.”

“That is now a missing sound. We talk about losing forest ecosystems, and  losing species, but we’re also losing sounds that we might have heard. Our soundscapes are changing and diminishing.” 

 “I think a lot of people in the audience were really interested by that.”

“Autumn encouraged people to go out at night, sit on their decks or sit  outside somewhere and just listen to the sounds of the night.”

Links of Interest: 

Top image credit: Emily Uphan-Mills and Sabina Leader Mense in the upper Basil Creek area – Photo courtesy FOCI

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