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DVOC Field Trip Report
by Debbie Beer

November 8, 2009
Saw-whet Owl Banding at Hidden Valley, PA

Leader: Debbie Beer

Click Here for pictures by Paul Guris

DVOC enjoyed a wonderful trip up to the Saw-whet Owl banding station at Hidden Valley last night. Project Coordinator and Master Bander Scott Weidensaul was the perfect host for our eager group, which included two kids under age 9. The birds behaved perfectly, with 4 adorable ones flying into the nets – 1 female and 8 pm, and 3 at 10pm. Our cameras couldn’t have gotten any closer, as photos were snapped rapidly while Scott patiently explained the steps involved in banding the tiny birds. Myriad data is collected, including some details which are little understand, but might later be deemed important. Besides measuring body weight, wing feathers and bill-length, Scott recorded the fat content, breast muscle and eye color on each bird.

Three of the four owls were outfitted with “geolocators,” a fascinating new tool for collecting data about avian whereabouts. These tiny (2.5 grams max weight) instruments are affixed onto the owl via a teflon harness, and the knots securely glued to keep the sharp-beaked owls from tearing them off. Interestingly, the only thing the geolocators record is time and light levels during it’s two-year lifespan. With precise calibration from the start, light levels can indicate latitude and longitude within 100 miles, providing insight into saw-whet migration. Of course the only way anyone can know this information is to re-capture an owl wearing a geolocator and download the data!

Saw-whet owl populations are cyclical, though not in alternating years. 2007 enjoyed a record-breaking irruption, followed by a much slower year (and the only year that DVOC had not one owl on their annual banding field trip!). Now, in 2009, the pace is well below the 10-year average, and Scott predicts ending the season with about 350 birds.

For a donation, each owl was adopted by one of our group, providing critical support for the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art, sponsors of the Saw-whet Owl banding and research project.

Release time was most magical. After holding the birds in darkness about five minutes to allow for light adjustment, the owls were released. Free to fly, they chose instead to sit calmly on a person’s arm and look around, calmly surveying the area until ready to leave, sometimes waiting 15 or 20 minutes! The stars were bright, the leaves crisp and the moon clear. These memories won’t soon leave me.

DVOC is grateful to Scott Weidensaul and his dedicated all-volunteer crew for sharing their time and knowledge about Saw-whet Owls, and providing this fascinating experience. We’re already looking forward to next year’s banding field trip. For more information, visit website: Scott’s blog is an eloquent and fascinating read -