Category Archives: Owl Banding 2018

Owl update: November 05-07

Owl banding at MSRW this fall has come to a close.  Since running the station from September 19 through November 07, we captured a total of 115 northern saw whet owls, 2 barred owls, and 1 long eared owl.

8 of the saw whet owls were already banded at other stations.  These are called foreign re-traps.  Most of the foreign retraps were fairly local, with 2 banded at Whitefish Point Bird Observatory, 1 at Cheboygan, and another 2 at Hilliardton Marsh in Ontario.  One saw whet was banded far far away, in the distant lands of Maryland!  That’s crazy-cool.  We’re still waiting to get word on the other two foreign re-trap owls.

It is very exciting when one of our banded birds gets caught elsewhere.  On October 6 I banded an adult female saw whet owl, Miss 1104-43131, and 20 nights later she was captured again at Indiana Dunes State Park.  That’s a straight-line distance of 310 miles!  Although I suspect she took a more leisurely route along the east side of Lake Michigan, stopping often to wait out the weather and catch juicy mice, small birds, and insects.

Let’s take a closer look at the numbers.  Those 115 saw whet owls consisted of 81 females, 7 males, and 27 owls of unknown sex.  Profoundly higher female to male ratio is common at banding stations.  While the reason for this isn’t definitive, It is widely held that male owls tend to stick to their natal territories, and female owls migrate south.  Interestingly, only about a third of the owls were Hatch Years (hatched this spring), and the rest were adults.

This season’s saw whet owl total is well below our historic average, but documenting declining populations is part of why full-time banding stations are so essential.  The Upper Peninsula was often fraught with inclement weather, possibly causing many birds to take a totally different course altogether; however, I believe the the ratio of young birds to adult birds indicates that it was just a bad reproductive year for saw whet owls populations who generally migrate through the Straits.

I had the pleasure of meeting many wonderful owls and people, which has made fall 2018 a very fun and successful season for me!

Until next time,

Happy Owling!!!


Owl update: October 31 – November 4

The season is coming to a close, with tonight potentially being the last night I open as cold rain and snowfall seem to be on the weather’s agenda until November 10, the official end date for owl banding at Point la Barbe.

I’m not expecting to encounter any saw whet owl travelers tonight.  For the past week of being open, I caught an average of 1-2 birds per night.  Early season, I surmised that many birds were merely delayed due to the frequent storm fronts this fall, but with the lack of late season movement activity, I’m not so sure about that anymore.

It will be with deep reverie that I open and furl the mist-nets for possibly the final time before setting off on my own journey.  I don’t plan to head west to California just yet; first, I will sojourn at the Cape May Bird Observatory, NJ.  After that, I’ll get to see the east coast, then the west coast following a week of driving; the new perspective will be quite something.

Stay tuned for one last blog post in which I summarize our findings, totals for the season, and juicy tidbits about our foreign retraps as well as tidings of the birds I banded here getting caught elsewhere.

Until next time,


Hatch Year female caught the night of October 31

Champion of the “Stink Eye;” saw whet caught the night of November 3

November 3 was a cold one! The ditch water surface froze.

Owl update: October 27 – 30

What could be under the handkerchief?

it’s probably an owl

It’s a big, beautiful red-tailed hawk!  Such fluff and prominent markings.

This is a young bird; red-tail eyes can darken to a deep chestnut with age.

Reminds me of that scene in The Titanic but with less romance and more hawk

Recently, Ed and I set up a special trapping set designed to lure and safely net diurnal raptors.  Right now, diurnal raptor trapping isn’t a dedicated operation with MSRW but perhaps it will be someday!  Even still, it’s wonderful to capture and learn more about just a few of these hawks, falcons, and harriers as they pass through.

On the owl banding front, well… things are slowing down.  Nighttime weather has been clear and quite pleasant lately, but I only caught two birds on the 29th and was skunked last night.

Despite the paucity of saw whets, I met face to face with a bird I’ve been waiting for all season.  The White-Toed Saw Whet.

The leucistic toe is something else!  Perhaps it’s a birth mark?  All owls are special but this one was super special.

In honor of Halloween I’ll share this photo of a spooky saw whet owl.

Although… even being dramatically lit by the lantern, it’s not that spooky.  Saw whets are perhaps the least concerning creature to encounter in the heart of the wood at night.  They don’t really hoot, they toot.  In the spring, males will advertise their territory with a flutey toot-toot-toot call, and occasionally will mew (like a cat) and yap at trespassers in agitation.   These owls are a delight to find and hear while I do my springtime spotted owl work.

11 nights left!  I look forward to what the night brings.

Until next time,

– MH

Owl update: October 21 – 26

The night of the 21st was windy and extra no good with a southwest wind.  Not only is the southwest wind non-conducive to owl movement, it exposes my nets particularly well, rendering them less effective.  Regardless, 4 saw whets flew into the nets anyway!  Below is a noble cutie-pie.

Can you feel the autumn ambiance?

The night of the 22nd was a special day for me because it was the eve of my birthday!  Members of MSRW stopped by and we celebrated with weenies and chestnuts roasted over the fire and homemade birthday cake!  I was gifted with a wonderful b-day barred owl card as well as some extra firewood.  Thank you everyone for the occasion.  This night I caught 7 saw whets before being greeted by the beautiful dawn.

Richard Couse, Executive Director, makes up for the lack of candles by holding a faintly smoldering twig over the cake.

On an aside, with this work I play with plenty of owls, which is wholeheartedly enriching in itself, but the other wonderful aspect is watching the night unfold and moon and stars crest over the sky.  I walk several miles a night to check nets and this is a calming activity to reflect on life while listening to Scandinavian folk metal.  It’s getting colder so I watch the frost accumulate over moss and puddles freeze.   Below are photos from the morning of the 24th.

Moonlight over lake

This sunrise deserves to be on a cereal box.

The night of the 23rd was quite productive with 8 brand-spanking-new owls (that is to say they were all unbanded).  The night of the 24th was our last night of clear weather conditions, but even so, following a brief push of 4 owls in the early evening, movement seemed to stop after 1 am.  Perhaps the birds sensed the weather process coming in and so have hunkered down to wait it out.

What a lucky owl to get to model in front of my favorite handkerchief!

It is now the 26th and we’ll be in for some iffy weather the coming days.  I opened the nets for four hours last night, and wasn’t surprised no body was moving in the dense fog.

I am happy to announce we have broken the 100-owl mark.  As of tonight we stand at 100 northern saw whet owls, 2 barred owls, and one long-eared owl.  Stay tuned for a report of our NSWO foreign retraps.  I won’t spoil anything but one bird was banded far far away, so get HYPED.

Historically, these are low numbers for the saw whets.  Some stations in Ontario and Quebec provinces have also reported low owl numbers, with a few stations doing very well.  Interestingly, I’m still seeing some hatch year birds mixed in with adults – I would have expected the youngin’s to be in lower supply given it’s late season and they tend to migrate in advance.  As the season comes to a close, more owls will trickle in and hopefully grant us a better idea of what’s going on.  It could be the adults had a poor reproductive year (there’s been some anecdotal evidence of low small mammal populations, particularly red vole, which are integral to fuel good saw whet breeding effort in the north); or, in the face of ongoing unfavorable weather, owls have re-routed or could still be delayed.

Until next time,


Owl update: October 16 – 20

Tuesday night, October 16, saw quite a bit of action at the set with 8 unbanded owls, as well as a hatchyear female who was banded at Hilliardton, Ont.  It’s wonderful that this bird is so inclined to get caught, because it tells us a great deal about her stop-by-stop pathway as she heads south.

Also!  Take a look at the odd pupil distortion in this After Second Year saw whet.  Apparently it hasn’t hindered her any given her good condition and ripe old age!

I was able to open the nets every day except Thursday night, as I was stymied by high winds.  The weather still hasn’t been favorable, yet I’ve played with 2 owls every night so far and I’m certainly very happy about that!  Since Wednesday I caught 6 owls, with 4 of those being hatchyear birds.  I am glad to see more babies moving through.

Weather conditions look… OK for tonight.  Supposedly it’s going to be cloudy and calm later with a chance of owls, so we shall see about that.

Until next time,


Owl update: October 13 – 15

On the night of the 13th, our fellow owl banding neighbors from Whitefish Point Bird Observatory, Ceeanna and Tori, joined Ed and me for an evening around the fire.  As has been the trend this week, it was super windy; yet, throughout the night, the nets yielded 6 unbanded saw whet owls.  Half of these were birds hatched this year, so hip hip hooray for babies moving out on their first migration!

I’m trying to improve my artistic photography skills by modeling the bird in front of a blanket.

And then the night of the 14th came!  I was so stoked to meet some new birds, send them on their way equipped with a unique band — wee fluffy stewards of migration science!  But then???!!!!  Rain.  I didn’t set the nets this night.

It was clear earlier in the day that I wouldn’t be able to operate the station, so I instead spent the extra free time visiting my peers at Whitefish Point Bird Observatory.  The Point itself is a fun spot and totally brimming with birders pursuing birds in defiance of the blustery conditions.

Speaking of, our most recent recaptured bird (see previous blog post) was banded at Whitefish Point last spring.  Another saw whet showing migration route fidelity to the Straits.

Last night I tried opening again even though the winds were going crazy and making the nets flap like Marilyn Monroe’s famous flying skirt… somehow I caught 2 second year female saw whets, before closing early at 5 am.  The winds had shifted to the southwest, straight into my trio of nets and it was just a ridiculous wind tunnel.

I would like to conclude this post with a piece of special artwork (via photo reference) submitted by my friend Alma Schrage, who is currently part of the raptor banding project at the Cape May Bird Observatory.

“Fluff of the woods”, by Alma Schrage. A juvenile California spotted owl clad in down.

Prior to arriving in Michigan for this owl banding project, I monitored California spotted owls in the northern Sierra Nevada region.  My supervisor and I banded this young spotted owl this spring with a standard US Fish and Wildlife lock-on band, as well as a color band to help us recognize her should we encounter her again next year in the field.   Thanks Alma for the artwork!  I can’t deal with the excessive cuteness of the down poking out around her emerging facial disc.

Until next time,


Owl update: October 12

Greetings All,

On the night of the 12th, we once again had the pleasure of hosting a batch of wildlife techniques students from Sault College, but sadly the weather got fickle and slushy on us so we couldn’t open the nets.  Such is the tragic condition of weather-contingent field work, alas!   Regardless, I don’t think the snow-rain and lack of wee owls really dampened anyone’s enjoyment of the night, and much fun was had around the fire.

By 3 am I got to open the nets, and eventually caught 4 saw whet owls and 1 barred owl.

Mister 391. I admired his equanimity while I took measurements.

None of the saw whets were hatch years, which makes me concerned for the owl populations who tend to use the Straits for their migration routes.  Saw whets clutch between 3 and 7 eggs, meaning in a good baby year we would easily expect to see a 3:1 ratio of young birds to adult birds.

One of the saw whets was a foreign recapture, so as always – stay tuned as we uncover more tidbits about where this bird was originally banded!

Finally, I am delighted to share a special piece of artwork by MSRW Executive Director, Rich Couse.

“He captures well the quality of saw whet eyes that wobbles along the narrow edge of cute and the screaming abyss.” — critique by Alma Schrage, intern for Cape May Bird Observatory

Until next time,


Owl update: October 2 – October 7

This past week, the weather has been most dreary and unconducive to saw-whet movement. But movement does seem to be picking up, on the clear nights at least. For the last three nights of opening the nets, I’ve caught an average of 8 owls, which is great considering how slow the first two weeks have been.

On October 4, Ed, Rich, and I hosted a wildlife techniques class from Sault College, Ontario. Conditions were promising… it was nearing freezing, with a clear sky and mild winds… sure enough we totaled our standing best of the season, at 10 owls. It was so great to show the student how saw-whet owls vary in size and molt limit pattern.

As of now, we’ve banded 47 northern saw-whet owls, and caught 3 foreign recaptures. One long-eared owl and one barred owl have also graced us with their presence.

Until next time,


Owl update: September 28 – October 1

September 28 
Friday night was a real treat. Members of local Straits Area and Petoskey Regional Audobon Societies visited the station for a banding demonstration. Much fun and good company was had around the fire, and best yet, we got to see and learn about three saw-whet owls! I hope everyone went home dreaming of golden eyes and fluffy feet.

Golden peepers

Some time after folk departed and left me to my lonesome, a barred owl flew into the farthest passive net (~200 m from the main saw-whet audio lure nets). I’ve worked with barred owls in the field before, but never had the honor of having one in hand. She was incredibly calm while I took measurements. Wonderfully, this bird was a recapture who (hoo) was banded at this site last year on October 10. She was aged as an ASY then, confirming she is an After Third Year (~3.5 years or more) now. I was happy to learn from Ed that she has put on a good amount of weight over the past year.

Could she be a migrant showing site fidelity to this particular migration route, or could she be a resident who overwinters on the Straits?

Nick Alioto, the bander of yesteryear, holds Miss 386, as of October 2017 known as an ASY

I hold Miss 386, now considered to be an ATY

A beautiful bird; her eyes are a soulful abyss

On the night of Saturday, the 29th, Ed joined me for part of the evening where we had the pleasure of meeting our first recapture, a saw-whet banded this spring in Cheboygan State Park. Based on her flight feather molt pattern then, she was aged to be two years old, and now she has embarked on her third migration to the south.

The night of the 30th, October’s Eve, saw a season best of 9 birds. 7 of these were unbanded saw-whet individuals, but one was a foreign recapture (it was banded originally somewhere else) bearing a size 4 band of an antiquated series. This saw-whet was banded as a hatchyear bird in Hilliardton, Canada, and selected the Straits to be its migration route this year.  How cool!

The first morning of October was started in a very special way with our first long-eared owl. At a glance it’s quite easy to tell how old the bird is – there’s still baby fluff sticking to his head!  Did he fledge from the nest straight into my net?  Maybe so.  I’m very happy to have met this striking owl.

Until next time,


Skunks everywhere… but then?!

After a few nights of nothing but skunks, wind, and rain in the net, the weather turned favorable and finally elicited saw-whet owl movement. I caught 7 birds on the night of the 26th, with a solid mix of hatch year, second year, and after second year birds.

Apparently this off-and-on stormy weather isn’t usual for the upper peninsula at this time of year, which makes me wonder if one of three things will take place: 1. we’ll get an intense push of birds around the first week of october; 2. a higher than normal number of birds will continue to trickle in after peak season (into mid or possibly late November) before migration peeters out; or 3. the birds will decide to take a different migratory route this year. Time will tell, but I’m very curious to find out!

A hatchyear female ready to depart into the night

Until next time, take care