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.

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