A night with saw-whet owl an enlightening experience
I snapped on my headlamp as we approached a small grove of pine and hemlock trees. We had parked our cars along the edge of a hillside field and trudged about 100 yards toward the dark woods. A sliver of moon sat on the horizon, and the starlit sky sparkled in the cold autumn night.
Following a path cut through low-sweeping conifer branches, we slowly approached the shrill and repeated call “too, too, too” of the smallest owl found in Eastern North America – the Northern saw-whet owl.
Along with 20 other people, I had signed up with Andy Rzeznkiewicz, Connecticut Audubon Society land manager for the Pomfret and Trail Wood preserves, for an annual citizen science program to band saw-whet owls.
A thousand feet to the east of our location curves the Quinebaug River, with Mashamoquet Brook the same distance to the south. Both waterways are surrounded to the north and west with mixed forest and shrub field habitat, making the area a perfect landscape for birds navigating their fall migratory route.
That evening we hoped to attract a nocturnal traveler and lure it into the woods, briefly interrupting its migration to warmer climes. Our job was to catch it, place a numbered band on one of its legs, weigh, measure and determine its gender and age. We were to record all the pertinent data and release the little wanderer back into the night.
Earlier in the day Andy had put up three soft “mist” nets which are about 8 feet wide and 40 feet long. Attached to poles and resembling volleyball nets, they were set in an array. In the middle he placed an audio player repeating the “too, too, too,” call of a male saw-whet owl. Hopefully, the sound would serve as a beacon drawing in its brethren to investigate, thereby becoming caught in the fine mesh and sagging pockets of the mist net.
For three hours, at 20-minute intervals, we visited the nets hoping to find the diminutive owl. Finally, at 10 p.m. (our last visit of the night) we discovered a bewildered, yet calm, little owl cradled in one of the nets. It was carefully removed from the net, placed in a small cloth bag and brought to the field.
The tailgate of a truck served as the examining and banding table for Rzeznkiewicz and his volunteer assistants, Aaron Bourque and Grace Jacobson. Andy had us gather around the truck in a semicircle and described the banding procedure.
Bourque retrieved the owl from the bag and carefully held it with its sharp talons out, in what is called the “banders grip,” making it easy for Rzeznkiewicz to hold one leg and attach a federally issued leg band (number 101474374) with specially designed pliers.
Jacobson logged in the bird’s information on a data sheet. She, too, is trained to handle the birds, but that night took on the recorder duties. Bourque measured the length of the owl’s longest wing feather or “wing chord” and called out 143 millimeters (5.63 inches).
To keep the bird still for weighing, it was placed in a small cardboard tube that perfectly encircled the owl (actually a used container for potato sticks). Bourque then placed bird and tube on a digital scale and read off 94.3 grams (3.33 ounces) minus the weight of the container.
The weight and length of the wing chord indicated this was a larger than average saw-whet owl, therefore determining it to be a female. Typical of raptor species, the female is the larger of the sexes.
Rzeznkiewicz then asked for everyone to turn off their headlamps and flashlights. In the darkness he turned on a handheld black light. As Bourque spread out one of the owl’s wings, Rzeznkiewicz shined the blacklight on the underside of the wing. Through the darkness, the light illuminated a neon red and pink glowing color to the feathers. The color is due to the pigment porphyrin, found in newer wings indicative of a young bird who had hatched during the past summer.
With all the data gathered, Rzeznkiewicz asked the group what we should name the owl, and Phoebe was suggested. Phoebe’s, along with her band number and pertinent data was logged onto the data sheet. Bourque then walked slowly to the edge of the field, released his banders grip and Phoebe lifted off into the dark.
For those unfamiliar with the saw-whet owl, here are some details about the bird provided by the Cornell Lab for Ornithology website All About Birds.
– Saw-whet owls have a small round head without ear tufts and are a mottled brown and white color with fine white streaks on the head and a white “V” between the eyes. Males and females have the same plumage and yellow eyes. Juveniles are dark brown with a creamy yellow breast and belly. Their ears are placed on their head asymmetrically allowing the bird to pinpoint its prey at night.
-They are cavity nesters, raising young in the holes excavated by northern flicker and pileated woodpeckers. They are common to southern Canada and northern United States.
– About the size of a robin, both male and female are between 7.1 inches to 8.3 inches and weigh 2.3 to 5.3 ounces with a wingspan of 16.5 to 18.9 inches.
– They are nocturnal and hard to see. They have a shrill, penetrating call they give many times in succession. During the day they roost in dense vegetation, typically just above eye level. They move south from their northern range in late autumn to avoid the deeper snows of winter that make it a challenge to hunt at night.
– Northern saw-whet owls are forest birds. They breed in extensive forests across northern North America, also sometimes using more open habitats such as the shrub steppe of the West as long as there are nest sites available. They winter in dense forest across the central and southern U.S.
That night, along with 20 other people, I had signed up to experience the deep personal connection found in outdoor experiential learning. We watched and learned as our experts and “citizen scientists” from Connecticut Audubon Society collected important data about one of nature’s most secretive owls.
It was a fun and enlightening experience, and one I plan to repeat in the future as well as participating in other educational programs at the Connecticut Audubon Society. To learn more about their programs and activities check out their website at:
We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. Every day is a new day of discovering the amazing natural and cultural resources at our doorstep. I hope you’ll join me and others as we care for, enjoy, and pass on this special land we call home.
Bill Reid is chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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