Showing posts with label Gemini. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gemini. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Gemini and Maria: "flew the coop?"

Right: Carl searching for Gemini near Tom's Run (Photo: Carl Leinbach)
Below: Lexi barely visible in a pitch pine

Yesterday, I went out tracking with volunteer Carl Leinbach to find Lexi's roost location. Carl and his wife, Pat, live nearby, and have been faithful volunteers for the entire season.

Mainly, they joined us for night-tracking, running around the woods and helping us chase down owls. It was great to have their company and help, and I will greatly miss working with them!

This was the second time Carl joined me on a roost check. A few months back, we tracked Quasi to a pitch pine, and documented it as her second use of the same tree. Lexi was again roosting towards the Buck Ridge, so we trekked up the steep slope that we have hiked more times than we can count in the last four months. We were having a few receiver problems, and ended up switching between 2 receivers to locate the owl (we think that the cold temperatures were interferring with the transmitter on the owl, the receivers, or both).

To get above the owl, we hiked higher than we needed to; it is easier to locate an owl starting out from a higher elevation than the owl to avoid the signal bouncing off the walls of a steep hollow, and being inhibited by the "shelves" that make up the slope. As we approached the area where we figured the owl should be, based on our readings from farther away, the signal faded away, as did the "bars" on the receiver (the signal from the owl's transmitter comes in as a "pulse" through the receiver, and this pulse can be monitored by sound, or visually through bars that continually fluctuate based on signal strength).

We were about to give up, when we both decided to start searching a nearby pitch pine. I was extremely doubtful that we would find her, but sure enough, we saw her little round body shining in the sun almost 60 feet up in a pitch pine. Thanks again to Carl for helping me hunt her down!

Next, we set out to track Gemini, who has taken up residence for over a month near Pine Grove Furnace State Park. There were no "beeps" to be heard anywhere near her usual haunts by Tom's Run. I last noted she was present on the 18th, and it is likely she left the area in anticipation of the few inches of snow that fell on the 19th. Maria also seems to be gone, and has not been located in her typical area since the 13th. The owls may have found a nearby hollow to roost in, or may have moved on further south, continuing their migrations. We will spend the next few days trying to relocate them.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Snowy night

This past weekend we had the worst cold to hit the mountains of central Pennsylvania since 1994 -- it was -8 at our house in Schuylkill County, and only marginally warmer at our South Mountain study site.

It appears that Maria may have left, at least the immediate King's Gap State Park area; ice and snow on the unmaintained state forest roads have made it hard to check whether she's simply moved to a new hollow. Lexi and Gemini remain, though, and Saturday afternoon - when the temp had clawed back above zero -- Anna Fasoli and King's Gap banding volunteers Jane and Maeve Charlesworth tracked down Lexi, high on Buck Ridge.

Last night Anna, new volunteer Lisa Rubin and I met at King's Gap to track Lexi, with snow squalls leaving a fresh coat. Fortunately, the temperature was nearly 30 degrees warmer than it had been the previous morning; in fact, the combination of dead calm and temps in the upper 20s made it one of the most comfortable tracking nights we've had in months - though I am a little nostalgic for swatting mosquitoes back in early October.

We sure got our exercise. What we've tended to see is that the owls leave their roost at dusk, move actively (sometimes covering long distances, as Lexi did last week), but after an hour or two they tend to settle in to one spot, sometimes not moving again for hours. We suspect they're flying from spot to spot until they locate an area with rodent activity, and once they make a kill, they'll plunk down to eat and digest. Because saw-whets usually eat one or two mice a night, we suspect they go through another period of active hunting sometime in the predawn hours, and we'll be looking at that next season, when we begin doing all-night monitoring (in the balmier nights of October and early November, not in subzero January weather).

Last night, though, Lexi didn't settle down. She stayed along the top of Buck Ridge, moving frequently enough that her signal kept fading in an out, and for most of the next six hours we chased her (slowly, carefully, quietly) around the mountain. We'd get into a good position, Anna and Lisa in one place and me several hundred meters away so we had converging angles with our receivers - and the owl would move. And again. And again.

At one point, I moved in several hundred meters with no headlamp, trying not to slip too much on the ice- and snow-covered rocks, when the owl apparently flew in and landed almost on top of me. She did the same thing and hour later, after we'd made an enormous loop and wound up halfway down the mountain near where we started.

It wasn't until 10:30 p.m. that Lexi's signal finally localized near the firebreak in King's Gap Hollow. Whether she 'd just felt the need to stretch, or was having trouble finding prey, she must have found something good. When we left her after 11 p.m. she hadn't budged in more than half an hour, and was presumably enjoying some warm mouse meat.

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)

Friday, January 9, 2009

Icy wonderland

The icy wonderland that is South Mountain...with snow on the way. (©Aura Stauffer)

Both Anna and Aura were out tracking yesterday, and between them they found all three of our telemetry owls.

Anna found Gemini in a tall white pine in her accustomed area along Tom's Run in Michaux State Forest, back near a roost she used Jan. 3. It's a stand of pines and hemlocks northeast of a small cabin that sits near the middle of her winter territory. Everything was still covered in ice, with the wind knocking some of it down; Anna said that Gemini (I keep calling it "she" out of habit, even though it's a sex-unknown bird) was fluffed up in the cold.

A little keepsake from Lexi - a fresh (and frozen) pellet, one of many we've collected and will analyze to see what the owls have been eating. (©Aura Stauffer)

Aura tracked down both Maria and Lexi, who are staying on King's Gap State Park property in upper King's Gap Hollow, as usual. Lexi was perched in a small pitch pine in the firebreak, and Aura was able to collect a pellet from below her roost, while Maria was .3 mile away, not far from the firebreak and back in the same tree she used Jan. 4, and which Quasi had used almost exactly two months earlier.

As you can see from Aura's photos, South Mountain is a real icy wonderland right now, and it may become even more of a challenge to get around after Saturday, with the prediction for 4-6 inches of snow starting tonight.
(©Aura Stauffer)

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Hello, neighbor

After a holiday hiatus while the crew was away, daytime roost tracking in King's Gap State Park and Michaux State Forest resumed Tuesday, with the welcome news that all three of our beeping owls are still around.

"Today was a veritable saw-whet owl trifecta!" Aura Stauffer reported. She started tracking Maria, heading for the tree both Maria and Morticia had used this fall. "She wasn't in the tree, but since the snow melted, there were at least 15 pellets under the tree. Some were pretty old, but others were fresh." Those pellets will be added to the others we've collected, to shed some light on fall/winter food habits.

Aura found Maria about 30 yards away, perched about six feet off the ground in mountain laurel. When Aura tracked down Lexi, in the fire break, she too was sitting head-high in laurel. Gemini was again in the white pine forest along Tom's Run, not far from the base of ridge, sitting up in a pine tree.

New Year's Eve Aura headed back out - and got the kind of surprise that's almost becoming commonplace this fall. She found Maria in a pitch pine, "holding on for dear life as the cold front moved in around mid-morning" with powerful winds. And as for Lexi -- when Aura switched to her frequency, she appeared to be in the same tree as Maria, or another just 10 feet away. Aura never got a visual on Lexi, but the presence of whitewash (and a slightly stronger signal) led her to think Lexi was in the neighboring pine.

Some species of owls, notably long-eared and short-eared owls, roost communally in the winter, but such behavior isn't well documented in saw-whets. But we learned a long time ago, nothing's out of the question with these birds.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The more we know, the less we know

Well, it was an eventful night Saturday, but not the way we'd expected. And an even more eventful Sunday morning.

Saturday afternoon, research tech Anna Fasoli checked on our beeping owls, and found them more or less where she'd expected - Maria and Lexi high up in King's Gap Hollow, and Gemini down along Tom's Run north of Pine Grove Furnace State Park, where she'd been all week.

At dusk, Anna, intern Drew Weber, volunteers Carl and Pat Leinbach and I met at King's Gap Park, aiming to triangulate either Lexi or Maria - and perhaps both, if they were cooperative to both stay in the hollow. But shortly after we split up and began hiking through the ice-encrusted woods, Lexi moved off to the west until her signal disappeared, while Maria moved downslope, shifting back and forth across the firebreak trail for an hour or so, sometimes very close.

And then she, too, headed southwest -- a flashback moment, since this was eerily like the night in November that both Quasi and Sacagawea moved out on us, right down to the massive movement of waterfowl overhead (huge flocks of Canada geese this time, instead of the tundra swans in November).

We headed back to the vehicles, and began what turned into an increasingly frustrating search. While Anna and Drew located Lexi somewhere high in Irishtown Gap Hollow (across private land with no easy access), Maria was gone - and when I checked on Gemini, I couldn't pick up her signal, either, not from high on Ridge Road or from the end of Old Carlisle Road, just a quarter-mile from her roost.

We split up again. Through the course of the evening we covered east along Cold Springs Road and almost to Mt. Holly Springs, and then paralleled each other south as far as Rt. 30 in Franklin County, running the ridges and coming up the valleys.

Nothing. By 11 p.m., with freezing drizzle starting, it was clear at least two of our birds had flown the coop.

Except that Sunday, Anna stunned me with a lunchtime call to say that she'd found all three owls, more or less where they'd been the day before.

What happened? Danged if I know. It's possible that the heavy ice cover on the vegetation had blocked the signals, but earlier on Saturday, Anna had picked up Gemini's beep from the same places where I tried that night with no success.

Saw-whets...a mystery wrapped in an enigma swathed in a riddle. The latest news from Anna is that Lexi was roosting yesterday in a tree that Morticia had used several times last month, another example from this season of different owls using the same roost - even though the pitch pines they pick look, to human eyes, exactly like every other pitch pine in the surrounding forest. We have more questions than answers, which is always fun for researchers.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Tracking back in gear!

It was a wet and soggy day in Michaux State Forest yesterday, the kind of day that makes you really appreciate your rain gear, although, it wasn’t exactly raining. A snow storm dumped around 6 inches of heavy wet snow on the ground Tuesday night, and the warmer temperatures Wednesday morning resulted in the woods turning into a soggy mess as the snow melted. I tracked down Gemini to a tree less than 20 feet away from the tree it (remember, Gemini is an “unknown”) used the previous day. On both occasions, I could not get a visual on it, as the owl was at least 40 feet up in the dense white pines. Today, it was in another nearby white pine. At first, I could not see the owl in the dense branches, but as I stepped back about 20 feet to take a reading on my clinometer (an instrument used to measure the height of trees), I saw the classic “fuzzball” shape about 50 feet up in the branches.

Scott and Aura spent their time yesterday searching for Lexi and Maria. Lexi has been in the dense mountain laurel patch that Andy and Quasi spent much time at. Maria has been a little more challenging to pinpoint, but is somewhere near the Buck Ridge slope, possibly close to where Autumn used to roost. Aura is out again today trying to locate her, because she can’t hide forever with a transmitter on her back!

This weekend will bring more unwelcomed winter weather to the area, so we may have to postpone our night-telemetry. We are confident our owls will stick around, though, since they appear to be wintering here.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Spending half the night in the woods, in the rain, may not sound like a lot of fun to you. Let me explain why you're wrong.

Last night, I met research tech Anna Fasoli at dusk to track one of the owls we'd radio-tagged the night before. A short while earlier, she'd found two of the birds, Lexi and Maria, which had been netted in Cold Springs Hollow, over the top of the ridge and in that veritable Hilton for saw-whets, the upper portion of King's Gap Hollow, where the majority of our tagged owls have roosted this season.

Gemini, on the other hand, had been caught off Ridge Road west of Rt. 233, and earlier in the day, research intern Drew Weber had traced its signal (we don't know this owl's gender) to a dense pine forest about a mile south of its capture location, but he couldn't get a visual on it before he had to leave.

Anna and I took a look at the thickening clouds and spitty rain and decided to focus on Gemini, figuring we could spread out along Ridge Road and track its movements in the valley below (radio-trackers, like soldiers, prefer the high ground). That way, when the heavy rain came we could shelter in our cars between taking our every-10-minute bearings.

We got Gemini's signal nice and strong at first, but with the wind gusting the signal seemed to be moving a lot, fading in and out, so an hour after dark, I decided to loop around to the south and see if there was a way to get closer. Unfortunately, as soon as I dropped off the ridge, I lost the signal. I stopped several times, but got nothing, moving closer and closer to where Drew had found the probable roost site; Still nothing. I radioed Anna, though, who was still picking up a nice, strong beep; she suggested the dense forest might be blocking the transmission.

Finally, I drove back a narrow, muddy track through the state forest that after half a mile passed a lonely cabin and got even worse. I parked; the rain was coming down hard, so I slipped the receiver into a Ziploc bag to keep it dry. This time, Gemini's signal was booming, but I was getting suspicious; this was exactly where Drew had found the signal during the day, and I began to wonder if the squirrely readings were because the owl had picked off the harness and dropped the radio.

I began working my way through the very thick forest - lots of young, dense white pines with an overstory of immense pines and oaks, through which ran Tom's Run, a gorgeous stream. The signal seemed to be moving all over the place, bounced by the trees, very strong but hard to localize. I was increasingly convinced I was looking for a dropped transmitter, not an owl, and radioed periodic updates to Anna, half a mile north of me on the ridge.

Finally, rain dripping off my hood, I zeroed in on one patch of thick pines, zigzagging back and forth, sweeping the antenna along the ground, wondering how I'd spot the radio in this drenched, reflective world.

Then I looked up, right into Gemini's eyes.

The owl was perched at eye level with me, less than five feet away, the antenna sticking out behind it, the bird standing as tall and erect as possible, trying to look like a stick. I looked away for a second, and that fast it was gone.

"I just found the radio," I told Anna, "and it flew away."

So Anna raced down to join me, and for the next two and a half hours, we sat quietly in the dark along the path a couple hundred yards apart, taking very precise bearings as Gemini moved through the woods around us. The rain stopped and the wind hadn't yet started again, and it was really quite pleasant, although the temperature dropped steadily.

At one point, the signal strength increased dramatically, and I whispered into my radio, "It's right here" -- just as Gemini let loose with one of those eerie saw-whet wails, not 20 feet away in the dark.

It was an amazing evening; in seven or eight years of doing this, I've never seen a tagged saw-whet at night. And to be in the woods, with a faint hint of moonlight through the clouds, the stream rushing nearby, was great. Anna had settled into a folding camp chair by the cars, me slouched against a huge white pine by the creek, and we chatted quietly by radio between bearing checks. Our guess is that Gemini's been bunking here since we initially caught it in early November - and why not? Perfect habitat, good cover, and the cabin had well-stocked bird feeders, which probably attract lots of mice and flying squirrels at night.

We finally knocked off about 11 p.m.; we were both tired from the banding blitz Sunday night, and I had a two-hour drive to get home. With luck, we'll be able to locate Gemini's exact roost today, along with Lexi and Maria. The weather tonight looks bad for tracking, but it's great to be back in the game after a two-week hiatus.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Blitz

The Kline family, ready to head into "the desert" (you usually don't have to listen that hard to hear what's coming out of the audiolure speakers, Mary). (©Anna Fasoli)

Meet Lexi, Gemini and Maria.

Last night, in a final, Hail-Mary blitz, we opened nets in not one, not two, not three, but four sites around King's Gap and Michaux State Forest, hoping to get at least one more owl for the telemetry project. And we got three instead - all of them, as the saying goes, known to authorities.

Setting up and monitoring the nets, shuttling the birds back and forth across miles of windy dirt roads, and tearing everything down at the end of the night was a major operation. We had 13 people involved this little escapade - research tech Anna Fasoli, research intern Drew Weber and I; Sandy and Gary Lockerman, Matt, Mary and Katie Kline, Phil Witmer (who drove up from the Philadelphia area, a two-and-a-half-hour drive), and Alex Lamoreaux, Mark Mizak and two PSU friends, Lexi and Tim.

We met at 4 p.m., and got the first set of nets erected south of Ridge Road, which runs along the spine of South Mountain, in an area that had been heavily timbered in recent years; we nicknamed it "the desert" because there was so little understory cover, and we had to run the nets fairly high because of the knee-high carpet of huckleberry. Then we drove east on Ridge Road about three miles to the head of Cold Springs Hollow, where we set up two more nets in fairly dense forest. We divided up the crew, leaving two vehicles at each site so they could shuttle any owls back to King's Gap for processing.

Anna and I put up the final set of new nets and audiolure in King's Gap Hollow in the park, a stone's toss from where several of our owls roosted this fall. Then we met Drew and the Lockermans at the park headquarters and opened the main site nets, two and a half hours after we'd all started.

So did I have a chance to take more than a bite of my dinner sandwich? I did not; Mark and Lexi walked in with the first owl at 7 p.m., an HY-F recap first banded at King's Gap on Nov. 5. Since this was Lexi's first owl despite several visits to KG, we named the bird in her honor, processed the owl and got a harness rigged, while Mark and Lexi (the person) headed back to the site.
Lexi, all set to go. The small piece of index card on her chest keeps the glue on the harness knot from gumming up her feathers, and comes off before release. (©Anna Fasoli)

Drew and Lexi (©Anna Fasoli)

Before we were finished with that bird, Phil and Mary came in with another recap, this one from Nov. 6, an SY-U we named Gemini, in honor of the Geminid meteor shower the last two nights, some of which sprinkled the sky as we were opening.

Rigging the harness and waiting for the glue to dry on the knot takes about half an hour, so we were shuttling the first bird back to Cold Springs Hollow with Drew and Gary when I got a garbled cell phone call from Alex, saying they'd caught another NSWO and were coming in with it. This was yet another KG recap, an SY-F first banded Oct. 26, and recaptured Oct. 29. She's now known as Maria - Anna's middle name, which I thought was appropriate, since this final blitz was her idea.

Sandy Lockerman and Scott Weidensaul working on Maria's harness. (©Anna Fasoli)

All the running back and forth, shuttling birds, checking the KG nets, running down to the Pond, swapping out audiolure batteries at both Ridge Rd. and Cold Springs, made for a night that flew by. We closed up the KG nets at 10:15, took down the Pond nets, then the Ridge Rd. nets at 11. It was after midnight until we had the Cold Springs site down and packed, but everyone was still pretty jazzed.

Closing up Cold Springs at midnight. (©Anna Fasoli)

There are no guarantees, of course, but the fact that all three of these birds have been around for six or seven weeks already makes me hopeful they'll stay for a good while longer. We're back in business on tracking, starting tonight - and with luck, some or all of this new trio will hang around for the winter.