Owl Be Back

One can only wonder, but the experience of an owl mist netted, banded, measured, and weighed must be something like an alien abduction. One minute they are flying wide eyed and confident in the comfort of darkness and the next thing they know they are being probed inside the confines of some strange bright place. Then, with pupils reduced to pin pricks, they are flung back into the night. I can only speculate as to the owl’s demeanor, but I can say with confidence that my human view of owl banding is one of fascination – so much so that I invited myself to experience it once again. I guess I would be the slender inquisitive alien in this scenario (although I am not especially slender, I am inquisitive and have large eyes).

Last week I joined Tom Carpenter, a life time bird bander and long-time acquaintance, on one of his owl banding expeditions. Tom was seeking Saw-whet owls at Lake Erie Metropark. Every year he manages to set up his nets for at least a few nights each season. The chill November air usually brings with it a silent invasion of tiny Saw-whets from the high north. This movement of owls can be impressive – especially during periodic population booms. By all accounts, this is one of those boom years.

Tom had set up earlier in the week and enjoyed phenomenal success. The combined total for the two nights was 26 owls. He had to occasionally shut the lure tape off just to catch up.  His total would have been much higher, save for the fact that a local Great-horned Owl started to pick off the micro owls one by one (there is no rule among owls regarding this, in case you are wondering). The massive owl moved in about midnight and killed two net-ensnared Saw-whets before Tom decided to stop for the night. “I had to stop,” he said, “because there was no way to stop that Great-horned from killing more birds. I’m sure if he hadn’t arrived, I’d of gotten a lot more Saw-whets.”

Knowing this, I was anxious to get in on some of the action. To tell the truth, I was secretly hoping that the Great-horned Owl would show up again. When we gathered at sunset later in the week, Tom was ready with a pair of large net traps (respectively baited with a live pigeon and a Starling) to lure and detain the big owl. The “flying tiger” didn’t show, however. The lure birds were amazingly calm within their little cages and probably not disappointed at the lack of action.

Fortunately, several Saw-whets and a Screech Owl were captured while I was there on that third night. The basic mist net setup was arranged with two nets set at right angles to each other. A recorded Saw-whet call was broadcast into the night from the inside angle (listen to the first part of this recording). Curious owls would approach the call and find themselves entangled.  The “alien” abductor – Tom – would check the net every 15 minutes or so, grab the bird and take it inside for examination and banding.

The first Saw-whet in was at 7:45 pm. As is typical for netted owls, the creature passively hung upside down like prey in a spider web. It didn’t start struggling until we arrived on the scene (see here). “This one’s banded,” Tom announced (I would say he did this “excitedly” expect for the fact that Tom never allows his excitement to reflect in his voice). I was excited due to the fact that two of his birds from earlier in the week were also banded. One, a young bird, was banded a month earlier in Ville-Marie, Quebec (well north of Algonquin Provincial Park) while the other had been banded a year ago in Long Point, Ontario.

Saw-whet Owl Foot

He stuffed this bird into an orange juice tube and we took it inside to measure the tail, get the weight, spread the wing for aging (I’ll explain in a minute), and then read the band. Unfortunately, the Canadian banders use a half-sized band with very small numbers on it. It took the best efforts of two middle aged guys to squint and adjust glasses before we eventually read those minute numbers off of that minute feathered leg sticking out of the tube (see here). Between us, we determined that it probably read “1014-15332” (not sure about the 5, but what the heck). Tom e-mailed me the next day to inform me that this bird had been banded at Holiday Beach, Ontario (a location directly across the Detroit River from where we were) only a week earlier.

Being abducted twice within a week explained, after the fact, why this little fellow was in such a sour mood as he was being handled. Most owls pop their beaks as a protest, but Saw-whets are typically mild mannered and passive. This bird was popping away like a typewriter the whole time (listen to the popping sound on the second half of this recording).

The second bird in was a Screech Owl around 9 pm. This was Carpenter’s first Screech of the season, but it wasn’t unusual to get these owls when setting up for Saw-whets. We could see something red hanging out of the owl’s mouth as it dangled from the net. This turned out to be the birds tongue!  It had inadvertently bit it while struggling but didn’t realize it (see here). I woulda thought, being a Screech Owl and all, that this bird would have been doing some screeching after having just bit his own tongue – but no. Tom pried the beak open and allowed the pink “worm” to slip back into its proper place.

Unlike the earlier Saw-whet, the Screech Owl took offered absolutely no resistance (resistance is futile according to the alien Borg). I would say he achieved a Zen-like level of peace (see below) and closed his eyes during banding (see here), wing examination (see here), and weighting. Only when offered the chance to fly away after the procedure did he finally open up his eyes and drift silently into the dark (see below).

What turned out to be the final owl of the night, another Saw-whet hit the net at 10:30 pm. While the earlier Saw-whet and Screech where young-of-the-year birds born earlier in the season (entering the books as “Hatching year” birds), this bird was at least into its second year. One way to determine age is to look at the wing feathers. The old feathers are replaced from the edges of the wing in or, more technically, from the first primary on down and the last secondary on up. This Saw-whet (much calmer than the first by the way – see here) revealed a clear set of old cinnamon brown feathers that contrasted clearly with the newer darker feathers (see below).

Right wing of Saw-whet showing old & new feathers

Since this last bird was un-banded it was gifted with band number 664-78841 before release (see below). Tom used one of the full-sized bands, I might add, that had EASY TO READ NUMBERS on it. I hope you Canadians out there are listening because all the Saw-whets coming our way are originating from your country, don’t you know. Give us weak-eyed Americans a break. Tom, and possibly myself, will be back owling yet again before this season is over.


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