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DVOC Field Trip Report
by Debbie Beer

November 1, 2014
Saw-whet Owl Banding at Hidden Valley, PA

Leader: Debbie Beer

DVOC’s 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!