Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Owl Banding in the Black Hills

           As part of my Outdoor Education degree it's sometimes required to do service learning within the community to broaden our experiences and to also meet new contacts. The most interesting option I had heard about so far was an opportunity to go owl banding. 
Banded Owl Leg 10.11
           The Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory was looking for volunteers to help with owl surveys that they would be conducting in the Black Hills and Southwest South Dakota and so I contacted the local regional coordinator, Nancy Drilling, to set up a date that I could help out.
           That day came quickly and on Sunday I cruised down Tinton Road to find the location of the make-shift owl banding station. I made it to the parking spot around 5 o’clock and hiked around for awhile trying to find exactly where the station was set up and after a moment or two of feeling lost I saw people walking out of the woods a few hundred yards away. It was Nancy and other birders who would be helping that evening.
           After brief introductions Nancy walked me to where the nets were set up. I was disappointed that I had missed setting up the nets but it was still really interesting to see them already up. There were 9 nets in total. There were three set up in a tight triangle around an electric owl call. Another three were set around that triangle but about 8-10 ft away. The last three were set up in a straight line about 20ft away edging an old two track. I was curious about how this location was chosen and why the nets were set up like they were. Apparently the owls like areas with pine trees but also areas that have undergrowth (which can be a little hard to find in these woods). This particular spot ran along a ridge so it was more likely that they might be flying along the ridge or close enough to hear the call resonating out. The set of nets that were set in a straight line and further out were set up that way to net any owls that may be interested but skeptical of the call and not swoop right in.     
Measuring the Sew-whet's leg for a band, 10.11
I always find it interesting the tools that people use in their trade. There was a metal ruler that could be used to measure the wing length of the owls, and another flat metal ruler-like measuring device that would measure the width of the leg so that the metal band could be properly fitted. The silver bands were very interesting and were bigger than I thought they’d be and each was imprinted with a specific number. I asked where the bands came from and they are issued by a specific GFP out of Colorado, I believe. It made perfect sense after she explained that she was given a certain set of numbers and has to account for each one and that only one place issues them to prevent confusion later on. The most interesting tool to me was the used condensed juice containers that had been fashion into carriers for the owls. The old containers were so small that it really cemented it into my mind that the owls we would be working with were much smaller than I had anticipated. For some reason I had previously had visions of me wrestling a big horned owl out of the netting. I was greatly relieved when I found out otherwise. The owls that we were hoping to net were Saw-whet and quite small, about the size of a hand.
Measuring Wing Length, 10.11
At this point it was still light out and the work was pretty easy. Nancy, her coworker, Britta and another birder/volunteer, Charlie were going to be my companions for the night. We settled our chairs and prepared our snacks for the wait. About 15 minutes after sunset we walked back to the nets and opened them up. When the nets are spread out I would guess that they are between 5½ and 7ft. The walk took about 2 minutes at a fast pace and was just far enough that we wouldn’t disturb any owls that came in close. The electronic call was put into a plastic bag and hung in the center of the triangle net set up. Once it was activated it gave off a sound that sounded almost like a beeping. It went through a cycle that was maybe a minute long and then repeated. I asked why this call was chosen and Nancy told me that this was the sound males would make in the spring to let other owls know this was their territory. 
Counting wing feathers, 10.11
          We opened the nets around 6:45 PM and we noted the weather- about 45’ and calm. From this point we settled in until the next net check in a half hour which is just about the perfect amount of time allowed for the woods to be undisturbed after our checks for just long enough to lure an owl in but that it was also short enough that any owls caught wouldn’t be exposed to extreme stress. It made a lot of sense and she explained that other places do it at different time lengths but they were comfortable with this amount.
            We checked the nets every half hour until 8:15 without any luck. It was still cool to walk out there expecting to find an owl and using my flashlight to light up the nets in search. At 8:15 Britta and Charlie did their check of the nets and there was an owl!
            When they were back at the station we took the owl out and measured it’s tail, from it’s bottom to the tip. Then we weighed the owl while still contained and it weighed 98g. By it’s weight we could tell that it was a female. Apparently female Saw-whet owls weigh more than males and by using a predesignated scale we saw that she fell into the female range. Then we measured the width of it’s leg and fitted it with a band, counted the feathers on the wings and on the tall. Then we used a black light on the underside of it’s wings. Apparently the new feathers secrete a hormone that turns bright pink under a black light. By the pattern that we observed we thought that this owl was between 1 and 2 years old. It was so cool to see the hormone appear and then to find a matching pattern in a resource book. I was also able to pick out which feather were older by their wearing pattern on the edge. When we had collected all this information and recorded it we released her by setting her on an arm and she took off into the night.  
Observing the owl at the station, 10.11
            Seeing that owl up close was exhilarating. It made the hours leading up to it just disappear and I couldn’t wait until the next check. Unfortunately we didn’t see another owl and around 9 PM it began to rain. Rain is tough on owls especially if they get the flight feathers wet so we went out and torn down the nets, packed up the station and it’s gear and headed home.
            This was an amazing experience! After hearing that Nancy and Britta weren’t having too much luck at this station made me even more excited that I was part of that night. I walked away knowing so much more about owls, especially Saw-whets. Charlie, the other volunteer, was a very knowledgeable birder and told us stories of owl boxes that he had on his property. I didn’t even know that owls lived in cavities or boxes that Josh and I could make. I learned a lot about birding culture and lots of interesting facts from each person and I felt inspired to make a box or two to lure owl to our land one day. I saw pictures of baby owls in a box and feeding and realized that this is something that I would like to become more involved with. I also realized that within each owl box is a mini archaeology dig that I could do to learn more about what owls are eating, how they shed feathers and what they bring into their nests. Maybe someday Josh and I'll have the opportunity to do something like that!

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