Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Early saw-whet owl migration delights banders
October 20, 2007
By Steve Grinley

     Margo and I returned to Lookout Rock in Upton last Sunday night to, once again, witness the banding of saw-whet owls by Strickland Wheelock and his crew of volunteers. It was later, and much colder, when we went last year, but Wheelock has found that the owl migration has begun much earlier this year. In the previous three evenings, between Lookout Rock and their other banding site at Drumlin Farm in Lincoln, they had banded 86 owls. In the past five years, the most they had banded by that date was one!

     The saw-whet owl is the smallest eastern owl, measuring only 7-8 inches, and it has a wingspan of 18-22 inches. They have no ear tufts like the somewhat larger screech owl, and their name comes from its alarm call, which resembles the sound made by an older method of sharpening saws. Saw-whets breed in mixed woodlands in Canada, the Great Lakes, New England and in the Appalachians. They migrate in early spring and late fall.

     There was a shift from Southwest winds to a Northwest pattern, along with some rain, in the days previous to last weekend to help spark the movement. Partly cloudy skies, cool temperatures, light to no winds and a new moon boded well for strong movements of saw-whet owls on our night. So we were hoping for the best!

     As it turned out, the movement of owls continued that night and for nights to come. We were given the usual introduction and background information at the banding station at the top of the hill. Armed with headlamps and flashlights, we then followed the volunteers to the nets where we found four owls caught in the nets. A continuous tape of a male saw-whet “tooting” on one side of the nets had lured the birds in. We watched as the birds were carefully extracted, unharmed, from the nets with one occasionally showing his disapproval by “snapping” his bill. Otherwise these birds seemed most docile, more so than most other birds I’ve watched being banded at other stations.

     We returned to the banding station with our “catch” in cloth bags, where we watched the banding and recording of key data. The birds are sexed by weight and wing length, with the females generally being the larger, as is the case with most raptors. They are then aged by examining the color and wear of the primary and secondary feathers in the wings. The majority of birds are found to be hatch year birds, which are the more likely to migrate. But numbers of second and third year-plus birds are also captured and banded. We each had the opportunity to hold these cute birds, to photograph them and to release them back to the wild. Some of the photographs may be seen online athttp://picasaweb.google.com/michellelynnsts/SawWhetOwlBanding.

     On two more net runs, we retrieved six more birds, bringing the total to 10 for us, before we were satisfied, and tired enough to leave around 10:30 p.m. But Wheelock and his crew were far from done. The volume of owls increased from 11 p.m. on, with each run yielding nine to 13 owls until 2:30 a.m., when they had only seven and, exhausted, they closed, despite owls calling all around them. They had banded a total of 48 owls for the night! The Lincoln site also closed at 2:30 a.m. With their record-setting 58 banded, a combined total of 108 owls were banded for the two sites. The good conditions and migration trend continued as Wheelock had another “demo” night on Tuesday, when he banded 46 more owls and Lincoln banded another 32.

     The total of saw-whets caught this season between both sites was then up to 300, almost triple the owls banded last season! Since this is normally the date when they first start catching saw-whets, and since the owls traditionally keep moving through until Thanksgiving and peaking the last week of Ocober/first week of November, there is no telling how many owls will be banded during this record-setting year!

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
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Newburyport, MA 01950
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