Thursday, October 28, 2010

Not Saw-Whet Owls

Northern Saw-Whet Owl
With Stan heading back to South Africa and the book events dying down, I’ve been visiting great friends, Nelson and Pat Markley, in Pennsylvania before taking on the airlines for the thirty-hour trip back to Johannesburg this weekend. We’ve been doing lots of interesting non-mystery things. On Monday we were fortunate to visit the Saw-Whet Owl banding station in Schuylkill County. The weather was iffy all day, but by mid-afternoon we had the message that the banding would go ahead that night.

A team of volunteers led by Scott Weidensaul heads out there each night between the start of October and Thanksgiving. The project’s aim is to understand more about the ecology and migration patterns of these enigmatic small owls which pass through the area on their way south for the winter. Some get as far as Alabama, something unknown before Scott’s project got underway. The first bird was banded there shortly after he visited the area, leading to mutterings that he’d brought it with him! Now a small number are caught there regularly each winter. Since 1997 the three Pennsylvania banding stations have harmlessly caught, banded, and released over 5000 owls, and obtained a scientific data base about the size and age of the owls as well as their migratory pattern.  The procedure is to carefully unroll the pemanently set up mist nets, and switch on an MP3 player which beats out the amplified call of a male Saw-Whet.  Every hour the nets are checke for owls which are carefully removed from the net, placed in soft bags, and brought down to the center where they are measured and weighed.  Feathers are examined under flourescent light to estimate age, and a few removed for DNA data.  Then back into the bags to get their eyes back to night vision and soon they are on their way.

Scott Weidensaul with a new friend
 Scott himself is a fascinating person to talk to. Largely self-taught, he is inspiring and knowledgeable, the sort of ecologist who draws you into the enthusiasm and commitment of the project. Spending a few hours there it’s easy to understand why there are 100 carefully selected volunteers willing to spend 6pm till midnight waiting for and handling the birds. After opening up the nets and switching on the persistent tooting recording – Scott says it sounds like a garbage truck reversing and he’s keen to try that “call” out on the owls! – the team retires to the center they are allowed to use by a local golf course.  They compare bird - and other - stories and wait. A wary eye is cast on the sky and the weather radar frequently checked; the nets and sound equipment can’t be left operating in rain. But after an hour we all climb a slippery path through the dark with headlights and flashlights to see what there is to see. A few leaves are cleared out of the nets but nothing else. Back to the center to wait for the next check.

Apart from his bird research, Scott is a talented and prolific writer with more than two dozen books published. Most involve birds, but his range is broader. Mountains of the Heart is an exploration of the Appalachians. The book he’s currently writing is historical. It tells of the frontier of the 16th and 17th centuries, which ran from New Foundland to St. Augustine, through the stories of the frontier people of the time.

His best known book is Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds which was one of the three finalists for the Pulitzer prize for non-fiction in 2000. It’s a fascinating and personal account of the migratory issues of birds across the Americas.

Alas! Before the next time to check the nets, the heavens opened and the team rushed off to close the nets and rescue the equipment. Nelson and I stayed dry in the center; everyone else returned drenched but still in good spirits. So not saw owls, but I felt very privileged to have spent a couple of hours with Scott and his team.

Michael - Thursday
Photos by Nelson Markley


  1. Michael, the owls are such intelligent looking creatures. The eyes are saying, "You only caught me because I let you."

    I am intrigued by the picture of Scott with the owl, perched so close to his face and his eyes. The owl seems tamed. They are beautiful.


  2. Hi there. Just reading your great posting regarding the Northern Saw-Whet Owl. I was very interested in learning about your local project aimed at studying the migration patterns of these birds. I live in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, along ways from your neck of the woods. This past Friday, my wife and I came upon an adult Northern Saw-Whet Owl out in the bush. This was the first time as birders that we had ever seen a Saw-Whet Owl. Fortunately, we had our camera with us and got some good pictures and video. We have posted them for anyone interested at: