Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Wandering wings

Lexi, with a bag lunch (©Anna Fasoli)

What I love about this project is the way the owls keep surprising us -- even if it is occasionally inconvenient.

On Monday the 12th, Aura Stauffer checked on our three tagged owls and found them all pretty much where we'd expected them to be, with Lexi and Maria roosting in the upper reaches of King's Gap Hollow. So that night Anna Fasoli, Drew Weber, Jamie Flickinger and I met to track them, hiking half a mile up to the icy ridgeline to get into good position.

Only owls had other ideas. Maria quickly moved south through the gap and into Cold Springs Hollow, while Lexi zoomed off to the north and west. We decided to chase her, hoofing it back down the mountain, figuring Lexi had shifted to Irishtown Gap Hollow, the next one to the west.

Only she hadn't; there was no sign of her signal. Drew finally located her in about the last place I'd have expected - a small patch of riparian woodland along Yellow Breeches Creek in the valley below South Mountain, a 2.5-mile flight from her roost.

We spent the next five hours monitoring her minor movements within the woodlot, all of us speculating whether the heavy ice on the ridgetop had forced her down, and wondering if she'd remain in the valley to roost the next day.

She didn't. Anna relocated Lexi yesterday, even farther up the side of Buck Ridge than usual, in a dense laurel patch Anna had to crawl into on all fours. This is the first time we've documented a nearly six-mile commute between roosting and feeding sites, a remarkable distance for a small owl.

What's more, Lexi was perched on the ground, holding half a deer mouse leftover from her nighttime hunting, with lots of whitewash on the snow around her. All saw-whets are easy to approach in daylight, but Lexi is unusually tame around us. To get these amazing pictures once she'd finished collecting habitat data, Anna held the camera just an inch or two from Lexi's face (if you look, you'll see Anna's reflection in the owl's eyes).

Concerned Lexi might become fox food if she stayed where she was, Anna poked her gently to make her fly. At first, Lexi simply landed on Anna's backpack, then finally flew a few yards to land up in the laurel.

(©Anna Fasoli)

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