In February I had the opportunity to attend an Audubon Society meeting in Butte that featured a slide presentation by Mat Seidensticker on the owls of Montana.
Mat comes from a long-standing ranching family here in the Twin Bridges area, but his educational background and enthusiasm for owls has led him on a long journey away from this heritage.
As an admitted "owlaholic," he obtained a wildlife biology degree from the University of Montana. Under the renowned owl expert Denver Holt, Mat has even spent six summers of research on the Snowy Owl Project in the remote Arctic regions of Alaska.
Mat's excellent show was also accompanied by his skillful rendition of calls for each species found under the Big Sky. Of the 19 owls native to North America, we learned that 15 different species have been observed in Montana at one time or another.
Additionally, all but one of these species have been known to breed in the state. And since several of the owls require different types of habitats, these secretive creatures find much that appeals to them within our borders.
The group learned how to identify owls by sight and by sound. There are big ones, medium ones, and small ones too. Some have feathered tufts that looks like ears, others have rounded heads. Most owls are active only at night, hunting with a keen sense of hearing. There are a few species, however, that are active during the day. Although the best time to observe an owl would be while it is roosting during daylight hours, this can be very difficult because the cryptic coloration of every species allows them to blend almost invisibly into the background of their surroundings.
According to Mat, there is still much to learn about the owls in Montana, but studying them requires an extraordinary effort since they live such an obscure existence. Perhaps that's what makes this bird so appealing to those who are devoted to them.
We are lucky in Southwestern Montana. Our ranching community provides a rich and diverse habitat for many species of birds, owls included. From the river bottoms to the open meadows, ranchland provides the perfect corridor that links foothills, grasslands, and mountain forests over many square miles. It is this connective aspect of the sprawling ranches and the associated wide-open spaces that is extremely important to the wellbeing of all wildlife; but for wise old owls, this is particularly true.
Although Mat's path has strayed a long way from his traditional roots, I am certain he is proud of his family's legacy as stewards of the land which provides a safe haven for many of these special birds that fuel his great passion.