The other night, Thomas Kallmeyer and I spent the evening along the ridges above Wood’s Gulch near Missoula. The object of our birding quest was the enigmatic Flammulated Owl. Starting shortly after 10 o’clock, the first male began giving his territorial hoot with its distinctive double-tap intro. This first calling owl was high (<50 feet) above in a cluster of 10 or so ponderosa pines. I managed to catch the briefest of glimpses as it crossed the adjacent opening and took up hooting from another vantage point. We spent about half an hour listening to this male, when we detected a female hoot coming from the south about 50 meters. This chorus was soon joined by another more distant male. Around 11:20, we decided to head back down the trail, and after trudging in the dark for roughly 1 mile, we happened upon another male/female pair hooting above the trail. As moths congregated in the headlamp beams, I caught another flash of a small owl as it cut through the light and landing some 15 feet over our heads. Shining the headlamps through night, we caught the eyeshine of the one of them. Those small, dark eyes peering down at us as peered up at it. Not a fantastic look, but we got our visual on a terrific summer night on the pines.
These 5 tiny owls represent a significant portion of Montana’s population of Flammulated Owls, a population that was not truly acknowledged to be nesting in Montana until the 1986 when Flammulated Owls become regularly observed around Missoula and south in the Bitterroot Valley. Since then the owls have been detected in many of western counties that have large expanses of ponderosa pines. Yet, they have remained an enigma to many birders, due to their small size, nocturnal proclivities, and habit of remaining in the canopy of the forest.
Flammulated Owls are even difficult for academics and taxonomists. Now it has been suggested the Flammulated Owl belongs within its own monotypic genus, Psiloscops. But this is not the first taxonomic leap for the little owl.
When the Flammulated Owl was originally described to science, it was given the scientific name of Megascops flammeolus, which suggested that it was closely related to the New World Screech-owls. But then in 1910, the Flamm was moved into the genus Otus, the Old World Scops Owls. There it remained…until. Recently a paper has been published that suggests that the Flammulated Owl is not closely related to the other members of the Otus genus, but rather it related to the New World Megascops owls, but it is basal to that lineage in its own unique genus, Psiloscops. These findings were, once again, the result of molecular genetic analysis, and, more specifically, mitochondrial DNA. This all means that the Flammulated Owl shares a common ancestor with the Screech-owls, but it split from lineage in the distant. The Flammulated Owl is also a genetic enigma as well.