annual Saw-whet Owl Banding trip to Hidden Valley station produced one
last-minute owl at 11:00pm, much to the delight of tired-but-hopeful hardy
souls who had stayed the course. Our group of 12 people, including a family
of new birders, remained cheerful throughout the night, even when net
checks at 7, 8, 9 and 10pm turned up empty.
Bander George Gress opened the evening at 6:30pm with a wonderful introduction
to Saw-whet Owls, and the research being conducted along the Kitatiny
mountain range. DVOC President Phil Witmer was on-hand as a project volunteer,
serving one night a week throughout the season. Adorable Saw-whet owls,
Pennsylvania’s smallest, are fierce little predators feeding mostly
on mice and voles. Once thought rare, banding projects like this one have
shown that they are widely distributed throughout North America. In the
1990s researchers began Project Owlnet, a collaboration that now consists
of more than 100 owl migration banding sites. Researchers use audio-tapes
to lure owls in to mist nets, and band thousands of saw-whets every fall,
including some as far south as Alabama.
The Hidden Valley station is one of 3 sites operated by Project Director
Scott Weidensaul, sponsored by the Ned Smith Center for Nature & Art.
Banders, interns and volunteers serve 7 nights a week through October
and November, collecting valuable avian information and engaging hundreds
of visitors in amazing owl experiences.
Saw-whet Owl populations are cyclical, dependent upon variable food sources
on their northern breeding grounds. Scientists have linked breeding success
to cone crop abundance; i.e., more cone seeds feed more rodents, which
feed more baby Saw-whets! (and visa versa). Last year was a poor year
for Saw-whets, but this year was on-track to be a little better.
The DVOC field trip in early November is timed for the peak of Saw-whet
migration, giving us as good a chance as possible to see at least one
owl. Weather conditions were less than ideal this night, with strong gusty
winds and a half-bright moon keeping wary owls away from the nets. The
group kept busy with lively conversation, computer videos and dice games.
Around 10pm, after the 4th consecutive net check came up empty, half of
our group departed for a long drive home. The remainders gambled another
hour of sleep, and were rewarded with a hardy Saw-whet who flew into the
leaf-strewn nets around 11pm. George efficiently banded and measured the
mature female, whose frayed feathers and multi-colored wings showed her
to be at least 2 years old. She was photographed at every angle and “adopted”
with a donation to the Ned Smith Center.
Thanks to everyone who participated in the evening and supported the owl
banding research project. Many thanks to Scott, George, Phil, Laurel and
the many staff, interns and volunteers who work tirelessly throughout
the banding season, generously sharing their time and talents to connect
current and future generations to the amazing world of Saw-whet Owls!