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.

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