Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Too busy to write

George Gress banding a saw-whet at Hidden Valley (©Scott Weidensaul)

It feels as though we've gone from 0 to 60 around here in no time flat. After a miserable weekend Oct. 15-17, with tons of wind-driven rain, and some snow at the higher elevations, the skies cleared out Sunday, Oct. 18 and we started catching owls - 32 that night, 17 of them at Hidden Valley alone.

All three sites are attaching geolocators, and we've deployed about 30 of the 190 we need to send out this fall. And we've radio-tagged two more saw-whets, which the crew nicknamed Elvira (a hatching-year female) and Isra (a second-year female). Xena, which was tagged Oct. 12, seems to have left the area, but Skreech the screech-owl remains on its territory near King's Gap.

Thank goodness for Skreech. Last weekend, as the worst of the weather was descending, our colleagues Nick and Mary Freeman, who study breeding owls (including saw-whets) in the mountains around Los Angeles, flew in from California. Their first night of banding was canceled due to rain, and Saturday night we were determined to get them out for radio-tracking - except that Xena had bugged out in the rain the night before.

So it was Skreech to the rescue. For three hours in clammy mist and occasionally heavy rain, we gave Mary and Nick a tutorial in basic radio triangulation techniques, along with tips on getting your data sheets soaked, holding dual umbrellas to shield the tracker, and avoiding drips of icy, barely-above-freezing rain down the back of your neck. Mary asked, "Is Pennsylvania always butt-freezing cold?" At this time of the year, often.

Fortunately, they were still in town the next day when the skies cleared and north winds began to blow. They had a few great hours of hawkwatching at Waggoner's Gap, then joined us at Hidden Valley for our 17-bird night.

Since then, the weather has grown considerably less butt-freezing, and with Indian summer, not surprisingly the number of owls has dropped off, down to five to eight per site each night. Still, we're up to 75 for the season - below average but making up ground rapidly.

Tuesday night the telemetry crew were chasing Isra up in Michaux State Forest. Between the canopies of the trees, they could see patches of star-splashed sky - and the whizzing, bright trails of the Orionid meteor shower, which graced the final hours of the night before they put Isra to bed, and went off to get some sleep themselves.

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