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Great Gray Owl going, going, gone…; What Morgan can learn from historic sighting

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By Ron Paul

Hundreds of people visited Mountain Green in the months of January and February to catch a glimpse of the Great Gray Owl Strix nebulosa. This was the first verified sighting in Morgan County’s history  and only one of a few verified in the state of Utah.

Now that the owl is gone, here are some interesting circumstances that relate to the owl and us.  Rare bird sightings do not necessarily reflect a bird’s population status.  Bird migration has interesting connections to Morgan County.  There is a greater interest in rare bird sightings than meets the eye.  Morgan County plays an important role in providing bird habitat.

The occurrence of the Great Grey Owl in Morgan County this year would fall under the designation of “occasional visitor” as outlined by the Utah Bird Records Committee. Occasional is defined as: “Not observed annually, but a few individuals may occur some years in appropriate habitat and season.”

Sometimes the occasionally or rare sighting of a bird in an area is misunderstood to mean that the species is in decline or that there are few in number. In fact the Great Gray Owl is the only species of its genus that breeds both in the new and old world. Its primary habitats are the boreal forests of North America, Northern Europe and Russia—that great forested region between the prairies and the arctic.  The global population is estimated to number approximately 190,000 individuals (International Union for Conservation of Nature). It is not a strong migrant and is usually found in the same habitat year round or on occasion at lower latitudes during severe weather and during periods of low prey abundance.

Bird migration is an interesting and complex phenomenon. As they say, the devil is in the details, especially when it comes to how birds move across the landscape.

Some years ago a study was being conducted on the movements of the American Bald Eagle population that nested in the far northern regions of Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories. As part of this study, nestlings were banded and also received a wing marker with a unique numbering designation. Several of these eagles showed up along the Weber River in Morgan County over several winters.

This and other information has demonstrated that the eagles occurring in Morgan County and other regions of Utah come from the midcontinent nesting populations of Northern Canada. Other data demonstrate that the coastal Bald Eagle populations of Alaska, British Columbia and Northwest states of the United States are relatively non-migratory due to the year-round costal fishery resource available to them.

Some years ago while attending a Waterbird Society meeting at Niagara Falls, I encountered an interesting circumstance related to bird migration that has a strong connection to Utah. During a break in our meetings, several other biologists and I went down to observe The Falls from an established viewing platform. While there we observed a large number of birders with top-end optics scanning back and forth across the Niagara Falls surface, apparently searching for a specific bird. Upon inquiring of their search objective, I was advised that they were looking for the rare California Gull!

Instructive from that event is that a bird out of its normal habitat becomes interesting and rare whereas otherwise, it is an everyday occurrence in its typical environment and inhabited geography. Case in point, the California Gull is Utah’s state bird and Utah has the largest breeding population of the species in the world. It is commonly associated with the western part of the United States and therefore when occurring at Niagara Falls, it is far out of place and becomes special, but not so much when seen in Morgan County.

Some migratory birds have an uncanny behavior of returning to the same nesting location each year. This nest site fidelity became apparent when I assisted a colleague with a study of returning Least Sandpipers and other shorebirds to the sub-arctic of Churchill, Manitoba. Least Sandpipers have been recorded in Morgan County.

Churchill is best known for its Polar Bear population, but is also a rich breeding site for many shorebirds. The breeding shorebird study area was defined by a set of physical makers. During this field season, 60 percent of the breeding shorebirds observed inside the study area had been marked with color bands in years previous. Some individuals were returning to the same hummock on the tundra to nest!

What adds to this spectacular behavior is that during the late summer, these birds migrate thousands of miles passing through Utah to winter in warmer climes. I have watched Least Sandpipers foraging around crocodiles in the coastal wetlands of Western Mexico. In the spring they will return to nest in the arctic regions of North America. The Great Gray Owl’s movements are less impressive unless it shows up in Mountain Green!

Eye-opening too many of us Morgan County residents living the in the Mountain Green area was the significant interest of many visitors to see the owl this winter. Literally hundreds of people showed up searching for it over the course of two months.

Birding is a much bigger deal than meets the casual eye.  In 2011, there were 47 million birdwatchers (birders), 16 years of age and older, in the United States – about 20 percent of the population, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Equally interesting were the responses of Mountain Green residents to these birders watching the owl in their neighborhood. An anecdotal observation was that many of our community residents were enamored by the birders and what they learned from these enthusiasts about the owl. A couple of residents went out of their way to assist birders in locating the owl on any given day.

What we as Morgan County residents can learn from this rare visitor and the bald eagles that show up each winter is that we have appropriate and significant habitats for these interesting birds. Morgan County is blessed to have a number of creeks and the Weber River coursing through the center of the county. These streams and rivers provide a significant riparian forest that is used by these birds. In addition, these riparian corridor trees provide colonial bird nest sites in various places along the river. The area has been attractive enough over the years to attract a few nesting pairs of osprey and American bald eagles. Oh! and as it relates to owls, there are now eight species known to occur in Morgan County.

 

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