swets in my nets 2000

Owlman's Believe It or Not:  Conjoined northern saw-whet owls.

October 24, 2000:  As I walked towards my nets last night, I did so with mixed emotions.  I knew there were saw-whets in the area and because of that, knew it was just a matter of time before my nets sagged again under an owl's 95 gram weight.  But I also knew that I was down to my last band and with it, my trapping would come to an end.  I get the same yin and yang of emotions when chasing boreal owls in Minnesota: when I start it is "Katey bar the door."  When I finish, it is always with a tinge of sadness.  As an admitted obsessive/compulsive owl biologist, there is little I won't do to answer the questions about owls that race through my mind like the a Wall Street ticker tape.  I lose sleep, I become myopic, I put off chores, I want time to stop. 

The dried leaves crunched under my feet as I approached the nets from behind a hemlock.  In the sharp light from my headlamp I saw the saw-whet suspended in mid-air, motionless.  Like I had done for 117 saw-whets this fall, I carefully extracted her and scratched behind her head.  Her eyes rolled back and an "ohhh that feels good" look overtook her.  I brought her inside and took the last band off the string and placed it around her leg.  She flailed her feet and talons found my skin and an "ohhh that doesn't feel good" look overtook me (there is nothing like the sight of ones own blood to snap the romantic glow off an evening of trapping).  She was measured, weighed and her molt checked and then was outside again.  I opened my hand and she sat quietly.  Then a breeze stirred in the pines and with it, my last saw-whet owl of the year took to the wing.  Feel free to e-mail me if you have comments or suggestions for my site.   

October 22, 2000:  Ask anyone with a modicum of bird knowledge and the chances are they will tell you that birds move south for the winter and north for the summer.  I was leaning strongly in that direction until a lone saw-whet appeared in my nets on Friday.  It was a bird I had originally trapped on the 29th. of September.  That it was a bird I had banded was not unusual.  Often, I have to extricate an owl that was banded one, maybe two nights earlier.  But 3 weeks?  That got me to thinking about the possibilities and the first one that came to my mind was that it was a resident bird.  I have heard singing saw-whets during the spring here in Maine, and surrounding my 2 1/4 acres are forests with fat conifers and lowlands thick with fir, hemlock, and alder.  In other words, the habitat is here.  But, are there cavity trees?  To find that out, would be tantamount to looking for a needle in the haystack.  Give me one week in March here and I would be able to answer that question.  Unfortunately, at that time, my gaze and passions are directed elsewhere, to the boreal forest and its boreal owl.   The second possibility was that he was just "hanging out", waiting for the weather to sour before heading to a more survivable winter-time climate.  In fact, weather conditions over the last 3 weeks have been warm, with only temporary interruptions from the icecap to our north.  The bottom line is that I just don't know and can only theorize and make educated (and noneducated) guesses.  Yet it is the theorizing and guessing that incubates my curiosity and keeps me going.  Last night, I made the cathartic decision that with two more owls, I will be done with yet another phase of obsessive/compulsive owl behavior.  As I write this, I have banded 108 saw-whets, and retrapped 8 previously banded owls. I have far-exceeded my expectations of mid-September and know that when fall rolls around again, I will be ready for the owls and hopefully, for the questions they raise.  I would love to hear from you if you are reading this.  

October 18, 2000:  As I write this, torrential rains are pounding on the roof and it appears I will again get 8 hours in the land of nod.  In just over 1 1/2 hours last night, I trapped seven more saw-whets.  Before the season began I ordered 100 bands, figuring that it was sufficient to get me through the migration.  Now with only 20 left, bander's panic has struck and worries of "not enough bands" courses through my veins and medulla oblongata.  It's too late to order new ones and I have yet to concede to the forces that say "enough banding Billy" (that force being my wife).  Instead, I am resigned to the fact that once these are gone, my nets will be placed in storage in Maine and I will count the full moons until my blood again boils with the boreal owl field season. My son Nikky is now known as Owlboy.  Not even three, he sits above me in his backpack during net set-up with a tiny Petzl headlamp focused on my activities, and when the owls are being banded hands me all the right instruments.  He doesn't know it yet but the next stop on his way to Mensa membership will be scientific names of the owls....poor kid.   

October 16, 2000:  So many owls, such little time.  It was a saw-whet kind of night last night.  No sooner had I set my nets when they (and I) were inundated by owls.  In only 2 1/2 hours of trapping, I caught 16 birds.  At one point, five owls awaited me in one net, suspended in awkward positions, ready to draw blood from the biologist's unsuspecting fingers.  At this point of the migration it is no exaggeration to say that my hands have taken a beating.  It is a simple formula. Extraction of owls from the nets means exposure of the flesh. With exposure comes talons. With talons comes blood.....mine.  Some owls are cupcakes, others are seemingly hell-bent on inflicting discomfort on my oversized fingers.  In an unscientific survey of my experiences this fall, second year males are the worst of the lot. They show no mercy. At 2130, after 16 owls, I sat in my lawn chair, trying to stay awake.  Then I got to thinking.  What if I had left my nets out longer last night and on other nights?  What if I had more than two nets deployed?  What if I had absolutely no need to sleep and could go all night?  How many owls could I catch if the responsibilities of the real world did not mandate a normal diurnal schedule?  Alas, when my internal queries blended together and my head sagged to my chest, I knew that sleep was the only attainable goal for the evening.  I bagged the nets, went inside and laid down on my bed. Shortly thereafter, I dreamed of owls.  

October 15, 2000:  Trapping slowed a bit on Friday and Saturday as a balmy south wind made the pending winter seem unlikely.  Maples shed their leaves under temperate gusts, and within a matter of hours the foliage of summer had become a part of the organic layer atop the forest floor.  Eight more saw-whets were banded, bringing my 3 week tally to 70 owls.  In early September, I never would have thought that number was possible.  How warm has it been?  Warm enough to stir the crickets and warm enough to stir the bats, one of which became entangled in an unsuspecting mist net.  Getting owls out of the fine nylon mesh is relatively easy.  Getting a bat out is not. By the time you determine which shelf it flew into, its teeth have already chewed through 3 inches of nylon. They are always chewing and they are always grabbing for more net with their dexterous digits.  Their teeth alone are reason enough for me to stick with owls.   Waiting for the next cold front.......

October 13, 2000:  It is downright bright at night under the full moon.  Owls are easily observed and surprisingly, have been easy to capture.  Over the last two nights, 19 owls became acquainted with my nets and then my living room. Truthfully, the flurry of activity caught me off guard.  I was intent on using the expected lull in trapping as an owl observer, trying to make sense of the vocalizations that saw-whets on-the-move make.  So far, I have heard seven distinct vocalizations and can only imagine what the birds are saying.  During the spring breeding season in Minnesota, saw-whet vocalizations are mostly limited to the male's song and the female's response to her suitor.  The way I look at it though, is that as I write this, I know a little bit more about saw-whets now than I did 24 hours ago.  I wish fall never ended.  

October 10, 2000: Light from the growing moon cast long shadows below the pines and hemlocks, and the cold air means yet another layer of fleece was pulled from the closet.  Trapping usually slows on clear, moonlit nights.  Owls can see the nets and have an uncanny ability to avoid them at the last second.  At the same time, I can see them and it seems a fair trade: fewer owls to band, but lots of owls to observe.  I sat in my lawn chair last night and told myself, "life doesn't get any better than this."  The saw-whets were active and I watched and heard their voices across the landscape, and even with the glow of the hunter's moon, not all hopes of banding were lost.  Over the past two nights, I trapped 10 more saw-whets, bringing my season total to 42.

October 7, 2000:  In between the green blobs of rain that appeared on the radar screen, I managed to sneak in a couple of hours of trapping on Friday night.  Things started out with a bang, but ended with a whimper.  Five saw-whets were trapped, all of them SY (second year birds).  With even a mediocre night tonight, I will surpass last years total.  Had this been a good year for saw-whet reproduction with HY (hatch year) birds abundant, there is no telling the number of owls I would end up with.  As I have often alluded to, trapping is a lot like fishing: there are good and there are bad nights. The only difference with trapping owls, is that occasionally one has to fend off the advances of the local skunk or family of raccoons. Pepe Le Peuw dang near got me last night.  My thoughts must have been elsewhere, lost in the night, pondering the saw-whets as they push methodically to the south.  

October 4, 2000:  It was downright sultry that last two nights.  Wood frogs vocalized and more moths than I have seen in two weeks darted in front of my headlamp.  While no owls were trapped on the 3rd, four were banded last night during an abbreviated trapping session.  Speaking of abbreviated trapping sessions, that is primarily what mine are.  On a night when I feel well rested, I might go for 3 hours. Some of the banders that I know go all night! The conclusion to be derived from this is that there is something about these owls. Just like the moths were drawn to my headlamp, I am drawn to the saw-whets in my back yard.  Thus far, only four hatch year birds have been caught with the rest being seasoned veterans of the northern forest.  I was recently contacted by Dave Brinker, from Project Owlnet, who is taking on the huge task of making some sense of all of the migrating saw-whets coursing through the night sky (their web site is still under construction so be patient).   

October 2, 2000:  Another night, another five saw-whets.  Last night I was joined by Bill Martz, the brains and muscle for Wildlife Technologies, Inc.  The most exciting development of the evening was the last owl caught.  It was already adorned with a band, meaning that at some point in its recent or distant past, it found someone else's mist nets on a dark September or October night.  I will send the band number into the USFWS and at some point in the future, will receive the information pertaining to when and where she was originally banded.  One thing I do know, however, is that she has been around for a while.  

October 1, 2000:  A relatively good night, with seven saw-whets trapped, banded, and released, including the ornithological rarity of "conjoined" owls (see picture above). Okay, so they weren't conjoined.  But with my wife gone, I had to get creative and that was about as creative as I can get at midnight.  The trend (I use that word loosely) of trapping a disproportionate number of adults continued, and each evening that passes, I become more convinced that 2000 wasn't a good year for owl fecundity in both Maine and Minnesota.  Owls last night were active and vocal, even in the face of a steady 10 mph wind from the south.  Winds will be lighter tonight and with the full moon less than two weeks away, I want to take advantage of the darkness.  Stop by tomorrow for another update.  

September 30, 2000:  I trapped two more saw-whets last night, and for the first time this fall actually had to dress for cold temperatures.  I was accompanied on my net checks by good friend Nick Stathis, who was my lab mate during our graduate degree programs at the University of Minnesota.  Today, winds have again shifted to the south, so I am not anticipating a net-bulging evening, but I am always eager to be proven wrong.  Thus far, most of the owls trapped have been older birds.  Generally speaking, the "young of the year" (Hatch Year: HY birds) are the first to move, followed by the adults.  My theory? I have a sneaking suspicion that it wasn't a good year for saw-whet reproduction in Maine, which coincides with a poor reproductive year in Minnesota.  Something is going on with the northern forest owls this year.  Stay tuned.

Nick Stathis holding his 102 gram friend.

Nick releasing a banded saw-whet owl.

Back into the night.


September 28, 2000:  Compared to some of the major raptor trapping stations scattered across North America, mine is miniscule.  I set three nets and keep my fingers crossed.  I do not live on a geologic, migratory funnel like Hawk Ridge in Duluth, MN, or Pelee Point in Ont. Canada, but in the heart of the southern Maine woods.  My back yard is no different than my neighbor's back yards, and owls move through it because they are heading south to survive, not because they have nowhere else to go. Yet, every night I check my nets I expect to find owls waiting to be banded. Tonight was a good night, simply because I trapped three owls. Not earthshaking, mind you, but I now know the saw-whets are moving and things will pick up. 


September 26, 2000:  After watching the weather forecast Tuesday night, I said to myself: "it could be a good night for saw-whets."  Well, to make a long story short, it probably would have been had it not been for the pair of great-horned owls (GHOW) that claimed my back yard as their territory for the evening.  Yes, I heard saw-whets, and even managed to trap one, but with the cacaphony of the vocalizing GHOW's ringing in the night air, the saw-whets seemed to be in no great hurry to pay my nets a visit.  Perhaps it was their desire to frustrate me. More likely, it was their desire to avoid becoming a dietary supplement of the great-horneds. 


September 25, 2000:  It's not like the "fish" are biting.  But, even on a bad night, one owl keeps things interesting.  Although other owls were heard, none found their way into my nets.  Weather conditions were ideal for trapping: temperatures hovered in the mid-40's, beneath a cloudless sky with no breeze. The resident barred owls have finally determined that the saw-whet song they hear is just some clumsy biologist with little patience for barred owls.  Now, they stay off in distant pines and do what owls do best: hunt under the cover of darkness.  Tonight's weather looks equally favorable and so it could start to get a little busy around here.  We'll see.   


September 23, 2000:  This is similar to ice fishing.  Over the past two evenings, weather improved and so my nets were in place and my bands were at the ready.  Unfortunately, my view of what comprises "good" migration weather didn't coincide with the owl's view of what comprises good migration weather. Song birds are very active at night (yes, they migrate at night as well as the day), but the woods have been surprisingly devoid of owls.  I know, however, that it is just a matter of time.  Last year, my peak trapping night occurred on 18 October.  Until then, my nets will be set and I will wait patiently for the owl migration. 


September 17-20, 2000:  Nasty south winds and a persistent cold have kept me grounded for most of the week.  Temperatures were warm during the day and warm at night, two factors that do not contribute much to the owl's innate urge to move south.  However, a cold front moved through the state today, and combined with my improving health, I am a bit antsy for the sun to go down.  As the season develops, I will supplement information on this page with photos so......stay tuned.


September 16th, 2000:  Less than 15 minutes after setting up my nets, I captured my first saw-whet owl of the year.  She (based on the wing chord measurement, see description above) was a second year bird (based on the molt sequence) weighing nearly 110 grams (based on my scale).  As has a tendency to happen early in the year however, not much happened after that-no more owls-no more excitement.  Sunday's weather calls for strong west winds during the day with temperatures dropping into the 40's.  It could be a good night, but I will have to wait a few more hours to find out.  Stay tuned.


September 10-15:  Weather patterns have not been conducive to the long-awaited migration.  South winds and warm temperatures have put a damper on any urge to move south-including all of the summer tourists from Florida.  I set up my nets knowing that it is still a bit early for owls, but curious to determine when the migration will begin.  Last year, I trapped my first saw-whet on the 19th of September.  Now, I am eager to find out what will transpire in the year 2000.