Monday, December 22, 2008

The more we know, the less we know

Well, it was an eventful night Saturday, but not the way we'd expected. And an even more eventful Sunday morning.

Saturday afternoon, research tech Anna Fasoli checked on our beeping owls, and found them more or less where she'd expected - Maria and Lexi high up in King's Gap Hollow, and Gemini down along Tom's Run north of Pine Grove Furnace State Park, where she'd been all week.

At dusk, Anna, intern Drew Weber, volunteers Carl and Pat Leinbach and I met at King's Gap Park, aiming to triangulate either Lexi or Maria - and perhaps both, if they were cooperative to both stay in the hollow. But shortly after we split up and began hiking through the ice-encrusted woods, Lexi moved off to the west until her signal disappeared, while Maria moved downslope, shifting back and forth across the firebreak trail for an hour or so, sometimes very close.

And then she, too, headed southwest -- a flashback moment, since this was eerily like the night in November that both Quasi and Sacagawea moved out on us, right down to the massive movement of waterfowl overhead (huge flocks of Canada geese this time, instead of the tundra swans in November).

We headed back to the vehicles, and began what turned into an increasingly frustrating search. While Anna and Drew located Lexi somewhere high in Irishtown Gap Hollow (across private land with no easy access), Maria was gone - and when I checked on Gemini, I couldn't pick up her signal, either, not from high on Ridge Road or from the end of Old Carlisle Road, just a quarter-mile from her roost.

We split up again. Through the course of the evening we covered east along Cold Springs Road and almost to Mt. Holly Springs, and then paralleled each other south as far as Rt. 30 in Franklin County, running the ridges and coming up the valleys.

Nothing. By 11 p.m., with freezing drizzle starting, it was clear at least two of our birds had flown the coop.

Except that Sunday, Anna stunned me with a lunchtime call to say that she'd found all three owls, more or less where they'd been the day before.

What happened? Danged if I know. It's possible that the heavy ice cover on the vegetation had blocked the signals, but earlier on Saturday, Anna had picked up Gemini's beep from the same places where I tried that night with no success.

Saw-whets...a mystery wrapped in an enigma swathed in a riddle. The latest news from Anna is that Lexi was roosting yesterday in a tree that Morticia had used several times last month, another example from this season of different owls using the same roost - even though the pitch pines they pick look, to human eyes, exactly like every other pitch pine in the surrounding forest. We have more questions than answers, which is always fun for researchers.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Tracking back in gear!

It was a wet and soggy day in Michaux State Forest yesterday, the kind of day that makes you really appreciate your rain gear, although, it wasn’t exactly raining. A snow storm dumped around 6 inches of heavy wet snow on the ground Tuesday night, and the warmer temperatures Wednesday morning resulted in the woods turning into a soggy mess as the snow melted. I tracked down Gemini to a tree less than 20 feet away from the tree it (remember, Gemini is an “unknown”) used the previous day. On both occasions, I could not get a visual on it, as the owl was at least 40 feet up in the dense white pines. Today, it was in another nearby white pine. At first, I could not see the owl in the dense branches, but as I stepped back about 20 feet to take a reading on my clinometer (an instrument used to measure the height of trees), I saw the classic “fuzzball” shape about 50 feet up in the branches.

Scott and Aura spent their time yesterday searching for Lexi and Maria. Lexi has been in the dense mountain laurel patch that Andy and Quasi spent much time at. Maria has been a little more challenging to pinpoint, but is somewhere near the Buck Ridge slope, possibly close to where Autumn used to roost. Aura is out again today trying to locate her, because she can’t hide forever with a transmitter on her back!

This weekend will bring more unwelcomed winter weather to the area, so we may have to postpone our night-telemetry. We are confident our owls will stick around, though, since they appear to be wintering here.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Spending half the night in the woods, in the rain, may not sound like a lot of fun to you. Let me explain why you're wrong.

Last night, I met research tech Anna Fasoli at dusk to track one of the owls we'd radio-tagged the night before. A short while earlier, she'd found two of the birds, Lexi and Maria, which had been netted in Cold Springs Hollow, over the top of the ridge and in that veritable Hilton for saw-whets, the upper portion of King's Gap Hollow, where the majority of our tagged owls have roosted this season.

Gemini, on the other hand, had been caught off Ridge Road west of Rt. 233, and earlier in the day, research intern Drew Weber had traced its signal (we don't know this owl's gender) to a dense pine forest about a mile south of its capture location, but he couldn't get a visual on it before he had to leave.

Anna and I took a look at the thickening clouds and spitty rain and decided to focus on Gemini, figuring we could spread out along Ridge Road and track its movements in the valley below (radio-trackers, like soldiers, prefer the high ground). That way, when the heavy rain came we could shelter in our cars between taking our every-10-minute bearings.

We got Gemini's signal nice and strong at first, but with the wind gusting the signal seemed to be moving a lot, fading in and out, so an hour after dark, I decided to loop around to the south and see if there was a way to get closer. Unfortunately, as soon as I dropped off the ridge, I lost the signal. I stopped several times, but got nothing, moving closer and closer to where Drew had found the probable roost site; Still nothing. I radioed Anna, though, who was still picking up a nice, strong beep; she suggested the dense forest might be blocking the transmission.

Finally, I drove back a narrow, muddy track through the state forest that after half a mile passed a lonely cabin and got even worse. I parked; the rain was coming down hard, so I slipped the receiver into a Ziploc bag to keep it dry. This time, Gemini's signal was booming, but I was getting suspicious; this was exactly where Drew had found the signal during the day, and I began to wonder if the squirrely readings were because the owl had picked off the harness and dropped the radio.

I began working my way through the very thick forest - lots of young, dense white pines with an overstory of immense pines and oaks, through which ran Tom's Run, a gorgeous stream. The signal seemed to be moving all over the place, bounced by the trees, very strong but hard to localize. I was increasingly convinced I was looking for a dropped transmitter, not an owl, and radioed periodic updates to Anna, half a mile north of me on the ridge.

Finally, rain dripping off my hood, I zeroed in on one patch of thick pines, zigzagging back and forth, sweeping the antenna along the ground, wondering how I'd spot the radio in this drenched, reflective world.

Then I looked up, right into Gemini's eyes.

The owl was perched at eye level with me, less than five feet away, the antenna sticking out behind it, the bird standing as tall and erect as possible, trying to look like a stick. I looked away for a second, and that fast it was gone.

"I just found the radio," I told Anna, "and it flew away."

So Anna raced down to join me, and for the next two and a half hours, we sat quietly in the dark along the path a couple hundred yards apart, taking very precise bearings as Gemini moved through the woods around us. The rain stopped and the wind hadn't yet started again, and it was really quite pleasant, although the temperature dropped steadily.

At one point, the signal strength increased dramatically, and I whispered into my radio, "It's right here" -- just as Gemini let loose with one of those eerie saw-whet wails, not 20 feet away in the dark.

It was an amazing evening; in seven or eight years of doing this, I've never seen a tagged saw-whet at night. And to be in the woods, with a faint hint of moonlight through the clouds, the stream rushing nearby, was great. Anna had settled into a folding camp chair by the cars, me slouched against a huge white pine by the creek, and we chatted quietly by radio between bearing checks. Our guess is that Gemini's been bunking here since we initially caught it in early November - and why not? Perfect habitat, good cover, and the cabin had well-stocked bird feeders, which probably attract lots of mice and flying squirrels at night.

We finally knocked off about 11 p.m.; we were both tired from the banding blitz Sunday night, and I had a two-hour drive to get home. With luck, we'll be able to locate Gemini's exact roost today, along with Lexi and Maria. The weather tonight looks bad for tracking, but it's great to be back in the game after a two-week hiatus.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Blitz

The Kline family, ready to head into "the desert" (you usually don't have to listen that hard to hear what's coming out of the audiolure speakers, Mary). (©Anna Fasoli)

Meet Lexi, Gemini and Maria.

Last night, in a final, Hail-Mary blitz, we opened nets in not one, not two, not three, but four sites around King's Gap and Michaux State Forest, hoping to get at least one more owl for the telemetry project. And we got three instead - all of them, as the saying goes, known to authorities.

Setting up and monitoring the nets, shuttling the birds back and forth across miles of windy dirt roads, and tearing everything down at the end of the night was a major operation. We had 13 people involved this little escapade - research tech Anna Fasoli, research intern Drew Weber and I; Sandy and Gary Lockerman, Matt, Mary and Katie Kline, Phil Witmer (who drove up from the Philadelphia area, a two-and-a-half-hour drive), and Alex Lamoreaux, Mark Mizak and two PSU friends, Lexi and Tim.

We met at 4 p.m., and got the first set of nets erected south of Ridge Road, which runs along the spine of South Mountain, in an area that had been heavily timbered in recent years; we nicknamed it "the desert" because there was so little understory cover, and we had to run the nets fairly high because of the knee-high carpet of huckleberry. Then we drove east on Ridge Road about three miles to the head of Cold Springs Hollow, where we set up two more nets in fairly dense forest. We divided up the crew, leaving two vehicles at each site so they could shuttle any owls back to King's Gap for processing.

Anna and I put up the final set of new nets and audiolure in King's Gap Hollow in the park, a stone's toss from where several of our owls roosted this fall. Then we met Drew and the Lockermans at the park headquarters and opened the main site nets, two and a half hours after we'd all started.

So did I have a chance to take more than a bite of my dinner sandwich? I did not; Mark and Lexi walked in with the first owl at 7 p.m., an HY-F recap first banded at King's Gap on Nov. 5. Since this was Lexi's first owl despite several visits to KG, we named the bird in her honor, processed the owl and got a harness rigged, while Mark and Lexi (the person) headed back to the site.
Lexi, all set to go. The small piece of index card on her chest keeps the glue on the harness knot from gumming up her feathers, and comes off before release. (©Anna Fasoli)

Drew and Lexi (©Anna Fasoli)

Before we were finished with that bird, Phil and Mary came in with another recap, this one from Nov. 6, an SY-U we named Gemini, in honor of the Geminid meteor shower the last two nights, some of which sprinkled the sky as we were opening.

Rigging the harness and waiting for the glue to dry on the knot takes about half an hour, so we were shuttling the first bird back to Cold Springs Hollow with Drew and Gary when I got a garbled cell phone call from Alex, saying they'd caught another NSWO and were coming in with it. This was yet another KG recap, an SY-F first banded Oct. 26, and recaptured Oct. 29. She's now known as Maria - Anna's middle name, which I thought was appropriate, since this final blitz was her idea.

Sandy Lockerman and Scott Weidensaul working on Maria's harness. (©Anna Fasoli)

All the running back and forth, shuttling birds, checking the KG nets, running down to the Pond, swapping out audiolure batteries at both Ridge Rd. and Cold Springs, made for a night that flew by. We closed up the KG nets at 10:15, took down the Pond nets, then the Ridge Rd. nets at 11. It was after midnight until we had the Cold Springs site down and packed, but everyone was still pretty jazzed.

Closing up Cold Springs at midnight. (©Anna Fasoli)

There are no guarantees, of course, but the fact that all three of these birds have been around for six or seven weeks already makes me hopeful they'll stay for a good while longer. We're back in business on tracking, starting tonight - and with luck, some or all of this new trio will hang around for the winter.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Sacagawea and Andromeda

The news over the past week has been mixed, with tracking limited by the holiday and the opening of rifle deer season. On Nov. 28, Karl Kleiner and one of his students tracked down Andromeda, which they found perched in a cluster of young pines at Cold Spring Gap, with a spectacular view over South Mountain.
The view over Cold Spring Gap (©Karl Kleiner)

Andromeda plays "if I can't see you, you can't see me." (©Karl Kleiner)

After that, though, Andromeda vanished on us - but on Dec. 2, Aura Stauffer caught a whisper of a beep from Sacagawea's radio, a bird we'd last encountered on Nov. 20. She had a hard time localizing the weak signal, as did Anna Fasoli the next day, but on Thursday, Aura tracked down the transmitter - which was no longer attached to an owl. Sacagawea had picked off the harness - something we design the harnesses to eventually permit, but which we wouldn't happen quite so quickly.

The King's Gap banding crew has tried this past week to catch additional owls for the telemetry project, but the well appears pretty dry, and they've had little to do but watch the ever-growing mob of flying squirrels (now up to five) that feast nightly on the sunflower seed stored in the KG basement. After this weekend we'll suspend regular banding there, although we may try one more blitz next week to get a last owl or two.

I did manage to catch a second long-eared owl in my yard nets in Schuylkill County last week, as well as a local gray-morph screech-owl Wednesday night.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Reaching the end (just in time?)

Owl researchers all get a little punchy by the end of the season -- too many late night and not enough sleep. So I wasn't really unprepared for the email the other day, telling me the crew manning Hidden Valley for the final night of the season had banded an unusual bird.

I'll say. Corky and Mary Ann Hanzok had brought the, um, new species, and bander George Gress gamely processed it, complete with leg band and eye color chart (neither quite regulation, but we'll let it's the end of the season, after all).

Reminded me of the year, back in the late '90s, when we inadvertently snagged a nearly four-foot-long black-morph timber rattler in the nets one balmy early season night. Later that year, Gary and Sandy Lockerman publicly presented me with a jumbo lock-on band for the next rattler I caught, as well as a four-foot long (by four-inch-wide) holding bag for it.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

Wednesday was a quiet night, with snow flurries and cold temps. At Hidden Valley, George Gress and his crew wrapped up the season with balky batteries and no owls, while at King's Gap, Gary Shimmel's crew had one HY-F saw-whet, which came back into the nets a second time later in the evening.

King's Gap will be open sporadically in the next two weeks in the hopes of adding a few more owls to the telemetry study, but it will be closed through Monday night, when night-tracking will resume (assuming our one remaining owl, Andromeda, is still in the neighborhood then).

I'll also be running nets with a mixed long-eared owl and boreal owl tape on our property in Schuylkill County through the end of December. This has been an irruption year for boreals, with many reported in southern Canada and a few in New England. This is a species even more secretive than saw-whets, and the two records from Pennsylvania since the 1890s are probably not an accurate reflection of the owl's occurence down here.

In the meantime, Happy Thanksgiving from the Ned Smith Center's owl research crew.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Tracking Andy

Katie, Mary and Michael Kline, on the hunt (©Aura Stauffer)

Aura Stauffer, who has been spearheading the telemetry project since we shifted it to King's Gap in 2004, was out today tracking with KG banding volunteers Mary, Katie and Michael Kline. They had a mixed bag on our two current owls, Andromeda (aka Andy) and TLC.

"We did not pick up a signal on Andy from King's Gap, but we got a faint one from Cold Springs Road," Aura reports. "We headed up to Buck Ridge and out on the trail, and were able to pick her up pretty easily in the very dense mountain laurel fire break. Katie and Michael took turns tracking. Katie volunteered to go in the dense shrubbery, which is also mixed with green brier, and quickly narrowed down where her roost was. Katie and Michael did an amazing job tracking her down."

On the other hand, Aura wasn't able to find any sign of TLC's signal, despite a lot of searching. "Maybe she beat it. With a name like Tastes Like Chicken, can you blame her?" Aura asked.

No, I can't.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Andromeda and a little TLC

Andromeda: Is he a he or a she? (©Scott Weidensaul)

The past few days our attention has been focused on Andromeda, our twice-tagged saw-whet that slipped a radio on Nov. 2 and was recaptured - and reharnessed- on Nov. 19. This bird's a bit of mystery on a couple of counts, including its gender.

As with most raptors, female saw-whets average larger than males, and by combining the weight and the length of the wing chord, we can sex most of the saw-whets we catch. But there are about 15 percent that fall into the muddy middle ground of the largest males and smallest females, which we have to record as "sex unknown." Andromeda is one of these. Is he a he or a her? We don't know.

Since Andy (as the tracking crew has been calling it) got its second radio, the owl has been hanging out along the laurel-choked hillside that forms the southeastern boundary of King's Gap State Park and Michaux State Forest. It's a place we're getting to know well, since earlier this season a couple of our owls (especially Fairfield) roosted there, as have radio-tagged saw-whets in previous years.

Anna Fasoli had tracked Andromeda to the laurel patch, but couldn't find the owl, though Saturday night they were able to follow its movements as it left the roost and began hunting. Sunday I set off, frustrated for a time by the signal bounce in King's Gap Hollow, which seemed even worse than usual. The recent snow was embroidered with lots of tracks -- deer, gray and red fox, a raccoon. Up in the laurel thicket there were also plenty of mouse, vole and shrew paths, suggesting that it might not just be shelter that draws the saw-whets.

Little wonder they call these thickets "laurel hells" in parts of the southern Appalachians. At times I could barely find the room to raise my arm and deploy the antenna. Eventually I zeroed in on small patch of laurel and pitch pines just off the Buck Ridge Trail, so I dropped my pack, yagi antenna and receiver, and wormed my way in on hands and knees - and found myself face to face with Andromeda, perched about two feet off the ground in a laurel.

I had a hard time spotting it, but the other birds did not. Four or five times over the next half-hour, flocks of chickadees and kinglets mobbed the saw-whet, fussing and hissing. I also saw a young goshawk, and all the mammal tracks lead me to think this is an owl that needs to be careful about perching too low or too conspicuously.

Last night Anna and Drew Weber checked on Andromeda a couple of times, but devoted most of the night to searching more thoroughly for Sacagawea and Quasi, who had left the immediate King's Gap area. No luck, though several times they thought they heard beeps through the white-noise static -- an aural hallucination when you've been listening to that hiss for hours, trying to pull a signal out of it. They worked their way all the way down to Fayetteville, Franklin County, before giving up.

Meanwhile, Aura Stauffer and the King's Gap banding crew had snagged one more owl, to which they gave a radio and a name: TLC. You might think that stands for "Tender Loving Care," but this bunch was thinking more about Thanksgiving, and it really means "Tastes Like Chicken." ("You can always tell people that it's a rapper name," Aura suggested.)

Over at Hidden Valley, Nate McKelvie's crew also had one saw-whet, bringing our count to 227. Saturday night was the final night for banding at Small Valley - after closing the nets for the season, without any final owls, Sandy Lockerman and her crew repaired to the Summerdale Diner for the fourth annual midnight breakfast rendezvous. "So now we're filled with artery-clogging bacon, French toast, eggs, hot coffee and tea and lots of laughter and chit-chat," Sandy reported.

Looks like rain and snow are going to cancel banding and tracking tonight, but then things should clear out a bit Tuesday.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Back like a (good) penny

On Nov. 2, Aura Stauffer tried a new glue attachment for our radio transmitters on an hatching year owl of unknown sex that the King's Gap crew nicknamed Andromeda. The experiment was less than a stellar success - the bird plucked off the transmitter almost immediately, and the next day Aura found it less than 30 yards from the banding site.

But Wednesday night, Andromeda made a return appearance in the nets, and this time Aura was taking no chances - she gave the owl its old radio but used our standard backpack harness to attach it.

The KG crew also netted an unbanded adult saw-whet. There wasn't much beyond that - Small Valley caught (for the fourth time) an owl originally banded at Prince Edward Point, Ontario in September. Bander Guy Ubaghs speculates it must have found something to its liking, perhaps Pennsylvania scrapple. (If you're not sure what scrapple is, be warned that just Googling the stuff will clog your arteries.)

At Hidden Valley, Teresa Amitrone and her crew had an unruly bunch of Boy Scouts and a lack of owls. Today another batch of lake-effect snow-showers moved through central Pennsylvania, and at dusk many areas were a winter wonderland of wet snow clinging to every twig and branch.

Sacagawea remained in her previous location west of Rt. 233 in Michaux State Forest, but we didn't have an opportunity to look for Quasi, whose signal was last heard disappearing to the southwest on Monday.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Cold going

Anna Fasoli, Drew Weber and the telemetry volunteers have been spending a lot of time in the dark, cold and snow lately. Anna and Drew did four nights in a row, Sunday through Wednesday, a period that included lows in the 20s, high winds and some blinding snow squalls. They had been tracking Quasi, a saw-whet we tagged on Oct. 25 and which had been extremely cooperative, staying within upper King's Gap Hollow every night.

We knew the good times couldn't last. Tuesday night I joined Anna and Drew, along with telemetry volunteers Pat and Carl Leinbach, hoping to double up on Quasi and a new owl we'd tagged Sunday night named Sacagawea. At dusk we had both their signals, but as we split into three teams for triangulation, both owls started moving to the southwest.

Quasi just kept on going, moving steadily southwest until we lost her signal. Drew managed to relocated Sacagawea, however, in Michaux State Forest about two miles to the southwest, and we tracked her movements until after midnight.

One highlight was hiking to the boundary of King's Gap Park and the state forest, with snow flurries falling and the wild whooping cries of hundreds of tundra swans passing overhead in the darkness - birds that were en route from northern and western Alaska to the Chesapeake Bay.

I can't begin to express my admiration for Anna, Drew and the rest of the crew -- it's been bitterly cold up on the ridges, standing for hours in the snow and wind taking bearings every 10 minutes.

Anna found Sacagawea's roost during the day Wednesday, still in the same general area, then that night she, Drew and Jen Smetzer tried to track her. Unfortunately, the owl moved down off the ridge into an area of private land, and when they tried to find positions from which to get good bearings, they were hassled by the owner of a nearby home, who was understandably suspicious of people with glowing spots on their foreheads waving metal antennas. So they shifted back up into the state forest, making the best of a weak signal -- enough to show them that Sacagawea didn't move far.

While the tracking has been going well, the banding has been dismally slow. Since the big cold front came through Sunday things have picked up a little bit, with nine new owls, but it's been a hard slog for the banding crews, especially at our unheated sites, Hidden Valley and Small Valley.

We did set up a new net array near the banding site at Hidden Valley, playing a combination of long-eared owl and boreal owl calls -- we'll see if my backyard capture of the long-eared was a fluke, or if we should expand our project to focus as well on these poorly understood birds.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A gorgeous mystery

Unexpected visitor: A long-eared owl (©Scott Weidensaul)
We got fooled by the weather Saturday night - the front that was supposed to linger through the evening, and which caused all three sites to cancel banding by late afternoon, swept through with unexpected speed before dark. I found myself outside at 7 p.m., seeing a few stars through the clouds, and wondering if there might be a way to salvage the evening.

Two weeks ago, I'd strung two 100mm mist nets in our backyard, between thickets of viburnum and dogwood shrubs and a line of white pines. My quarry wasn't saw-whets, but long-eared owls, a species about which we know, if anything, even less than we do about saw-whets. They winter here in the Pennsylvania Dutch farm country, at least in small numbers, but essentially nothing is known about their migration through this region.

Some years back I wondered if it would be possible to lure long-eared (or LEOWs, to use the banding code) the same way we lure saw-whets, using a tape of their calls. But the experts told me LEOWs didn't respond to such lures, and I'd never followed up on my plans. This fall, however, a few Canadian banders reported success using a LEOW lure, so I decided to give it whirl at the house.

I've been home so infrequently this season that I only had two opportunities to try, both on damp nights with rain coming in - poor nights for any kind of migration, and I wasn't surprised to come up empty.

With the front clearing out and the breeze picking up from the northwest, though, conditions were looking pretty good last night, so I opened the nets, ran an extension cord out behind the garage, and plugged in a CD player set to REPEAT on a track of a male LEOW's advertisement call, a low, hollow "hoot...hoot...hoot."

To be honest, I really wasn't expecting much, but when I checked the nets an hour later, to my delight I found a gorgeous hatching-year long-eared owl hanging in one pocket - and a mighty angry one, at that. There was none of the docility of a saw-whet; this bird hissed and bill-clacked ferociously, and I recalled something my colleague Katy Duffy, who catches a number of LEOWs in her saw-whet nets at Cape May, had said - that handling a long-eared can be like taking a feral cat out of a net.

Once I had the bird in hand, however, it was easy to control, though I used the old hawk-bander's trick of slipping it into a tube (in this case, two small coffee cans end-to-end) to confine it for banding and measurements. It was a smallish bird, taking a size 5 band versus the larger 6, but the wing chord of 286mm was right in the mid-range for both males and females. Despite its small size, the dark buff wing linings make me think it might have been a female, although its gender was officially recorded as U.

(©Scott Weidensaul)

After a few one-handed photos (my wife, to her dismay, wasn't home and missed the fun), I allowed the owl's eyes to readjust to the darkness for five or 10 minutes before I tossed it into the air and watched it arrow away to the safety of the pine trees around my neighbor's fields. I kept the nets open for a few more hours, but got no more LEOWs -- but you can be sure we'll be trying this technique on a regular basis in the future.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Buddha the Flying Squirrel

Fog and mist Thursday night, and no owls, though all three stations tried for at least a couple of hours. Thank goodness for nocturnal rodents, at least at King's Gap, where a southern flying squirrel they've nicknamed Buddha has been dipping into the sunflower seed stored in the educational building basement, where the crew works. Andrew Strassman (who studies flying squirrels for his day job) got these photos of what has become the unofficial mascost of the KG crew this fall. (All photos ©Andrew Strassman)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Slip slidin' away

Biologists who use telemetry to track animal movements have a variety of ways, temporary and permanent, to attach the transmitter, from surgically implanting it in the body cavity of the subject (obviously pretty permanent) to using a light adhesive that will come off in hours, days or weeks, depending on the need.

Most bird researchers use an external harness of some sort, and that's what we've used for the past seven years in our saw-whet study. We create a figure-eight of very thin elastic nylon beading cord that goes around the wings and holds the radio high in the middle of the owl's back, tucked down under the feathers.

Given that the batteries only last about three months, we don't want to saddle the owl with even the relatively light weight of the radio for the rest of its life, so we make the harness with a knot in a fairly accessible location, on the bird's side, where it can preen and pick at it. We zap the knot with a drop of SuperGlu to give it some protection, but eventually the owl will take it off...hopefully only after it's left the study area or the battery has died.

(©Aura Stauffer)

Morticia, it seems, was a determined little girl. Aura Stauffer was tracking Quasi and Morticia on Wednesday, and after finding Quasi in her accustomed haunts in King's Gap Hollow, she followed Tish's signal to a grove of young white pines. Aura had a strong signal from a fairly open part of the trees where there was obviously no owl perched, so she had a hunch what was up. Today, Aura went back and was able to locate Morticia's radio and harness on the ground. Since the battery only has a few weeks' worth of use, we'll probably recycle the transmitter to a new owl quickly.

The netting and banding have been pathetically slow this week, despite what had been pretty good conditions. All stations combined had three owls Sunday, none Monday, two Tuesday and none Wednesday, as the first rain showers moved in.

Hidden Valley crew members Pat Trego, Gene Harris, Randy Lauff and Denise Donmoyer (©Scott Weidensaul)

We have had some interesting visitors, though. Tuesday night at Hidden Valley we were delighted to welcome Randy Lauff, a professor of biology at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. I've been corresponding with Randy for years about his nest-box studies of saw-whets and boreal owls up there, and he's now doing migration netting as well. Although we had only one saw-whet to discuss that evening, we had a great time hearing about his work and getting really, really jealous as he showed us photos of his boreal owls.

Our night tracking teams are taking a well-deserved break after four nights of nocturnal work, and Anna Fasoli has worked up some activity maps from the recent tracking. Here's one from Sunday, Nov. 9, showing Quasi's movements. This map does not show the error polygons that indicate how reliable a particular location is, so it's best to consider those red dots as a general indication of where the owl was at various times, not a pinpointed spot. The X's show where our two tracking teams were positioned -- my nephew Connor Callaghan and me on the left, Anna, Jen Smetzer and Kim Mihalek on the right.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Night tracking in full swing

For the past 3 nights, the tracking team has been roaming the woods of King's Gap State Park keeping tabs on our 2 owls, Quasi and Morticia.

On saturday night, we were joined by Ann Rhoads and her grandson Ben. We started at the Pond Area parking lot, while Drew braved the dark night alone and headed upslope towards Quasi. Quasi did not venture far from her roost area, and stayed relatively close to both teams the entire night, never making any drastic moves. She was making enough movements to ruin our angle on her, so we moved around a few times in an attempt to maintain a good angle. As the night went on, a cold front moved through, causing us to do what Ben called "the dance of winter" to keep warm. About half an hour before ending, Drew heard a saw-whet call in our general direction, which very well may have been Quasi.

On sunday night, we were joined by volunteers Kim Mihalek and Jennifer Smetzer, and also Scott's nephew Conner. We kept tabbs on both Quasi and Morticia, and managed to stay in ideal locations that gave us an excellent angle on the owls locations. This night was colder yet, and Jen implemented the "funny walk contest," which was not only a way to keep warm, but a fantastic form of entertainment!

Last night, we were joined by volunteers Pat and Carl Leinbach, and Phil Witmer. This time, we again started from the top of Buck Ridge, and worked our way down. Phil and Drew ventured down slope, while Pat, Carl, and I stayed on the upper part of the slope. Both Quasi and Morticia were in range, but they were not as cooperative as the previous night. Regardless, we were still able to get intersecting lines after moving positions a few times. This was the chilliest of the three nights, with temperatures dropping to 29 degrees! It felt even colder with the wind. We stayed warm by jogging in place and taking short trips back up the hillside.

Stay tuned for night activity maps for the owls we've been tracking each night. We will head out again tonight, our last night of the week. As Scott mentioned, we'll be planning a few "all-nighters" to see what the owls are doing until dawn. As always, if you are interested in helping out, please email me at

Thanks to all the volunteers who have been coming out with us, driving from afar, and continually braving the cold temperatures. We really couldn't do it without you!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Lots of tracking

Our telemetry crews have been busy lately, continuing to track Quasi and Morticia in and around King's Gap State Park.

Susan Klugman hunting for Morticia on Sunday (©Aura Stauffer)

Over the weekend, both owls were staying in their previous haunts in King's Gap Hollow. Sunday, Aura Stauffer, Susan Klugman and Karl Kleiner were out, finding both owls on their day roosts. Karl was getting a fair bit of ribbing from Susan and their friends over a feature in the Carlisle Sentinel about banding at King's Gap.

Karl Kleiner taking a bead with the long lens on Morticia... (©Aura Stauffer)

...and getting the shot of her, pretending to be asleep while the humans collect all that bothersome data. (©Karl Kleiner)

Saturday night research tech Anna Fasoli and intern Drew Weber, with help from visiting botanist Ann Rhoads and her grandson Ben, tracked Quasi in an area below the Buck Ridge Trail, despite some technical glitches with one of the receivers and difficulty finding good positions from which to shoot bearings.

Last night, Anna, King's Gap staffer Kim Mihalek, volunteer Jennifer Smetzer, my 14-year-old nephew Connor and I were back up on Buck Ridge, hoping that being above the owls would help -- and it did. We split up at dark into two teams, positioning ourselves about a quarter-mile apart along the ridge. We took GPS coordinates for our locations, then every 10 minutes for the next six hours, we simultaneously took radio bearings on Quasi as she moved around upper King's Gap Hollow. We also picked up Morticia's signal, and were able to get some bearings on her, as well.

It's an odd experience, "following" a wild animal remotely like that, inferring its activities by the changing location and intensity of the radio signal. Both owls moved around quite a bit for several hours, though Quasi never left that relatively small area of the hollow before settling down by about 10 p.m. - "Sitting on a mouse," Anna pronounced, and I suspect she was right.

I'd use the receiver and antenna to take a bearing, then Connor would pull out the compass and determine the azimuth while I jotted the time, azimuth and signal strength on the data sheet. Both of our teams were positioned so that our bearings intersected at roughly a 90-degree angle, giving us a fairly precise location for the owl at that moment. Later, Anna will plot all the bearings and GPS locations into a program called LOAS (Location Of A Signal) that will pinpoint the owl's positions, then she will overlay that with GIS information and satellite images to create a highly detailed map of Quasi and Morticia's activity range for the night.

So far, we've only done dusk-to-midnight sessions, but as we get better at this, and get our crew trained up, we'll be doing some all-nighters before too long.

When we weren't taking bearings, there was lots of time to watch the stars and the racing clouds, listen to the distant toot of the audiolure at King's Gap, and talk about things important and dumb. We looked down past the inky black ridges of South Mountain to the brightly lit valley, wondering how many people even suspected there was a migratory miracle going on, right at that moment, over their heads.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Quasi's mid-day snack

It was an unseasonably warm day for tracking yesterday. The warm weather brought out mosquitos and gnats, and as usual, the ticks were out in full force. We have two owls remaining at King's Gap, Morticia and Quasi. Autumn and Fairfield seem to have left, although we still have hope they might show up on a future search. They may be hiding in a hollow somewhere just out of the 1/2 mile range of our receivers.

I looked for Quasi first. As I was narrowing down the tree she was in, just outside the King's Gap boundary, my receiver batteries started to weaken, so I stopped to change them. After putting in a fresh set, I looked up, and there was the fuzzball of Quasi high up in the pitch pine I was standing near. An important part of tracking is following the signal, but the key is looking up, because sometimes the owls are just as clear as day. Or, in the case of most owls that are very well hidden, the key is looking down to the ground for signs of an owl, including whitewash and pellets. Directly underneath Quasi I saw whitewash, but came up short on a pellet search. Upon looking at Quasi with my binoculars, I saw the long thin tail of a mouse hanging beneath her. I snapped a few photos to get a better look at the lifeless body she clutched in her talons. Because Quasi was about 50 feet up, the closest photo I could take with my camera is slightly blurry, but you can make out the tail and the body of the mouse in the photo above.

Quasi could not be bothered by me at all at this height, and didn't look down at me once. Because of the angle of the branches, the best shot was directly underneath her, which provided a good view of the mouse. She never started eating the mouse, which is sometimes the case, and she still held onto it when I was done with data collection.
I checked on Morticia next, who has been favoring the leaf cover of oak trees. I found her in a large chestnut oak east of the Pond Day Use area parking lot. I found whitewash, but she remained concealed the entire time.
The tracking team will be headed out tonight through wednesday to monitor the activitiy of these owls at night. Last weekend, we started out tracking Morticia, who turned out to be incredibly active, jumping from hollow to hollow, while Quasi remained in only one hollow. We are unsure if either of these patterns are usual behaviors for saw-whets, and we'll need to spend many more nights in the dark to find out!

Friday, November 7, 2008

I get the sense there's a really terrific couple of nights coming our way once this next cold front clears over the weekend, because we're getting low but steady numbers of birds despite warm, misty, drippy weather. Last night, for instance, we had 10 new NSWOs, despite the fact that, as Guy Ubaghs pointed out at Small Valley, they were closing the nets in shirt-sleeves.

We're at 197 saw-whets, our second-lowest total for the date since we started multiple sites in 1999; the only worse year was 2006, when we were at 86 owls for the date. That year we more than doubled our Nov. 6 total in the subsequent two weeks, so we'll see what happens between now and about Nov. 20. (The 10-year average to date is 304, and last year's total for Nov. 6 was 713.)

At King's Gap, Kim Van Fleet's crew banded one of the heaviest saw-whets she's ever handled, a beefy female that tipped the scale at 112.3g. If memory serves, the very heaviest we've ever had was around 116-120g, so this is the upper echelon of fat (er, big-boned) NSWOs.

We have one more mild, damp night to get through tonight, but a major cold front is sweeping across the entire eastern half of the country, reaching far out into the Gulf of Mexico. It will usher in a very different weather pattern for next week, with highs only in the 40s or 50s, and Saturday through Monday nights should be nearly ideal.

We continue to track Morticia and Quasi in King's Gap park; an attempt to relocate Autumn and Fairfield earlier in the week came up dry. The owls are staying pretty much where they've been -- Quasi keeps shifting between two roost trees on the southern boundary of the park, while Morticia roams a bit more, bouncing between King's Gap and Maple hollows. We plan on gearing up for more night tracking in the next few evenings, weather and personnel permitting.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Drip, drip, drip...

The weather has been as unseasonably mild this week as it was unseasonably wintry last week, and it's not helping the cause much. We've been back to a slow drip of birds - 10 owls on Sunday night, six on Monday night, and just two on Tuesday, when King's Gap had to close at 7:30 p.m. because of rain, and Small Valley a few hours later. Only Hidden Valley was able to put in a full night, and they had just one bird.

Quasi and Morticia remain on or around King's Gap State Park, and Sunday night Anna, Drew and several volunteers were able to track them. They started with Morticia, who moved all over the map and eventually out of radio range; at that point, the teams started tracking Quasi, who stayed closer to her roost area for the next several hours.

Sunday night at Hidden Valley we had a large group of visitors from Audubon Pennsylvania, the state office of The Nature Conservancy, the Academy of Natural Sciences and several land trusts. The TNC folks have posted video from the visit here, including the banding process.

The weather looks pretty poor for the next few nights, with showers and rain in the forecast through the weekend. We're keeping our fingers crossed, since this is usually our best week, and we have a lot of visiting groups on the calendar.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Finding a Saw-whet

It was a beautiful day for tromping around in the woods yesterday. The skies were clear, it was almost warm and lots of birds such as pine siskins, white-breasted nuthatches and golden-crowned kinglets were flitting around. Scott and I were searching for Quasi and her signal had us walking back and forth for a long while until we finally narrowed down here location to a group of pitch pines. We circled for a while, searching through the branches and pine cones until our necks were properly sore. Finally, Scott spotted her, high up in the top of pine, working on swallowing a mouse. 
See if you can find her in the image below, then click on the photo to see where she is...

When we got back to the car, there was a note on the windshield from Anna, telling us that Morticia was really easy to find. I wanted a closer look at a saw-whet on roost, so we decided to find her. It didn't take long to find her perched about 12 feet off the ground, much closer than the 50 feet we had estimated for Quasi.

Morticia was still too far away to get a good picture just using my camera's 3x zoom. So, using my binoculars as a zoom lens, I got a closeup of Morticia looking very curious. She just calmly watched us the entire time we were there, occasionally blinking and swiveling her head back and forth.

Anna and I will be tracking Quasi tonight, as well as Morticia, if we can find her. Anna wasn't able to get a signal from Morticia's transmitter today when I talked to her. That may be appropriate because she was the Halloween owl and thats all over.

Better times

We've finally seen a decent push of migrant saw-whets the past two nights, with 36 new owls, bringing us to 142 for the season. Saturday night we had 13 each at Hidden Valley and Small Valley (two of the SV owls foreign birds which, judging from their band numbers, were marked at the same station a short time apart), and two at King's Gap. After several nights of near-ideal conditions and poor numbers, it was nice to see double digits.

During the day Saturday I was in the field radio-tracking with research intern Drew Weber, research tech Anna Fasoli and Anna's mother, in town for a visit. Drew and I tracked down Quasi, who was in the upper King's Gap Hollow area, sitting about 50 feet up in a pitch pine, eating a mouse. Anna and her mom found Morticia in the lower section of the hollow, sitting just 10 feet up in a young white pine.

Drew digiscoping a photo of Morticia through his binoculars. (©Scott Weidensaul)

Autumn and Fairfield, however, the two owls we'd been tracking the past two weeks, have left their former haunts and may have left the King's Gap/Michaux State Forest area altogether -- searches for them Thursday and Friday came up dry, although they may have simply shifted to areas that block their signals.

There may be even better things ahead for banding -- I just heard from a colleague who nets saw-whets in southeastern New York that he had 44 owls Saturday night, so a major push may be on its way. The first week of November is usually our best week, and we have groups visiting almost every night, so our fingers are crossed.

Meanwhile, Anna and Drew will be conducting night tracking tonight, trying to make up for time we lost last week during the bad weather.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Busy day, slow night

Despite absolutely perfect conditions, our crews managed just six new saw-whets last night - a sobering reflection of how slow a season this has been. We're at 106 saw-whets, less than half our 10-year average of 229 for the date, and 4.5 times fewer owls than the 497 we had by this date last year during the big irruption.

In fact, we've had only one season -- 2006, our Annus Horriblis -- when the YTD total was worse. That miserable autumn we had just 40 owls by now, having gone the first 24 nights with a total of five saw-whets.

So it could be worse.

Fortunately, this has been a spectacularly successful year for the telemetry program, thanks to our telemetry team of Anna Fasoli, Drew Weber and telemetry coordinator Aura Stauffer, with a bunch of great volunteers. Aura was out yesterday with volunteer Carl Juris checking on all four tagged owls. They found Morticia, the newest bird, in King's Gap Hollow -- sort of. They narrowed the signal down to a large white pine on the east side of King's Gap Hollow, but couldn't get a visual on the owl.

Aura and Carl did find Fairfield in the same general area where she's been hanging out, just north of Pine Grove Furnace State Park. Ever the cooperative little saw-whet, she was perched low in a pitch pine, and Aura got some great photos of Carl taking dbh (diameter breast height) measurements on the trees around the roost, as well as Fairfield herself.

Fairfield, wondering how the primates keep managing to find her. (Aura Stauffer)

Carl Juris collecting vegetation data (©Aura Stuaffer)

After Carl headed for home, Aura found Quasi back in her roost tree from the 27th - she's been alternating between the same two trees since she was tagged on the 26th.

Find the owl among the pine cones: Quasi on her roost, or, Why owl trackers develop sore necks. (©Aura Stauffer)

Autumn, on the other hand, was nowhere to be found. Having spent nearly two weeks in southern King's Gap SP, she moved southeast of the park below Hammond's Rocks Tuesday night, and yesterday Aura couldn't pick up her signal in that area, or back in her old haunts. Maybe she's left, or maybe she's tucked in a new hollow -- time will tell.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Does Morticia speak French?

Despite very good conditions - cold, moonless and calm most of the night - we had another very slow evening at the banding stations. King's Gap and Small Valley each got one local recap, while Hidden Valley had a single new bird. That one, at least, broke 100 for the season.

Aura Stauffer bestowed a radio on the King's Gap recap, an SY-F now named "Morticia," in keeping with the Halloween theme. (Whether she drives her mate crazy when she speaks French, I can't say.)

Yesterday, research tech Anna Fasoli was out checking on our other three beeping birds. She found Quasi in exactly the same pitch pine as the day before, though higher in the tree and apparently sitting in a nest-like cluster of branches...another example of a NSWO using an old nest or nest-like structure, something we're documenting for the first time with our telemetry work. Fairfield was about four-tenths of a mile north of her previous location, with lots of pellets on the ground to show she's used this tree before.

Autumn moved more than two miles to the ESE, somewhere between Hammond's Rocks and Mountain Creek Road -- Anna didn't have time to hike all the way in, but biangulated her location. Aura's heading out today to check all for owls, and will start with Autumn.

We found out that an foreign owl I caught at Hidden Valley on Oct. 19 was banded Jan. 16, 2008 in Charles City County near Richmond, VA, by one of Bob Reilly's crew. And we also got word that one of the two foreign birds we caught at Hidden Valley on Sunday night was banded Oct. 13, 2007 at Drumlin Farm Bird Sanctuary, a Massachusetts Audubon facility 15 miles west of Boston near Lincoln, MA. This is the second owl we've traded with Drumlin Farm this fall; they caught one of our fall '07 Small Valley birds last Thursday.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


The huge nor'easter that came roaring through eastern Pennsylvania Tuesday wiped out our banding, since rain, snow and 40-50 mph winds are not conducive to catching owls. Some of the higher ridgetops just north of us got walloped with 15 inches or more of snow.

Besides canceling banding, we'd planned a major night of triangulation tracking, with three teams of trackers and helpers -- all to naught. It was a good night to curl up in front of a fire.

However, despite the rain (and lots of fallen trees and falling branches), research tech Anna Fasoli was out during the day checking on our three radio-tagged owls. She found them all more or less where they'd been the day before, having moved anywhere from 70 to 231 meters.

Here's a sneak peek, though, at what we're working so hard to get this fall -- an evening activity map for Autumn, one of the King's Gap owls we've been tracking, at a previous roost she's long since left. This was from a tracking session from dark until about midnight on Oct. 19 -- the yellow dot shows Autumn's daytime roost, and the yellow X's mark the spots where Anna and research intern Drew Weber were standing, taking bearings on the radio signal from Autumn's transmitter.

The red dots are where the bearing lines intersected, giving the owl's position (the numbers are time markers - 2310 is 11:10 p.m. EST). We usually take bearings about every 10 minutes, and we try to position ourselves so the bearings intersect at roughly 90 degrees, which gives he most accurate position -- but as the owl moves that isn't always possible, and sometimes Drew and Anna were taking bearings almost directly toward each other. Those inaccurate readings aren't included on the map, which is why there are some gaps in the time line.

Still, this gives us a pretty detailed picture of her movements over the course of almost five hours, moving around the oak/black gum/pine forest on King's Gap's southeastern border. There have only been a handful of attempts to get this kind of activity data on saw-whets before -- once in the 1960s in Minnesota, using an automated system to monitor a single saw-whet in a large woodlot, and again with two breeding males in Idaho some years later. Those studies found that the saw-whets were using areas ranging from 115 hectares (about 284 acres) to 159 hectares, but also that one male's core range was only about 27 ha. (about 66 acres).

In rough terms, Autumn's activity area was about 32 hectares, or about 80 acres. This was not her full night's activity range, but probably represents her first main hunting bout, moving around looking for a mouse, then settling down to eat it. But it begins to shed some light on how large an area these birds need to hunt, and what kinds of habitat and terrain they use in doing so.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Bad weather, good friends

An enormous low pressure system moved in the Northeast last night, and in advance of, unexpected rain overspread eastern Pennsylvania around dark, making for a shortened night at all three sites.

Although we managed to net two new saw-whets at Small Valley, and one new bird plus a local recap at King's Gap, we were blanked at Hidden Valley, where the rain came in fairly steadily around 8 p.m., and forced us to shut down at 9:30.

Which was a shame, because we've rarely had such a firmament of banding superstars on hand. Our good friends Bob and Martha Sargent, founders of the Hummer/Bird Study Group, had driven up from Alabama, and Anthony Hill and his wife Carlene were down from their home in Massachusetts. Bob and Martha's crew conduct spring and fall songbird banding at Fort Morgan on the Gulf coast, and have been largely responsible for an extensive network of banders in the East and Southeast (including me) who band western hummingbirds wintering in the region.

Anthony is a master bander who works every summer on Seal Island, Maine, banding puffins, and on Appledore Island, Maine, each spring and fall banding songbirds. He's also been trained to band hummingbirds, and like Bob and Martha, has caught the saw-whet bug.

Despite the weather, we had a nice welcoming dinner for them at Hidden Valley, where my crew (Phil Witmer and Barb Jucker) were joined by Small Valley coordinator Sandy Lockerman and SV crewmember Shirley Hamilton, and my wife Amy. We got wet, but we ate like royalty.

Phil, Sandy, Scott, Bob, Martha, Carlene, Anthony and Amy (thanks to Barb Jucker, behind the camera).

Before the rain arrived Monday, Aura Stauffer managed to track all three of our current telemetry owls. The newest, Quasi, has moved into the southern part of King's Gap park, where she was sitting high in a pitch pine, while Fairfield has moved almost three miles of the southwest, and was in a white pine close to Pine Grove Furnace State Park. Autumn, meanwhile, was right along the King's Gap/Michaux State Forest line, in a chestnut oak growing in a heavy regenerated old clearcut off a logging road, where Aura found a pellet and lots of whitewash - evidence she's used that roost before.

Here's their current locations (note that north is to the upper right corner, the better to fit the locations into the image).

The storm is currently strengthening into a major nor'easter, with predictions of 50 mph wind gusts and several inches of snow at the higher elevations tonight. We were poised to conduct a full-court-press triangulation tonight on one of the tagged owls, but in the interest of everyone's safety, we've canceled both tracking and banding.

Monday, October 27, 2008

A windy night for Quasi

Tonight, convenience was the word. Drew and I arrived at King’s Gap around 6:30 to track either Autumn or Quasimodi (Quasi for short), the plump new owl we put a transmitter on last night. Autumn was at her usual location about 1 mile south west of the Pond Area, while Quasi was roosting in the south east section of King’s Gap Hollow. We chose to track Quasi, hoping she would stay in the vicinity of King’s Gap to use the roads to our advantage. Initially, it appeared as though Quasi moved north east of her roost a short distance of about .2 miles. As Drew and I figured out the best locations to biangulate by 8:00 pm, she seemed to move slightly down slope and to the west, just a few hundred meters from her roost location. For the next few hours, Quasi was quite boring to track. In the world of owls, this translates to catching, tearing in half, eating, and digesting a mouse. We noticed slight fluctuations in the location of her signal during this time (through midnight), but this may have been attributed to the gusty winds. Wind can move the trees between trackers and the owl, including the branch the owl is on, causing these fluctuations, despite a lack of movement by the owl off her branch. The movements were so small that we had no way to distinguish them between (slight) real owl movements, and interference from wind. However, we can make a good assumption that Quasi was not actively hunting at the time, and most likely had a mouse.

Because Quasi did not move very far away, Drew and I were able to track from the comfort of our vehicles. The curves of King’s Gap road allowed us to surround her while being able to stay on the road, to use an angle of about 90 degrees to pinpoint her location. This is the first night we’ve tracked from our vehicles. On our other night time adventures, we trudged through the woods to find the best vantage points. While both methods work the same, I must admit that sitting in a vehicle alone is slightly more appealing that sitting in the woods alone. Even better, I was able to plot our readings on my computer to see how they were intersecting. At around 11:00 pm, Quasi had still not moved, so we triangulated her position. This is similar to a biangulation, but instead of just two readings from two different locations, we added another. I drove to a third location shortly after we simultaneously took the first two. Because Quasi was not moving at the time, this worked well, and we were able to get a more exact location on where she had been chowing down on her mouse. We’ll head out again tomorrow night with a few new volunteers to see what Quasi or the others are up to.

Susan Klugman and Karl Kleiner relocated Fairfield today in Michaux State Forest. We had previously thought she left when we didn’t find her 2 days ago at her favorite mountain laurel patch. Now we’ve got 3 beeping owls in the area, which will give us many good options for night tracking over the next two nights.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

A Wet Night

A powerful storm took its time leaving the midstate Saturday, delaying the opening of King's Gap and Small Valley, and canceling banding entirely farther east at Hidden Valley. Nevertheless, we banded one saw-whet at Small Valley and two more at King's Gap, including a second-year female fitted with a radio transmitter. Since she sat hunched in the hand, the crew named her Quasimodo -- "Quasi" for short.

Earlier in the day, research tech Anna Fasoli looked in vain in the downpours for Fairfield, the owl with a liking for laurel tangles. It may be that she's just hidden in some hollow that deflected the radio signals, but it's more likely she left in advance of the storm. Anna was able to locate Autumn, still about a mile and a half southwest of King's Gap in Michaux State Forest.

We're gearing up for three back-to-back nights of triangulation telemetry, which will be challenge with the forecast of high winds tonight, and sharply colder temps the rest of the week. There's also a chance that the cold front might prompt one or both of our remaining tagged owls to leave -- we'll just have to see what happens. Banders Karl Kleiner and Susan Klugman plan to celebrate their wedding anniversary today by roost-tracking both owls, then tonight, Anna and intern Drew Weber will try to follow one of the saw-whets.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Dots on the map

We keep putting along here this fall - no huge numbers, but enough to make it worthwhile to stay up in the cold.

Small Valley was the hot spot last night, with six new owls including another foreign owl. Three new birds at King's Gap, and two more (including an hatch year male) at Hidden Valley, to the delight of 10 visiting schoolkids from the Philadelphia area.

That makes 83 for the season, and if it seems slow, I'd point out that by this date in 2006 we'd caught a grand total of five saw-whets, at all three sites combined. Now that's slow. (Yeah, I know...last year by this date, the big irruption had brought us 282 saw-whets. Such are the realities of studying a cyclical migrant.)

On the tracking front, yesterday Jamie Flickinger checked on Fairfield, who remains in her Impenetrable Forest of laurel on Michaux State Forest, not having shifted much from the past several days. Jamie didn't have a chance to check on Autumn.

There was no information yet on the foreign owl from Small Valley when I reported it online to the Banding Lab today, but we did learn that the foreign NSWO caught Oct. 17 at Hidden Valley was banded by our colleague Glenn Proudfoot exactly a year earlier, Oct. 17 '07, at the Mohonk Preserve in the Shawngunk Mountains of southeastern New York.

We've also had three encounters with our own birds elsewhere this week. On Wednesday night, an owl banded Oct. 18 at Hidden Valley was recaptured at a new banding site near Sperryville (Rappahannock Co.) Virginia, about 170 miles to the southwest, and on the east slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains near Shenandoah National Park. Here's a map showing the distance between the sites.

Such "direct recoveries" within the same migration cycle are always interesting, since they can shed light on flight routes and timing; I wonder whether this bird traveled along the ridge-and-valley system into western Virginia before jumping across the Shenandoah Valley to the Blue Ridge, or if it crossed the valley near Carlisle, PA, and headed down the northern terminus of the Blue Ridge past King's Gap and the Lamb's Knoll saw-whet station in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland.

Also reported to us were two fall '07 Small Valley birds, one banded 10/10/07 and recaptured near Elkins, VA on Monday night, and a saw-whet banded Oct. 8 '07 and recaptured last night at Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary near Lincoln, Mass.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Miss Fairfield is ready for her close-up

I'm a bit behind with this, since Anna's already posted her tracking report for the day, but yesterday was also a good day for tracking owls - even with a TV crew in tow.

On Tuesday Aura Stauffer, Anna and I, along with King's Gap park director Scott Hackenburg, took Rob Dixon of WHTM-27, the ABC affiliate in Harrisburg, out to find Fairfield.

While we were grateful that our two tagged owls were still around, I'm sure Rob and his cameraman were wishing the one we picked to track hadn't been playing hard-to-get, since Fairfield was hanging out in the same dense laurel thicket just over the line in Michaux State Forest she's been so fond of lately. We thought from the signal she'd moved down the mountain, but it was actually a long climb for them, lugging a huge video camera and 40-pound tripod (which Scott H. carried most of the time).

Aura explains why sane people follow small owls (©Scott Weidensaul)

Anna and Aura were doing the tracking, thrashing through the 10-foot-high laurel. Aura, waving her yagi antenna, had just said, "She's got to be right here somewhere," when Anna, about 10 feet away, gasped and pointed - basically at Aura's head. In between the two women sat Fairfield, at head-height in a laurel thicket.

The cameraman got some terrific footage of her, and Rob's report aired a few hours later. You can see the video here.

Rob Dixon, reporting from one place he (and his cameraman) probably never thought they'd wind up. (©Scott Weidensaul)

Fairfield, who must be getting used to the attention (©Scott Weidensaul)

Aura, collecting data the only way you can in this kind of stuff -- completely prostrate. We will do pretty much anything for this project. (©Scott Weidensaul)

Settling in

Today, I set out with Alex, a dedicated telemetry and banding volunteer, to find our two King's Gap owls, Autumn and Fairfield, who are still residing in the area. Both have really "settled in" to specific areas. We found Fairfield very close to the area she has been using since October 19th, so it was no surprise that we had to fight through the mountain laurel bushes yet again. As I narrowed down the search to a small area with the telemetry equipment, Alex scanned the tall pitch pine in the center of the area, and quickly spotted her. As usual, she had spotted us first, and was staring down at us. This time she was about 50 feet up in a pitch pine, unlike yesterday, when she was just 5 feet off the ground in a moutain laurel!

Next, we headed towards Autumn's location, about one mile west of Fairfield's roost. On sunday night, Drew and I tracked Autumn for 5 hours, along with volunteers Alex and Mark, who had helped us track Dizzy while she was at Weiser State Forest. This was our first night of tracking at King's Gap this year, and it went very well. Autumn stayed within about 1/2 mile of us, as we positioned ourselves on the two hillsides that surrounded the hollow she seemed to be focusing activity in. As with Dizzy, we had problems with signal bounce, but were still able to see periods of movement, and periods of rest. We ended around 11:30 pm. By the next morning, Autumn had settled in about 1/2 mile west of the area she focused her night time activity in. Drew and I pinpointed her location, but just couldn't get a visual on her in the extremely tall red maple tree she decided to roost in. Today however, Alex and I found her with no problem. Before I could even pinpoint the tree she was in with the telemetry equipment, Alex had spotted her about 35 feet up in a pitch pine, her tail feathers just visible in the fork of a branch. Alex observed her picking at her transmitter briefly, but everything looked to be in place as she sat contently in the tree.

So far, both of our owls have been incredibly cooperative, and are settling in quite well at their "favorite" spots. We plan to do night telemetry this sunday, monday, and tuesday nights, depending on the weather. From this we will be able to see how these owls' roost locations compare with their activity ranges at night, something we hope to learn much more about this season.


With the high winds last night, we had no luck catching any saw-whets at any of the banding sites. The winds were howling at Small Valley but due to the geography of the area, the nets were not affected by the wind. The only owl of the night was a single red-morph Eastern Screech-Owl that we found in the nets during the first net check. I am always amazed at how bright red this morph is.

We don't get very many screech-owls so it is a fun challenge to age them. One thing we looked at last night was the outer primary covert (the feather my thumb is pointing at in the picture below). Because this screech-owl hatched this year (HY), the feather is strongly patterned. Older birds have a less obvious patterning on this feather. The screech-owl was the largest bird I have ever had to hold in the "bander's grip" (picture below) and it was actually too big for the bander to hold in this position.

Another feature we looked at was the age of the flight feathers. Under a blacklight, feathers of the same age turn uniformly pink. More about this effect in a later post, but basically since our screech-owl just hatched this year, all the feathers are the same age.

We ended up closing the nets an hour early because the wind was picking up and starting to blow the nets around as well as drop lots of leaves into the nets.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Trading Places

Fairfield -- no, really it is. (©Aura Stauffer)

The old real estate adage tells us it's "Location, location, location." Must be the same for saw-whets, because our two radio-tagged owls have shown a startling fondness for the same spot, out of the huge area encompassed by King's Gap State Park and Michaux State Forest.

Last week we radio-tagged two female saw-whets, which we nicknamed Autumn and Fairfield. Friday morning, research tech Anna Fasoli found Autumn roosting very close to our banding station on top of the mountain, while Fairfield was down the slope near one of the day use areas, perched in a grove of white pines.

All well and good. The following day, King's Gap coordinator Gary Shimmel and telemetry guru Aura Stauffer headed out to check on the birds. Sure enough, they got a strong signal from the day use area, and found that Fairfield had moved across the road into a chestnut oak. The other owl was higher up the mountain -- more about her in a sec.

Then on Sunday, it was my turn to do daytime roost tracking, and once again, I found Fairfield at the day use area...but when, after collecting all the habitat and vegetation data we need, I double-checked the transmitter frequency, I discovered we'd been making a mistake the past two nights. The owl sitting in the pine trees wasn't Fairfield, it was Autumn -- they'd switched places.

In fact, the pine that Autumn was in was less than 15 feet from the one Fairfield had been using two days earlier. Was this merely some weird coincidence, or is there something that makes a particular grove of pines - out of uncounted pines in the area - attractive to a saw-whet owl? That's one thing we're investigating.

The real Fairfield was roosting Sunday about three-quarters of a mile away, in a hellishly thick mountain laurel jungle on the side of a rocky slope; the last 30 yards I basically followed the radio signal on my hands and knees. She was perched in a half-dead pitch pine, but the day before, Gary and Aura had found her nearby, perched just a few feet off the ground in mountain laurel.

As with most saw-whets, Fairfield was amazingly easy to approach, as the photos show.

Gary Shimmel and Fairfield (Gary's sitting on the ground) (©Aura Stauffer)

After collecting the habitat data for the site, Gary simply picked up Fairfield, checked to make sure her transmitter harness wasn't causing any problems, and returned her to the perch. Nor is this the first time we've been able to pick up a tagged saw-whet when it's perching low; they are a famously docile and naive species.

(©Aura Stauffer)

On the banding front, we had a pretty good night Sunday. I was banding at Hidden Valley, and my crew had 11 new saw-whets and a local recap, which delighted the visiting Briar Bush Nature Center folks from near Philadelphia. Only two saw-whets at Small Valley, but another six at King's Gap.

Anna, research intern Drew Weber and a couple of volunteers did night-tracking of Autumn Sunday night, but I'll let them post about.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

First push

I had a feeling that the strong northwest winds on Friday, which produced heavy flights of Canada geese and hawks during the day, foretold good things for our banding crews. And sure enough, the winds fell to a frosty calm after dark, producing perfect conditions.

At King's Gap, Aura Stauffer's crew banded four new saw-whets, while at Hidden Valley, Jan Getgood and her crew had eight more NSWOs and a single red-morph eastern screech-owl (EASO). We usually catch a few screech-owls each season, more by accident than anything else, and while they're an interesting change of pace, the banders don't especially like them; unlike well-behaved saw-whets, the EASOs usually defecate freely and repeatedly while being handled, probably as a way of deterring predators. The stuff is slimy, brown and very smelly. "I had three layers of screech owl crap on me," Jan complained in her report.

That brings us to 27 saw-whets for the season. Tonight should be another great night, but unfortunately, two of our sites will be closed -- Small Valley because Girl Scouts are using the camp this weekend, and King's Gap because there's a wedding and reception on the property.

Aura and KG site coordinator Gary Shimmel will be out today looking for Autumn and Fairfield, the two newest telemetry owls. More news as we get it.