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.

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