A pair of gloved hands holding a tinty Western Screech Owl at arms length

Success: The search for Western Screech Owls on Cortes Island

Up until now, there have not been any reports of Western Screech Owls on Cortes Island since 2017. That just changed a few weeks ago in the island’s more remote northern forest. 

Field biologist Sabina Leader Mense reports, “I was sitting in the skiff with my husband Dennis, under an unbelievably brilliant sky of stars. It was the last station of the night, pushing midnight, and in the 16th minute of that 17 minute call playback sequence, I heard something. I remember pivoting around in the boat. The sound was behind me and you do what owls do, you turn around.  I think your ears and the muscles and your ears cup and you’re just straining to hear something. Then I heard the call again. It was very distant, but I recognized it was an owl. I began analyzing the audio disks in my head going, ‘is it a Northern Pygmy Owl? Is it a Northern Saw-Whet Owl?’ As I was doing this, it called the third time and I recognized it was a Western Screech Owl.”  

Sabina Leader Mense out in the skiff – submitted photo

“The only word I can find to describe that feeling, upon recognizing it was a Western Screech Owl that had just called back to me, is gobsmacked.”

“If you look at the definition of gobsmacked, it means overwhelmed with wonder, overwhelmed with surprise, or shock.  That was the feeling in that moment of having that Western Screech Owl call back, after all those times that we’ve tried.” 

“Then that feeling of gobsmack moved into complete disbelief. I had to strain to listen again, but I had 12 very clear calls from the Western Screech Owl. There was no doubt what we had. So then the emotions moved from disbelief to absolute euphoria, which was like, ‘Oh my goodness, we have one! Maybe he has a mate and they’re here on Cortes.’ That feeling then went from disbelief to euphoria, and then it moved into relief.”

“It was just this incredible relief to know they were still there and that relief moved very quickly into hope. It was such a powerful emotional response. It instantly galvanized me into doing everything I could to protect them. That’s what this FOCI (Friends of Cortes Island) research project is about.

We will have more about that discovery later in this broadcast, but first Leader Mense will give an overview of the search to find Western Screech Owls, the team that has assembled and what this means for Cortes and neighbouring islands.  

SLM:  “We’ve talked about them before, the research that FOCI is conducting on Cortes island, but basically to get us all on the same page, we’re dealing with the Western Screech Owl.”

“It’s a small native owl,8 to 9 inches in height, stocky body, very characteristically distinguished by its ear tufts and bright yellow eyes. The body is grey/brown streaked. It has excellent camouflage in the forest, but this is one of our small native owls. It was historically very abundant, all the way from Baja to Alaska. The coastal subspecies Megascops kennicottii kennicottii is the bird that we have on Cortes, the focus of our study.” 

“The Western Screech Owl is presently a designated species at risk, both at the federal and the provincial levels. In 2012, Cosewic, the Committee On the Status of Endangered Wildlife In Canada, listed the Western Screech Owl  under the federal Species at Risk Act, called SARA. They listed the Western Screech Owl as threatened. At the provincial level, we have what’s called a blue listing.”

“The big question always was, why did we see these declines  in numbers that resulted in it being designated as a species at risk?”

“There’s a lot of speculation on what that is:

  • Possibly the loss of old forest habitat with good cavities for nesting.
  • Possibly the loss of food resources, both amphibians and insects that the Western Screech Owl depend on are down in number and in decline. 
  • Also predation by a larger owl, the Barred Owl.”

“The Barred Owl preys on not only the Western Screech Owl, but the other two small owls that we have: the Northern Pigmy Owl and the Northern Saw-Whet. So the research questions that are being asked across the country, and specifically in the project that we’re working on, on Cortes right now, those questions are:

  • Where are they surviving?  
  • How many of them are there?  
  • What are the habitat types that they’re actually occupying right now?
  • What does it look like for overlap in the areas where we’re finding these Screech Owls?  
  • Where’s the overlap with Barred Owls? (to understand more about the predation)”

“This little, little Western Screech Owl, this little guy has the most amazing field team behind him.” 

“Firstly, we have the federal government SARA listing. Because of that there are federal monies allocated for research through the, Habitat Stewardship Project under Environment Climate Change Canada. These are the monies that FOCI has received to conduct our present research.” 

“We have the provincial government stepping in, the Ministry of Water Lands and Resource Stewardship who are partnered with us and many other communities in this research. They are specifically conducting the analysis of these autonomous recording units that we place in the forest, little song meters that are out there listening through the night. The provincial government provides the analysis and support for us to carry that work out.” 

“We have independent research consultancies, such as the Pacific Megascops Research Alliance, and this is a group of consultants who have established the scientific protocols that are standardized up and down the coast of British Columbia that we all conduct our research by. So we have  an independent consultant working as part of the team.” 

“Then we look at the regional level, we have engaged in our study of the Discovery Islands volunteer citizen scientists, working with us in deploying these autonomous recording units or these little song meters.  We have Zephyr Polk on Read Island. We have Johanna Paradis and her son’s Kai and Jack working on Maurelle Island and we have Luke Hyatt and his son Theo, working with us on Sonora Island. So we have a regional team working with us and then we have Friends of Cortes Island Society at the community level on Cortes Island. Autumn Barrett-Morgan and myself, Sabina Leader Mense, are the contractors to FOCI that are providing the research support.” 

“Autumn brings incredible skills to the project in terms of being able to do the technical work and get those autonomous recording units programmed to be able to listen for us in the forest for the Western Screech Owls.”  

“I’m a professional field biologist by training, and I’ve been involved in the design and implementation of the actual field research on Cortes. So knowing the habitats, where to look, and how to facilitate the actual field research. So this is this amazing team that is behind this wee little owl.” 

“Autumn and I have been in the field working together last year, 2022, as well as again, this year, 2023 with the support of the Habitat Stewardship Project. We’ve been conducting different types of surveys”. 

Call playback surveys are where we project the call of a male Western Screech Owl, and if there is one in the area, it may elicit a response from a resident bird. They are territorial. They will respond to another male in their territory.

“In the work that we’re doing regionally it’s very exciting because we have all these autonomous recording units (ARU) out in the islands. There are three working right now on Read Island, three on Maurelle Island, and an additional three on Sonora Island.So the ears are out there, we’re just moving them.” 

“I’ve also had five of these units, that Autumn programmed for us. I’ve had them up in that Northern peninsula for the last four weeks. We’re just picking them up and moving them this weekend. So those will be analyzed and will also give us information. They are about 800 meters apart. So that’ll give us an idea as well of the number of birds, their territory size. We can support in that area, several territories of birds. I think there’s a very good chance that we have a pair of Western Screech Owl, at least, in that area and hopefully successfully breeding this year.”

“We also have evidence of Western Screech Owls on Sonora this year and on Read last year. I think their numbers are low. The density is very low, which is why it’s hard to pick them up on the call playbacks. But I believe these little ARUs, these little song meters that are out there will prove their worth in the years going forward.”

“Just before this interview, I sat down to figure out how many times we have been standing in the forest or standing in a boat, with a broadcaster on the top of our heads, pointed in each of the cardinal directions, doing a series, a 17 minute series of calls out to the forest. We’re saying, is anybody there? I actually worked it out, it’s over a hundred stations with those multiple calls at each station that we’ve conducted. Last year going into this year,  over a hundred stations, all those calls, not a single call back.” 

“A few weeks ago, we made our very, very first Western Screech Owl detection  in the Northern Wild of Cortes. Some of  our areas we cannot access by land. So we have been putting a skiff in the water and taking that skiff along shorelines and calling into the forest.  This is what I was doing a few weeks back, sitting off of the Northern peninsula of Cortes Island from Bullock Bluff all the way to the entrance at Von Donop. This was a new transect that we had just initiated this year in 2023.” 

CC: Is there any chance that this Western Screech Owl came from another island? And what are the odds that there is another Screech Owl on Cortes Island?

SLM: “The odds are very good that there is a mate for this male that was calling. Everything on Cortes was disturbed in the early 1900s by logging, but since then, this northern peninsula has been relatively undisturbed.” 

“It is relatively unfragmented, and the best part about it for the future of Western Screech Owls is nobody is there. There are no trails, no people and no fragmentation of  that habitat. It is probably our wildest area on the island. The fact that is where we made our first detection of a Western Screech Owl is pinning it to what they need: no people, no open developed lands.” 

“It keeps the Barred Owls out. Barred Owls follow people. They thrive where people are because we have animals and livestock and food and feed and rats and that’s great food for Barred Owls.” 

We found that Western Screech Owl right there. It is optimum habitat because of its wildness, probably low density of preying Barred Owls.”

CC: Assuming that we have a pair, which we do not know yet, what are the odds of their population expanding? Could we be looking at the last of the Western Screech Owls on Cortes Island? 

SLM: “Well, we’re certainly hoping they’re not the last of the Screech Owls.  

“Western Screech Owls were historically very abundant up and down the coast, but from all of the historical records we have from Cortes, and we have some nice records, they were never very abundant on Cortes. One of the areas historically where we have the records from is the Gorge. Brig Weiler talks about growing up and always having little Western Screech Owls right in Whaletown. We have records and photos from Gilean Douglas at Channel Rock, of the Western Screech Owl. We have ‘Swamps Edge,’ Christian Gronau’s excellent natural history observations over many years: the 70s, 80s, 90s,  early 2000s of breeding and nesting Western Screech Owls. So we had them on Cortes, but probably not in any great number.” 

“With the introduction of the Barred Owl – and people didn’t bring them across, they moved across the continent by themselves –  they have made themselves very comfortable where people are.” 

“The biggest thing I believe we can do in this northern peninsula,  where we’ve picked up our first detection, is everybody stays away. It is wild habitat that I think will serve them well. We have made no Barred Owl detections there because there’s no reason for a Barred Owl to be there.”

 “I was surprised to hear Barred Owls in the very southern reaches of Robertson Lake and Wiley Lake. I was disappointed to hear them there. Even Cork Lake,  we’ve made detections of Barred Owl,  but so far nothing further to the north.” 

“So we may have a nice little refugia of habitat that may serve several pairs of Western Screech Owls going forward.” 

“If we have Western Screech Owls here, and we do, where are they? What is their habitat? We know the habitat structure of that northern peninsula and what they need. And now that we can inform the community, the community can make responsible decisions with respect to how to conserve the habitat required by those Western Screech Owls.”

“It’s such an exciting time. Autumn and I talk a lot about soundscapes and the necessity of soundscapes and certain sounds in that soundscape of Cortes. So I feel that we always need to have Western Screech Owls calling in the spring, as part of the Cortes Island soundscape, just like we always need to have Pacific Forest Frogs calling in the spring.”

“I’d just like to share one of my favorite readings from a little book by Henry Beston called The Outermost House, and it was in the introduction done by Robert Finch,  where he wrote, “ The recurring cycles of the year rooted in the pilgrimages of the sun are not simply entertaining phenomenon to be noted at our convenience and for our enjoyment, but signs that the cosmos is still intact. That we remain included in something larger and more reliable than our own short-lived enthusiasms. It is for this that we need to know that insects will hibernate, that warblers will migrate and return, that the tide will retreat, the ice let go, the earth tilt back toward the sun, the grass reawaken.”

 I would add that Western Screech Owls will continue to call every spring on Cortes Island.

This is the first of a two part series about the search for the Western Screech Owl. In Part Two, Autumn Barrett-Morgan will talk about soundscapes.

“On March 25th, FOCI is hosting a listening workshop at  2:00 PM in the Education Centre at Linnaea Farm.  We’re having Emily Upham Mills, a ministry biologist, speaking more about this project. Specifically  a little bit more about Western Screech Owl natural history,  elaborating on what Sabina just shared and also having an experiential moment to listen to some of the results that we collected and some of the data that we collected last year with those autonomous recording units.”

Links of Interest

Top photo credit: David Edwards holding a Western Screech Owl in his hands, at channel Rock during the 1980s – Photo courtesy of Cortes Island Museum and Archives 

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