Sunday, March 2, 2008

No rest for the weary...

I'm blessed to have a remarkably enthusiastic and highly trained banding crew working on the Ned Smith Center's owl research project, but they really don't know when to stop.

Back in October my King's Gap crew, which bands at a state environmental education training center on South Mountain, near Carlisle, PA, started more than two months of nightly netting to catch migrant saw-whet owls. It's fun but tiring, and by the time they finished in the first week of December, they'd banded almost 240 owls.

They'd also fitted several with tiny, 2-gram radio transmitters, which allowed us to find the owls each day on their roosts, part of a study we've been conducting since 2000 to look at roost site and habitat selection. That part of the project has long been overseen by Aura Stauffer, a state DCNR biologist who has been one of our banders for years. So several nights a week Aura was staying up past midnight banding, and most days either she or one of the other volunteers was also out with an antenna and radio receiver, tracking the owls through Michaux State Forest.

One of the birds, radio-tagged Dec. 1 and nicknamed "Grinch," stuck around through at least the middle of February, when the signal from her radio faded and died -- probably empty batteries, which had reached the end of their expected life.

Now, having had just two weeks of rest, the King's Gap crew is moving back into a month of nightly banding again, as we try to document the spring saw-whet migration, which is far less well understood. Tonight was the first night, and my King's Gap site coordinator Gary Shimmel, along with volunteer Rhonda Hackenberg (who with her husband Scott, the park director, lives on the mountaintop) opened the nets at dark. (That's Gary in the photo, tracking the Grinch last month.)

Less than two hours later, Gary called to report that they'd just caught eight owls, and that the woods were full of vocalizations from others. Considering that our entire season total in 2001 (the last time we tried spring netting) was just seven owls, we're obviously off to a great start.

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