Before arriving in Maine a little less than a month ago, I’d seen exactly two Saw-whet Owls in my entire life (one at Oregon’s Malheur NWR a few years back, and one on California’s Southeast Farallon Island last fall). That doesn’t count a bunch of “heard-only” birds on various dark nights, most recently somewhere on the Pacific Crest Trail in northern Washington this summer, but most birders would agree: saw-whets are very tough. To lay eyes on one, you need luck, patience, and persistence.
Or seven mist nets and a yellow boombox.
Initially, I didn’t even realize I’d be catching owls here. While hiking the Pacific Crest Trail this summer, I got a call that someone had backed out of a songbird banding job, leaving an enticing vacancy on a cool field project on the central coast of Maine. As it happened, I planned to finish my hike just in time to hop a plane cross-country, so, a week after completing the trail in mid-September, I joined a hardy crew on remote Metinic Island for three weeks of mistnetting migratory passerines. One day a couple weeks ago, we captured more than 500 birds in just a few hours, by far the busiest banding day I’ve ever experienced.
Then my good friend Ed Conrad called. He’d been running another bird banding station at nearby Petit Manan Point since August, and, though the official (paid) season had just ended, wasn’t quite ready to quit. His other crew member didn’t want to hang around to tempt the Maine winter as a volunteer, leaving him alone in a tiny trailer on a windswept peninsula surrounded by the Petit Manan National Wildlife Refuge. Would I come up for another 10 days? We could catch lots of saw-whets…
When he mentioned the owls, I rebooked my flight home. No matter that I hadn’t showered or done laundry in three weeks; I’d heard about Saw-whet Owl banding and couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
My first night, we stayed up until 11:00 pm, catching up but not catching any owls (it may not sound very late, but we also rise each morning at 5:45 to open the songbird station). Our second night, we caught seven. I was stoked, having just quadrupled my lifetime quota of saw-whets, but Ed wasn’t as impressed. He and a coworker had helped the Fish and Wildlife Service refuge managers set up the Petit Manan owl banding station after obtaining proper permits, and had caught 20 on the first night. We just had to wait for the right conditions.
Unfortunately, southwest winds pounded us for the next week. Every good Saw-whet Owl bander knows that a perfect night is clear and calm with no moon, preferably following a cold front. Ed and I tried each night and caught a few owls, but sleep deprivation began to outweigh our results. We needed a good flight night.
The method is pretty simple. For some reason, Saw-whet Owls respond to taped calls even during fall migration, so we set up a yellow boombox with owl vocalizations on continuous repeat at full volume, surrounded by seven mist nets. (Years ago, researchers didn’t use tapes. When they began using owl callers, capture rates increased by 70%). We check the nets once an hour, as long as we can stay awake. Any owls captured are meticulously measured, banded, and released.
Couple of interesting things about saw-whets. According to a universal chart of body mass and wing measurements, about 75% of owls captured are females; this is true of most saw-whet stations—even in places that don’t use tapes—and nobody knows why. If you spread a saw-whet wing under a UV light, newer feathers shine bright pink, helping age the birds. And they often take a minute to readjust to darkness after being processed, so the owls will perch on your shoulder for a nice photo (no flash) before flying away.
A couple nights ago, conditions changed. The robotic voice on our weather radio predicted light north winds, clear skies, and a near-new moon—perfect! Ed and I prepared for the onslaught by taking a four-and-a-half hour afternoon nap before opening the owl nets half an hour after sunset. Game on.
The first net run, we caught 13 saw-whets. An hour later, 11 more. An hour later, 10 more. We could barely process them fast enough. One buried its talons deep in Ed’s finger, and he turned to me with a grim expression inside our cold trailer, blood dripping on the floor: “This is awesome!” The owls kept appearing like ghostly ornaments in our mistnets, illuminated by headlamp, all night long. By 4:00 am, we had caught an incredible 63 owls. We grabbed a short nap and opened the songbird nets at dawn, as usual.
Until Ed set up the owl station at Petit Manan Point this fall, not a single saw-whet had ever been recorded on the refuge property. These birds fly so far under the radar, always under cover of darkness, that only a banding station can properly document their presence. Luckily, owl banding stations have exploded in the last decade; there are now a couple hundred dedicated saw-whet projects across the continental U.S., mostly concentrated in northeastern states. Because of this, saw-whets now have one of the highest recapture rates of any bird in North America. In the last week, Ed and I have caught owls originally banded at other stations in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and even Virginia (650 miles away!).
Good thing saw-whets are so cute. Their popularity has led to an increased understanding of tricky-to-estimate population trends. Hopefully, long-term banding efforts will help monitor and conserve these owls.
Meanwhile, I just can’t get enough of them, but 10 days of simultaneous owl and songbird banding is taking its toll. Last night, Ed and I stayed up until 5:30 am catching more owls. We realized yesterday that we are now spending every minute of free time sleeping in our trailer, no matter what time of day. But the end is near: a snowstorm tonight will likely bury the end of our season, since I fly home in three days.
Maybe someone farther south will catch one of the owls we banded this fall. Hope so!
Read more of Noah’s adventures at noahstrycker.com/latest