In the Presence of Owls

Decoding Northern Saw-whet Owl migration

Northern Saw-whet Owl

I stood in the parking lot of the Girl Scouts camp in the deep, dark night with an owl on my forearm, its huge, wide eyes blinking up at me from its perch. I was face-to-face with the unpredictability of a wild animal. Although the owl only stood seven inches tall and weighed about three ounces, the uncertainty and unfamiliarity of the situation made me nervous. It’s not everyday that I found myself waiting for an owl to fly off my arm. After many minutes, we called back to the master bird banders set up at our field station and asked what I should do. I was instructed to pump my arm slowly up and down, which should prompt the owl to fly. It worked! I watched the owl fly into the forest and silently wished it well.

How did I end up in this spot, you may wonder?

I met Sandy Lockerman at Hog Island Audubon Camp back in the summer of 2018. Sandy is a wonderfully kind woman who takes it upon herself to mentor young female birders. Her laugh is infectious and her knowledge knows no bounds. She is also very generous, as she allowed me to join her at her Northern Saw-whet Owl banding station in early November.

Sandy and me with one of our banded Northern Saw-whet Owls from that night.

I was so excited to stay with her and her husband Gary in Central Pennsylvania for the weekend. After I arrived, we caught up and headed to a local pizza place for dinner before driving over to the banding station.

On the drive, Sandy encouraged me to formulate my own research question so that one day I may lead my own banding station. Scott Weidensaul leads the Northern Saw-whet Owl (NSWO) study that Sandy is a prominent part of. Before they began their work, it was believed that NSWO did not migrate through Central Pennsylvania. Their migration had been poorly understand because NSWO are reclusive and highly nocturnal, so it had been difficult for biologists to learn more about them. After 23 years of banding over 10,000 owls, the team has determined that NSWO do in fact come through the ridges and valleys of Central Pennsylvania.

Sandy met Scott through Ned Smith and began “birding with purpose.” Sandy’s words stuck with me and inspired me to lead a life doing just that.

We drove through sunset to the Girl Scouts camp where we would set up shop.

Now that Scott, Sandy, and the rest of the team have established that NSWO definitely migrate through Central Pennsylvania, the focus of their research has shifted. There are a few reasons to continue banding NSWO:

  • Monitor long-term changes in population due to major threats like climate change
  • Track timing of migration in different age/sex groups
  • Study molt and other aspects of biological features of the birds
  • Train volunteers in bird-banding techniques
  • Use owls and owl banding to educate the public about wildlife conservation issues

So what exactly does the study entail? From about October 1 through November 20, Scott and his team set up constant-effort, mist-netting stations starting a half hour after sunset until at least 11 p.m. (weather permitting). Owl banding doesn’t occur if it is raining or too windy; it’s too dangerous for the birds.

We set up four 12-meter, 60 mm nets and placed an audiolure at the center of the net line. The audiolure continuously broadcasts a male NSWO toot call.

We checked the nets frequently and carefully removed owls that would fly into the nets, called in by the audiolure. We placed the owls in soft bags and brought them in from the woods to our banding station in one of the cabins.

Northern Saw-whet Owl waiting for its band.

All the owls we caught were banded and we also recorded data on the birds and the local conditions at the banding station like precipitation, cloud cover, temperature, and time. Here’s what you may find at a bird banding station:

The metal bands are placed on the birds’ leg. Each band has a unique number to identify the individual bird. There is a gigantic database of all these numbers and data points at the Bird Banding Lab through the U.S. Geological Survey. All bird banders receive their federal permits through USGS. Any master bander can request data from the Lab to help supplement their own studies.

Sometimes, banded birds are resighted, which gives biologists even more information about bird behavior, therefore informing better bird conservation strategies. For example, a hatch-year NSWO caught at our banding station was originally banded in Ontario, Canada! Another second-year female caught at our station was originally banded in Essex County, Vermont.

If a bird caught is already banded when they come into the mist net, we still bring them in and collect data points to learn even more information about them and see if anything has changed.

We collected information on the birds’ weight, wing length, age, and eye color, among others, like where in the net they came into. You can tell the sex of the bird through a ratio involving the length of it’s wing and it’s weight. Sandy explained that if we were to capture 100 NSWO, 99 will be females. Out of the 10,000+ they have banded, they have only seen about four or five adult males. The team is now focused on gaining more information to figure out why that is. Do adult males not leave their territories? Females definitely do, and it appears that young males also leave to find their own territories. Do all of the adult males stay in their breeding area near Ontario?

Sandy sees a lot of young birds because they migrate first. Adult NSWO come later because they already know where food is. NSWO live for about five-eight years out in the wild. One of the ways that Sandy can age the birds is by UV light! Hatch year birds’ feathers fluoresce magenta in a uniform fashion.

Hatch-year NSWO

When the study began 25 years ago, there was one banding station. Now, there are NSWO banding stations from the Appalachian Trail to Alabama.

Sandy explained that the peak for her station is usually around November 3, when she can anticipate banding 50-60 owls in one night! On nights like that, Sandy will alert her colleagues further South that the birds are coming to them soon.

With paint swatches in hand, Sandy also looked to categorize the eye color of the birds we banded. It is believed that the darker the eye, the older the bird. Sandy has not found much data to support that theory.

Sandy examining the eye color of this NSWO.

Once the birds are banded and the information is fully recorded, Sandy hands the birds off to be released back into the wild. We even delighted a few Girl Scouts who were camping by introducing them to a Northern Saw-whet Owl.

Excited Girl Scouts and Sandy with a NSWO.

Just when I thought my weekend couldn’t get any better, Sandy and Gary took me to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary the next day.  Hawk Mountain aims to “conserve birds of prey worldwide by providing leadership in raptor conservation science and education, and by maintaining Hawk Mountain Sanctuary as a model observation, research and education facility.” Hawk Mountain opened as a Sanctuary to the public in the 1930’s because of the efforts of an incredible woman named Rosalie Edge. At the time, the migrating hawks were shot down from the mountain for sport by the thousands. Ms. Edge fought the good fight to save the birds from persecution. If you haven’t been, I highly suggest a trip! Hawk Mountain is…

  • A scientific research center
  • An international conservation training site
  • A learning facility for all ages
  • An eco-tourism destination
  • A wildlife sanctuary open to the public year-round
  • The world’s largest member-supported raptor conservation organization
  • One of the best places in northeastern North America to view the annual autumn hawk migration
Hawk Mountain

Sandy and Gary have been volunteering at Hawk Mountain for over two decades. They excitedly told me how the staff and scientists of Hawk Mountain are “redefining what’s possible” for bird conservation. We watched Cooper’s Hawks, Common Ravens, Turkey Vultures, and Red-tailed Hawks fly over the golden-leafed trees.

I hiked with Gary, a deer hunter and Navy veteran, from the South Lookout to the North Lookout as we told stories and smelled the leaves. Gary explained the history of the Sanctuary and how they built the trails. We met some of the education staff, including a lovely and enthusiastic woman named Rachel, and the education raptors that the staff brings to school programs.

We ended the weekend talking about how there are “so many fantastic things” about the world. Who couldn’t agree more?

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