Monday, November 4, 2013

A Visit to Project Owlnet

One of the benefits of being a member of The Forbush Bird Club was being invited to attend an evening of banding Northern Saw Whet Owls with Project Owlnet at Lookout Rock in Northbridge, MA.  It was a cool evening with temps in the 30s combined with some nice wind chill on top of the hill where we gathered.   A pack of coyotes serenaded us while we waited for everyone to arrive.  The stars were brilliant and the woods were very dark.  We each carried flashlights or wore headlamps to light the paths.

I chose to wear a lot of layers and felt like I was going a bit overboard preparing for the cold, but I have learned that there is nothing colder than just standing around.  It's one thing to be hiking and constantly moving on a cold day, and quite another to stand around while the wind blows through you!

I wore:
  • running gloves (make using a camera a lot easier without freezing your fingers)
  • mittens to put over the gloves 
  • a winter hat with ear flaps
  • long underwear top
  • t-shirt
  • sweatshirt
  • jacket
  • jeans
  • cashmere blend socks (my feet are almost never cold wearing these)
Anyway, back to the owls!  Owl banding is very similar in process to songbird banding (refer to my posts about Auburn Bird Banding Project), with one major exception.  To attract the Northern Saw Whet Owls to the mist nets, they play a continuous loop of the mating call of the male owl.

Once caught in the mist net, the owl is carefully removed by an authorized bander, placed in a soft drawstring bag and then carried back to the banding equipment, where it is weighed, wingspan is measured, sex is determined (based on combination of weight and wing length), age is determined (based on molting of individual feathers), the band is placed, and once the visitors have had a good look, the owl is released.

The Saw Whet Owl gets its name from the similarity of one of its calls to the raspy noise made when a saw is sharpened by a file.  Sharpening of a saw is also known as "whetting".  Like all owls, the Northern Saw Whet Owl depends on sharp hearing to hunt in the dark.  Owl ears are openings in the sides of the skull, but Saw Whets have an additional characteristic in that its ears are asymmetrically placed on the skull.  The ear on the left side is placed high on the skull and pointing up.  The ear on the right side is placed low on the skull and pointing down.  This assists the owl in pinpointing sounds in the dark!  Cool!

an ear

Needle-sharp talons

We had greats looks at the sweet little owl as well as specific looks at an ear and its talons.   We were allowed to gently stroke its head to feel how soft its feathers were.  To release the owl, it was placed on the arm of a willing participant, where it sat for a few minutes.  Actually, the bander prodded it from behind to get it to fly off.

There was only one owl captured in the nearly 2 hours I spent there, but I was happy to see it (life bird) and ready to get back to a warm house!  Others stayed on for the chance to see others (and a second one was banded later)!

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