Monday, April 13, 2009

Lexi has left the building

Lexi's moved on. (©Karl Kleiner)

Well, all good things must come to an end - and almost four months to the day since we first radio-tagged her, Lexi has left the King's Gap area, presumably heading north to breed.

Since the end of February, she'd been roosting in a small grove of white pines along Yellow Breeches Creek in southern Cumberland County, and every day or two, telemetry coordinator Aura Stauffer's been checking on her. On April 8, Aura was joined by Karl Kleiner, one of our banders who is a professor at York College of Pennsylvania, and two of Karl's students, Katie Kolos and Shawn Fauth, who tracked down Lexi with Karl and Aura's help.

Katie Kolos (left) gets a bearing on Lexi while Aura Stauffer and Shawn Fauth watch. (©Karl Kleiner)

The next day, Aura was back, realizing that with the opening of trout season, Lexi suddenly had lots of company in her streamside retreat. Aura pointed out the owl to a couple of young boys and their father who were fishing the Yellow Breeches. "One of the boys ran over to his mom, who was fishing, and told her he just saw the smallest owl in Pennsylvania," Aura reported. "How cute!"

On Saturday, telemetry volunteers Carl and Pat Leinbach, who helped so much last fall and winter with our nighttime work, checked on Lexi and found her signal right where we expected. But by Easter morning, when Karl Kleiner and Susan Klugman checked, there was only silence, and the Leinbachs found the same later in the day. Aura was out this morning, and she confirmed what we all suspected -- Lexi was finally on her way north.

"After tracking her for four months, I will miss the little bugger," Aura said. "She has given us a lot of interesting information; not to mention a whole freezer full of owl pellets (my Mom would be appalled)."

It's been a remarkable experience to track one bird for so long, and Lexi gave us amazing insights into saw-whet winter ecology and behavior. And who knows? She may end up in our nets (or someone else's) down the road. In the meantime, we all wish her a safe migration and successful first breeding season.

There's an funny coda to this story. Carl and Pat, unwilling to give up, headed out today to try one more time for Lexi's signal in some of her other previous roost areas. They started near the pine grove, then drove toward King's Gap, using the roof antenna on their car. Near the state fish hatchery -- bingo, they got a signal. After some doubling back to confirm, they raced up to King's Gap, got out and hooked up the handheld yagi antenna. Nothing, not even near the hatchery.

Then they drove up the mountain on Cold Springs Road to Ridge Road, and along the top, they got a strong signal again. Pat turned off their Prius, and Carl got out with the yagi. Again, nothing. When they hooked up the roof antenna, again they got a strong signal - and that's when they realized that the electrical system in their Prius was fooling the receiver.

"We were tracking ourselves!" Carl said. "The Prius is a small car, but hardly qualifies as a saw-whet owl."

We couldn't ask for a better, more dedicated crew of volunteers - and now, with our two-month "autumn" research season finally wrapping up after almost seven months, it's time for us to take a rest. Thanks as well to those who've been following this blog - we'll start again come late September, with more banding, telemetry and an even more exciting new project...but we'll have more to say about that come fall, though.