The siren wailed. I looked in the mirror and saw the flashing lights. It was two o-clock in the morning. There was no one else. They were coming for me. “Do you know why I pulled you over?” asked the policeman. “Well,” I said. “I guess I was speeding.” “We were owling,” I continued. “I’m not accustomed to being out so late and driving without traffic. I must have been careless after getting off the highway.” “Yep,” he said. “You were going 50 in a 35 zone.” But, then he mentioned that when in a youth group he had gone owling in the eastern US. He had seen Barred Owls and Great Horned Owls. I said we had been after Flammulated Owls.
After the policeman left with my license, insurance card, and registration, I looked disconsolately at my partner. “I wonder how much this will cost,” I said, as she apologized herself for not paying attention and suggesting I slow down. Miraculously, in these days when obtaining municipal revenue from all sources is so important, I was only issued a warning. Relieved, I drove slowly home.
Have you heard of a Flammulated Owl? Many people haven’t. Except for one or two species near our Southern border, “Flams” may be the least well-known owl in the US. According to several sources, while being more-or-less identically sized, they weigh less, on average, than a pygmy owl. How is something smaller than a pygmy? Flams are found in most western states but unlike most other owls, they are migratory because their most common prey items are moths. Limited research indicates their small global breeding population of 20,000 is declining.
We had started near Windy Point in Colorado’s Uncompahgre National Forest just after 9PM. Following a protocol left by my owling mentor, the late Rich Levad (https://birdconservancy.org/about-us/recognizing-excellence/levadaward/) , we stopped every half mile. We listened. We played a call, listened more and then repeated. By the time we finished our ten-mile route at Columbine Pass; it was midnight. Two owls had come in close. We heard another clearly and possibly three more distantly. Success, right?
Rich had done this route several times approximately ten years ago. One year he had ten owls, but the year he used the protocol we followed, he had 31. What’s going on? Massive logging operations, that’s what’s going on. For several miles in the middle of our route, there were stacks of logs, piles of slash and parked logging vehicles. Flams like thick, old-growth forest, not thinned, cut and disturbed. Will Flammulated Owls make it? It is up to us. The type of forests they need are almost all on public land. Nearly all federal timber sales lose money. Most analyses indicate that we taxpayers pay several hundred million per year to ensure that logging continues. Perhaps such expenditures can put the Flammulated Owls on the endangered species list. Then, the taxpayers can pay to recover them.
Flams, however, may not be so easy to recover. The limited research suggests they have a lower reproductive rate than other owls. And, at a time, when insect populations world-wide are falling, their prey-base is probably also declining.
(This old photo of a Flammulated Owl on the Uncompahgre National Forest isn’t very clear, but it shows the owl’s dark eyes. Other small US owls have lighter eyes, believed to be correlated to the fact that they hunt in the daytime or the twilight, unlike Flammulated Owls which are strictly nocturnal.)