Showing posts with label Quasi. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Quasi. Show all posts

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)

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.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Andromeda and a little TLC

Andromeda: Is he a he or a she? (©Scott Weidensaul)

The past few days our attention has been focused on Andromeda, our twice-tagged saw-whet that slipped a radio on Nov. 2 and was recaptured - and reharnessed- on Nov. 19. This bird's a bit of mystery on a couple of counts, including its gender.

As with most raptors, female saw-whets average larger than males, and by combining the weight and the length of the wing chord, we can sex most of the saw-whets we catch. But there are about 15 percent that fall into the muddy middle ground of the largest males and smallest females, which we have to record as "sex unknown." Andromeda is one of these. Is he a he or a her? We don't know.

Since Andy (as the tracking crew has been calling it) got its second radio, the owl has been hanging out along the laurel-choked hillside that forms the southeastern boundary of King's Gap State Park and Michaux State Forest. It's a place we're getting to know well, since earlier this season a couple of our owls (especially Fairfield) roosted there, as have radio-tagged saw-whets in previous years.

Anna Fasoli had tracked Andromeda to the laurel patch, but couldn't find the owl, though Saturday night they were able to follow its movements as it left the roost and began hunting. Sunday I set off, frustrated for a time by the signal bounce in King's Gap Hollow, which seemed even worse than usual. The recent snow was embroidered with lots of tracks -- deer, gray and red fox, a raccoon. Up in the laurel thicket there were also plenty of mouse, vole and shrew paths, suggesting that it might not just be shelter that draws the saw-whets.

Little wonder they call these thickets "laurel hells" in parts of the southern Appalachians. At times I could barely find the room to raise my arm and deploy the antenna. Eventually I zeroed in on small patch of laurel and pitch pines just off the Buck Ridge Trail, so I dropped my pack, yagi antenna and receiver, and wormed my way in on hands and knees - and found myself face to face with Andromeda, perched about two feet off the ground in a laurel.

I had a hard time spotting it, but the other birds did not. Four or five times over the next half-hour, flocks of chickadees and kinglets mobbed the saw-whet, fussing and hissing. I also saw a young goshawk, and all the mammal tracks lead me to think this is an owl that needs to be careful about perching too low or too conspicuously.

Last night Anna and Drew Weber checked on Andromeda a couple of times, but devoted most of the night to searching more thoroughly for Sacagawea and Quasi, who had left the immediate King's Gap area. No luck, though several times they thought they heard beeps through the white-noise static -- an aural hallucination when you've been listening to that hiss for hours, trying to pull a signal out of it. They worked their way all the way down to Fayetteville, Franklin County, before giving up.

Meanwhile, Aura Stauffer and the King's Gap banding crew had snagged one more owl, to which they gave a radio and a name: TLC. You might think that stands for "Tender Loving Care," but this bunch was thinking more about Thanksgiving, and it really means "Tastes Like Chicken." ("You can always tell people that it's a rapper name," Aura suggested.)

Over at Hidden Valley, Nate McKelvie's crew also had one saw-whet, bringing our count to 227. Saturday night was the final night for banding at Small Valley - after closing the nets for the season, without any final owls, Sandy Lockerman and her crew repaired to the Summerdale Diner for the fourth annual midnight breakfast rendezvous. "So now we're filled with artery-clogging bacon, French toast, eggs, hot coffee and tea and lots of laughter and chit-chat," Sandy reported.

Looks like rain and snow are going to cancel banding and tracking tonight, but then things should clear out a bit Tuesday.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Back like a (good) penny

On Nov. 2, Aura Stauffer tried a new glue attachment for our radio transmitters on an hatching year owl of unknown sex that the King's Gap crew nicknamed Andromeda. The experiment was less than a stellar success - the bird plucked off the transmitter almost immediately, and the next day Aura found it less than 30 yards from the banding site.

But Wednesday night, Andromeda made a return appearance in the nets, and this time Aura was taking no chances - she gave the owl its old radio but used our standard backpack harness to attach it.

The KG crew also netted an unbanded adult saw-whet. There wasn't much beyond that - Small Valley caught (for the fourth time) an owl originally banded at Prince Edward Point, Ontario in September. Bander Guy Ubaghs speculates it must have found something to its liking, perhaps Pennsylvania scrapple. (If you're not sure what scrapple is, be warned that just Googling the stuff will clog your arteries.)

At Hidden Valley, Teresa Amitrone and her crew had an unruly bunch of Boy Scouts and a lack of owls. Today another batch of lake-effect snow-showers moved through central Pennsylvania, and at dusk many areas were a winter wonderland of wet snow clinging to every twig and branch.

Sacagawea remained in her previous location west of Rt. 233 in Michaux State Forest, but we didn't have an opportunity to look for Quasi, whose signal was last heard disappearing to the southwest on Monday.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Cold going

Anna Fasoli, Drew Weber and the telemetry volunteers have been spending a lot of time in the dark, cold and snow lately. Anna and Drew did four nights in a row, Sunday through Wednesday, a period that included lows in the 20s, high winds and some blinding snow squalls. They had been tracking Quasi, a saw-whet we tagged on Oct. 25 and which had been extremely cooperative, staying within upper King's Gap Hollow every night.

We knew the good times couldn't last. Tuesday night I joined Anna and Drew, along with telemetry volunteers Pat and Carl Leinbach, hoping to double up on Quasi and a new owl we'd tagged Sunday night named Sacagawea. At dusk we had both their signals, but as we split into three teams for triangulation, both owls started moving to the southwest.

Quasi just kept on going, moving steadily southwest until we lost her signal. Drew managed to relocated Sacagawea, however, in Michaux State Forest about two miles to the southwest, and we tracked her movements until after midnight.

One highlight was hiking to the boundary of King's Gap Park and the state forest, with snow flurries falling and the wild whooping cries of hundreds of tundra swans passing overhead in the darkness - birds that were en route from northern and western Alaska to the Chesapeake Bay.

I can't begin to express my admiration for Anna, Drew and the rest of the crew -- it's been bitterly cold up on the ridges, standing for hours in the snow and wind taking bearings every 10 minutes.

Anna found Sacagawea's roost during the day Wednesday, still in the same general area, then that night she, Drew and Jen Smetzer tried to track her. Unfortunately, the owl moved down off the ridge into an area of private land, and when they tried to find positions from which to get good bearings, they were hassled by the owner of a nearby home, who was understandably suspicious of people with glowing spots on their foreheads waving metal antennas. So they shifted back up into the state forest, making the best of a weak signal -- enough to show them that Sacagawea didn't move far.

While the tracking has been going well, the banding has been dismally slow. Since the big cold front came through Sunday things have picked up a little bit, with nine new owls, but it's been a hard slog for the banding crews, especially at our unheated sites, Hidden Valley and Small Valley.

We did set up a new net array near the banding site at Hidden Valley, playing a combination of long-eared owl and boreal owl calls -- we'll see if my backyard capture of the long-eared was a fluke, or if we should expand our project to focus as well on these poorly understood birds.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Slip slidin' away

Biologists who use telemetry to track animal movements have a variety of ways, temporary and permanent, to attach the transmitter, from surgically implanting it in the body cavity of the subject (obviously pretty permanent) to using a light adhesive that will come off in hours, days or weeks, depending on the need.

Most bird researchers use an external harness of some sort, and that's what we've used for the past seven years in our saw-whet study. We create a figure-eight of very thin elastic nylon beading cord that goes around the wings and holds the radio high in the middle of the owl's back, tucked down under the feathers.

Given that the batteries only last about three months, we don't want to saddle the owl with even the relatively light weight of the radio for the rest of its life, so we make the harness with a knot in a fairly accessible location, on the bird's side, where it can preen and pick at it. We zap the knot with a drop of SuperGlu to give it some protection, but eventually the owl will take it off...hopefully only after it's left the study area or the battery has died.

(©Aura Stauffer)

Morticia, it seems, was a determined little girl. Aura Stauffer was tracking Quasi and Morticia on Wednesday, and after finding Quasi in her accustomed haunts in King's Gap Hollow, she followed Tish's signal to a grove of young white pines. Aura had a strong signal from a fairly open part of the trees where there was obviously no owl perched, so she had a hunch what was up. Today, Aura went back and was able to locate Morticia's radio and harness on the ground. Since the battery only has a few weeks' worth of use, we'll probably recycle the transmitter to a new owl quickly.

The netting and banding have been pathetically slow this week, despite what had been pretty good conditions. All stations combined had three owls Sunday, none Monday, two Tuesday and none Wednesday, as the first rain showers moved in.

Hidden Valley crew members Pat Trego, Gene Harris, Randy Lauff and Denise Donmoyer (©Scott Weidensaul)

We have had some interesting visitors, though. Tuesday night at Hidden Valley we were delighted to welcome Randy Lauff, a professor of biology at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. I've been corresponding with Randy for years about his nest-box studies of saw-whets and boreal owls up there, and he's now doing migration netting as well. Although we had only one saw-whet to discuss that evening, we had a great time hearing about his work and getting really, really jealous as he showed us photos of his boreal owls.

Our night tracking teams are taking a well-deserved break after four nights of nocturnal work, and Anna Fasoli has worked up some activity maps from the recent tracking. Here's one from Sunday, Nov. 9, showing Quasi's movements. This map does not show the error polygons that indicate how reliable a particular location is, so it's best to consider those red dots as a general indication of where the owl was at various times, not a pinpointed spot. The X's show where our two tracking teams were positioned -- my nephew Connor Callaghan and me on the left, Anna, Jen Smetzer and Kim Mihalek on the right.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Night tracking in full swing

For the past 3 nights, the tracking team has been roaming the woods of King's Gap State Park keeping tabs on our 2 owls, Quasi and Morticia.

On saturday night, we were joined by Ann Rhoads and her grandson Ben. We started at the Pond Area parking lot, while Drew braved the dark night alone and headed upslope towards Quasi. Quasi did not venture far from her roost area, and stayed relatively close to both teams the entire night, never making any drastic moves. She was making enough movements to ruin our angle on her, so we moved around a few times in an attempt to maintain a good angle. As the night went on, a cold front moved through, causing us to do what Ben called "the dance of winter" to keep warm. About half an hour before ending, Drew heard a saw-whet call in our general direction, which very well may have been Quasi.

On sunday night, we were joined by volunteers Kim Mihalek and Jennifer Smetzer, and also Scott's nephew Conner. We kept tabbs on both Quasi and Morticia, and managed to stay in ideal locations that gave us an excellent angle on the owls locations. This night was colder yet, and Jen implemented the "funny walk contest," which was not only a way to keep warm, but a fantastic form of entertainment!

Last night, we were joined by volunteers Pat and Carl Leinbach, and Phil Witmer. This time, we again started from the top of Buck Ridge, and worked our way down. Phil and Drew ventured down slope, while Pat, Carl, and I stayed on the upper part of the slope. Both Quasi and Morticia were in range, but they were not as cooperative as the previous night. Regardless, we were still able to get intersecting lines after moving positions a few times. This was the chilliest of the three nights, with temperatures dropping to 29 degrees! It felt even colder with the wind. We stayed warm by jogging in place and taking short trips back up the hillside.

Stay tuned for night activity maps for the owls we've been tracking each night. We will head out again tonight, our last night of the week. As Scott mentioned, we'll be planning a few "all-nighters" to see what the owls are doing until dawn. As always, if you are interested in helping out, please email me at

Thanks to all the volunteers who have been coming out with us, driving from afar, and continually braving the cold temperatures. We really couldn't do it without you!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Lots of tracking

Our telemetry crews have been busy lately, continuing to track Quasi and Morticia in and around King's Gap State Park.

Susan Klugman hunting for Morticia on Sunday (©Aura Stauffer)

Over the weekend, both owls were staying in their previous haunts in King's Gap Hollow. Sunday, Aura Stauffer, Susan Klugman and Karl Kleiner were out, finding both owls on their day roosts. Karl was getting a fair bit of ribbing from Susan and their friends over a feature in the Carlisle Sentinel about banding at King's Gap.

Karl Kleiner taking a bead with the long lens on Morticia... (©Aura Stauffer)

...and getting the shot of her, pretending to be asleep while the humans collect all that bothersome data. (©Karl Kleiner)

Saturday night research tech Anna Fasoli and intern Drew Weber, with help from visiting botanist Ann Rhoads and her grandson Ben, tracked Quasi in an area below the Buck Ridge Trail, despite some technical glitches with one of the receivers and difficulty finding good positions from which to shoot bearings.

Last night, Anna, King's Gap staffer Kim Mihalek, volunteer Jennifer Smetzer, my 14-year-old nephew Connor and I were back up on Buck Ridge, hoping that being above the owls would help -- and it did. We split up at dark into two teams, positioning ourselves about a quarter-mile apart along the ridge. We took GPS coordinates for our locations, then every 10 minutes for the next six hours, we simultaneously took radio bearings on Quasi as she moved around upper King's Gap Hollow. We also picked up Morticia's signal, and were able to get some bearings on her, as well.

It's an odd experience, "following" a wild animal remotely like that, inferring its activities by the changing location and intensity of the radio signal. Both owls moved around quite a bit for several hours, though Quasi never left that relatively small area of the hollow before settling down by about 10 p.m. - "Sitting on a mouse," Anna pronounced, and I suspect she was right.

I'd use the receiver and antenna to take a bearing, then Connor would pull out the compass and determine the azimuth while I jotted the time, azimuth and signal strength on the data sheet. Both of our teams were positioned so that our bearings intersected at roughly a 90-degree angle, giving us a fairly precise location for the owl at that moment. Later, Anna will plot all the bearings and GPS locations into a program called LOAS (Location Of A Signal) that will pinpoint the owl's positions, then she will overlay that with GIS information and satellite images to create a highly detailed map of Quasi and Morticia's activity range for the night.

So far, we've only done dusk-to-midnight sessions, but as we get better at this, and get our crew trained up, we'll be doing some all-nighters before too long.

When we weren't taking bearings, there was lots of time to watch the stars and the racing clouds, listen to the distant toot of the audiolure at King's Gap, and talk about things important and dumb. We looked down past the inky black ridges of South Mountain to the brightly lit valley, wondering how many people even suspected there was a migratory miracle going on, right at that moment, over their heads.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Quasi's mid-day snack

It was an unseasonably warm day for tracking yesterday. The warm weather brought out mosquitos and gnats, and as usual, the ticks were out in full force. We have two owls remaining at King's Gap, Morticia and Quasi. Autumn and Fairfield seem to have left, although we still have hope they might show up on a future search. They may be hiding in a hollow somewhere just out of the 1/2 mile range of our receivers.

I looked for Quasi first. As I was narrowing down the tree she was in, just outside the King's Gap boundary, my receiver batteries started to weaken, so I stopped to change them. After putting in a fresh set, I looked up, and there was the fuzzball of Quasi high up in the pitch pine I was standing near. An important part of tracking is following the signal, but the key is looking up, because sometimes the owls are just as clear as day. Or, in the case of most owls that are very well hidden, the key is looking down to the ground for signs of an owl, including whitewash and pellets. Directly underneath Quasi I saw whitewash, but came up short on a pellet search. Upon looking at Quasi with my binoculars, I saw the long thin tail of a mouse hanging beneath her. I snapped a few photos to get a better look at the lifeless body she clutched in her talons. Because Quasi was about 50 feet up, the closest photo I could take with my camera is slightly blurry, but you can make out the tail and the body of the mouse in the photo above.

Quasi could not be bothered by me at all at this height, and didn't look down at me once. Because of the angle of the branches, the best shot was directly underneath her, which provided a good view of the mouse. She never started eating the mouse, which is sometimes the case, and she still held onto it when I was done with data collection.
I checked on Morticia next, who has been favoring the leaf cover of oak trees. I found her in a large chestnut oak east of the Pond Day Use area parking lot. I found whitewash, but she remained concealed the entire time.
The tracking team will be headed out tonight through wednesday to monitor the activitiy of these owls at night. Last weekend, we started out tracking Morticia, who turned out to be incredibly active, jumping from hollow to hollow, while Quasi remained in only one hollow. We are unsure if either of these patterns are usual behaviors for saw-whets, and we'll need to spend many more nights in the dark to find out!

Friday, November 7, 2008

I get the sense there's a really terrific couple of nights coming our way once this next cold front clears over the weekend, because we're getting low but steady numbers of birds despite warm, misty, drippy weather. Last night, for instance, we had 10 new NSWOs, despite the fact that, as Guy Ubaghs pointed out at Small Valley, they were closing the nets in shirt-sleeves.

We're at 197 saw-whets, our second-lowest total for the date since we started multiple sites in 1999; the only worse year was 2006, when we were at 86 owls for the date. That year we more than doubled our Nov. 6 total in the subsequent two weeks, so we'll see what happens between now and about Nov. 20. (The 10-year average to date is 304, and last year's total for Nov. 6 was 713.)

At King's Gap, Kim Van Fleet's crew banded one of the heaviest saw-whets she's ever handled, a beefy female that tipped the scale at 112.3g. If memory serves, the very heaviest we've ever had was around 116-120g, so this is the upper echelon of fat (er, big-boned) NSWOs.

We have one more mild, damp night to get through tonight, but a major cold front is sweeping across the entire eastern half of the country, reaching far out into the Gulf of Mexico. It will usher in a very different weather pattern for next week, with highs only in the 40s or 50s, and Saturday through Monday nights should be nearly ideal.

We continue to track Morticia and Quasi in King's Gap park; an attempt to relocate Autumn and Fairfield earlier in the week came up dry. The owls are staying pretty much where they've been -- Quasi keeps shifting between two roost trees on the southern boundary of the park, while Morticia roams a bit more, bouncing between King's Gap and Maple hollows. We plan on gearing up for more night tracking in the next few evenings, weather and personnel permitting.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Drip, drip, drip...

The weather has been as unseasonably mild this week as it was unseasonably wintry last week, and it's not helping the cause much. We've been back to a slow drip of birds - 10 owls on Sunday night, six on Monday night, and just two on Tuesday, when King's Gap had to close at 7:30 p.m. because of rain, and Small Valley a few hours later. Only Hidden Valley was able to put in a full night, and they had just one bird.

Quasi and Morticia remain on or around King's Gap State Park, and Sunday night Anna, Drew and several volunteers were able to track them. They started with Morticia, who moved all over the map and eventually out of radio range; at that point, the teams started tracking Quasi, who stayed closer to her roost area for the next several hours.

Sunday night at Hidden Valley we had a large group of visitors from Audubon Pennsylvania, the state office of The Nature Conservancy, the Academy of Natural Sciences and several land trusts. The TNC folks have posted video from the visit here, including the banding process.

The weather looks pretty poor for the next few nights, with showers and rain in the forecast through the weekend. We're keeping our fingers crossed, since this is usually our best week, and we have a lot of visiting groups on the calendar.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Finding a Saw-whet

It was a beautiful day for tromping around in the woods yesterday. The skies were clear, it was almost warm and lots of birds such as pine siskins, white-breasted nuthatches and golden-crowned kinglets were flitting around. Scott and I were searching for Quasi and her signal had us walking back and forth for a long while until we finally narrowed down here location to a group of pitch pines. We circled for a while, searching through the branches and pine cones until our necks were properly sore. Finally, Scott spotted her, high up in the top of pine, working on swallowing a mouse. 
See if you can find her in the image below, then click on the photo to see where she is...

When we got back to the car, there was a note on the windshield from Anna, telling us that Morticia was really easy to find. I wanted a closer look at a saw-whet on roost, so we decided to find her. It didn't take long to find her perched about 12 feet off the ground, much closer than the 50 feet we had estimated for Quasi.

Morticia was still too far away to get a good picture just using my camera's 3x zoom. So, using my binoculars as a zoom lens, I got a closeup of Morticia looking very curious. She just calmly watched us the entire time we were there, occasionally blinking and swiveling her head back and forth.

Anna and I will be tracking Quasi tonight, as well as Morticia, if we can find her. Anna wasn't able to get a signal from Morticia's transmitter today when I talked to her. That may be appropriate because she was the Halloween owl and thats all over.

Better times

We've finally seen a decent push of migrant saw-whets the past two nights, with 36 new owls, bringing us to 142 for the season. Saturday night we had 13 each at Hidden Valley and Small Valley (two of the SV owls foreign birds which, judging from their band numbers, were marked at the same station a short time apart), and two at King's Gap. After several nights of near-ideal conditions and poor numbers, it was nice to see double digits.

During the day Saturday I was in the field radio-tracking with research intern Drew Weber, research tech Anna Fasoli and Anna's mother, in town for a visit. Drew and I tracked down Quasi, who was in the upper King's Gap Hollow area, sitting about 50 feet up in a pitch pine, eating a mouse. Anna and her mom found Morticia in the lower section of the hollow, sitting just 10 feet up in a young white pine.

Drew digiscoping a photo of Morticia through his binoculars. (©Scott Weidensaul)

Autumn and Fairfield, however, the two owls we'd been tracking the past two weeks, have left their former haunts and may have left the King's Gap/Michaux State Forest area altogether -- searches for them Thursday and Friday came up dry, although they may have simply shifted to areas that block their signals.

There may be even better things ahead for banding -- I just heard from a colleague who nets saw-whets in southeastern New York that he had 44 owls Saturday night, so a major push may be on its way. The first week of November is usually our best week, and we have groups visiting almost every night, so our fingers are crossed.

Meanwhile, Anna and Drew will be conducting night tracking tonight, trying to make up for time we lost last week during the bad weather.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Busy day, slow night

Despite absolutely perfect conditions, our crews managed just six new saw-whets last night - a sobering reflection of how slow a season this has been. We're at 106 saw-whets, less than half our 10-year average of 229 for the date, and 4.5 times fewer owls than the 497 we had by this date last year during the big irruption.

In fact, we've had only one season -- 2006, our Annus Horriblis -- when the YTD total was worse. That miserable autumn we had just 40 owls by now, having gone the first 24 nights with a total of five saw-whets.

So it could be worse.

Fortunately, this has been a spectacularly successful year for the telemetry program, thanks to our telemetry team of Anna Fasoli, Drew Weber and telemetry coordinator Aura Stauffer, with a bunch of great volunteers. Aura was out yesterday with volunteer Carl Juris checking on all four tagged owls. They found Morticia, the newest bird, in King's Gap Hollow -- sort of. They narrowed the signal down to a large white pine on the east side of King's Gap Hollow, but couldn't get a visual on the owl.

Aura and Carl did find Fairfield in the same general area where she's been hanging out, just north of Pine Grove Furnace State Park. Ever the cooperative little saw-whet, she was perched low in a pitch pine, and Aura got some great photos of Carl taking dbh (diameter breast height) measurements on the trees around the roost, as well as Fairfield herself.

Fairfield, wondering how the primates keep managing to find her. (Aura Stauffer)

Carl Juris collecting vegetation data (©Aura Stuaffer)

After Carl headed for home, Aura found Quasi back in her roost tree from the 27th - she's been alternating between the same two trees since she was tagged on the 26th.

Find the owl among the pine cones: Quasi on her roost, or, Why owl trackers develop sore necks. (©Aura Stauffer)

Autumn, on the other hand, was nowhere to be found. Having spent nearly two weeks in southern King's Gap SP, she moved southeast of the park below Hammond's Rocks Tuesday night, and yesterday Aura couldn't pick up her signal in that area, or back in her old haunts. Maybe she's left, or maybe she's tucked in a new hollow -- time will tell.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Does Morticia speak French?

Despite very good conditions - cold, moonless and calm most of the night - we had another very slow evening at the banding stations. King's Gap and Small Valley each got one local recap, while Hidden Valley had a single new bird. That one, at least, broke 100 for the season.

Aura Stauffer bestowed a radio on the King's Gap recap, an SY-F now named "Morticia," in keeping with the Halloween theme. (Whether she drives her mate crazy when she speaks French, I can't say.)

Yesterday, research tech Anna Fasoli was out checking on our other three beeping birds. She found Quasi in exactly the same pitch pine as the day before, though higher in the tree and apparently sitting in a nest-like cluster of branches...another example of a NSWO using an old nest or nest-like structure, something we're documenting for the first time with our telemetry work. Fairfield was about four-tenths of a mile north of her previous location, with lots of pellets on the ground to show she's used this tree before.

Autumn moved more than two miles to the ESE, somewhere between Hammond's Rocks and Mountain Creek Road -- Anna didn't have time to hike all the way in, but biangulated her location. Aura's heading out today to check all for owls, and will start with Autumn.

We found out that an foreign owl I caught at Hidden Valley on Oct. 19 was banded Jan. 16, 2008 in Charles City County near Richmond, VA, by one of Bob Reilly's crew. And we also got word that one of the two foreign birds we caught at Hidden Valley on Sunday night was banded Oct. 13, 2007 at Drumlin Farm Bird Sanctuary, a Massachusetts Audubon facility 15 miles west of Boston near Lincoln, MA. This is the second owl we've traded with Drumlin Farm this fall; they caught one of our fall '07 Small Valley birds last Thursday.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Bad weather, good friends

An enormous low pressure system moved in the Northeast last night, and in advance of, unexpected rain overspread eastern Pennsylvania around dark, making for a shortened night at all three sites.

Although we managed to net two new saw-whets at Small Valley, and one new bird plus a local recap at King's Gap, we were blanked at Hidden Valley, where the rain came in fairly steadily around 8 p.m., and forced us to shut down at 9:30.

Which was a shame, because we've rarely had such a firmament of banding superstars on hand. Our good friends Bob and Martha Sargent, founders of the Hummer/Bird Study Group, had driven up from Alabama, and Anthony Hill and his wife Carlene were down from their home in Massachusetts. Bob and Martha's crew conduct spring and fall songbird banding at Fort Morgan on the Gulf coast, and have been largely responsible for an extensive network of banders in the East and Southeast (including me) who band western hummingbirds wintering in the region.

Anthony is a master bander who works every summer on Seal Island, Maine, banding puffins, and on Appledore Island, Maine, each spring and fall banding songbirds. He's also been trained to band hummingbirds, and like Bob and Martha, has caught the saw-whet bug.

Despite the weather, we had a nice welcoming dinner for them at Hidden Valley, where my crew (Phil Witmer and Barb Jucker) were joined by Small Valley coordinator Sandy Lockerman and SV crewmember Shirley Hamilton, and my wife Amy. We got wet, but we ate like royalty.

Phil, Sandy, Scott, Bob, Martha, Carlene, Anthony and Amy (thanks to Barb Jucker, behind the camera).

Before the rain arrived Monday, Aura Stauffer managed to track all three of our current telemetry owls. The newest, Quasi, has moved into the southern part of King's Gap park, where she was sitting high in a pitch pine, while Fairfield has moved almost three miles of the southwest, and was in a white pine close to Pine Grove Furnace State Park. Autumn, meanwhile, was right along the King's Gap/Michaux State Forest line, in a chestnut oak growing in a heavy regenerated old clearcut off a logging road, where Aura found a pellet and lots of whitewash - evidence she's used that roost before.

Here's their current locations (note that north is to the upper right corner, the better to fit the locations into the image).

The storm is currently strengthening into a major nor'easter, with predictions of 50 mph wind gusts and several inches of snow at the higher elevations tonight. We were poised to conduct a full-court-press triangulation tonight on one of the tagged owls, but in the interest of everyone's safety, we've canceled both tracking and banding.

Monday, October 27, 2008

A windy night for Quasi

Tonight, convenience was the word. Drew and I arrived at King’s Gap around 6:30 to track either Autumn or Quasimodi (Quasi for short), the plump new owl we put a transmitter on last night. Autumn was at her usual location about 1 mile south west of the Pond Area, while Quasi was roosting in the south east section of King’s Gap Hollow. We chose to track Quasi, hoping she would stay in the vicinity of King’s Gap to use the roads to our advantage. Initially, it appeared as though Quasi moved north east of her roost a short distance of about .2 miles. As Drew and I figured out the best locations to biangulate by 8:00 pm, she seemed to move slightly down slope and to the west, just a few hundred meters from her roost location. For the next few hours, Quasi was quite boring to track. In the world of owls, this translates to catching, tearing in half, eating, and digesting a mouse. We noticed slight fluctuations in the location of her signal during this time (through midnight), but this may have been attributed to the gusty winds. Wind can move the trees between trackers and the owl, including the branch the owl is on, causing these fluctuations, despite a lack of movement by the owl off her branch. The movements were so small that we had no way to distinguish them between (slight) real owl movements, and interference from wind. However, we can make a good assumption that Quasi was not actively hunting at the time, and most likely had a mouse.

Because Quasi did not move very far away, Drew and I were able to track from the comfort of our vehicles. The curves of King’s Gap road allowed us to surround her while being able to stay on the road, to use an angle of about 90 degrees to pinpoint her location. This is the first night we’ve tracked from our vehicles. On our other night time adventures, we trudged through the woods to find the best vantage points. While both methods work the same, I must admit that sitting in a vehicle alone is slightly more appealing that sitting in the woods alone. Even better, I was able to plot our readings on my computer to see how they were intersecting. At around 11:00 pm, Quasi had still not moved, so we triangulated her position. This is similar to a biangulation, but instead of just two readings from two different locations, we added another. I drove to a third location shortly after we simultaneously took the first two. Because Quasi was not moving at the time, this worked well, and we were able to get a more exact location on where she had been chowing down on her mouse. We’ll head out again tomorrow night with a few new volunteers to see what Quasi or the others are up to.

Susan Klugman and Karl Kleiner relocated Fairfield today in Michaux State Forest. We had previously thought she left when we didn’t find her 2 days ago at her favorite mountain laurel patch. Now we’ve got 3 beeping owls in the area, which will give us many good options for night tracking over the next two nights.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

A Wet Night

A powerful storm took its time leaving the midstate Saturday, delaying the opening of King's Gap and Small Valley, and canceling banding entirely farther east at Hidden Valley. Nevertheless, we banded one saw-whet at Small Valley and two more at King's Gap, including a second-year female fitted with a radio transmitter. Since she sat hunched in the hand, the crew named her Quasimodo -- "Quasi" for short.

Earlier in the day, research tech Anna Fasoli looked in vain in the downpours for Fairfield, the owl with a liking for laurel tangles. It may be that she's just hidden in some hollow that deflected the radio signals, but it's more likely she left in advance of the storm. Anna was able to locate Autumn, still about a mile and a half southwest of King's Gap in Michaux State Forest.

We're gearing up for three back-to-back nights of triangulation telemetry, which will be challenge with the forecast of high winds tonight, and sharply colder temps the rest of the week. There's also a chance that the cold front might prompt one or both of our remaining tagged owls to leave -- we'll just have to see what happens. Banders Karl Kleiner and Susan Klugman plan to celebrate their wedding anniversary today by roost-tracking both owls, then tonight, Anna and intern Drew Weber will try to follow one of the saw-whets.