We love birds of every feather, and the rarity of some species and stateliness of owls seem to evoke an added sense of excitement. It’s so unusual to see these majestic creatures, that spotting one in the wild is such a treat!

As part of our stewardship of the land at Prospect Lake, we want to support species’ habitats and population growth. That’s why we’ve partnered with Habitat Acquisition Trust (HAT) to support HAT’s study of the current state of owl populations in our wooded areas — especially the Western Screech-Owl.

A Western Screech-owl sits in the hollow of an arbutus tree
A Western Screech-owl photographed on Salt Spring Island in 2021. Courtesy Ren Ferguson.

These birds need large areas of old forest, and typically nest in dead trees with good shrub cover to shelter their chicks from predators. Recently they’ve been pushed out of these habitats by a growing population of barred owls, which have moved west from other areas of Canada and the US over the last 50 years. Because of this, and other environmental factors, the Western Screech-Owl is listed as “threatened” under the Canadian Species at Risk Act.

As part of the assessment of the state of owl habitats in our area, Joanna Preston, a volunteer of HAT’s and a wildlife biologist, set up remote listening stations (using acoustic recorders called song meters) on our Prospect Lake property in 2019 that allowed researchers to identify species living nearby.

Over a period of three weeks, she found that there were four owl species living in or near our site: saw-whet, great horned, barred, and northern pygmy owls, but there were no recordings of Western Screech-Owls. There is still hope for them, though, as annual nocturnal owl surveys — conducted every March— did find that the species is in the area. Western Screech-Owl was heard again on this year’s owl survey along Prospect Lake Road not far from our property.

These studies are critically important, as Preston said that the “Western Screech-Owl has nearly disappeared from the Victoria region due to urban development which results in forest loss, fragmentation, predation by barred owls, likely other predators, increased roads through habitat, increased disturbance, and possibly competition with introduced species such as grey squirrels for nest sites”

Preston also completed an assessment of our forested area in which she was looking for habitat that could support a pair of Western Screech-Owls but lacked a suitable nest site. That assessment found that our site has a mix of both riparian forest, where this species is traditionally found, and arbutus and Douglas-fir forest on mid to upper slopes, where these owls are more commonly found today in our area.

As Preston notes, “The purpose of habitat assessments is to identify areas that could support a pair of Western Screech-Owls (e.g., forest habitat with suitable attributes of breeding habitat) but that lacks suitable nest sites (e.g., snags with cavities).”

When an area such as our Prospect Lake site is identified, HAT then has the opportunity to install nesting boxes specifically designed for Western Screech-Owls, in an effort to revitalize the population. HAT has already installed over 100 such boxes around the Greater Victoria Region, and three have been used by Western Screech-Owls.

We’re excited to support this initiative and hope to incorporate our volunteers and participants into future work studying and supporting the owl population and many other species at our Prospect Lake site. We are grateful to wonderful organizations like HAT to partner with on conservation and stewardship initiatives.