Owl update: fall 2019 season summary

Now that I’ve arrived in my natal homeland of California after four days of driving, I can share the season summary. It is very odd to write this blog post outside of my usual spot at the St. Ignace Burger King.

The last night of banding occurred on November 7th, and contrary to the forecasted snow flurries, the sky remained clear and pristine. Three birds came to visit prior to the midnight hour, then activity abruptly petered out, leaving me to contemplate the cold night into the pre-dawn hours. However, at the final net check, I noticed a wonderful little feather-blob suspended in the net. It was strangely satisfying to receive a proper send off from this owl before closing up the nets for good.

Her expression reminds me of a kid trapped at an obnoxious family reunion and wants to go home.

Below are the fall 2019 season totals:

Northern saw-whet owls: 289 (273 newly banded, 1 recapture, 15 foreign retraps)
Barred owls: 4 (new)
Long-eared owls: 2 (new)
Eastern whip-poor-will: 1 (new)

Honorable mentions (critters extracted from the net and released): American woodcock, snowshoe hare, American toad, hermit thrush, myself

Since standardized fall banding began on Pt. laBarbe in 2014, the fall 2019 totals are ranked as above average. Here is a table of previous fall totals:

YEARNSWO%Juveniles%Adults
20142336040
20152503070
20165406733
20172804852
20181153565
20192895149

The adult to juvenile ratio was about 1:1, and similar ratios have been reported at other banding stations in our area. This means it was likely a so-so year for breeding success for saw-whet owl populations who utilized this migratory path down through the Straits. On average, breeding pairs successfully fledged 2 young; or, it could be there were some populations that experienced higher nest failures. At any rate, it made me happy to see a higher proportion of young birds as there were very few last fall.

I will shift gear and talk about some of our 15 foreign retrap birds. These birds are gold stars to saw-whet owl conservation because they link the knowledge and effort of all banding stations. 4 were confirmed to have been banded at Whitefish Point Bird Observatory. Of the Whitefish birds, one was confirmed to be about 6.5 years old, and the other is 5+ years old. Considering saw-whets tend to live about 7 or 8 years in the wild (as far as we know!), these two old ladies have done well.

One was banded in Tofte, Minnesota. She is about 5 years old. Another was banded last fall as a juvenile near Hudson, Wisconsin. We’re still waiting to hear back from the other foreign retrap birds. We think most of them were banded this year at Whitefish but haven’t been entered into the Bird Banding Lab database yet.

We received news that a bird we banded at Pt. laBarbe on October 18th was trapped again in Wisconsin on November 2nd. Where in Wisconsin is a mystery for now, but the bird, after we banded her, likely kept traveling west along the northern shoreline of Lake Michigan.

Interestingly, there were 19 instances of birds we banded coming into the net again days (or, in one case, two weeks) later throughout the season. This is unusual and suggests the owls weren’t highly motivated to migrate out of the area.

Underwater morning, October 14

I immensely enjoyed learning from the many human and avian visitors, and my skills as an owl biologist have grown markedly thanks to the various challenges that running a banding station has to offer.

Tonight I will help out with saw-whet owl banding on the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve, one of the few long-term owl banding sites here in the west. My goal is to establish my own owl research station in the Sierra Nevadas, where owl migration and dispersal is poorly understood. If I’m lucky and the owl gods are good, I may realize this goal as soon as fall 2020, so we shall see!

I hope you appreciated the ramblings of this owl hermit, because I certainly enjoyed sharing all that I saw and heard on Pt. laBarbe this fall!

Until next time,

Happy Owling.

Maycee