A very important part of the culture of Power To Be is our relationship with the natural environments we are so fortunate to work, learn, and play in. And an important part of that relationship is how we honour and care for the environment and the other creatures we share it with, how we give a little something back to what fuels and sustains us.
At the end of fall 2021, youth from the Wilderness School were offered an opportunity to help us give a little back, and jumped at the chance with great interest and excitement. Working alongside wildlife biologist and Power To Be volunteer Joanna Preston, Power To Be has developed a project to help track the habitat and lifecycles of the Western Screech owl, a “threatened” species at risk that has traditionally called the mixed riparian and fir/arbutus forest of the Prospect Lake-area home. We are continuing a multi-year project with the purpose of increasing the nesting sites for the Western Screech Owl, while also providing a chance for our Wilderness School youth to learn about some of the fauna of the area, as well as contribute to an important ecological study in the field of wildlife conservation.
In the spring of 2021, Joanna paid our site a visit to determine the various species of owls that call Prospect Lake home, including whether the Western Screech Owl still lived in the area. Over 3 weeks, using remote listening stations, Joanna was able to determine that though the environment of our site held much of the prime habitat the Screech Owl preferred, it lacked enough suitable nesting sites for the birds. This may be the key reason none were recorded during this survey, though they have been recorded during other surveys not far from our site. Our site has a mix of both riparian forests, where this species is traditionally found, and arbutus and Douglas-fir forest, where these owls are more commonly found today, but was missing the bigger snags and trees with large cavities in them where the owls like to build their nests. And the suitable nesting sites that did exist were typically being outcompeted for by other birds.
Enter: The Wilderness School! Understanding that the likelihood of a return to the area for the Western Screech Owl would be slim without suitable homes, Joanna came to us with a project – build those homes! On an overcast Saturday in late November, a group of youth and a few program facilitators turned the gear barn into a wood shop. With the sound of hammers pounding and saws buzzing, mixing with the excited chatter of friends putting in work for an important cause, the morning was spent assembling slightly oversized bird houses for our (hopefully) soon the be neighbours.
One neat fact learned was how small the Western Screech Owl is; with a name like that many of us were picturing a bird the size of a bald eagle or turkey vulture… but instead stands no taller than 25 centimetres! That’s barely 10 inches! To help keep that in perspective we drew an “owls for scale” chart – the only owl smaller that lives in the area is the pygmy owl, only a few centimetres shorter.
Once assembled the crew took to the forest on foot and with boxes in-hand, lead by our intrepid volunteer/biologist Joanna, to scout the right locations to hang the boxes. As we hike the trails we are educated on the lifecycle of the owls; how they begin selecting their nesting sites in the early spring, and what key factors go into making a nesting area attractive. A hallow that’s big enough to house the Western Screech Owl and its brood without being big enough to draw competition from other larger birds looking for homes. There is also a sweet spot for locations where the boxes should be – close enough to the open riparian zones for easy hunting, while not being too much in the open to avoid the larger birds that prey upon the Screech Owl itself. Once a tree fitting these criteria was selected, it was time to break out the ladder and mount them. Built with a removable front, the boxes were designed with the task of cleaning and assessing in mind: after the owls are done with the boxes for the season, we will clean out all of the old wood shavings we have used as stuffing, check the condition of the box, and then prepare it to hopefully host another family the next season. This is a multi-year project that we hope will have a positive impact on the owls for generations to come.
With the boxes hung, this phase of our Western Screech Owl study is complete, and now we wait with anticipation for the next to begin. Starting in February and continuing until mid-March, Joanna will pay our site several more visits, this time in an attempt to attract some new winged neighbours to their new homes. Using recorded vocalizations, we will broadcast the sounds of the Western Screech Owl out over the Prospect Lake area at dusk, which is a very active time for the birds. And then later in the year there will be more assessments to see how successful our project has been.
Being able to be a part of and contribute to important ecological work such as this is a beautiful way in which we can honour the lands and waters we are so fortunate to dwell on. They physical connection that is fostered with the environment when we can get our hands in the dirt, and our feet on the trail, is a key factor in our own well being. And when we can combine all of those things into a wonderful day spent together, the mission of Power To Be comes to life.