So… my friend Tom (aka Mon@rch) issued me a Spontaneity Test yesterday morning. It was around 11:15am and he wanted me to meet him in Ellicottville at 1pm so we could ride together to Lockport to assist with an owl banding project. Hmm… Housework? Owl Banding?… Decisions, decisions…
Needless to say, I was ready in a flash! It didn’t bother me that, according to Tom, this group had been out maybe a dozen times already and had never caught an owl. There’s always a first time, right?
When we arrived, they were just finishing putting out the traps. Several types of traps would be used. There were two kinds on the field we were to monitor:
Pole Traps: Short-eared owls like to hunt on grassy or weedy fields where there are few, if any perching places. If an owl sees a perching place, it is apt to land on it, if only briefly. At the top of the pole, a wire-mesh cap tied with short nooses is secured and wired to a light. If an owl lands and its feet become entangled, it will fly off dragging the mesh cap and tripping the light. Here, Tom and I are pictured loosening the nooses. (Well, actually, we’re posing for the camera… but we did loosen the nooses… honest.)
BC Traps: The BC trap (short for Bal-chatri – don’t ask me where that name came from!) is basically a wire cage that has short nooses tied all over the top of it. Inside the cage, you place either live bait – such as meadow voles (a particular favorite of Short-eared Owls), or an MP3 player pumping out the sound of bait. The traps we set were round and domed. One had voles, the other had an MP3 player.
Once the traps were set, the waiting began. Short-earred owls hunt day and night. In winter they are most active at sunset and again at sunrise. They fly low over grassy fields and locate their prey by sound. The traps were pretty much in place by 3:30 or 4:00pm. Sunset would be at 5:40pm. While we waited, we enjoyed watching Redpolls, Chickadees, Juncos, Cedar Waxwings, and others find roosting places in the Christmas Trees on the east side of the road.
At 4:30, I was treated to my first sight of a Short-eared Owl. Using Tom’s excellent binoculars, I watched this beautiful bird fly in from the northeast and exhibit classic hunting behavior… just as though someone had told it, “Would you please go show Jennifer how we hunt?” Silently it soared, turning its head this way and that, listening for food… Then, as gently as can be, it glided down to a spot (well away from our traps) and, just as gently, lifted again with a small rodent clutched in its talons.
From out of nowhere a Red-tailed Hawk appeared. The hawk flew at the owl in a harmless scuffle after which the hawk retreated to the west side of the field and the owl flew southeast. Neither seemed to have the mouse. It was so awesome to watch. Tom noted later that he knew I was transfixed because I didn’t even attempt to grab my camera! (Luckily, he was snapping shots, including the one above left.)
Sherry, another of the assistants monitoring the north field, must have gotten impatient. She decided to drive down to where she knew the owls sometimes roost, in hopes of spooking them out of their trees and into our field. When she came back, she stopped next to the truck to report that she had seen three owls lift from the roost…
No sooner had she turned around and parked when I caught sight of an owl. Then everything started happening very fast. Sherry is on the radio… The light had tripped on one of the poles. We take off running to the pole to recover a gorgeous Short-eared Owl. As we fuss with the nooses, we notice… there’s ANOTHER on one of the BC traps – the one with the MP3 player in it! By now, the adrenaline is pumping through our veins!
Tom hands this owl over to me and helps Sherry recover the second. We radio the others who are in the south field seeing owls, but having no success catching one. “We have two!” Somehow, that doesn’t translate to them as two in the hand. When they finally arrive to do the processing, they are doubly excited to see that we do indeed have two birds in the hand…
As you can see, I was drenched… And it was cold. It didn’t matter. This was an experience of a lifetime – something I will not soon forget. And get this: I didn’t even know until Tom told me during the car ride home: Short-eared Owls are listed as endangered in New York State. I can hardly believe I had the chance to hold in my hands an endangered bird. And how cool is this: Someone will be tracking the movements of THIS OWL because it was fitted with a radio transmitter! I’m very excited, in case you couldn’t tell…
Thanks, Tom! I’m glad I was able to pass the Spontaneity Test and tag along. It was an absolutle blast! Thanks to Chuck Rosenburg and his team, too, for putting up with my questions and my camera.
Learn more about Short-eared Owls: