Science in the Field: Tracking Utah's Tiny Owls - July 17, 2019 - Atlas Obscura Trips


Science in the Field: Tracking Utah's Tiny Owls

As darkness falls, hike into the forests of the Wasatch Mountains, ears perked for the low-pitched “boop” of the Flammulated Owl—a pocket-sized insectivore less than six inches tall with dark, searching eyes.

Led by an expert avian biologist, you'll experience one of the most secretive owl species in North America. At four different study locations near our home base in Ogden, Utah, we’ll be helping researchers find active Flammulated Owl nest sites, take final measurements of almost-fledglings, estimate insect prey abundance, and follow the calls of territorial males competing over food and forest resources. We may also be lucky enough to encounter other small owl species such as the Northern Saw-whet Owl, as well as northern flying squirrels. Efforts at tracking nesting owl pairs and their offspring help scientists understand resource needs in an ever-changing environment and shifting climate, and the information we gather during our four days together will add important data to the longterm study of this population.

This trip is best for people who are...

  • Curious to learn about the Flammulated Owl and contribute to field research.
  • Ready to hike 5 to 10 miles a day, including on steep forest trails and after dark.
  • Excited to see nature up close, while showing proper respect for animals and their habitats.
  • Eager to make the most of each day—when you’re checking on 35 nests in an afternoon, you’ve got to cover a lot of ground.

Hiking, bushwhacking, and the carrying of field equipment are required. Participants must be able to hike between 5 and 10 miles per day on sometimes steep and unmarked terrain. We will also be spending extended time in the forest after dark with headlamps and flashlights. Note that the days and locations outlined in this itinerary are only a guideline; our daily schedule will change depending on where researchers find nests earlier in the season.

This research expedition is limited to a small group of 8 participants. 


  • Owl Observations: Experience Flammulated Owls and possibly Northern Saw-whet Owls at nesting locations in northern Utah. There will also be chances to encounter red-tailed hawks, ruffed grouse, wild turkeys, mule deer, and even moose if we're lucky.
  • Field Research: While observing fledgling and adult owls up close, learn more about key techniques of wildlife handling and measuring. Aid in the deployment of insect traps, which help in measuring habitat quality, and familiarize yourself with the potential effects of climate change on breeding insectivorous birds.
  • Night Trapping: On at least one of these nights, observe male Flammulated Owls defend their territories, and watch how researchers trap the birds using mist nests.

Our owl expert and research guide

Dr. Markus Mika is an avian biologist with a background in ecology, evolution, and conservation. For his doctoral research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, he traveled between southern Mexico and British Columbia for five years investigating the evolutionary history of bird populations, specifically small owls, using genetic markers. He worked on the Northern Utah Flammulated Owl project during the summer field seasons between 1999 and 2002 for his MS degree. After finishing his Ph.D., he picked up the project again in 2011, and has been gathering longterm nesting data on Flammulated Owls ever since. He worked as Science Director at HawkWatch International,  leading raptor conservation and citizen science efforts across the western United States. Currently, he teaches in the Biology Department at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse.


Please email us at or call us at (646) 961-4857 with any questions about the itinerary, logistics, or payment. 

Tao Tao Holmes/Atlas Obscura
Day 1
Arrival & Welcome
  • Arrive and meet Markus Mika, your group leader and owl expert, either at the Salt Lake City Airport or at our home base in Ogden, Utah. If arriving by air, travelers should book flights arriving at SLC Airport by 4 p.m. We’ll be departing the airport for Ogden at 4:30 p.m. in our group's private vehicle (45-minute drive).
  • Arrive and settle into our spacious house for the next four nights, located in downtown historic Ogden. Feel free to relax in the spacious backyard, which features tables, a deck, and outdoor hot tub.
  • We’ll start getting to know our companions over an early dinner at the house. Afterwards, Markus will provide a short introduction to the project and our team’s goals for the rest of the week.
  • As darkness begins to fall, we’ll drive out to Maple Campground near Snowbasin Ski Resort for our first night’s initiation: a short owl call walk to start familiarizing ourselves with the sounds of forest owls.
  • We’ll return to our house for the night and rest up for the active, hands-on days ahead.
Tao Tao Holmes/Atlas Obscura
Day 2
Into the Forest

Note: The days and locations outlined in this itinerary are only a guideline; our daily schedule will change depending on where researchers find nests earlier in the season.

  • Enjoy breakfast at the house and pack a bag lunch for our upcoming day in the mountains. We'll drive out near the town of Mantua, Utah, where we’ll check for active nest sites in the aspen forest.
  • We’ll hike along trails and through thick vegetation to several nest sites, stopping for lunch in the forest. While out in the field, we'll aid Markus and his assistant in collecting scientific data on fledgling Flammulated Owls. 
  • After hiking back out, we’ll enjoy a relaxed dinner at a local restaurant in Brigham City before returning to our accommodations in downtown Ogden for the evening. (This evening's dinner is not included.)
Tao Tao Holmes/Atlas Obscura
Day 3
Owls and Insects
  • After a good night’s sleep, we can move a bit more slowly this morning and sit down for a hearty, homemade brunch. Afterwards, we’ll prepare dinners for the road—or in this case, the forest.
  • We’ll head to a small and more remote study location in Halfway Canyon to check more nests for breeding activity (one-hour drive). During the short hike to the nest locations, we can enjoy the diversity of butterflies often seen in this area in July.
  • Later, we’ll help deploy insect traps at select locations to measure habitat quality near active nest sites.
  • Afterwards, we’ll call for territorial males with the help of an MP3 player and speaker. Male owls respond to the playback of their call by moving closer, often flying right overhead in an effort to intimidate. While we're in Halfway Canyon, we'll potentially trap them in a mist net (up to 12 by five meters in size)—a bird-trapping method used by experienced ornithologists to trap a variety of avian species.
  • It will be a late return to our house after our nighttime work in the forest.
Tao Tao Holmes/Atlas Obscura
Day 4
Mist Nets After Dark
  • On our last survey day, we’ll set out after breakfast for the woods near Snowbasin Resort. In addition to hosting the Downhill and Super Giant Slalom events during the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, Snowbasin has been a key location for owl research.
  • Markus will talk about the history of the area, and we'll spend the morning around Maple Campground checking on active nest sites.
  • Afterwards, sit back and enjoy the beautiful scenery with a scrumptious bag lunch at the campground picnic area.
  • In the afternoon, we'll help deploy insect traps at select locations. These traps are a critical component in measuring habitat quality near active nest sites.
  • On our last evening, we’ll share a celebratory dinner at a local restaurant—and maybe even grab a beer at Utah’s oldest watering hole, the Shooting Star Saloon.
  • Before bed, we’ll go out on a final night survey to call for territorial males. We might potentially trap them in a mist net set up at Maple Campground.
  • Then it's back to Ogden for our last overnight.
Markus Mika
Day 5
Farewell & Departure
  • Today, we’ll pack up, eat breakfast, and depart from Ogden back to Salt Lake City Airport. If you arrived in your own vehicle, this is where we bid you adieu.
  • For those of us headed to the airport, we’ll be arriving by 10 a.m. You should plan your flights accordingly, though we’re happy to depart Ogden slightly earlier in the morning or arrange for private transport.
  • Until the next adventure!
The Fine Print


  • Four nights of lodging in double-accommodation rooms in a spacious, shared house. Single travelers should be prepared to share a room with another traveler of the same gender, depending on the composition of the group.
  • Daily breakfast and lunch (don't worry, we'll have tasty make-your-own lunch options).
  • Three dinners.
  • An expert avian biologist and his assistant.
  • Private transport throughout the trip, in a 12-passenger Sprinter.
  • A brand-new headlamp for our after-dark forest excursions.
  • Recommended reading materials, packing list, and pre-trip information packet.
  • A great group of fellow Atlas Obscura wildlife enthusiasts, excited to learn more about owl ecology and conservation.


This tour will be physically demanding. Participants should be able to hike between 5 to 10 miles per day, often in unmarked sections of the forest, and sometimes involving bushwhacking. You'll need sturdy hiking boots as well as protective clothing to prevent cuts and scratches to your arms and legs. We will also be spending extended time in the forest after dark with headlamps and flashlights.

Note that Ogden, Utah stands at 4,300 feet in elevation, and much of our field work takes place between 6,000 and 7,500 feet, which can make physical work more demanding. Altitude affects some more than others; if you are sensitive to altitude, we encourage you to arrive a day or two early to acclimate. 


This itinerary is subject to change. We expect to do everything listed in the itinerary, though the order may be rearranged based on weather and other local conditions.


You will be charged a $500 deposit to hold your space. This deposit is nonrefundable after three days. The trip will cost $1,655 (the $500 deposit plus $1,155 final payment) and will cover all fixed costs including accommodations, group transport, and meals and activities listed below.  The final payment of $1,155 will be due by April 30, 2019. All reservations will be final after these dates and subject to our cancellation policy. By submitting your deposit, you agree to the Terms & Conditions

As part of offering this trip, Atlas Obscura is dedicated to supporting owls and their habitat. We will be donating ten percent of trip proceeds to additional research through our friends at HawkWatch International.


  • If arriving by air, flights to and from Salt Lake City Airport (SLC). If arriving by vehicle, then transport to and from Ogden, Utah.
  • Travel insurance (recommended).
  • Additional meals and drinks outside of Atlas Obscura offerings, including one dinner and all alcoholic beverages.
  • If applicable, applying for a U.S. visa.


Please email us at or call us at (646) 961-4857 with any questions about the itinerary, logistics, and payment. 

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