I’ve been to several bird banding stations over the years, but over the last few weeks I’ve finally seen owl banding in action. Master bander Scott Rashid traps migrating Northern Saw-whet Owls every fall near Estes Park, Colorado, and invited me to visit. The trick used by Saw-whet banders is to play a recording of their toots in the middle of a mist net array. Even though it isn’t breeding season and you wouldn’t expect migrants to be territorial, the little ‘Swets fly in to check out the noise and bop into the nets. Interestingly, the owls usually are caught very near the ground, so apparently they are flying in just above the tops of the grasses as they investigate the sound. Once, Scott caught a Long-eared Owl- perhaps it was hoping to poach a wee Saw-whet? He also once caught a Northern Pygmy-Owl, and indeed we heard an annoyed Pygmy vocalizing nearby at dusk although it didn’t come in to the nets.
Saw-whets are really small- it is hard to imagine by seeing pictures of the owls alone, but in hand you really get a perspective of their diminutive nature. They are cavity nesters and so have to fit in woodpecker holes, after all. Little is known about their migration and wintering habits since they are generally silent and very secretive when they aren’t on breeding territories. The only wintering Saw-whets I’ve seen have been in dense junipers during the day, seemingly oblivious to the world around them.
Another bander I know once climbed a ladder and hand-captured a migrating Saw-whet Owl by just picking it up off of its branch. After measuring and banding it he returned it to the same branch where it spent the rest of the day before resuming its migration that night.
Scott does frequent net checks to avoid having the owls stay netted for too long and to discourage foxes or other predators who would grab an entangled owl. If foxes are seen around, Scott shuts down banding for the night. Once extracted they are banded and quickly measured prior to release. Scott aims to have them inside for only about 5 minutes so they won’t get too hot or stressed (banding is done at a generous homeowner’s property and Scott sets up his tools on a ping-pong table in the basement.) Note the orange juice can on the scale- birds are weighed in tubes to keep them secure and still and it turns out that OJ cans are perfectly sized for ‘Swets (another funny example is the use of Pringles cans for small accipiters- scroll down in this blog post to see the technique in action.)
Even a really plump female just approaches 100 grams- about 3.5 ounces for you fans of the imperial system of measurement. Most are only about as heavy as an American Robin. My favorite thing about the banding is that Saw-whets will often perch on a branch for quite a while after they are released- of the 4 birds we caught two flew away immediately but the other two loitered for quite a while (one for over an hour), allowing for some neat photography. All of my other Saw-whet pics are of uncaptured birds that I had to work pretty hard for but you’ve got to take the easy photo opps like these when they present themselves!