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.

1 comment:

elizabird said...

Fabulous. It is great to get to look into your owl banding work.