How to Find Owls: A Crash Course in Montana

An amateur birder learns how to locate owls, using scientific techniques. 

On an otherwise warm April day in Montana, I was wrapped in the cool, damp shroud of an aspen grove. Compton tortoiseshell butterflies danced in midair around me, and woodpeckers whinnied and drummed in the distance. Montana had endured a winter rocked by record snow, and now the season was changing before my eyes. While on any normal day this lively spectacle would have impressed me, today I was fixated on finding any aspen tree with a woodpecker hole, searching for my holy grail: a northern saw-whet owl.

I was participating in the Montana Owl Workshop, a multi-day crash course on finding, identifying, and monitoring owls, offered by Wild Planet Nature Tours. The “knock and scrape” technique I was using was one of 10 scientific methods I had learned from workshop leader Denver Holt, a researcher at the Owl Research Institute (ORI). He’s been studying owl ecology in Montana for more than a generation—and there’s no better place to look for such fascinating birds of prey than Big Sky country, which boasts one of the largest numbers of breeding owl species in the United States. Fifteen species occur here; 14 of them breed here, including boreal, burrowing, northern hawk, and great gray owls.

Holt started the Montana Owl Workshop as a way to get more citizens involved in bird conservation, teaching participants the techniques that the ORI’s team of biologists employs in its long-term owl research. “We’ve done a really good job of educating young kids about the environment and focusing on the next generation, but adults have been left behind when it comes to outdoor environmental education,” Holt says. “We need to take the next step with adults, who have the time, the resources, and the voting power to make a positive change on environmental issues. A more informed public will be able to make more conservation-minded decisions.”

On the day we searched for saw-whets, our small group of seven bird enthusiasts had split off into teams and fanned out into the woods around the town of Charlo, about 60 miles from Missoula. Determined to be the first to find an owl, my partner, Chris, and I navigated tangled underbrush and climbed over felled trees, ankle-deep in thawed, moist soil, and knocking and scraping the bark of dozens of trees. The technique requires at least two people. One uses a hardy stick to first rap on the trunk of a tree five times in succession, then immediately scrape five times. The other person watches the holes for movement.

After several unsuccessful hours, the other members of the group headed to the van. Chris and I took our time returning, knocking and scraping a few more trees along the way. Upon investigating a final trunk, our patience finally paid off: a female northern-saw whet peered out at us. Jackpot!I tried to contain myself but couldn’t help jumping up and down, giddy with delight. The others joined us to take pictures, and the saw-whet mother watched us with as much interest as we looked at her. Then, in a flash, she was gone. As Chris and I high-fived, we were rewarded with Holt’s simple praise: “Good spot.” This was just one of several “experiences of a lifetime” that we enjoyed, thanks to our charismatic guide.

Besides knocking and scraping at aspen, the other scientific techniques we learned and tested included, among others, dragging a rope, using mist nets, and checking nest boxes (for more on these and other techniques, see below). Holt was careful to point out, however, that such methods should be used only sparingly, and specifically in locating and monitoring owls for research purposes. “Owls should not be disturbed during nesting periods,” he says.  

Using these field methods, we observed four species of owls in addition to the northern saw-whet: northern pygmy, short-eared, great horned, and long-eared. The nests we discovered were documented as part of ORI’s ongoing research. The memories stayed with us. “Denver made us think about how a bird behaves, where it lives,” workshop participant Suzie Gauss, a retiree from Scottsdale, Arizona, told me. “I do look at my entire environment differently now.”

A year later, as Holt's workshop is again underway, I still find myself thinking about this trip. One thing’s for sure—I will never look at a tree snag the same way again. 

For more more information about Denver Holt’s Montana Owl Workshop, including when next year’s program will take place, visit Wild Planet Nature Tours. To learn more about Denver’s research and ways to support the Owl Research Institute, visit

Owl Identification and Monitoring Techniques  

Some of the techniques described below should be used only by scientists and only for research purposes. They are to be employed sparingly to locate nests for monitoring purposes. Owls should not be disturbed during nesting periods.

1. Passive/active

Elicit a verbal response by mimicking a specific song or playing a song on a portable device. Owl songs can be divided into “hoots, toots, and trills,” with large owls hooting (low pitch with a lot of bass), small owls tooting (higher pitched), and certain species trilling (screech owls), with a few exceptions. Owl species: all

2. Look into stick nests

Large abandoned or older stick nests—often made by crows, ravens, magpies, or hawks—provide ideal owl nesting habitat. Owl species: long-eared, great horned, and great gray owls

3. Check for white wash and pellets

Look at the base of trees for white staining. Do a closer inspection at these same trees for owl pellets, which are lumps of hair, bone, and sediment regurgitated by owls. Owl species: all

4. Drag a rope

This is a commonly used research technique to flush secretive grassland birds like short eared-owls and find their nests. Two people drag a long rope (or chain) along the ground. Owls will flush when individuals are within 15 feet and can carefully inspect the area the bird was in for a nest. Owl species: short-eared

5. Knock and scrape trees

Some species of owls nest in snags or abandoned woodpecker holes. Find a large stick and tap the tree five times, then immediately scrape the tree five times in succession. Certain owls, including the northern saw-whet, will peer out right away. Other cavity-nesting owls like northern pygmy and screech owls will not look out and require the “Use a Camera” technique. Owl species: northern saw-whet and boreal owls 

6. Use mist nests

Owls can be flushed into specially designed nets or a person can use calls to attract an owl into a net. This technique is commonly used in research and migration studies. Owl species: all

7. Observe fence posts and tree stumps

Unlike other birds of prey that prefer to perch high, some owls prefer to perch low on fence posts or on tree stumps. Look in the early morning and early evening, when owls are apt to be hunting. Owl species: great gray and short-eared owls

8. Check nest boxes during breeding season

If a researcher knows where a nest box is located, she can employ the same knock-and-scrape technique described above on the tree the nest box is attached to. Owl species: boreal and northern saw-whet owls

9. Use a camera

An extended videocamera, like the Sandpiper Technologies Peeper, allows researchers to observe bird activities in high, hard-to-reach places. Owl species: northern pygmy, boreal, western screech, and eastern screech owls

10. Read about owls

The more you can think like an owl, the better your chances of looking in the right place at the right time. Owl species: all

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