Monday, December 22, 2008

The more we know, the less we know

Well, it was an eventful night Saturday, but not the way we'd expected. And an even more eventful Sunday morning.

Saturday afternoon, research tech Anna Fasoli checked on our beeping owls, and found them more or less where she'd expected - Maria and Lexi high up in King's Gap Hollow, and Gemini down along Tom's Run north of Pine Grove Furnace State Park, where she'd been all week.

At dusk, Anna, intern Drew Weber, volunteers Carl and Pat Leinbach and I met at King's Gap Park, aiming to triangulate either Lexi or Maria - and perhaps both, if they were cooperative to both stay in the hollow. But shortly after we split up and began hiking through the ice-encrusted woods, Lexi moved off to the west until her signal disappeared, while Maria moved downslope, shifting back and forth across the firebreak trail for an hour or so, sometimes very close.

And then she, too, headed southwest -- a flashback moment, since this was eerily like the night in November that both Quasi and Sacagawea moved out on us, right down to the massive movement of waterfowl overhead (huge flocks of Canada geese this time, instead of the tundra swans in November).

We headed back to the vehicles, and began what turned into an increasingly frustrating search. While Anna and Drew located Lexi somewhere high in Irishtown Gap Hollow (across private land with no easy access), Maria was gone - and when I checked on Gemini, I couldn't pick up her signal, either, not from high on Ridge Road or from the end of Old Carlisle Road, just a quarter-mile from her roost.

We split up again. Through the course of the evening we covered east along Cold Springs Road and almost to Mt. Holly Springs, and then paralleled each other south as far as Rt. 30 in Franklin County, running the ridges and coming up the valleys.

Nothing. By 11 p.m., with freezing drizzle starting, it was clear at least two of our birds had flown the coop.

Except that Sunday, Anna stunned me with a lunchtime call to say that she'd found all three owls, more or less where they'd been the day before.

What happened? Danged if I know. It's possible that the heavy ice cover on the vegetation had blocked the signals, but earlier on Saturday, Anna had picked up Gemini's beep from the same places where I tried that night with no success.

Saw-whets...a mystery wrapped in an enigma swathed in a riddle. The latest news from Anna is that Lexi was roosting yesterday in a tree that Morticia had used several times last month, another example from this season of different owls using the same roost - even though the pitch pines they pick look, to human eyes, exactly like every other pitch pine in the surrounding forest. We have more questions than answers, which is always fun for researchers.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Tracking back in gear!

It was a wet and soggy day in Michaux State Forest yesterday, the kind of day that makes you really appreciate your rain gear, although, it wasn’t exactly raining. A snow storm dumped around 6 inches of heavy wet snow on the ground Tuesday night, and the warmer temperatures Wednesday morning resulted in the woods turning into a soggy mess as the snow melted. I tracked down Gemini to a tree less than 20 feet away from the tree it (remember, Gemini is an “unknown”) used the previous day. On both occasions, I could not get a visual on it, as the owl was at least 40 feet up in the dense white pines. Today, it was in another nearby white pine. At first, I could not see the owl in the dense branches, but as I stepped back about 20 feet to take a reading on my clinometer (an instrument used to measure the height of trees), I saw the classic “fuzzball” shape about 50 feet up in the branches.

Scott and Aura spent their time yesterday searching for Lexi and Maria. Lexi has been in the dense mountain laurel patch that Andy and Quasi spent much time at. Maria has been a little more challenging to pinpoint, but is somewhere near the Buck Ridge slope, possibly close to where Autumn used to roost. Aura is out again today trying to locate her, because she can’t hide forever with a transmitter on her back!

This weekend will bring more unwelcomed winter weather to the area, so we may have to postpone our night-telemetry. We are confident our owls will stick around, though, since they appear to be wintering here.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Spending half the night in the woods, in the rain, may not sound like a lot of fun to you. Let me explain why you're wrong.

Last night, I met research tech Anna Fasoli at dusk to track one of the owls we'd radio-tagged the night before. A short while earlier, she'd found two of the birds, Lexi and Maria, which had been netted in Cold Springs Hollow, over the top of the ridge and in that veritable Hilton for saw-whets, the upper portion of King's Gap Hollow, where the majority of our tagged owls have roosted this season.

Gemini, on the other hand, had been caught off Ridge Road west of Rt. 233, and earlier in the day, research intern Drew Weber had traced its signal (we don't know this owl's gender) to a dense pine forest about a mile south of its capture location, but he couldn't get a visual on it before he had to leave.

Anna and I took a look at the thickening clouds and spitty rain and decided to focus on Gemini, figuring we could spread out along Ridge Road and track its movements in the valley below (radio-trackers, like soldiers, prefer the high ground). That way, when the heavy rain came we could shelter in our cars between taking our every-10-minute bearings.

We got Gemini's signal nice and strong at first, but with the wind gusting the signal seemed to be moving a lot, fading in and out, so an hour after dark, I decided to loop around to the south and see if there was a way to get closer. Unfortunately, as soon as I dropped off the ridge, I lost the signal. I stopped several times, but got nothing, moving closer and closer to where Drew had found the probable roost site; Still nothing. I radioed Anna, though, who was still picking up a nice, strong beep; she suggested the dense forest might be blocking the transmission.

Finally, I drove back a narrow, muddy track through the state forest that after half a mile passed a lonely cabin and got even worse. I parked; the rain was coming down hard, so I slipped the receiver into a Ziploc bag to keep it dry. This time, Gemini's signal was booming, but I was getting suspicious; this was exactly where Drew had found the signal during the day, and I began to wonder if the squirrely readings were because the owl had picked off the harness and dropped the radio.

I began working my way through the very thick forest - lots of young, dense white pines with an overstory of immense pines and oaks, through which ran Tom's Run, a gorgeous stream. The signal seemed to be moving all over the place, bounced by the trees, very strong but hard to localize. I was increasingly convinced I was looking for a dropped transmitter, not an owl, and radioed periodic updates to Anna, half a mile north of me on the ridge.

Finally, rain dripping off my hood, I zeroed in on one patch of thick pines, zigzagging back and forth, sweeping the antenna along the ground, wondering how I'd spot the radio in this drenched, reflective world.

Then I looked up, right into Gemini's eyes.

The owl was perched at eye level with me, less than five feet away, the antenna sticking out behind it, the bird standing as tall and erect as possible, trying to look like a stick. I looked away for a second, and that fast it was gone.

"I just found the radio," I told Anna, "and it flew away."

So Anna raced down to join me, and for the next two and a half hours, we sat quietly in the dark along the path a couple hundred yards apart, taking very precise bearings as Gemini moved through the woods around us. The rain stopped and the wind hadn't yet started again, and it was really quite pleasant, although the temperature dropped steadily.

At one point, the signal strength increased dramatically, and I whispered into my radio, "It's right here" -- just as Gemini let loose with one of those eerie saw-whet wails, not 20 feet away in the dark.

It was an amazing evening; in seven or eight years of doing this, I've never seen a tagged saw-whet at night. And to be in the woods, with a faint hint of moonlight through the clouds, the stream rushing nearby, was great. Anna had settled into a folding camp chair by the cars, me slouched against a huge white pine by the creek, and we chatted quietly by radio between bearing checks. Our guess is that Gemini's been bunking here since we initially caught it in early November - and why not? Perfect habitat, good cover, and the cabin had well-stocked bird feeders, which probably attract lots of mice and flying squirrels at night.

We finally knocked off about 11 p.m.; we were both tired from the banding blitz Sunday night, and I had a two-hour drive to get home. With luck, we'll be able to locate Gemini's exact roost today, along with Lexi and Maria. The weather tonight looks bad for tracking, but it's great to be back in the game after a two-week hiatus.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Blitz

The Kline family, ready to head into "the desert" (you usually don't have to listen that hard to hear what's coming out of the audiolure speakers, Mary). (©Anna Fasoli)

Meet Lexi, Gemini and Maria.

Last night, in a final, Hail-Mary blitz, we opened nets in not one, not two, not three, but four sites around King's Gap and Michaux State Forest, hoping to get at least one more owl for the telemetry project. And we got three instead - all of them, as the saying goes, known to authorities.

Setting up and monitoring the nets, shuttling the birds back and forth across miles of windy dirt roads, and tearing everything down at the end of the night was a major operation. We had 13 people involved this little escapade - research tech Anna Fasoli, research intern Drew Weber and I; Sandy and Gary Lockerman, Matt, Mary and Katie Kline, Phil Witmer (who drove up from the Philadelphia area, a two-and-a-half-hour drive), and Alex Lamoreaux, Mark Mizak and two PSU friends, Lexi and Tim.

We met at 4 p.m., and got the first set of nets erected south of Ridge Road, which runs along the spine of South Mountain, in an area that had been heavily timbered in recent years; we nicknamed it "the desert" because there was so little understory cover, and we had to run the nets fairly high because of the knee-high carpet of huckleberry. Then we drove east on Ridge Road about three miles to the head of Cold Springs Hollow, where we set up two more nets in fairly dense forest. We divided up the crew, leaving two vehicles at each site so they could shuttle any owls back to King's Gap for processing.

Anna and I put up the final set of new nets and audiolure in King's Gap Hollow in the park, a stone's toss from where several of our owls roosted this fall. Then we met Drew and the Lockermans at the park headquarters and opened the main site nets, two and a half hours after we'd all started.

So did I have a chance to take more than a bite of my dinner sandwich? I did not; Mark and Lexi walked in with the first owl at 7 p.m., an HY-F recap first banded at King's Gap on Nov. 5. Since this was Lexi's first owl despite several visits to KG, we named the bird in her honor, processed the owl and got a harness rigged, while Mark and Lexi (the person) headed back to the site.
Lexi, all set to go. The small piece of index card on her chest keeps the glue on the harness knot from gumming up her feathers, and comes off before release. (©Anna Fasoli)

Drew and Lexi (©Anna Fasoli)

Before we were finished with that bird, Phil and Mary came in with another recap, this one from Nov. 6, an SY-U we named Gemini, in honor of the Geminid meteor shower the last two nights, some of which sprinkled the sky as we were opening.

Rigging the harness and waiting for the glue to dry on the knot takes about half an hour, so we were shuttling the first bird back to Cold Springs Hollow with Drew and Gary when I got a garbled cell phone call from Alex, saying they'd caught another NSWO and were coming in with it. This was yet another KG recap, an SY-F first banded Oct. 26, and recaptured Oct. 29. She's now known as Maria - Anna's middle name, which I thought was appropriate, since this final blitz was her idea.

Sandy Lockerman and Scott Weidensaul working on Maria's harness. (©Anna Fasoli)

All the running back and forth, shuttling birds, checking the KG nets, running down to the Pond, swapping out audiolure batteries at both Ridge Rd. and Cold Springs, made for a night that flew by. We closed up the KG nets at 10:15, took down the Pond nets, then the Ridge Rd. nets at 11. It was after midnight until we had the Cold Springs site down and packed, but everyone was still pretty jazzed.

Closing up Cold Springs at midnight. (©Anna Fasoli)

There are no guarantees, of course, but the fact that all three of these birds have been around for six or seven weeks already makes me hopeful they'll stay for a good while longer. We're back in business on tracking, starting tonight - and with luck, some or all of this new trio will hang around for the winter.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Sacagawea and Andromeda

The news over the past week has been mixed, with tracking limited by the holiday and the opening of rifle deer season. On Nov. 28, Karl Kleiner and one of his students tracked down Andromeda, which they found perched in a cluster of young pines at Cold Spring Gap, with a spectacular view over South Mountain.
The view over Cold Spring Gap (©Karl Kleiner)

Andromeda plays "if I can't see you, you can't see me." (©Karl Kleiner)

After that, though, Andromeda vanished on us - but on Dec. 2, Aura Stauffer caught a whisper of a beep from Sacagawea's radio, a bird we'd last encountered on Nov. 20. She had a hard time localizing the weak signal, as did Anna Fasoli the next day, but on Thursday, Aura tracked down the transmitter - which was no longer attached to an owl. Sacagawea had picked off the harness - something we design the harnesses to eventually permit, but which we wouldn't happen quite so quickly.

The King's Gap banding crew has tried this past week to catch additional owls for the telemetry project, but the well appears pretty dry, and they've had little to do but watch the ever-growing mob of flying squirrels (now up to five) that feast nightly on the sunflower seed stored in the KG basement. After this weekend we'll suspend regular banding there, although we may try one more blitz next week to get a last owl or two.

I did manage to catch a second long-eared owl in my yard nets in Schuylkill County last week, as well as a local gray-morph screech-owl Wednesday night.