swets in my nets 2001


The same procession of September and October cold fronts that send you scurrying for your fleece jacket also acts as a subtle reminder for birds of all shapes and sizes that it is time to move south in search of sustenance and shelter. We dress warmer and turn on our furnace, they move to survive.


During the familiarity of daylight, it is easy to determine when the songbirds and raptors are moving: warblers flit visibly among the pines and spruce, dining on the last insects of the year, and kettles of broad-winged and sharp-shinned hawks soar overhead with wing's set on updrafts of warm air. But what happens at night? There's only one way to find out.


Again, during the year 2001, I will sit at open nets waiting for the saw-whets to arrive.  Last year, I trapped 117 owls in the span of 4 weeks.  It left me anxious for the return of fall.  I will try to update this site on a daily basis, so feel free to join me and the Swets in My Nets. 

Saw-whet Measurements I Record In My Living Room: 


Wing Chord: a measurement of the owl's closed wing, taken from the bend at the "wrist", to the tip of the longest primary feather.  Northern saw-whet owls exhibit moderate sexual size dimorphism (females are larger than males) and in general, wing chords >145 mm are most likely female birds.


Tail, or Deck Length:  the central pair of tail feathers is measured using a metric scale.  

Molt Pattern:  Saw-whet owls exhibit observable patterns of molting.  Hatch year birds have uniformly-colored, new feathers; second year birds exhibit new primary and secondary feathers while retaining old feathers in an "inner block" of primaries and secondary feathers; third year and beyond owls drop their feathers in irregular patterns (see photos below). 

Typical, second year molt pattern (After Hatch Year: AHY).  Inner block of primary and secondary feathers are retained.

Typical, after second year (ASY) molt pattern.  Irregular pattern of old and new primary and secondary flight feathers. 

Weight: Trapped owls are weighed using a hand-held Pesola scale.  Males in Maine generally weigh between 70 and 90 grams, and females weigh between 90 and 110 grams.  Of course, if the owl has recently eaten a 15 gram vole, the scale bends a little further.


Bands*:  I use USFWS Size 4, butt-ended bands, placed on the tarsus (lower leg of the owl).  After approximately 10 minutes following capture and recording measurements and weights, the owls are released and sent on their way.  

USFWS leg band in place,  prior to release.
*Trapping and banding authorized by permits provided by the USFWS Bird Banding Laboratory, and the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.


November 12, 2001:  In a way, it seemed fitting that the last owl I would extricate from my nets this year was Bubba the barred owl.  He has lingered at my trapping site for several weeks, unfazed by the sticks thrown at him and the profanities directed at his perches in the upper reaches of the bare-limbed maples.  The flow of saw-whets has slowed considerably here in Owego.  With my trapping rate below one swet per hour, I decided it was time to fold the nets.  Still, 75 saw-whets met the "Owlman" during the dark of night in New York, bringing my seasonal tally to 212.  Not bad for two nets and a lawn chair.   And whether in Maine or New York, a clear majority of owls trapped were hatch year birds.  It obviously was a good year for mom and dad saw-whets everywhere.  Now, I turn my gaze to the northern forests of Minnesota.  My approach to life is pretty simple: trap during the fall and chase during the spring.  March is 4 months away, yet I am already eager to pursue boreals and breath the clean air of a land locked in winter.  


November 4, 2001:  Now, I have witnessed the yin and yang of owling in Owego.  Tuesday night (October 30) I had the good fortune of trapping 21 saw-whets; Thursday night, I caught none.  I could rationalize the latter results by suggesting "it was too warm....too windy", but the pervasive reality is that the migration is winding down.  Last night, five swets were trapped, despite favorable trapping conditions.  Oh, I'll keep at it, simply because I love doing it, and one saw-whet during 3 hours of trapping is far better than no saw-whets during 3 hours in my motel room.  Perhaps some of the swets I have banded will find their way into nets in a distant valley.  Bubba the barred still makes his presence known, but his experience with me earlier in the week has likely "smartened him up" a bit.  


October 30, 2001:  Finally, the front has spent its last foul breath and the woods are calm again.  Four nights in a row I sat in my motel room, catching up on sleep and physically abusing my remote control and cable rights.  When I returned to my nets on Sunday, I found myself immersed in a busy night.  Fourteen saw-whets were trapped in a little over 2 hours.  Just as I was about to hang it up for the night, I heard a telltale sound of an owl in the nets.  Not the quiet rustling that a saw-whet makes, but the loud sound that a 2 pound barred owl makes.  I finished banding my swet, and ran down the trail.  Sure enough, there was "Bubba" the barred owl, in an inescapable ball of mist nets and leaves.  On either side of him, two saw-whets dangled helplessly.  A barred owl preying on smaller owls is a fact of their existence.  Yet, this was a first for me.  I extracted the barred and was thankful that a lifeless saw-whet did not appear beneath its plumage.  Above where the larger owl hit, three holes were punched into the top shelf of netting.  I hate when that happens. 


Last night (October 28), nine more owls were trapped. All saw-whets, no barreds, although what I suspect was the same barred caught during the previous night did make its vocal presence known.  The moon is growing fatter and net placement is a hit and miss proposition:  one minute the mesh is hidden, the next it is bathed in moonlight.  Since I started trapping in Owego, 30 swets have been banded and released into a night that smells like cow manure. All the fields have been sprayed, and a career in the manure industry is no longer on my "to-do" list.  

My first Owego northern saw-whet.


October 13, 2001:  It was a Banner night for Billy.  Owls were seemingly everywhere and my nets sagged for several hours.  Thirty-four saw-whets arrived on Royal Road and with it, so too did an endless jaunt to check, extract, band and release the birds.  I have been waiting for just such a night.  Then again, by the time I was finished, I was content that it was coming to an end.  Continuing the pattern that has been apparent this fall, most of the owls I am securing are first year birds.  Adults are scattered in their frequency but it is still relatively early, with at least one more week of heavy flights expected.  Unfortunately, I am leaving tomorrow for New York, so those owls that do pass through my Maine back yard, will move unencumbered.  I am hoping to continue my efforts in Owego, but must await approval from the BBL.  No permit, no trapping.  It is a rule I adhere to.  Thus far, I have trapped 137 owls in 2 weeks time.  Amazing.  


October 9, 2001:  The last two nights have been a little more productive, with a total of 23 saw-whets trapped.  In 10 days of trapping, I have captured nearly 90 owls.  On Monday night I was joined by Rich Jordan, who happened to be my assistant in Minnesota during the spring of 2000.  He noted how much easier it is to trap owls when the temperature is actually above 0 degrees and he could feel his extremities.  We sat out near the nets and reminisced about the boreals that haunted two months of our existence and the sleepless days that followed the busy nights.  Trapping saw-whets is a much more palatable past time than trapping, or attempting to trap breeding boreal owls.  During the fall migration, the owls come to you.  During the spring, you must go to the owls.  And going to a boreal in northern Minnesota invariably means a trek through snow and fallen trees, and always includes the possibility of getting lost.  In Maine, I can't get lost.....I only have 2 and 1/2 acres on which to roam.  

Keeping a promise I made to one of the "Day Care Moms", I had a gaggle of people over last night to confirm the rumors that I have been spreading for two years; that being "I trap owls in my back yard."  They were in a state of disbelief until I pulled a swet from the net.  It started out slow, but picked up considerably once the squirming kids were back in the land of illumination.  A family of porcupines paid peripheral visits to the group and on a relatively mild evening, my unwritten doctrine of educating the public about owls was a successful venture.  Madeline, Nikky's Day Care buddy, petted a saw-whet and probably couldn't sleep when she got home.  Nikky just ho-hummed the experience.  He is afterall, a seasoned owl veteran.  


October 6, 2001:  I called Miss Cleo yesterday to see if she could tell me what kind of owl night it would be.  After waiting for 34 minutes and racking up a $143 dollar phone bill, she told me that she "saw a great change in my life".  Miss Cleo knows everything, but she "don't know saw-whets".  Neither do I for that matter.  Thursday and Friday were nights of warmth and southerly breezes.  Only a handful of owls "tickled the twine", and boredom pursued me on each net check.  With a newly arrived cold front, however, things picked up a bit last night.  Seventeen saw-whets arrived in my living room as the temperature hovered around 40 degrees most of the night.  Winds that were supposed to be 10-15 mph were non-existent.  Unlike last year, most of the owls I am trapping are hatch year birds.  Obviously, it was a busy spring for the breeding saw-whets in the northern latitudes. 


October 2, 2001: It was a beautiful night to not have a lot of activity.  Geese flew to the south under a full moon, barred owls hooted from nearby pines, and only one saw-whet sagged my nets.  Even on a slow night, when owls are not busy, at least they can be heard.  Such was not the case tonight.  It was silent.  No whistles or screams or bending branches that announce the arrival of yet another curious Strigidean.  And as I discovered in Minnesota, things happen when you let them.  As I sat quietly, a white-tailed deer approached, snorting and stomping his feet like a bull in front of a matador.  When I flicked my light on, a beautiful buck stood less than 30' from me.  He stood motionless, and then moved away in an effortless gait.    


October 1, 2001:  Back in Maine for a couple of weeks, away from the  track hoes and side booms that constitute my life in Owego, New York.  My trapping efforts this year were begun on the 29th of September.  Because my stay in Maine will be brief, my nets will be open longer each night; instead of the 2-3 hour efforts I used successfully last year, I am going to go for 5-6 hours a night.  Coffee will again become my beverage of choice.  Saturday was a good flight for early in the season with 20 saw-whets trapped, puncturing my skin, releasing parasitic flies into my Cape-style house, defecating on me, puncturing my skin again, and then being outfitted with a USFWS band before they tasted their freedom under the Maine night sky.  Also meeting the fine mesh of my nets was a northern flying squirrel.  


September 30, 2001:  With south winds last night, things slowed down a bit, and only seven owls were captured.  Oh, they still managed to draw my blood and spread whitewash liberally over my wardrobe, but that is the price one pays when bitten by the owl bug.  With a full moon upon us, it is a truly amazing experience to sit in the woods and literally watch as owls come in.  My back yard is a very busy place.  Nikky's surgery is tomorrow, and it won't be long before I again have the assistance of my valuable field tech.  He is not yet 4 years old, and already exhibits the aplomb of a seasoned veteran.  He has the dexterity of an Amish seamstress when working the nets, and knows that when the sun sets, it's time to get ready for the owls. 

Swets in my nets 2000