Early one spring evening, I meet University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute’s Zoe Nelson at a rest area between Gillette and Buffalo. Shadows grow long on red bluffs and green sagebrush prairie. It’s that time of night when all the birds are going bonkers. We’re out here as part of a program to get regular folks like me and my husband, Ken—he’s tonight’s driver—to help keep track of short-eared owls. The program is called WAFLS or Western Asio Flammeus Landscape Study.
“Flammeus is Latin for flaming,” Nelson says. “In the right light, they kind of have this orangey hue.”
WAFLS is just one of several citizen science programs Nelson manages. This one is collecting data on short-eared owls to see how climate change is impacting them. Tonight’s plan is for us to drive a dirt road where these owls are known to thrive, stopping every half mile to look around for them for a timed five minutes. Nelson coordinates volunteers all across the state—there’s 50 of these grids total—all placed in the owl’s native grassland habitat where they can hunt voles and mice.
“This project actually spans all across eight Western states, but it’s our first year in Wyoming. Before we even recruited volunteers, we had all of the survey locations signed up for,” Nelson says.
Each volunteer conducts two surveys: one at the beginning of the peak breeding season and one, like tonight’s, at the end. It’s a great way to collect data, Nelson says, but she admits it’s not perfect.
“People sign up obviously for an owl survey hoping to see owls. And if they do, that’s wonderful, that’s great. But if they don’t see them, it’s just as important to us,” she says.
And not seeing these owls is becoming the norm. They are one of the most widely distributed owls in the world, living everywhere except Antarctica and Australia. But Nelson says in recent decades, their numbers have nosedived, down by three-quarters over the last 40 years. The National Audubon Society lists it as climate endangered, a species that is threatened by problems created by global warming temperatures. And it’s also on Wyoming’s list of Species of Greatest Conservation Need.
So, no, we’re not really counting on seeing one.
We drive our first half mile and Ken pulls over. “Alright, can we step outside and see what we see?” Nelson asks.
We stand by the road looking through binoculars in every direction. Nelson takes notes. Meadowlarks sing. A Northern harrier flies by.
But no owls, so we get back in the car and drive another half mile.
At the next stop, right next to the highway, Ken spots a bird.
“That is a short-eared owl!” Zoe shouts, the binoculars at her eyes.
We can’t believe our luck. “Wow,” I say, taking my turn with the binoculars. “He is flappy.”
All the bird books say the best way to know you’re looking at a short-eared owl is its quirky flight pattern: they call it “buoyant and moth-like.” But that’s not the only way it defies typical owl behavior. It also doesn’t hoot.
“It sounds more like an angry cat,” says Nelson, “not a meow, but like a KAAA!”
As the sun goes down, we make our way to the north side of the grid near several ponds. Geoff LeBaron is with the National Audubon Society that’s working on a climate watch of the world’s birds. He says short-eared owls rely on wetlands like these for nesting. He says housing and energy development are replacing ponds like these, “and draining marshes and pollution and alteration of the habitat they need to nest down here.”
LeBaron says birds with really specific needs are the ones most likely to feel the pinch of climate change. Short-eared owls, for example, rely on specific marshy nesting sites. He says warming temperatures are likely to dry up such ponds, forcing owls to move in search of better sites.
“Much of their current wintering range, the climate suitability over the next 80 years is likely to move northward,” he says.
And that means in order to adjust to warming temperatures, LeBaron says they’re going to have to move year-round into their usual wintering areas, like Canada and Alaska.
We finish our last survey and turn the car around. We’re just heading back when Nelson sees something.
“Is that another one?” I ask.
“It is. That actually might be. There’s two!”
We jump out of the car and run out to watch two short-eared owls circling each other.
“I actually think we’re seeing a courtship display,” Nelson says. “You see one of them corkscrew spiral up and then dip down and the other ones following it around? Did you see that?”
Yes, I do. The male owl spirals up and then claps his wings underneath him and drops from the sky for a long dizzying moment. We watch the display as long as the light allows, knowing there’s a possibility we’ll never see another one like it again.