Two Alumni Partner to Harness Citizen Science for Owl Research Project

by Karl Wirsing/SEFS

A little more than three years ago, two of our alumni, Stan Rullman (’12, Ph.D.) and Dave Oleyar (’11, Ph.D.)—both of whom worked with Professor John Marzluff—started new roles at two different organizations. Stan accepted a position as research director for the Earthwatch Institute in Boston, Mass., and Dave was hired as senior scientist for HawkWatch International, a Salt Lake City-based nonprofit dedicated to the conservation of birds of prey and their habitats. Working closely together while at SEFS, Stan and Dave always hoped they’d get a chance to collaborate professionally on a raptor project somewhere, and last year they found the perfect partnership for their two organizations: a research project in Utah and Arizona to study the ecology of small forest owls.

Dave Oleyar banding a nestling northern saw-whet owl. Before he came to SEFS, he completed a master’s at Boise State University studying how ski area development for the 2002 Winter Olympics affected the breeding ecology of flammulated owls in northern Utah.

“Despite owls being as culturally popular as they are at the moment,” says Dave, “there are still quite a few knowledge gaps on the breeding ecology and habitat relationships of many small owl species.”

So the project he’s leading aims to document and better understand how populations of small resident and migratory owl species are influenced by climate change and different forest types in western North America—specifically, in the Chiricahua Mountains of southeast Arizona, and the Wasatch mountains in northern Utah. His study species include flammulated owls, northern saw-whet owls, northern pygmy owls and western screech-owls at both research sites, as well as southwestern-specialty elf owls and whiskered screech-owls in Arizona—all of which are usually only five to six inches tall. In all, the Arizona site hosts 12 of North America’s 19 native owl species, making it one of the richest owl hotspots in the world.

The other half of this research involves learning more about the tree cavities, or hollows, these owls depend on for roosting and nesting. “I’m excited about filling in some of those black holes or knowledge gaps about the ecology of these small owl species, and also the contribution of looking at tree cavities as a study ‘organism’ in and of themselves,” says Dave.

Yet surveying for small owls and tree cavities across two mountainous forest areas is intensive work, requiring a lot of time on the ground, eyes on the trees and ears in the night, and that’s how Stan and Earthwatch got involved.

Stan Rullman with a flammulated owl. In addition to being cavity nesters, flammulated owls are migratory and primarily insectivorous, characteristics that could render the species particularly sensitive to forest management and climate change impacts.

Founded in 1971, the Earthwatch Institute specializes in supporting “field research expeditions” that enable volunteers of all ages and backgrounds to work as citizen scientists on research projects around the world. They partner with scientists on important studies and then recruit volunteers to help with data collection in the field. Volunteers commit to one or two weeks at a time and pay their own way to participate, with the majority of fees going to cover the equipment costs in the field, accommodations and food (as Earthwatch is a nonprofit, those contributions to support the research are tax deductible). Right now, Earthwatch has about 60 active projects around the globe, with more than 1,000 volunteers participating in the field every year.

Partnering for the first field season of this owl project last summer, Earthwatch recruited a total of 56 volunteers—ranging in ages from 15 to 83—to take part in six expeditions at sites in Arizona and Utah. Two of the groups came from high schools in Los Angeles through a program called Ignite; other volunteers ranged from a retired NASA scientist to agency biologists, science teachers and even people who had never spent 10 minutes off a trail. “One thing a lot of these folks have in common is that they want a vacation where they’re immersed in something that isn’t just sitting on the beach or jet skiing,” says Dave. “They want an experience. They do this and feel like they’re contributing to important scientific research, and they are.”

Fledgling northern pygmy owl.

From May to July, these citizen scientists helped search for and map tree cavities; survey for, trap and band adult owls; monitor owl nests found in cavities; and measure vegetation around the cavities. They gathered more owl and cavity data than expected the first season, in fact, and spaces are already filling for eight expeditions this coming summer, along with eight more in 2018.

That continuity has Dave excited for the long-term potential of this study. On average, Earthwatch is able to support projects for around seven years, so Dave plans to conduct these surveys multiple times to get a strong estimate of productivity for each owl species and the different forest types they use, ranging from high-elevation sky islands to riparian canyon forests and old-growth aspen, among others. He’ll also start developing a clearer picture of how frequently the same owl individuals are encountered over the years, and how the timing of these events is shifting in response to climate change.

For Stan, the broader scientific impact of these expeditions is hugely important. Earthwatch volunteers have contributed data to more than 2,000 peer-reviewed publications, and the projects often directly influence management plans at all scales, from local park or species up to national and international-level policy decisions. “As a scientist,” he says, “I’m passionate about being able to use this model at Earthwatch to support scientific research that is rigorous, relevant and impactful. With more than 45 years of supporting researchers through this model, we’ve got an amazing track record of scientific and policy impacts in very diverse areas of science.”

Volunteers checking a tree cavity with a camera on a pole.

Stan also loves seeing the changes in volunteers after an expedition. “The experience they have in the field when they’re with someone like Dave, lifting a camera and poking it in a hole 20 feet up in a tree, and suddenly they can see a little face looking back at them—I bet they never look at tree cavities the same way,” he says. “The transformation of that experience gets them better connected to the world around them, and hopefully gets them better connected to those policies, decision makers and other stakeholders who are influencing that species and landscape.”

The same feeling drives Dave, as well. “I know I’ve done my job when multiple people yell out that we have to stop to take a look at a hole in a tree as we’re driving down the road—and it happens each trip. They’ve been reprogrammed to think about tree cavities as an important habitat feature, and they’re leaving with a little bit better picture of forest systems and the different owls that live in them. Conservation is 30 to 40 percent science, and the rest is a conversation you have with people to get them to buy into the science and why it matters. That’s just as important as the data we’re collecting.”

Want to Get Involved?
Earthwatch expeditions are open to people of all interests and backgrounds (ages 15 and up), and they can be terrific opportunities for undergraduate students, for instance, to gain valuable field research experience. If you’d like to learn more about upcoming owl research opportunities with Dave and his team—or other projects around the country—feel free to contact Stan anytime, and also check out either the HawkWatch International or Earthwatch website. Similarly, scientists interested in partnering with Earthwatch can be added to the annual RFP announcement list by sending an email to

Photos © Stan Rullman and Dave Oleyar.

Professor John Marzluff (left) and his lab several years ago, including Stan (second from left) and Dave (second from right). “I thinks it’s wonderful that Stan and Dave are working together,” says John. “Their collaboration shows how important connections made during grad school are to our future professional endeavors, and in this particular case they highlight the attainment of our program’s goal to promote joint problem solving. Learning to work together as grad students kindled a love of collaborative research that both Stan and Dave are now in position to capitalize on. I couldn’t be prouder.”



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