Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

March 17, 2008

Who You Look’n At, Eh?

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:04 pm

  To say that I was helping Art & Tom Carpenter band owls the other night would be stretching the truth.  I was present, but my role was that of an observer more than a participant. I’ve known the father-son team for decades and have been in the position to grant them permission to conduct their work at Lake Erie Metropark for the last fourteen years. During all that time, I never had the opportunity to get in their way until this past Saturday night.  

  The boys were set up in the museum yard to intercept the potential spring flight of Northern Saw Whet Owls. These diminutive owls engage in a seasonal winter migration that takes them from their northern forest range down to large sections of the lower 48.  Saw Whets pass through S.E. Michigan during the autumn and spring rush and often stick around during the colder “r” months.  They overwinter only as far south as they have to – which means they’ll stay as long as there is a healthy population of mice around.

 To catch a unique owl, such as a Saw Whet, you need to lure them into nets using a recorded love call. You need to do all this, of course, at night. The birds sit tight under cover during the day and are near impossible to see, so you can’t ‘nique up on ‘em. But when evening comes, these tiny predators prowl the darkness and will come to you if given the proper incentive.

  The Carpenters provide this incentive via a recorded breeding call broadcast over a speaker. A Saw Whet emits a flute-like “hoop hoop hoop” when in the mood. The authors of the Michigan Breeding Bird Atlas (Saw Whets do nest in the northern and western parts of the state) categorize the love note of this owl as “a relentless but short-lived call.” It is relentless in that once the calling begins, it is sent out at the rate of 1.5 notes per second.  It is short-lived because these owls only call during the brief late winter/spring season and stay mum the rest of the year – apparently using up their annual hoot quota.

  When I arrived about 8:00 pm, the guys were all set for the long haul. When banding owls you never know how late the night will go. Art, the father, brought a Lincoln biography to read along with a portable T.V. (“That’s for Tom” he said). Tom brought along his lap top to finish up on some work from his daytime job as well as some munchies (“Those are for dad,” was his inference). Inside the building, a table was laid out with a digital scale, ruler, record book, a red tackle box of banding supplies, an ancient black light, and several empty pastry tubes and grape juice concentrate cans (“Those are for the birds”). 

  A line led from the tape recorder and outside through a slightly opened window.  This line trailed across the museum yard about 100 feet to a speaker mounted head high on a hawthorn at the scrub edge. Two thirty-foot mist nets were suspended badminton style to form an “L” around the speaker.  Any bird attempting to fly toward the sound would find itself ensnared in the net. It was already pitch black by the time I was able to tour the set-up and nearly ended up capturing myself in the net after tripping over the speaker cord.

  We returned to the building, turned on the “relentless” Saw Whet tape and cooled our heels.  Art put a Cup ‘o Soup into the microwave as Tom made the obligatory comment “well, I hope we get some tonight.  The other sites are catching ‘em like crazy.” Usually, when such a statement is made it nearly guarantees that the banding gods will not favor our location, so we quickly switched to politics.  After about twenty minutes it was time to check the nets and we headed into the blackness – actually I headed into the blackness, Tom cut through it with a head lamp. “Look out for that speaker cord,” he mentioned for some reason as we walked out.

  Upon approaching the net, Tom’s headlamp picked up a suspended shape hanging upside down in mesh. By golly, it was Saw Whet sure enough – living proof that the banding gods have turned a deaf ear. It normally takes only takes a minute to carefully untangle a captured bird, but my camera flashes kept Tom so thoroughly blinded that it took him nearly two minutes using his sense of touch. “It’s already got a band,” he said as his eyes re-adjusted to the night.  The owl, after a brief bout of beak popping (a defensive act in which she rapidly snaps here beak open and shut), settled down and calmly gazed back at her captor.

  The nocturnal prisoner was shoved head first into a pastry tube in order to hold it safe for the brief trip back to the building.  “Look out for that cord,” Tom repeated with Saw Whet relentlessness as we returned.

  Once inside, the duo proceeded to record data on the owl. The first task was to read the existing band. Normally a No. 4 aluminum band would be applied to the leg, but since it was already banded, there was no need.  Unfortunately the numbers were so tiny that they were near impossible to read – especially for three potential A.A.R.P. members. I finally made myself useful by grabbing a lens and reading off the sequence as Art recorded.  The numbers were: 0924-66958. 

  Next step was the weigh-in.  The total weight, with the tube, was 121 grams.  Since the tube weighed 31 grams that meant the bird tipped the scales at 90 grams.  A tail length measure (71 mm) and a wing measure (141 mm) followed.  All of these numbers were entered into the tally book under NSWO (short for Northern Saw Whet Owl).  In order to fill the last column, that indicating age class, the bird had to be taken out of the tube for examination. It amused me that a Pillsbury “Frosty the Snowman Cookie” tube was the official owl holder during this entire scientific endeavor.

  Under the glare of the black light, the right wing was unfurled to examine the feathering. Newer feathers would glow under the purplish light. This bird proved to have an even set of non-glowing old feathers which earned it an “SY” designation in the book (which means second year). After ten minutes of aging, measuring, and blinding it with camera flashes it was time to release the bird. Tom walked the dazzled owl out the front door and across the large dark parking lot. He took it far away from the enticing siren call of the recorder and the fowler’s net. It took a minute or two, but the owl finally realized it was free and vanished into the night smelling slightly of pastry.

  “You know,” Tom said upon his return, “there’s something familiar about that bird. I think we got that one last year.”  He scuffled over to the tattered record book and flipped back to a page labeled “returns.”  His hunch was correct.  There on the second line was No. 0924-66958. It was captured on Nov. 10, 2007 right here in the museum yard.  It was an “HY” (Hatching Year) category bird then and, amazingly enough, weighted exactly the same.  This was apparently an overwintering bird that decided to stay in the park.

  “If I remember right,” Tom went on to say,” this one was originally banded by somebody up near the northern border of Ontario and Quebec.”  I do believe he remembered right especially given the fact that he had just remembered a particular bird based solely on its measurements!  This over-winterer was a Canadian, eh. – a Quebecquois who “hoops” with a French accent.

  We checked the net once more but found it empty, so I hung around for another half hour before heading home. “We’ll stick around for a while yet” said Art and the pair thanked me for getting in their way so effectively. The next morning I received an e-mail from Tom saying that they ended up staying until midnight and caught “2 more Saw Whets and a Gray Phase Screech Owl. None had bands. We’ll be back next week.” You know, I think owl’ll be back as well.

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