October is here and the bird migration is going strong. If you’ve been observing the departure of our local songbirds, hawks, Canada geese, and others, you might be lucky enough this time of year to also catch a glimpse of a migrating owl.
While it’s nice for us to enjoy the sight of these birds passing us by, some researchers use this time as an opportunity to catch and band migrating owl populations.
This week’s tale of adventure began a few years ago and revolves around the capture and banding of several saw-whet owls.
I got together with a research team after dark and, despite the fact that I’m not much of a night owl, we had an incredible evening that included my first face-to-face meeting with a wild saw-whet owl. The researchers began by using a specific “too-too-too” call to lure owls into a device called a mist net. These nets offer the best chance of catching an owl, or other bird, with minimal risk of harm. I was told they use these nets to catch hundreds of owls every fall.
Once a bird is caught, the team takes it to the banding station to evaluate its overall health. Feathers are checked for general wear, and wing length, weight, and other dimensions are measured and recorded. The undersides of the wings are lit with a fluorescent light to help determine age, and the bird’s chest is felt to check for a healthy proportion of body fat. At this point the little owl, which is no bigger than a can of pop, is banded and declared ready for release.
We walked outside, the researcher put the saw-whet owl in my hand, and before I could get a good look at his big yellow eyes he was up and away. By the time we called it quits they had banded another three saw-whets.
Northern saw-whet owls are small, weighing in at just 55 to 150 grams (1.9 to 5.3 oz), with wingspans of 42 to 56 cm (16 ½ to 22 inches). They are chestnut brown with prominent white markings and, unlike most owls, have no ear tufts. Their eyes are yellow and their white eyebrows connect in a distinctive ‘Y.’ The saw-whet owls eat mainly rodents like deer mice, voles, shrews, chipmunks and squirrels, along with small birds such as sparrows, kinglets and chickadees, and frogs. They make an interesting tooting sound, sort of like the sound of a truck backing up.
Where can you find a saw-whet owl? Try Tommy Thompson Park, but remember to keep your distance. You may think they are asleep but their big yellow eyes are watching your every move.
Ann Brokelman is an avid birder and nature photographer – naturephotosbyann.blogspot.ca