As darkness falls, hike into the forests of the Wasatch Mountains, ears perked for the low-pitched “boop” of the Flammulated Owl—a pocket-sized insectivore less than six inches tall with dark, searching eyes. Led by an expert avian biologist, you'll experience one of the most secretive owl species in North America. At four different study locations near our home base in Ogden, Utah, we’ll be helping researchers find active Flammulated Owl nest sites, measure and band female birds, estimate insect prey abundance, and follow the calls of territorial males competing over food and forest resources. We may also be lucky enough to encounter other small owl species such as the Northern Saw-whet Owl, as well as northern flying squirrels. Efforts at tracking nesting owl pairs and their offspring help scientists understand resource needs in an ever-changing environment and shifting climate, and the information we gather during our four days together will add important data to the longterm study of this population.
This tour will be physically demanding. Participants should be able to hike between 5 to 10 miles per day, often on steep trails and in unmarked sections of the forest, and sometimes involving bushwhacking and the carrying of field equipment, such as ladders. You'll need sturdy hiking boots as well as protective clothing to prevent cuts and scratches to your arms and legs. We will also be spending extended time in the forest after dark with headlamps and flashlights.
Note that Ogden, Utah stands at 4,300 feet in elevation, and much of our field work takes place between 6,000 and 7,500 feet, which can make physical work more demanding. Altitude affects some more than others; if you are sensitive to altitude, we encourage you to arrive a day or two early to acclimate.
For the four nights of the trip, our group stays in a spacious house located in downtown historic Ogden with shared bathrooms, a large communal kitchen, and various lounge areas. The house also features a large backyard with tables, a deck, and an outdoor hot tub. Depending on the composition of the group, single travelers should be prepared to share a room with another traveler of the same gender.
If flying by air, travelers should book flights arriving at Salt Lake City Airport anytime before 4 p.m. on Wednesday, July 17 and departing after 11:30 a.m. on July 21. If you'll be driving to Ogden, you should plan to arrive by 5 p.m. on July 17 and leave after breakfast on July 21.
Yes—and it's an important aspect of the trip for us! We are dedicated to supporting owls and their habitat, and will be donating ten percent of trip proceeds to additional research through our friends at HawkWatch International. In 2018, we were able to make a research donation of $1,436, which will go directly into further study of the flammulated owl.
That's a very good question. There is no way of completely avoiding any disturbance on the birds when taking measurements for research. However, Markus keeps the stress to a minimum, firstly by avoiding the handling of the females during at least the first week after they establish their nests (which they do by laying eggs). After the initial first week, females appear to be quite committed to raising their young and the approach of trapping them in the box and returning them safely to the same location is not very intrusive. The birds realize that they are back on their eggs or later in the season with their young and since they usually don’t escape after the handling, it doesn’t cost them much extra energy. In addition, this work is approved by federal and state biologists who check Markus' study design and make sure it is within the accepted levels of intrusion at a nest site.
Yes—under the close supervision of Markus and his research assistant. You'll find that staring into the deep, dark eyes of a tiny flammulated owl is a very unique experience. It's incredible what these creatures manage to achieve, flying thousands of miles south each year and returning to Utah in the summer, often to the same exact nest boxes.