Discover Saw Whet Owl Habitat Through Bird Branding
Scott Weidensaul explains how banding helped conservationists discover important Saw Whet Owl Habitat in the Appalachians.
How Owls Fly and Hunt
Scott Weidensaul explains how owls fly and hunt.
Through conversations with The Conservationist Next Door, we’re seeing how private, government and professional conservationists are making an impact on the state. Scott Weidensaul, a nationally known author and a long-time friend of The Nature Conservancy, is one of those individuals making a tremendous contribution to Pennsylvania conservation through his writings and research.
In the following interview, Scott shares his introduction to bird banding through a demonstration he attended as a child much like the one at the Conservancy’s Long Pond Preserve and shares insights on how banding research plays a key role in the Conservancy’s science-based approach to protecting the most ecologically important land and waters to preserve the diversity of life on Earth.
"To us, one robin looks like another robin. But, after we mark a bird, we can trace its travels, its age, its mates. It’s hard to imagine research without banding."
— Scott Weidensaul
How did you get started in bird banding?
It started when I was a kid. My grandparents took me to Washington Crossing Nature Education Center, where a retired physician named Paul H. Fluck did daily bird banding demonstrations. You’d sit on a row of benches in a little grove in the woods, and he’d share the results of his banding efforts that day. I was just mesmerized by that. I’d beg my grandparents to take me every time I visited them.
Then, in the late 1980s, when Jim Bednarz became the new research director at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, I visited to gather materials for a free-lance story about his new banding program for a local newspaper. I spent the day in the blind with him and, because he was short-handed, helped him to live-trap and band raptors along the Kittatinny Ridge. When that first red-tailed hawk came in and I pulled the cord to launch the live pigeon bait, that was all it took. I was hooked.
What is your current focus in bird banding?
In 1997, I started working with saw-whet owls, and in 1998 began overseeing an ongoing research program through the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art. It's a huge undertaking, with more than 100 volunteer banders and helpers – including several from The Nature Conservancy, and over the years we've banded more than 5,000 owls.
I also work with the Hummer/Bird Study Group each spring, banding songbirds on the Alabama coast and in the fall in Pennsylvania I focus on banding western species of hummingbirds.
I’m concentrating on rufous hummingbirds that move through Pennsylvania en route to what we believe is a new wintering grounds in southern Georgia, the Florida Panhandle and west into Texas. Each fall I run all over Pennsylvania to band a half-dozen or so of them at backyard feeders.
With a few other banders, the goal is to connect the dots to document this relatively new behavior among some of the birds, which do not winter in Mexico with the majority of their fellows. When the behavior was first noticed in the mid-1970s, it was thought that the birds were doing a sort of boomerang migration, traveling first to their normal spots in Mexico and then back north into the U.S. But, we’ve been working backwards from the areas they turn up in the Southeast to come to a different conclusion: that they migrate east from the Pacific Northwest into the mid-Atlantic states, then south in the Gulf region. Now it seems that a genetic mutation is causing the behavior and, with the climate growing warmer and more gardens available in the Southeast, they are able to survive and pass that genetic coding onto new generations.
Why put so much effort into one species of bird?
The rufous hummingbird is a declining species, on the WatchList of Audubon and other organizations. A new wintering area has profound implications for conservation and management.
It’s the same with our work with the saw-whet owl. For years the species was thought to be rare. Only when we, and others across the continent, started banding them did it become clear that they’re actually very common, perhaps the most common small forest raptor in North America. But whether they're rare or common, you can't manage them and their habitat properly if you don't know much about them.
The banding work with the little owls about five years ago led to a radio-telemetry component of the research on South Mountain in Cumberland County, in the same area as some of the Conservancy’s new Forest Pools Preserve. We’ve tracked the saw-whets to their daytime roosts and discovered that they make a lot of use of pitch pines, which foresters usually cut as junk to encourage reforestation by oak and other high-value species of trees.
We also think we’ve noticed a high correlation between saw-whet roosts and water. Although we’ve done our work in the fall and picked up on a connection between saw-whet roosts and the presence of moving water, ornithologist Doug Gross conducted a breeding season survey a few years ago and found an almost perfect correlation between hearing singing frogs and singing saw-whets. Maybe it's habitat related. Maybe it's prey-related. But it may be an indication of some link between saw-whets and vernal pools.
The telemetry work is a logical outgrowth of the banding work. We capture a bird, put a band on it and let it go. Some are never seen again. Some are recaptured several times at the same banding station. That leads to questions about habitat use by the birds, including roosting habitat. And those are questions readily addressed by radio-tracking the birds with telemetry.
So, banding is a foundation for other types of research?
Almost everything concrete we know about wild birds has come from marking them in some way. Banding is a very, very fundamental research tool for working with birds. It’s one of the few ways we have to mark an individual bird. To us, one robin looks like another robin. But, after we mark a bird, we can trace its travels, its age, its mates. It’s hard to imagine research without banding.
And banding’s importance to conservation?
We are in a time of tremendous climate and habitat change. We need to figure out where are the most important places to be putting our very scarce dollars to work.
We know bird populations are declining, but where is the source of the decline? Is it on the wintering grounds? Or here on the breeding grounds? Scientific opinion has shifted over the years. Banding information reveals the facts.
An international organization like the Conservancy, with on-the-ground, science in action worldwide, needs to depend on data developed from tools like banding to make its decisions and set it priorities. For example, when you’re considering stopover habitat for migration birds along the Gulf Coast of the U.S., what do you save? The big, best habitat like large tracts of bottomland, or the smaller, niche areas that the birds need under special circumstances? Banding data helped scientists to determine that the migrating birds actually need different habitat types.
Author and naturalist Scott Weidensaul has written more than two dozen books on natural history, including Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds, a Pulitzer Prize finalist; The Ghost with Trembling Wings, about the search for species that may or may not be extinct; and his most recent book, Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding. He has been a contributor to The Nature Conservancy magazine and is an active field researcher, specializing in birds of prey and hummingbirds.