May 21st, 2014
Hawks Aloft biologist Mike Fugagli warned us about this particularly elusive Mexican Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis lucida). With hundreds of hours of experience monitoring this species, he so far had been unable to locate the day roost of this male. Nearing what he thought to be the probable nest area, we found whitewash and a small gray owl pellet in a shady grove beneath a spreading oak. All the while, a pair of large black eyes watched the ten of us from above. Formal monitoring protocol calls for offering live mice to the male owl. His response determines the pair’s nesting activity. This fellow was not slow to respond, snagging the first mouse and delivering it to the nest in the cavity of a massive Gambel’s oak. Two more followed in quick succession, confirmation that this pair had already hatched young. Our work done, we departed the Pinos Altos range of the Gila National Forest for Albuquerque around noon on Sunday, May 11, 2014, pleased that things had gone so well.
Mexican Spotted Owls are particularly confiding, allowing close approach by humans, one of the many threats to the species. It was listed as a threatened subspecies by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in 1993 with an estimated population of 777-1554 individuals (1995), due primarily to habitat loss due to timber harvest and the risk of catastrophic fire. The greater Gila region supports more than 50% of the known population of Mexican Spotted Owls, including all distinct genotypes within the subspecies. The Gila also serves as a demographic crossroads and source population making it particularly important to the long-term viability of the subspecies range-wide.
Of the 15 historically occupied Mexican Spotted Owl sites known in the Silver City Ranger District of the Gila National Forest, Hawks Aloft is monitoring six this year, all with currently active nests. The Pinos Altos range, affected by the still-burning Signal Fire, contains the majority of those birds. In 2012, Hawks Aloft monitored 12 owl territories in the Pinos Altos range and found 11 to be occupied, with seven of those sites containing confirmed pairs, an unexpected result as previous studies reported a substantial decline in the greater Gila region between 1990 and 2005. However, only one pair successfully produced young in 2012, probably due to drought and its negative effects on the species’ prey base.
The 2014 monitoring season began in late March when the owls initiated nesting activities. When the Signal Fire started on Mother’s Day, the 30 day incubation period had just ended with most pairs just starting to feed newly hatched owlets. Although only three PACs (Protected Activity Centers) so far have been directly impacted by the now nearly-5700 acre, human-caused blaze, all the birds inhabiting the tinder-dry forests of the American southwest remain threatened. With Stage 1 restrictions in place, all it can take is one careless person to ignite a fire on the windiest day this spring, a wildfire that potentially could have impacted Mexican Spotted Owl breeding productivity. The Forest Service and fire crews were atop this fire almost immediately and the weather cooperated the following days. We thank all of those who work so hard to protect critical habitat for one medium-sized owl and all the other animals that share the forest.