Saturday, November 17, 2012

Banding Saw Whet Owls at Hueston Woods...wow!

Last Saturday evening I headed over to the Hueston Woods Biological Station with my friends Paul Kruesling and Joe Kappa to watch Northern Saw Whet owls (Aegolius acadicus) being banded by Drs. Jill and Dave Russel with the Avian Research and Education Institute (AREI).  Have you ever seen a Northern Saw Whet owl? Can you say cute...

Northern Saw Whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus) being banded at the Hueston Woods Biological Station as part of the Avian Research and Education Institute (by Dr. Dave Russel)
Northern Saw Whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus) 
Cuter than cute can be, but this little night bird is a lethal hunter and can dispatch prey in one swoop and strike. 
Northern Saw Whet Owls are the smallest owls in eastern North America. They are rarely seen because  during the day, they sleep in conifer tangles, and if they are disturbed by a human tramping past, they do not flush. Their defense is to remain motionless, and it works. Northern Saw Whet Owls posses disruptive coloration (a camouflage pattern consisting of contrasting light and dark patches, spots or stripes), and it works best when the animal is still.

Is that bird tame?
Because Saw Whet Owls' primary defense is to remain motionless, they appear to be tame, but don't be fooled. They really are wild birds (just ask a mouse). Their "tameness" however, is legendary, and researchers report of being able to walk right up to one and pick it up off a branch. The diminutive owl is so calm around humans it appears to have no fear and even seems curious about us!

A very polite bird, the Northern Saw Whet Owl almost appears tame as Dr. Dave Russel lifts her up so we can see her.
...those eyes, those fluffy feathers, that tiny little rectangular body....there's no doubt this pint-sized nocturnal hunter graduated from the Institute of Cute, but looks can be deceiving--there's might and fright behind all of that fluff...  
You may wonder how researchers capture these tiny owls. It's pretty cool. They select an area in the woods with dense stands of conifers and set up huge mist nets. The nets are placed near an audio player amplifying the male's territorial song. Every thirty minutes the mist nets are checked to see if an owl has flown into one. If one has, it's gently removed from the net and placed in a soft bag to await banding...

A Saw Whet Owl captured just minutes before awaits banding. The soft bags keep owls safe and relaxed. They do not bother the Saw Whets at all.
A Northern Saw Whet Owl rests in a soft bag waiting to be banded. We were able to watch Dave band three Saw Whet Owls and one Eastern Screech Owl.
A Saw Whet Owl is about to have a band placed on its leg...
...getting ready to place the band on the owl's leg. 
In addition to banding, researchers gather other data, such as the bird's weight, wing length, tail length, whether it's male or female, its age, and amount of fat deposits. It doesn't take very long to gather all this data and the little owl just watches and studies...

The tiny bands that are fastened to the owls' legs...and the calipers used to take small measurements.
...the tiny bands that will be fastened around the owl's leg were strung like beads on a fine thread. They are very light and the bird doesn't even notice when one is attached. In the background, you can see the black calipers used to take small measurements. I didn't take notes that evening, so I don't remember everything that was measured. I was too busy marveling at the patient little owl. 

Closeup of a Northern Saw Whet Owl's facial disk.
A closeup of a Northern Saw Whet Owl's facial disk shows the feathers of the facial disk are different from the feathers elsewhere on its body. Many look soft and fluffy, but others appear barbed or even skeletal. The feathers in the concave disk help direct sound to the ear openings.
As I mentioned earlier, these cute little brown and white owls with gorgeous yellow eyes are ferocious hunters and can kill their prey, often a deer mouse or a white-footed mouse, quickly and easily with their talons after a strike. Since the owls are small they usually only eat half of a mouse, storing the rest until the next meal. Also, if prey is abundant in winter, Saw Whet owls will stock up by stashing uneaten carcasses in tree holes where they remain frozen for future meals. When the owl is ready to eat from the frozen cache, it thaws out the meat by "incubating" it like an egg (source: Penn State, The Virtual Nature Trail, click here).

...the eyes of a Northern Saw Whet Owl look on patiently.

If you look closely, you can see the frayed edges of the owl's wing feathers. This unique adaptation is what gives them their silent flight. The trailing feathers are fringed and tattered and break up the sound waves generated as air flows over the top of the wings and forms downstream wakes (click here for an earlier post about Barn Owls that talks about this adaptation).

It was cold that night, but my giant snow parka kept me warm. The little owl felt like a ball of warm fluff in my hands. She was so gentle and never took her eyes off me. I can't describe how amazing it felt to hold this little wild creature. 

...being a night owl, I really appreciated getting out to see these owls, which are only passing through our area. Every fall, Saw Whets leave the northern forests where they nested and migrate south to their wintering grounds. Most have past through by the beginning of December. 
If you want to learn more about the work being done by the Avian Research and Education Institute, click here. From their website: "AREI is a non-profit organization dedicated to enhancing the preservation of avian populations. Our mission is to protect and conserve avian populations through research, education and advocacy. To this end, AREI is committed to establishing biological stations that will provide bird banding and environmental education to the public."

22 comments:

Carol Mattingly said...

Absolutely beautiful birds Kelly. Those eyes just mesmerize you. Carol

TexWisGirl said...

absolutely adorable. just an amazing experience for you, i'm certain of it!

Betsy Adams said...

Awesome info, Kelly... Those little guys really are tiny... They look so innocent!!! I would want to keep him as a PET... ha

Hugs,
Betsy

Lucy Chen said...

oh love!

grammie g said...

Hi Kelly.. What a little sweetheart..and those eyes!!
Nice opportunity you had to watch the banding of these fella's...and get to hold one to : )!!
Grace

eileeninmd said...

Oh wow, what a cool experience. It is awesome you were able to hold one. Loved the photos.

Friend of HK said...

What a charming bird! I thought it was much bigger.

Sue said...

What a sweetie! How lucky you are to see such a cutie up close like that....though one has to wonder what HE thinks about all of the fuss-LOL!

Lois Evensen said...

What a little sweetheart! Your images are spectacular, as always.

Sunday greetings from Port Canaveral,
Lois

Roy said...

Absolutely cool! Man, do I miss living close to places like this.

Montanagirl said...

That is amazing! They are truly about the cutest little bird I have ever seen - and those huge eyes! Great post, Kelly!

Randy Emmitt said...

Kelly,
Amazing aren't they! I helped with the banding of these one night on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. I was leaving from Monarch tagging and the banding season was just starting. Those talons are super sharp and long.

Janice K said...

Adorable--Such wonderful eyes.

And how neat to be able to hold one.

Have a great Thanksgiving!

Kerri said...

Oh My Goodness - how adorable!
Your posts are so educational!!

Tammie Lee said...

such a joy to see your photographs and learn more about this little owl. I am so glad it does not seem to mind being studied like this. owls really do seem curious about us as we are with them. ;-)

Roy Norris said...

What a lovely little species of Owl Kelly.
What big eyes.{:)

Guy said...

Hi Kelly

A beautiful post and I am glad you shared your amazing experience, it must have been wonderful to hold the owl in your hands and look into its eyes.

Regards
Guy

Julie Hargreaves said...

Thats a beautiful little owl

Elaine said...

What a sweet little owl! Too bad they don't come further north.

Banjo52 said...

Nice work! I've never heard of these guys--Kelly University strikes again.

Heuston Woods was the first Ohio state park lodge I ever stayed at--purely by chance. Good thoughts.

Kelly said...

...thank you, everyone! What an amazing experience. I learned so much from the banding session. I definitely want to do it again.

TonyC said...

Awesome post Kelly. What a magical experience.