Lefty is a barred owl (Strix varia), which is a species of special concern1 in Alberta. While barred owls are found throughout the province, from the boreal forest to the foothills and Rocky Mountains, they are of particular interest in the Oil Sands region. “These owls are more sensitive to human disturbance,” explains wildlife monitoring technician Hanna Neufeld. “They like to nest in old growth forests with big, old trees.” Hanna and her colleagues, Simon Slater, Scott Donker and Agnieszka Sztaba, work with Lefty to learn more about the habitat of barred owls in the Oil Sands region.
“The goal of this research program is to gather as much data as possible on the habitat of the barred owl in order to create a model that more accurately shows where they are living,” says Hanna. This model, when put in the hands industry, policy-makers and regulators, will lead to better decisions when it comes to protecting the habitat of barred owls (and other old growth forest species) in the region.
Hanna’s research into barred owls began in 2014. From Fort Hills in the north east to Heart River in the north west, Hanna and the team scour the forests searching for barred owls. The method for locating them is relatively straightforward, it involves playing a recording of barred owl calls and waiting for a return call to come from the forest. As highly territorial animals, the barred owls cannot resist letting the competition know they are there.
After mapping out locations where such callbacks were observed, the next step is to go back and catch owls. At first, a simple mouse on a string proved tempting enough to entice the owls out of hiding and the team caught 12 barred owls over the course of the spring breeding season. However, after the breeding season when more food is available other capture methods need to be used.
Enter Lefty. Lefty earned his name under rather tragic circumstances, having been found with a damaged right wing. The wing proved to be unsalvageable, and Lefty was moved to an owl rehab center. When the mouse traps stopped working, Grande Prairie-based biologist Mike Russell suggested an owl like Lefty might be up to the task.
Now, Lefty has found a second calling as part of the Barred Owl Research Team. His position is that of live lure owl. “He is very safe,” says Hanna, who describes how they set up their traps. “Lefty sits in the middle of a triangular mist net about 12 feet high,” she explains, “We play the recorded callback and when the owls swoop in to attack they are caught in the net.” She adds, “We make sure to take them out right away.”
Once caught, the team quickly take measurements that help to understand the overall health of the owls. Anything from the length of the owl’s wing, to the age of its feathers, to blood samples that check for parasites is useful information. Most importantly, the owls are equipped with GPS backpacks to track their movements once they are released.
Understanding the barred owl’s movements is integral to the program. “The GPS backpack uploads data2 wirelessly every three days,” explains Hanna, “this is something new. There is not a lot of research into where barred owls actually are.” As the data starts to come in, Lefty will be off-duty as the rest of the team works to build a habitat model for barred owls in the Oil Sands region – and maybe he will even get a mouse or two as a reward for a job well done.
1.Alberta’s Endangered Species Conservation Committee (ESCC) identified the barred owl as a Species of Special Concern—a species that without human intervention may soon become threatened with extinction
2 The data collected under this project is currently available on FWMIS