Owls of Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge
by Bob Christensen
Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge provides diverse habitats for several owl species. Those which regularly nest on the refuge are: the barn owl, western screech-owl, great horned owl, and long-eared owl. Other species which are more rarely observed include: the flammulated owl, snowy owl, northern pygmy-owl, burrowing owl, barred owl, short-eared owl, and northern saw-whet owl (information taken from Birds of Deer Flat NWR).
Because of their nocturnal nature, owls are less often observed on the refuge than many other bird species. However, they can be found if one takes the time to explore the refuge…especially the cottonwood woodlands along the edge of Lake Lowell and on the Snake River island sector of the refuge. I have observed all four of the owl species that nest on the refuge while participating in refuge wildlife programs.
My first sighting of a great horned owl (GHO) on the refuge was while hiking through the woods on my way to inspect the bald eagle nest on the east side of Lake Lowell. As is my habit, I stopped along the trek to glass (by aid of binoculars and spotting scope) a stick nest in a tall thin cottonwood tree. Much to my delight I readily saw two large feathered ears poking above the nest and a GHO’s large yellow eyes staring back at me. On another occasion, I was poking around the trees at the refuge maintenance/residence area, looking for raptor nests, when I spied a large opening in one of the ancient cottonwoods in front of the stone house. I thought I could see a large bird back in the dark hole, so I quickly set up my spotting scope. And there again, was a large GHO glaring me…what a look she gave me!
Barn owls on the refuge are commonly encountered early each spring while cleaning out the wood duck boxes. Some years we have found just a few and other years many barn owls have been roosting in the boxes. On another occasion my granddaughter, Anna, and I were helping with a goose nest survey on Silo Island when we happened upon an old wood duck box that had fallen part way out of the tree. It was only accessible through a small triangular opening. However, upon close inspection we could make out the outline and light golden plumage of a sleeping barn owl in the dark recesses of the box.
Some years back, Jim Holcomb and I were helping with the goose nest surveys on the islands, and on one particular island was a nesting colony of herons. Their nests were up high in the tops of the cottonwoods. While watching these remarkable birds and their nesting behavior, we soon spotted something that didn’t quite fit in. There in the middle of the colony of heron nests was a long-eared owl in its own nest….its long ears poking into the sky…and not the least disturbed by its noisy neighbors.
And last, and least in size, I have had several opportunities to witness a sleepy-eyed screech owl. The first occasion was while helping with the construction of “The Coop,” the bird observation blind located just southeast of the visitor center. Not far from the activities was a wood duck box mounted on the side of a cottonwood tree. Every once in awhile, a small owl would stick his head out of the hole and examine our work. Of course, it was a western screech owl. Also, on many occasions during spring cleaning of the wood duck boxes I have had close encounters with screech owls. Some are lethargic and refuse to move from their comfortable roosts inside the boxes, while others skedaddle at the first hint of an invader. But each time we carefully close the boxes and leave them in peace.