Saturday, October 30, 2010

Saw-whet Owl Banding!

Most birds, and most people, are diurnal (or crepuscular, if you want to be precise). Therefore, most birding takes place during the day. So if I am birding in the middle of the night, chances are there has to be some pretty good birding to drag me out of bed, and many of my best birding experiences (like watching migration from the Empire State Building) have been at night. Last night was one such time.

I went to the campus of Westchester Community College to watch researchers there band Northern Saw-whet Owls, the smallest (and, probably as a result, the cutest) owl in the Eastern US.

Benjamin Van Doren and I arrived at the nets at 7, and after helping Drew and Trudy (the people doing the banding) untangling the leaves that the strong wind had blown into the nets, we headed back to the Owl House, a small building on campus used as a warm location to band the owls and to wait.

With Drew and two other visitors, we located an owl that they had put a radio transmitter on the previous night. Following the beeps, we figured out generally where it was, but since it was on private property, we did not actually see it.

The nets are checked every hour, so at 8:30 we went out for the first time. The high winds were a concern, but otherwise the weather seemed fairly good for owl banding. In the first net we checked, there was an owl! That was easy. The other three nets were empty, so they carefully removed the owl from the net and we headed back to the Owl House to band it. On the way back, we ran into the people who live near the banding site, who seemed a bit annoyed at the audio that was played all night, but were very impressed with the owl.

To be able to see such an amazing bird at such close range was awesome. Trudy measured the owl, which was female, like the majority of the birds they band. It was also born this past spring- a hatch year bird. Though to me it looked identical to an adult, the key is that the flight feathers on the wing are all the same color, and therefore the same age. An older bird would have a mix of old and new feathers.

Another similar way to age the bird was to put its wing under an ultraviolet light. The feathers all glowed pink. Older feathers do not have as much pink, and other birds do not have a uniform pink glow. Instead, it is only on some feathers, or, in very old birds, virtually nonexistent. Check out Trudy's website for photos that show this much better than I am describing it:

After all the data was collected, everyone there got to hold the owl:

(Me and the Owl)

After the photo ops, we released the owl, and it flew off, almost ghostly, into the night.

It would seem like catching an owl on the first try would be a prequel to a great night of banding, but there were no birds for the next two hours, and we had to leave at 11, saying., "Well, we got one!" And that one made it all extremely worthwhile.

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