Saw-whet Owl Banding

17 11 2009

Saw-whet Owl - Luke Tiller

It has taken a while to rescue my camera from New York City where I left it after an evening out with my ex-flatmate Tabitha, so hence the delay in cute photo’s from the banding trip. New York was as entertaining as always and it was great to catch up with one of the gang from London. As much as I love London, and all of my friends there, it’s hard to imagine moving back to that or to any other city for that matter, as I am not sure how I would manage to get my daily fix of nature living in a concrete jungle. Saying that though, I can’t quite imagine ever wanting to be so far from civilization that I could move right into the middle of nowhere and live in the woods or the desert or something, so perhaps the ‘wilds’ of Fairfield County strike something of the perfect balance.

Anyway on to the owls. I was joined for the evening by blogger and artist birdspot (as she had her eye on some cool owl photos for her latest artwork). The initial excitement of the evening however was being sorely tested by the traffic out of the city on a Friday night and we were running late for the first check of the banding nets by the time we were even on the road for New Paltz. After some horrendous traffic we made an unsavory stop at the Roy Rogers on the New York Thruway (fries vaguely edible, most everything else almost unpalatable) and filled up on food and gas before striking out into deepest and definitely darkest New York State. I always call the area upstate New York, but to me anything north of Westchester qualifies as upstate so who knows what the right term really is.

Anyway, after managing to miss out on the banding last year, thanks to downpours over the final weekend, I was really looking forward to getting to go along and see some birds. After an aborted plan to visit the prior weekend (unsavory weather) we were finally (albeit rather tardily ) heading on our way to hopefully see owls. I rushed off a quick call to Chrissy from the service station and found out that thankfully we hadn’t missed out on anything on their first run around the owl nets. As we crossed into New Paltz and took the roads up into the Mohonk Preserve I called Chrissy to have her talk us through the final twists and turns of the directions and found out that by now they had one of those little cuties in their clutches and that if we were there in the next few minutes then we might get to see one of the owls before they finished processing the bird and let it go.

Anyway after a little bit of nifty driving, we were there at the small hut that was owl banding headquarters. Squeezed into the little shack were the banding team, a couple of eager visitors and one exceptionally cute little owl – the first capture of the night. We got to ooh and ahh a little before the owl was taken outside to be released. During release, the bird is given a couple of minutes, sat in one of the banders hands, for its eyes adjust to the dark before it is released. With an almost silent flutter it was off back towards the black tangle of tree limbs, ready to resume its nightly activities.

We learned a lot over the evening and eagerly watched the banders as they jotted down the birds ages, took down various measurements of size and weight and a couple of DNA samples. They also removed, collected and studied the various pests which call the birds home. It was fascinating to see how the birds are successfully aged (including an amazing example of how a black light can determine the age of feathers – new ones glow bright orange under the UV). The banding station was part of two, one in the Mohonk Hills and another comparative site down in the more suburban settings of the college, which was allowing them to compare the little owls migration habitat preferences. To find out more on banding check out Chrissy’s various posts on 10,000 birds. You can also find out more about Saw-whet banding across North America at Project Owlnet

I have to say that while it was fascinating to watch the guys busy at work banding (we had about 20 owls over the course of a couple of hours) I was at first reluctant when offered the chance to let one of the little birds go. Not because their occasional bill snapping was reminding me of the time I got a good hard bite from a banded Blue-headed Vireo on Block Island, but just because I didn’t want to get in the way of the banders work. Anyway after a little cajoling I finally decided I’d have a go at releasing one of the birds.

Watching birds is an amazing experience but holding them really is something else. Having rescued a few birds from the gardeners nets in Allen’s Meadows, and having been banding a couple of times over my life it really is quite amazing to have them up so close, look into their eyes and feel their warmth and the amazing softness of their feathers. The owl was the same. I’ve learned from past experience that the key to holding birds is that you need to be careful, but firm so that they don’t try to move around too much. So with my fingers locked over his legs and my hand smoothing down his back, in a way I hoped would be somewhat comforting, I took the bird outside for release. I waited for the little guys eyes to adjust to the light for a couple of minutes and then eased my grip on the owls little legs. At first nothing, almost as if he didn’t realize he was now a free bird,  but then within a few seconds a little flick of the wings and the lightweight owl was fluttering up and off back to the safety of cover – an unbelievable moment and one that will stay with me (like so many birding experiences) forever.

You can click the tags at the bottom to find more of my posts on Saw-whets and I hope that birdspot will be posting some of her beautiful sketches from the evening on her blog soon.

EDIT: See birdspots incredible saw-whet owl drawing inspired by the evening (here).



8 responses

18 11 2009

Beautifully written and moving post – expressed for me the awe I felt at my only banding experience so far…

18 11 2009

I’m glad you finally made it to see the banding! It’s pretty incredible…nice photos and great post!

18 11 2009

Hey Chrissy – thanks for making it all happen – it was amazing – hope to catch you again soon for more birding entertainment!

18 11 2009
Chris Lovell

Great post Luke! I hope you don’t mind me using your pic as wallpaper on my iPhone!

18 11 2009

Thanks Chris – Go ahead be my guest!

18 11 2009
birdspot » nov 18

[…] owl banding research in action. For a nice writeup on the experience, see Luke’s blog Under Clear Skies. Below, a detail, so you can kind of see what the ink lines look like. This entry was written by […]

6 04 2011
Saw-whet musings etc… « Under Clear Skies

[…] Island in the links on the side of the page. You can also read about the time I went owl banding (here) and see some of the great sketches my friend Birdspot produced from the trip […]

27 07 2011
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[…] York. This will be an evening trip and you can read more about my previous experiences on the tour (here). Although nothing is guaranteed in life this site is very productive for these diminutive owls and […]

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