Friday, October 3, 2008

Open for business

We opened our Hidden Valley (western Schuylkill County) and Small Valley (northern Dauphin County) sites Wednesday night - our third site, King's Gap in southern Cumberland County, is a bit farther south than the other two, and the arrival of migrant owls there is always a bit later, so it's opening Oct. 10.

The weather was a little iffy -- lines of thunderstorms were moving across the state in advance of a major cold front, and I was so sure we were going to get wet partway through the evening that I suggested the two volunteers coming to help me at Hidden Valley, both of whom had to drive a long way, take the evening off, which they did.

It didn't rain, but neither did we catch any owls at either site. This is fairly typical; we open each year on Oct. 1 knowing that it's probably before the first migrants arrive in this area - that way, we're able to document the full extent of the fall movement of saw-whets.

And I enjoyed the rare evening alone in the woods. It was twilight as I opened the line of four 40-foot-long mist nets that are the heart of our operation, each one about eight feet high and almost invisible. I was just unfurling the last one when a coyote began to howl, just upslope on the mountain a few hundred yards -- a wonderfully weird song that is thrilling and hair-raisingly eerie at the same time. Then another joined it, before they both moved off down the ridge.

Then I started a little music of my own, flipping the switch on a digital MP3 player attached to two large bullhorn speakers. The woods were filled with the mechanical "toot, toot" of a male saw-whet owl, the audiolure that attracts the migrants to our nets.

I checked the nets every hour from then until midnight, but except for a meadow jumping mouse that pinballed off through the woods, and the snorts of a couple of deer, I didn't see or hear another animal all evening.

Thursday night was near-perfect. It had been a blustery, post-frontal passage day, with strong northerly winds which largely died off at dusk -- ideal migration conditions. But except for the call of an eastern screech-owl at Small Valley, the crews had no birds.

Even in major irruption years, like 2007, the first week can be slow. Eastern Canadian stations are just getting their peak flights now, and our peak doesn't come until the end of the month. This is a time for working out the kinks and preparing.

As always, we're grateful for the strong support of the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art, which has sponsored this research since 1997. This year, we're also grateful for a significant gift by the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club, and a major grant from the RJM Foundation, which among other things is underwriting our greatly expanded radio-telemetry program -- more on that in a later post.

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