Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Tracking Dizzy

With the high pressure cell settling in overhead, things slowed on the migration front Tuesday night, with no owls caught at either Small Valley or Hidden Valley, although the SV crew had a screech-owl close to the nets while they were closing up. (We often catch a few screechies each season that stumble into the nets, either by accident or because they were looking for a saw-whet for dinner.)

However, it was a very active day and night for the telemetry crew. Monday night after I left SV, Anna Fasoli and Drew Weber continued to track Dizzy, the owl we'd released earlier that evening, as she moved around Small Valley, the heavily wooded region where we band. They struggled with some areas where the topography produced odd signal bounce, but once it appeared Dizzy was settling in, they quit for the night around 1:30 a.m.

Late yesterday afternoon, Anna came back to try to find Dizzy's roost. She localized the signal fairly close to the cabin where we band, but neither she nor Drew, who joined her, could get a visual on the owl.

I'm not entirely surprised, because saw-whets can be maddeningly hard to spot - one reason they have long been assumed to be rare. Before leaf-fall, they generally roost high in the outer branches of hardwood trees, often an especially large tree that partially emerges from the surrounding canopy. What's more, they'll tuck themselves partway into a clump of leaves, so pesky flocks of chickadees and titmice don't spot them and raise a fuss. After the leaves drop, the saw-whets switch mostly to conifers, but finding a robin-sized owl in a pitch pine full of similarly sized cones is another challenge.

By about 7:45 p.m. EDT, Dizzy came off her roost. For the next two hours Anna and Drew were able to biangulate her position as she moved around, possibly hunting, but then the owl began to move more rapidly out of the area, and they soon lost her signal entirely. Despite a lot of hiking, followed by a lot of late-night driving on mountain roads through Weiser State Forest, they were unable to relocate her.

Anna will be going back to the banding site today in hopes that Dizzy returned to her previous roost -- or she may have decamped from the area entirely. This is the gamble we take every time we put a radio on a saw-whet; for every bird that sticks around for a couple of weeks, giving us lots of data, we get at least one that vamooses, taking our radio with it.

Scott Weidensaul

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