Buteo Mania 2K20: Hawk Trapping update 2

Greetings once again fellow supporters and followers of MSRW. Since my last blog post there has been a lot going in terms of bird movement, birds being captured and spring migration in general. Where to begin… Well since I’m the raptor trapper for the spring, I guess it makes sense to focus on the trapping, and this just also happens to be my favorite!

   On our initial day as I mentioned before we were not fully operational and were still figuring things out in terms of the actual set-up itself. Now we are fully set-up and have had some great days trapping despite it being quite early in the spring and migration is yet to reach peak. On April 1st we had anticipated it to be a slow day due to weather and wind and overall, it was just not great. Despite the poor weather we did manage to capture one bird on the day this being a Red-shouldered hawk. Now this is exciting for two reasons; firstly, they are primarily reptile and rodent predators and are not usually as interested in what we had to offer, European starlings and Rock dove “pigeon.” But sometimes these birds will take a chance on different prey items if the opportunity presents itself. Little do they know that the lure birds are protected by leather vests.  It should be noted that only invasive species in North America are used to lure raptors. The second reason I wanted to mention why this was also super exciting is because this was the first Red-shouldered captured for MSRW! It was great to be part of history no matter how small the feat. Note the lighter color in the outer primaries. This appears as a translucent comma when you see Red-shouldered hawks soar overhead.  All ages and sexes show this pattern.  The red on the ‘shoulder’ of the bird is not always visible.

   We then trapped again on the 2nd of April and managed to capture 6 birds, 2 Sharp-shinned hawks and 4 Red-tailed hawks and it was a great day all around. That being said in the game of trapping it is always a good day when you at least catch one bird and do not get skunked. Coming into the 3rd we expected a good day as the winds seemed favorable and our optimism was high. To start we captured an adult female Rough-legged hawk early in the morning. Once again, an uncommon catch as they prefer a more rodent based diet. These birds are also stunning and each one shows so much individual variation they are truly breathtaking and by far my favorite hawk species. It is also always a treat to get to see one in hand! After that the day was slow and I assumed all our good karma had been used up on that early “gourmet” bird. Then in the late afternoon things picked up again and we captured 8 adult red-tails in the span of a few hours.

   We will not be trapping on April 4th due to the rainy weather as that is the forecast. However, we hope to be back out there on the 5th and are hoping that the only rain we get will be in the form of raptors falling from the sky and subsequently being captured! Until Next time as always stay classy.

Nick Alioto

Spring 2020 Raptor Trapping Totals:

5   SSHA (Sharp-shinned Hawk)

15 RTHA (Red-Tailed Hawk)

1   RSHA (Red-shouldered Hawk)

1   RLHA (Rough-Legged Hawk)

Total Birds: 22

Raptor Trapping 2020: Kicking the Season Off!

   As the snow begins to melt and the ice breaks up over the straits, we now hear Red-wings and Robins singing daily, signaling that spring is here! This means that many birds are starting their journey north to return to their breeding grounds for the summer. We here at MSRW are excited about documenting the ongoing raptor migration in a new way this spring.

   As some of you may remember in past seasons, we had mentioned capturing diurnal raptors on occasion. Usually it was when we owl banders thought we had enough energy to stay up even longer during the day than normal. We would then set up a trapping rig and attempt to catch whatever diurnal raptors may be flying over, usually with pretty good success.

   After leaving Michigan last spring I accepted a job with Intermountain Bird Observatory in Boise, Idaho. Now this is one of the premiere raptor trapping spots in the country and I was fortunate enough to be trained and eventually became one of their lead trappers at their primary trapping site. After that job had finished, I knew that I needed to use what I had learned and bring it here to MSRW and combine that with all the knowledge Ed Pike, the chair of MSRW has and bring to fruition a full-time spring trapping station here! We both knew of the potential due to how spectacular the spring migration is in these parts and from how well we had done trapping in previous years.  Well we have done it! We have designed a whole station set-up to catch raptors. This will occur from April through to May. We got a head start and set-up partially on March 27th and hopefully everything will be up by Monday March 30th weather permitting. With only two mist nets, the 27th was a very successful first day with 3 adult Sharp-shinned hawks and 2 adult red-tailed hawks being captured. We hope you stay tuned to future blog posts as migration heats up and things get better and better. Until next time, stay classy folks


Nick Alioto

Spring 2020 Raptor Trapping Totals:

3 – SSHA (Sharp-shinned Hawk)

2- RTHA (Red-Tailed Hawk)

Total Birds: 5

SNOW DAY! (Snowy Owl Project Update)

   Since my first blog post regarding the work we have started with the Snowy owls we have more exciting news for you fine folks on what we have been up to. We have continued to count and trap at our various sites and to our avail have managed to catch two more owls. This time two adult females, one was aged to be in at least its 4th year of life based on its flight feathers, while the other was already banded!

  Now one of the reasons we band birds is in the hopes that other researchers and banders will recover our birds to help fill in the gaps of where these birds were and where they move to and potentially to see how migration paths may change over time. It is pretty uncommon to catch what we refer to as a “foreign bird” which means it was banded in a different area other our study site. Since there is only a small fraction of birds banded each year in terms of how many birds make up that particular species’ whole population it’s super exciting to catch one of the few that have been banded.

   The story of the second Snowy captured goes like this; she was originally captured at the Detroit metro airport. We don’t have any information yet in regards to when this bird was banded and if an age and sex were given to her at the time of capture. We then know she was relocated and released at the Rose Lake Research Station near Lansing on January 4th, 2014. Now just based on this alone this bird is at least 6 years old! She could potentially be older though but we await more information. This is cool to think about how many trips this bird has made to the arctic and back and how many “air miles” she has accumulated. It makes me think that she probably has put more miles in flying the last six years then I have put miles on my car, pretty crazy to think about. We wish her the best on her migration back north and hope she will make the trip to Michigan for many winters to come. Snowy monitoring is almost nearing its end for this winter but if we have any more news, I will be sure to inform all of my and MSRW fans and followers. In the meantime, stay tuned for posts as we begin our spring project of capturing diurnal raptors in Mackinaw. As always stay classy,

Wing of Foreign Recaptured Snowy owl. She is at least 6 years old

Nick Alioto

Winter Snowy owl banding totals:

5 – SNOW (2 Males & 3 Female)

1  Female was a Foreign Recapture from 2014 (Captured at Detroit Metro Airport) released in Lansing.

First big day at the Hawk Watch, Friday, March 27

Friday morning started out foggy with light easterly winds. Around 11 am the fog started to break up with some sun peaking out. Some Red-tails and Red-shouldereds started showing up, but the fog remained over the straits, not allowing them to cross. After 12 pm the fog lifted more, with easterly winds, although it remained foggy over the straits. The fog slowly settled down over the straits and the raptors started flying over the fog bank. The flight ended around 4 pm with the raptors settling down in the trees waiting for the next day of good weather to cross.

Totals for the day were: 13 Turkey Vultures, 11 Bald Eagles, 5 N. Harrier, 4 Sharp shinned, 1 N. Goshawk, 22 Red-shouldered, 453 Red-tailed, 55 Rough-legged, 10 Golden Eagles, and 1 Merlin; giving a total of 575 migrants. A great day at the Hawk Watch.

Snowy Owl Project Winter 2020

   Greetings once again fellow supporters and followers of MSRW. Some of you may remember me from such field seasons that include the 2017 spring/fall owl banding and from the spring 2019 banding season. For those of you who don’t know me my name is Nick Alioto. I am a biologist, and some might even say “ornithologist” that has been doing many bird related jobs over the last few years. This has allowed me to travel all over this beautiful continent. Once again, l have returned to this particular area of the country to take part in some new projects associated with MSRW. They just can’t seem to keep me away!

   This winter I came back so that we could start a pilot project to monitor the Snowy owls that over winter here in Northern Michigan. As many of you know these owls migrate down from their breeding grounds in the Arctic and many spend their winter in various locations throughout Northern Michigan. Also, it should be noted this is one species of owl that is easily recognizable and well known among even many non-bird enthusiasts. Now, one of the components to this study was to monitor these birds at various spots throughout the winter to see how numbers fluctuate throughout the winter months. The second part is to attempt to catch and band some owls. The latter part being the more exciting part of this project, at least for me!

    Now let’s talk about how you catch these birds. As you can imagine it is not the easiest task. These birds are all very different in terms of their behavior. To give you fine folks an estimate of how difficult it can be to catch these birds let me explain. We roughly began to monitor these birds in mid-January. It was not for lack of effort but our first captured bird finally occurred on February 8th. Might I add that this involved many trips to various locations where either a bird was not interested in what we had to offer or by some stroke of luck we would get a bird to come in to our trap only to have It escape once we got close to getting our hands on the bird. Despite all the failures in the beginning, it was great to learn more about these birds behaviors through a lot of observation and trial and error.

   After reaching out to get advice from other various Snowy owl banders and researchers, we now stand at a total of 3 newly banded Snowy owls. Two stunning adult males and one adult female. Needless to say, we are very excited to have caught this many so far and hopefully will capture a few more before these nomadic birds move even further north and disappear for another year. We will continue to monitor these birds until the end of March. Stay tuned for more exciting news from the Snowy owl project and MSRW. Until next time stay classy folks.

Nick Alioto

First Snowy Owl captured of the project. A stunning adult male aged to be in at least its 4th year of life!

Winter Snowy owl banding totals:

3 – SNOW (2 Males & 1 Female)

Raptor Fest 2020 is CANCELED

With heavy hearts, we have canceled this year’s Mackinaw Raptor Fest on April 3 to 5. With the growing risk of contracting Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) and the closure of Mackinaw City School, there is no choice. 

While you are likely as disappointed as us, you’ll agree that it’s vital to keep everyone safe and healthy.  That means being sure that none of us unknowingly gets exposed to COVID-19 and carries it home to families, friends, and communities.

Next week, all paid registrants will get a full refund of the registration fee, with no penalties.  If you paid by check, your refund will come by U.S. mail. 

If you gave extra to assist the research and the education work of MSRW, please let us know at info@mackinacraptorwatch.org if you would like this refunded as well.  Your gifts for the Student Scholarship and Education Fund will carry forward, but likewise – let us know if you want a refund. 

Since MSRW has already invested money in the Fest as well as hundreds of hours of volunteer time, your donations would help at this time, at https://www.mackinacraptorwatch.org/organization-and-support/.

In good news, we are exploring the possibility of re-scheduling the Fest this fall to enjoy the hawk and owl south-bound migration.  If so, we’d love for you to attend then or in 2021.

Please cancel any hotel reservations you made on your own.  OR come up then or another time to enjoy the hawk watch.  Already, 52 Golden Eagles have been recorded by counter Kevin Georg. The birds are moving and you’ll find plenty of “social distance” at the site behind the Recreation Complex in Mackinaw City.  You can marvel as spectacular kettles form almost at head level, rise up, and then dissipate high overhead as the birds peel off to soar across the Straits.  Besides directly experiencing this unique natural history experience, you can learn more about these birds, where they’ve been and where they are going, from newly-hired Raptor Naturalist Abigail Fischer.

Thank you for understanding the situation and for your interest in raptors.  If you can devote a few hours of volunteer time either on the Fest or other MSRW committees, please email info@mackinacraptorwatch.org so we can match your interests with MSRW’s needs.

Great day at the Hawk Watch

Today with winds finally out of the northwest at 10 to 15 mph we thought it would be a good day for Golden Eagles. It was cold with the northwest to west winds; the skies cleared shortly after 11 am and temps were in the high 20’s F. Shortly after noon some Goldens started moving toward the straits, mostly 1 or 2 at a time. Between 2:30 and 3:30 there was a push of Golden Eagles, at one time there were 5 Goldens in view at once; with a total for the hour period of 30.

For the day the totals were 6 Bald Eagles, 4 Red-tailed Hawks, 1 Rough-legged Hawk (dark morph), and 38 Golden Eagles. Made for a great day of hawk watching. Four visitors stopped by in the afternoon and all saw Golden Eagles.

Spring 2020 Hawk Watch begins

Spring 2020 Hawk Watch begins

March 5, the first day of the count held heavy cloud cover and scattered snow showers with no Raptors in sight.

March 6 started out cloudy and became clear by noon. Winds were moderate out of the north; a day for strong flyers. A couple of Bald Eagles headed north and Golden Eagles trickled through. A total of 7 Golden Eagles passed overhead by 4 pm. All the Eagles were rather high and heading directly into the wind.

A good start to the Hawk Watch.

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:


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.