Every autumn as leaves reach peak color, a silent, nocturnal migration goes largely unnoticed.
By Adrianna Zito-Livingston on December 05, 2017
Nothing can make my 5-year-old daughter move more quickly than the three words “There’s an owl”. In any ordinary moment getting her to don socks, shoes, and a coat in under 5 minutes would require a miracle, but she was standing by the door fully ready in a blink, and I was the one who wasn’t wearing shoes. Two minutes later, we were out the door and headed to the South Cape May Meadows Preserve to meet an owl face to face.
Every autumn as leaves reach peak color, a silent migration goes largely unnoticed. The Northern Saw-whet owl, one of the smallest owls in North America, is almost entirely nocturnal, as are the incredible biologists who study it. Late fall brings one such biologist, Katy Duffy, across the country from Wyoming to Cape May, NJ and the South Cape May Meadows Preserve.
Katy has been banding owls in Cape May for over 37 years, documenting the silent flight of Northern Saw-whet owls along with Eastern screech owls, long eared and short eared owls, all of which move through Cape May. Katy attracts owls using an audio lure (a tape recorder playing saw-whet calls) and owls fly into very fine mist nests that have been set up along the forest edge. It’s a delicate balance: removing captured birds expediently, while minimizing disruption to the migrating birds. Katy checks her nets at least once an hour, more often on “owly” nights when she’s catching them in large numbers.
Without the efforts of Katy and others in banding stations all along the east coast, we’d be unaware that these small species of owls were even around. According to Katy, “They are active after full dark when we are asleep, they roost in thick cover during the day, and are virtually silent flyers”. As part of her banding operations at the Meadows preserve, Katy generously “shares” any owls she catches, giving impromptu demonstrations to preserve neighbors and Cape May’s enthusiastic network of resident and visiting birders. Through the wonders of text alerts, WhatsApp and good old word of mouth, the dark parking lot is already abuzz with an impromptu audience when my daughter and I arrive.
Katy’s approach is evident by the bobbing of her headlamp down the path that leads from her blind, and even though we know that we’ll be seeing a long-eared owl, the thrill is palpable as she removes the bird from the soft cloth bag which she uses for transport. At the close of the demonstration, Katy and her guests walk in complete darkness to the Meadows main trail, where the owl is released back into the night.
Each owl shared is a special experience, particularly this year, when the numbers have dropped dramatically from prior seasons. If this pattern holds, this may be one of Katy’s lowest annual totals to date. Likely culprits include unfavorable weather conditions for migration; warmer than average temperatures and winds from the South (rather than from the North), along with low numbers of young produced this past year. It’s notable that the majority of the owls captured in 2017 were adults, rather than immature or hatch year birds which is typically the case; further evidence that this year’s low survey numbers are indicative of a poor nest success for saw-whets. So how worried should we be? The jury is still out, and underlines the importance of long term studies like Katy’s, which help to illuminate patterns in population levels, and keep an eye out for signs of population decline. “Saw-whet numbers really vary year to year,” Katy explains to her audience, “sometimes up and sometimes very low. It’s multiple years of abnormally low numbers that will be concerning.” So it’s important that these banding efforts continue to help us better understand these most stealthy of migrating birds.
Katy Duffy uses her trusty hat to demonstrate how a mist nets works. A network of nets is set along the forest edge where owls move under darkness. Owls don’t remain in the nets for very long before they are released, measured and banded with a unique tag. Banders are careful to prevent injury to the owls that they forgo wearing gloves so as not to limit their ability to release the bird, even if it means they end up with injuries of their own from sharp talons or beaks. © The Nature Conservancy (Adrianna Zito-Livingston)
An adult Northern saw-whet owl banded at the Meadows in early November. © Michael O'Brien
A red morph of an Eastern screech owl banded last year and recaptured (it was caught for the first time last year and was banded) and returned this year at Katy’s station. © Michael O'Brien
Long eared owls are also drawn into the banding station. These birds and their migration patterns remain largely a mystery, with only a handful showing up in Katy’s nets each season. © Katy Duffy
Adrianna Zito-Livingston is the Cape May Preserve Coordinator with The Nature Conservancy in New Jersey.
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