Sunday, September 27, 2009

Ready, set...

Although it's been six months since we wrapped up our winter radio-tracking in April, we haven't been idle - in fact, we're a few days away from launching by far the most ambitious season of saw-whet owl research since the Ned Smith Center started studying these remarkable birds 13 years ago.

Once again, we'll be operating three banding sites through October and November - Hidden Valley in western Schuylkill County, PA; Small Valley in northern Dauphin County; and King's Gap in southern Cumberland County on South Mountain. Manning these stations will be 16 federally licensed banders and about 85 volunteers (which is a bit of misnomer; everyone on the banding crew is a volunteer).

We know from long experience that saw-whet owls are cyclical, and we're expecting a better season than last year's stinker total of 229 owls, but nothing like the record 900+ we had in 2007. I'm predicting a roughly average 475 owls, and would love to find that I low-balled it.

We also will be completing the second year of our two-year nighttime activity range study at King's Gap and adjacent Michaux State Forest. This formidable undertaking will be headed up by research technician (and '08 research intern) Drew Weber, ably assisted by this year's interns - Hannah Panci of Eagle River, WI, and Kim Romano of Lawrenceville, GA. They'll be conducting all-night radio-tracking roughly four nights a week through Dec. 18, and will be sharing their experiences through the blog.

Finally, we'll be using some of the most cutting-edge technology in avian research this year - tiny, light-sensitive geolocators, a kind of data logger invented by the British Antarctic Survey for tracking albatross migration, and now miniaturized by the BAS for use on smaller birds. (You may have seen a ground-breaking study published last winter by my colleague Dr. Bridget Stuchbury at York University in Toronto, which used geolocators to track wood thrushes and purple martins to and from their tropical wintering grounds.)

By logging daylight length and light intensity, the units record daily latitude and longitude for up to two years. We'll be deploying 190 of them this fall, and although only 10-20 of them are likely to be recovered in years ahead, those should shed unprecedented light on saw-whet owl migration. (Both the telemetry and geolocator projects have been underwritten by the generous support of the RJM Foundation, for which we're grateful.)

We'll be updating the blog every few days through the banding season, which kicks off this weekend - watch for updates, and to learn more about the project, visit the Ned Smith Center's website at

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