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.