I have a new favorite bird — the northern saw-whet owl.
Until last week, I’d never seen one in the wild. But on Wednesday, Joey Herron invited me to his banding station at Valley Falls State Park, just east of Fairmont, W.Va.
“That storm on the East Coast,” he told me, “is going to push birds inland, so the next two nights should be productive.”
Catching saw-whet owls is a tricky business, and often banders wait all night and never see a bird. But since conditions looked favorable, I headed to the park the evening of Nov. 12.
I arrived well after dark at about 7:45 p.m., and soon thereafter we walked a short distance up a trail to open the mist nets. These nets are strung between upright poles and consist of strong, fine nylon mesh. They are a bird bander’s primary tool. Each one is about 7 feet high and 40 feet long.
When not in use, they are collapsed and rolled up so birds cannot become accidentally entangled. After unfurling the nets and starting the audio lure of saw-whet song, we went back to Herron’s banding shed.
“We’ll wait about 30 minutes before checking the nets,” he said.
Herron has been banding birds for many years, and after seeing a saw-whet owl in Canada, he began to wonder if he might be able to catch and band migrating saw-whet owls. He knew that there were quite a few saw-whet banders in the Great Lakes and mid-Atlantic states, so he decided to give it a try.
In the fall of 2005, he caught and banded a disappointing total of seven saw-whets. The following year his total fell to three. But in 2007, he caught 49 owls, and last fall he caught 35.
Going into this evening, his 2009 total stood at 25. Until banders began studying these small owls, little was known of their migratory habits. Thanks to their efforts, we now know that at least some travel hundreds of miles each fall.
Herron has captured previously banded birds from Canada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota. When we made the first net check, it turned out that Herron’s hunch about tonight had been correct. Two saw-whet owls dangled from the nets. Their bright yellow irises gleamed in the glow of Herron’s head lamp.
A saw-whet owl is easy to identify because it’s small, lacks ear tufts, and is so cute you just want to put it in your pocket and take it home.
After extricating the owls from the net, we returned to the shed where Herron weighed, measured, and photographed them. They were both large females weighing 96 and 104 grams (about three ounces). Then we took them outside and released them by placing them on our open palms. They perched there quietly for at least 30 seconds before flying off to a nearby tree.
Enough time had now passed that we immediately set out to check the nets again. This time three birds were in the nets.
Later, after I had left for home, Herron caught two more for a total of seven that night. Watching Herron work as he processed the birds was like watching a kid in a candy shop.
“Checking these nets is like Christmas morning — I never know what I’m going to get,” he explained. “Last week I caught a screech-owl, and that bird chewed up my fingers pretty good.”
Though saw-whets are small owls that easily fit into the palm of a hand, they are ferocious predators. They primarily eat deer mice and voles, and perhaps their migration is prompted by the availability of rodent prey.
In the spring, female saw-whets lay five or six white eggs in an old woodpecker cavity. The female incubates the eggs for about 28 days, and she stays with them almost constantly. The male feeds the female during incubation, and for about 18 days after hatching he feeds both his mate and the chicks.
The young leave the nest when between four and five weeks of age. The male continues to feed the young for another four weeks.
For more information, visit www.projectowlnet.org.