Category Archives: Owl Banding

Inaugural Snowy Owl Season 2020 in the Books!

   As we all sit at home during these chaotic times and try to find things to do during our quarantine, let me give you a final update from our Snowy owl project this winter. It is the perfect distraction if you ask me!

   Since I last reported on owls, we stood at 5 owls captured for the season including an exciting foreign retrap that we found out is at least 6 years old and was originally captured at the Detroit metro Airport.  Then we had many days of “poor weather” or at least what we considered poor in regards to attempting to catch owls. The only day that seemed to be good was March 30th. Therefore, we decided to make one more trip to our various sites to see what owls were still around. On this trip I was accompanied by Steve Baker a longtime volunteer, supporter and board member of MSRW. Now before we go any further, we drove separately as to respect the “social distancing” rule just in case anybody was concerned that we were not adhering to the CDC’s guidelines amidst the global pandemic that is going on. Anyways enough on that…

  As luck would have it, we set out late afternoon around dusk. Why? Well because this is when the Snowys start to wake from their day long rest and are eager to start hunting again. In the two sites Steve and I checked we were able to count 17 owls. As luck continued to be on our side, we found a gorgeous male snowy in a perfect spot in which we could attempt to catch him. After we set-up it only took him a few minutes before he noticed the trap and he almost instantly came in and was captured. We were both super excited to be able to finish the season catching yet another stunning adult male owl that was as pure white as dare I say… toilet paper! Now based of this bird’s flight feathers we were able to determine that this was another older adult male at least in his 4th year of life and to boot was in good condition. A great way to end the season if you ask me.

   All we can do now is wish all the Snowy owls the best of luck as they make their arduous journey back north to their breeding grounds on the tundra wherever lemmings may be. I can say truthfully that this season was a success and that all involved with this project learned a lot about these birds and we will be ready for their return next winter! Until then let’s enjoy all the neo-tropical migrants that are showing up reassuring us that the natural processes of life continue despite whatever situation we as a species may find ourselves in. Until next time, as always stay classy and healthy.

Nick Alioto

Winter Snowy owl banding totals:

6 – SNOW (3 Males & 3 Female)

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

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.

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)

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.


Owl update: sunrise (Nov 2-6)

Sunrise on the last full night of operation (Nov 6)

This morning, the sun rose on the last full night of operation. I will see about opening the set tonight, however more than likely snow flurries will shut the station down early. Tomorrow, Ed and I will disassemble the station, thus drawing the 2019 fall owl banding season on Pt. laBarbe to a close.

How have things gone the past few nights? Windy and frigid. Some owls were on the move, though; since Saturday night, we caught 15 saw-whets. It’s been frustrating to get stymied nearly every night this month by foul anti-owl weather, but that’s just how field work goes at times. At least the frozen-hard ground is fun to walk on. My other favorite pass-time when the temperature creeps down into the 20’s is to sit by the furnace drinking copious amounts of coffee.

In the coming days I’ll write one final post of the season summary and share some of my thoughts.

Until then, have a saw-whet from last night.


Owl update: it’s cold and wet (Oct 27-Nov 1)

Looming wet weather always on the horizon

I’ll start off by saying that the night of October 27th was exceptional because it surpassed our previously most productive night of the fall (39 birds), with 42 birds. I think it is quite remarkable that so many birds are moving this far into the season, however it could be the birds were pinioned by rough weather and were forced to exodus en masse through our area when the weather cleared.

On October 28th, an incoming rain necessitated that I closed up the set around 10 pm, but before that I got to enjoy the presence of this barred owl. All of the barred owls captured thus far have been juveniles, presumably passing through the area as they search for a suitable territory to call home.

October 29th was calm and steady, at 13 saw-whet owls… until a snowshoe hare got tangled up in one of the nets. It was an awful doozy getting that animal out. But it came out regardless and we were both unharmed in the process!… except for the nets, the hare did some decent damage to the nets…

The following night (October 30) was a short night by virtue of the rain, but we still sent two saw-whet owls on their merry way.

Halloween was quite peaceful; I couldn’t operate the station at full capacity because of the off-and-on sleet, so instead I kept a watchful eye on the nearby nets. I captured four saw-whets; the little company was nice, considering no trick-or-treaters decided to brave the bitter winds of Pt. laBarbe. But that was probably for the best anyway, as I only had one piece of candy to give out. I guess I could have fell back on my supply of brussel sprouts, but I suspect that wouldn’t have gone over well.

And as for last night – the station was completely shut down due to wind and rain.

Tonight, weather conditions look… OK for movement, not ideal but hopefully the saw-whets will get their little feather-butts in gear before nightly weather conditions worsen.

NSWO – 270 (256 newly banded, 13 foreign retraps, 1 Pt.laBarbe recapture)
BDOW – 4
LEOW – 2

As an aside, from my previous post I mentioned that barred owl waddling around my saw-whet owl set. A volunteer, Brenda Summers, was with me that morning and would like to share her photo of me taking this glamour shot (or a mug shot?) of the owl:

Photo by Brenda Summers

Until next time,


Owl update: a familiar face (Oct 21-26)

Not much has been going on at the station this week. The weather hasn’t been cooperative; the owls apparently aren’t big fans of all the wind, rain, and extra high humidity, and I can’t blame them!

On the morning of the 25th, I walked out of the station to check the nearby nets, and found a barred owl waddling around the set. When it noticed me, it took a fright and flopped into the net. I rushed over and grabbed it before it could shrug out of its predicament. Anyway, one band and a few measurements later, the barred owl was on its way. Hopefully it won’t be snooping around anyone’s saw-whet owl net arrays again!

Last Sunday (Oct 20), a saw-whet owl wearing an old band came to visit. The band number, 1104-43093 was familiar to me so I did a bit of sleuthing in the database from last fall. To my immense delight, this bird was actually the second saw-whet owl I banded. She had first arrived at the station on September 22 as a hatchyear bird. Now she is considered a secondyear bird, taking on the second southbound migration of her life. It is a very special experience for a bander to meet with a bird they previously banded. Of course when I release these young-of-the-year birds I wish them well and hope to see them again. The world is fraught with dangers for these small owls, and young birds learn through experiences they may not survive. 1104-43093 survived and even put on weight. I hope I or another bander will meet her again.

1104-43093 from fall 2018.

Until next time,


Owl update: peak movement (Oct 16-20)

A perfect potato.

The past week of running the station has been a far cry from the listless early season activity.

Last Wednesday (Oct 16), some stretches of road were badly flooded due to the recent storms. Fortunately the banding station didn’t float away into the lake because it was quite a productive night for owls. I had 14 saw-whet owls and even a long-eared owl showed up. The long-eared owls have a tendency to appear when there’s nobody around but me to appreciate their unique beauty… ah well.

Second long-eared owl of the season. Such well-endowed ear-tufts.

On Thursday the point was swarming with owls. We caught 39! The station hasn’t seen this much activity in a single night for a couple of years. Luckily we had help from some experienced folk who run a saw-whet station in Ohio, so the night went smoothly.

The weather was pretty good on Friday, too; we were able to host a bunch of people from our local Audubon Societies for their annual owl field trip. Unlike last fall, we had a good haul of owls to show before it got too late. Then the lack of owls triggered a mass exodus event and Ed and I were suddenly left to our lonesome. I was pretty tired but managed to stay awake through the night by feeding upon the donut holes left behind.

Thus far we’ve newly banded 178 saw-whet owls, and movement still seems to be going strong as we captured 19 owls Sunday night (Oct 20).

Ohhhh and about Sunday night – we had a special appearance by previous fall owl bander, Selena Creed. I’ve been getting majorly spoiled by all these cool visitors.

I’ll wrap up this post with a lovely piece by Sid Morkert. He is a frequent visitor to the owl and hawk counting stations and a big fan of the wee owls.

Northern saw-whet owl.

Until next time,


Owl update: sunset rainbow brings lots of birds (Oct 10-15)

Monday October 14th, a sunset rainbow heralds great owl movement

Last Thursday (Oct 10) Rob brought along another cohort of his students from Sault College. Conditions weren’t looking good for owl movement given the blustery southeast winds, so in the meantime we poked around the bush for critters, and enjoyed the fire while gorging on candy. To my surprised delight, a saw-whet appeared at the midnight hour. One banding demonstration later, the owl fled into the night, donning a new band and the name “Licorice”

The following three nights (Oct 11-13) were quite dull. Either my efforts were stymied prematurely due to high winds/heavy rain, or the station was completely shut down. I did have a smidge of owl action on the morning of the 14th once the winds settled, with a single saw-whet. It only takes one owl to boost morale at the station in the face of fickle fall weather.

I pranced about and took many many photographs of the transforming colors.

I was relieved when Monday rolled around for a brief respite from the rain. After a spectacularly warm and gooey sunset with rainbows, the owls were ready to move. We captured and processed 18 owls.

Dawn develops a soft pink sky as I prepare to released the last of the owls
Releasing the owl in a dense, dark patch of timber

Now it’s back to waiting out the wind and rain.

Until next time,


Owl update: highs and lows (Oct 5-9)

The weather has brought some mixed results this past week.

mmmmm wind, delicious wind

On October 5th and 6th, the station was paralyzed due to high winds. However, the following night a gentle west wind brought 22 owls, as well as the first barred owl of the season. Ed and I were very busy!

Ed preparing to release the first barred owl of the season

Since then it’s been eerily slow, despite the aid of the new net array bringing in a few more owls. On Tuesday (Oct 8) we had six saw-whet owl visitors and another barred owl visitor to the station. Last night we encountered 9 more owls, but 6 of those were new; two of the others were banded a few days prior, and one was banded back in September! Most of the repeat birds had put on weight; evidently, they’re unwilling to migrate and are opting to fuel up on prey. I suspect the low movement has something to do with unfavorable southeast winds and the incoming storms.

Tuesday night we had some extra human visitors to the station, Rob’s cohort of students from Sault College. It’s always a joy to share an upclose encounter of the secretive and highly nocturnal saw-whet with folks.

Thus far we have encountered 69 newly banded saw-whet owls and four foreign recoveries, owls which were originally banded outside of our fall station. Two of the birds were banded at Whitefish Point Bird Observatory back in 2017: one was a hatch-year then (she hatched in the spring of 2017) and the other was a second-year, so re-capturing them in fall 2019 has confirmed their ages to be about 2.5 years and 3.5 years, respectively. We’re still waiting to hear back on the other recoveries.

Alas, the weather looks uncooperative for the foreseeable future. We’ll see how it goes.

I played with this bird just this morning!

Until next time,