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Owl-banding project gathers clues about a species

November 30, 1999|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

Whooo they are

Northern Saw-whet owl (Aegolius acadicus)

Appearance: Brown and white body, white around the eyes, large yellow-orange eyes

Length: 6.7 to 8.6 inches

Wingspan: 18.1 to 22.2 inches

Weight: 2.6 to 3.9 ounces (females are larger than males)

Source: www.owlpages.com

WASHINGTON COUNTY

The wind was light, the sky dark ? prime conditions for catching little owls.

The Lamb's Knoll banding station, along the Appalachian Trail, was ideal for tracking the Northern Saw-whet, an owl as tall and wide as a human hand, and much cuddlier.

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The station, in South Mountain State Park, sits 1,758 feet above sea level, the right elevation for attracting owls as they fly south from Canada, Project Owlnet found David F. Brinker said.

Above all, Brinker said, the birds are drawn to a mating call of the wild: an MP3 recording of a 100-plus-decibel staccato whine that sounds like it needs a spritz of WD-40.

On a recent chilly night, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources invited media organizations to watch and document the process of catching, measuring, tagging and releasing owls. Brinker works for DNR's Wildlife and Heritage Division.

The owls showed less excitement than the humans. Even while hanging upside down, tangled in gossamer-like bird-catching nets, the owls kept cool and still until human hands carefully rescued them.

While some might ask "so what?" about the project, Brinker says the Saw-whet and its flight patterns tell a helpful tale about a little-known bird.

"This is a species that for many years people thought was rare, but it was rarely seen," he said.

The Atlas of Canada's Web site says the boreal forest, where Saw-whet owls are prominent, is "draped like a green scarf across the shoulders of North America."

The boreal forest makes up about one-third of Canada's land area, the Web site says.

In the fall, many owls migrate hundreds of miles south, while others stay within their breeding range ? patterns that Project Owlnet says are "well documented in some areas," yet "still poorly understood."

"We still don't know where they all go, how far or for how long they stay," a project summary sheet says.

Lamb's Knoll is one of four Maryland owl-banding stations and, based on recent numbers, the busiest. In the first four weeks of the current migration season, 253 Saw-whets were banded there, including 73 in one night.

Volunteer Steve Huy, who lives in Frederick County, Md., does much of the banding.

During the two-month migration season, Huy spends many nights ? usually, six or seven a week ? at the station, which has a couple of beds for overnight stays. "Three a.m. to dawn, we can get slammed," Brinker said.

The media's recent night with the owls was postponed once by gusting wind. The next night was just right, with the wind speed at about 5 mph and the temperature about 34 degrees.

About 250 feet of net was strung along the rocky Appalachian Trail. Overhead was the lure's repeating "hoop-hoop" sound ? an "advertising" male, as Brinker put it.

The first net check, at 7:30 p.m., produced nothing. Everyone went back to the banding shed to chat and keep warm.

On the second check, at about 9 p.m., two owls were suspended in the nearly invisible nets. The birds seemed resigned to hang around for a bit, even with camera lights and flashes aimed at their faces.

"For wild animals, they're pretty tame," Brinker said.

After returning to the shed, Huy removed one owl from a pouch.

He slid the owl headfirst into an empty 6-ounce can that once held Donald Duck grapefruit juice. The scrunchable bird's legs and tail feathers were sticking up.

Huy placed the can and owl on a scale: 87 grams, or about 3 ounces.

While the owl was immobilized, Huey used a pliers-like tool to wrap a metal band around one of its legs.

He removed the bird from the can and measured its wings and beak. He examined the molt pattern, noting which feathers were older and more faded.

He lightly blew aside torso feathers to look for fat deposits, signs that the bird had eaten, or air pockets, indicating that it hadn't.

Huy's 3 1/2-year-old daughter, Rowan, playing on a bed behind him, named the owl "Little Sister."

Every four years, Brinker said, there's an "eruption" of Saw-whet owls, ripe for studying at dozens of banding stations across the continent.

Brinker said the numbered leg bands give directions for people who find the owls, alive or dead, to report information and help the project.

After probing and stretching each owl on this particular night, the researchers let them go free.

"Little Sister" took off right away.

The second owl sat on Brinker's hand for a few minutes, pooped, looked around and waited some more.

Brinker moved his hand a little and the owl got the message. It flapped its wings, hovered a bit and flew off into the darkness.

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