Thursday, October 29, 2009

Wet, wet, wet - dry! - wet, wet...

The weather's really been against us this season, as one wet system after another has squatted over the Northeast. This has been especially true for weekends, meaning that most of the groups scheduled to visit the banding stations have either had to cancel, or sit through damp, owless evenings.

We have had some bright spots. Last Sunday night, Oct. 25, conditions were nearly perfect. A cold front had passed through the night before with wind, rain and a lot of falling leaves, but the 25th was cold and calm, with only a half-moon's worth of light. I was running our Hidden Valley site, and after empty nets at the first check, the owls started coming fast and furious, seven or eight at a time. By the time we closed up at 2:30 a.m. we had 24 new saw-whets. In all, we're at about 150 owls for the season - a slow start that puts us behind the average count for this date.

One of the most exciting aspects of our work is the capture of an owl that someone else banded - a foreign recap, of which we've had seven already this year. One of those was an interstation recovery from our own project, a saw-whet banded as a second-year female by Jan Getgood at her home near Hummelstown Nov. 9, 2005, and recaptured on Oct. 20 of this year at our Small Valley site - five-year-old owl, a very respectable age for a saw-whet. (The new longevity record for the species, just set this week by a saw-whet banded and recaptured in Trinity, California, is 9 years old.)

Among the other recoveries whose origins we know were owls captured at King's Gap this month originally banded in Hilliardtown Marsh, ON in 2007; Shirley's Bay, ON, last fall; and the Mohonk Preserve in southeastern New York in 2008. One owl recaptured at Small Valley was banded in Brockway, PA, by Keely Roen's Penn State group last November.

Two of our owls have likewise been reported elsewhere - a Hidden Valley bird from 2007 recaptured at Villa-Marie, Quebec, and a 2008 Hidden Valley owl at Shirley's Bay, ON.

The telemetry work has been a slow push as well for Drew, Kim and Hannah, who are doing yeoman's work under trying circumstances. The weather hasn't helped, and neither has Isra, the saw-whet we're currently tracking - an owl with a talent for leading the crew all over creation, then settling down in the one part of South Mountain designed to confound a radio signal.

Typical was the other night - no matter where Kim positioned herself, she couldn't get a good bearing on the bird, who kept moving around so that Hannah and Drew up on top of the ridge likewise had to keep shifting to new locations. Meantime, Drew was watching on his smart phone as a large area of rain was sweeping in the from southwest. About 4 a.m. it started to drizzle, but it looked from the radar as though the rain would miss them.

Not really. Instead, they found themselves in a driving downpour, slogging 20 minutes back to the car through dripping vegetation. "One of those nights," Drew said later, "but at least we got two extra hours of sleep." Ah, the glamor of wildlife research.

If you're in central Pennsylvania this weekend, be sure to join us for the annual Halloween Owls program at the Ned Smith Center, starting at 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 31. We'll be running nets to catch saw-whets (weather permitting), and our good friends from the Shaver's Creek Environmental Education Center will be there with a variety of live owls. It's always fun, and very kid-friendly.

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