Northern Saw-Whet Owl

Jackets on. Headlamps on. We trudge up the steep hill behind Tom‘s (new!) house to the nets. From a small speaker comes a sound like a child playing the same high-pitched note over and over on a cheap recorder: Hoot hoot hoot hoot hoot hoot hoot hoot…

No owls at the first net check at 6:30 p.m. We return to the house for chit-chat and a tour. By 7:15 p.m., Patty is home from work with groceries, but not ready to accompany us for the second net check.  Tom teases that this is a good thing, because they never get birds when Patty tags along.

Back up the hill and this time, I notice the brillance of the stars in the black sky. This time – 2 little puffballs are caught in the nets. Tom deftly removes them and places each in his own separate carrying bag and we head back down the hill.

Tom let’s me handle the first bird and I am thrilled. Wing measurements and weight are taken first and compared to a chart. Males are smaller and lighter than females. This one definitely falls in the male range. A leg gauge helps me determine the right size band. Next, a tail measurement, and a check for fat and muscle condition. Finally, we use a blacklight to look at the feathers on the under side of the wing. New feathers appear pink under this special light, older feathers look “normal”. The combination of pink and normal tells us that this is not a hatch year bird; he has more experience than that.

And now it’s picture time!

Saw Whet Owl-1

Northern Saw-Whet Owl

The second owl is feistier. When I try to handle him, he grabs on tight with sharp talons. He does not break the skin, but I fear he will leave a bruise. He finally releases his tight grip. Tom offers to band him. Thank you, Tom. This one is a hatch year male.

I wonder if he will mellow with age? Or are owls, like people, born with personalities that stay with them for life, merely intensifying with life experiences?

The third net check brought us nothing.  I decide to head home.  The moon is bouncing on the top of the distant hill – a huge orange sliver.

Learn more about the Northern Saw-Whet Owl at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website –>  click here.

Read more about Tom’s owl studies at his blog –> click here.

Opening Day at SWAT

SWAT is the name of Tom LeBlanc‘s MAPS bird banding station in Allegany State Park.  Today was the first day of banding…  And I was glad I awoke early to attend.  We saw some very beautiful birds!

The first bird out of the net was a life bird for me…
Blackburnian Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler – male

Isn’t he pretty? We later got a peak at the female as well, but she managed not to get entangled in the nets… She is similarly colored, but not as vibrant.

According to the Cornell website, these pretty warblers breed in mature coniferous or mixed forests. After raising young, they may join mixed flocks of chickadees and kinglests to forage.

Another great bird for me was the Black-billed Cuckoo… I’ve heard them, and seen pictures and taxidermy mounts… and I think we got a through-the-binoculars view of one at Tom’s other banding site one day last summer… But to see him up close like this was spectacular… What a gorgeous bird… These pictures do not do him justice:

Black-billed Cuckoo

Black-billed Cuckoo Closeup
It was just last summer that I learned that Cuckoos eat a good deal of the spiny caterpillars… so they are my heros…

We had a good number and a good variety of birds… Here are a few others:

Black-capped Chickadee
Black-capped Chickadee

American Goldfinch
American Goldfinch

Yellow Warbler
Yellow Warbler

Cedar Waxwing
Cedar Waxwing

Downy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker

It was a great day with great friends. Thank you, Tom, for knowing how to show a girl a good time.

Bird Banding

Twenty-four adults and thirteen children visited the bird banding station today. They were treated to the following birds:

Canada WarblerCanada Warbler: according to the Cornell website, this is one of the last warblers to come through in the spring, and one of the first to head south in the fall to winter in South America. The range map shows that they may breed here – though most breed further north in Canada.

Canada Warbler

Indigo Bunting:  Probably the most incredible blue you will ever see!

Indigo Bunting

Lincoln's SparrowLincoln’s Sparrow:  We seem to get one of these each year.  These fellows are just passing through on their way to wintering grounds further north.

Chestnut-sided Warbler:    This is the handsome fellow who sings from the woods that he is “Pleased, pleased, pleased to meetcha!”  We actually caught a pair of these.  The male is pictured here:

Chestnut Sided Warbler

In addition to these, we also had:

  • Song Sparrows
  • Swamp Sparrows
  • Cardinals
  • Common Yellowthroats
  • American Goldfinch
  • Chickadee
  • American Robin
  • Gray Catbird

A delight to children of all ages:

Watching Linda remove a Common Yellowthroat from the Net Getting close to a Gray Catbird

Bird Banding 2010

I finally got a chance to spend the whole morning with Scott, Linda, and Emily at the bird banding demonstrations this morning. (Don was at a wedding, so I made the Rhubarb cobbler again… Apple next week, since Don doesn’t like rhubarb.) The weather started warm(ish), but got cooler and windier with each passing hour. We ended up closing the nets a little early when the wind was rather strong.

We had more birds than we expected… (I don’t have pictures of all of them)

  • White-throated Sparrow
    White-throated Sparrow
  • American Robin (no picture)
  • Gray Catbird (4 of those!)
    Gray Catbird
  • Northern Waterthrush
    Northern Waterthrush
  • Black-capped Chickadee – this was a recapture… It was banded on May 2, 2009. We caught it twice this morning in two different nets. (no picture)
  • Northern Cardinal Female – we banded her, then she flew back into the same net later in the morning.
    Northern Cardinal Female

    She was a little upset about being handled and let Emily know about it:
    Northern Cardinal Female bite on Emily's finger

  • Eastern Phoebe (no picture)
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
    Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • House Wren – recapture – originally banded on 4/26/2008 (no picture)
  • Chipping Sparrow
    Chipping Sparrow
  • Song Sparrow (no picture)

There are still two more weeks to enjoy watching the scientists at work! Come Saturday, May 15 and 22 to the picnic pavilion at Audubon! 7am-11am

Emily shows bird to Grandma and Granddaughters

Nikki Releases Bird with help from Emily
Hey! Who’s that Floridian releasing a bird? Could it be our 2010 college intern?

Screech Owl Quest

Don checks kestrel box

Nick and Scott hold the ladder while Don checks the Kestrel box.

Don checks our Kestrel boxes at Audubon.  He suspected an Eastern Screech Owl might be using the one in the parking lot…  He climbed up there and got photographic proof that there was indeed a screech owl using the box!  So, he returned one day with Scott (and the banding equipment).

A crowd gathered to watch, hopeful that they would see one of our most endearing little owls.

Alas and alack…  the bird had flown… perhaps roosting elsewhere in one of our other boxes?

In the bottom of the box there was evidence aplenty that a Screech Owl had been using the box:  pellets gallore and the remains of a cardinal.



We think of owls as being strictly nocturnal… but the Screech Owl may also hunt at dusk before the Cardinals and other songbirds have hit the sack.

Eastern Screech Owl - by Tom LeBlanc

Photo by Tom LeBlanc

Eastern Screech Owls can be either gray or red.  Curiously, later on this very day, a friend of Audubon brought us a poor unfortunate red individual that had been hit by a car and killed. We now have both a gray and a red in the freezer and are looking for a generous donor to send them to the taxidermist. (Audubon has federal and state permits allowing us to collect and display birds collected in this manner for educational purposes.)

Learn more about Screechies:

An Indigo Bunting Day…

Unfortunately, yesterday was the last opportunity I’ll have to go bird banding with Tom this summer.  Luckily it was a great day.  Unfortunately, I forgot my camera.  So… All the pictures on this post were “lifted” from Melodee’s and Diana’s Facebook accounts!  Thanks, ladies.

Often when we head out for a net check, one or more of us “call” a bird.  That is we say something like, “OK, this net check, I want an Indigo Bunting Male in full breeding plumage.”  Here’s Melodee, having gotten her wish:

Melodie's Indigo Bunting

The theme of the day was Indigo Buntings:  We caught 2 males and 2 females…  I know some were re-captures and some needed bands, but I can’t remember the exact details.  Aren’t they gorgeous birds?

I got to meet Melodee’s friend, Diana.  Here she is having just learned the “photographer’s hold” with a Gray Catbird.

Diana and Catbird

Carolyn joined us, too, and earned the honor of banding this bird because she was the only one who could identify it!

Carolyn's Redstart

Did you get it?  American Redstart.  Way to go, Carolyn!!

Melodee took this one out of the net, but I knew what it was, so I got to band it:

Magnolia Warbler and Me
Magnolia Warbler

I didn’t get out as much this summer as last because of a busy work life and because of preparations for my class reunion (next weekend)…  But I think I learned a few things and hope to find some other banding opportunities before winter hits…

Thanks to Tom and his crew for all the fun and learning!


Parents and Babies

At this time of year at the banding stations, it is not uncommon to catch newly fledged birds.  Often we catch adults and babes in the net at the same time, like the sparrows I posted yesterday, and these Yellow Warblers:

Yellow Warblers - Juvenile and Adult

Yellow Warbler - Juvenile

Another fun capture was a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak baby.  We were loaded up with birds and I didn’t get a picture.  Here’s a picture of siblings from last year at SWAT:

Rose-breasted Grosbeak - Female and Male Juveniles

Last Saturday at CLDC we caught just the one female baby, and she squawked like crazy the whole time we had her.  Mom came very close to the banding station with her bill full of food.  When we released Baby, Mom flew after her, ready to stuff that food down her throat, no doubt.  I hope we didn’t traumatize Baby or Mom too much.

Here is another set of parents and babies I happened to catch on “film” the same day:

The Proud Parents, Aunts, and Uncles (except me)

The Cousins

Are these babies as cute as the Yellow Warbler?

A Sparrowful Day

I went bird banding with Tom on Saturday.  We had lots of neat birds, but the bird species we saw the most of was… Song Sparrow.  We banded several adults and juveniles, and had several re-captures, too.

Song SparrowLittle Brown Birds are the bane of all new birders.  It can be really tough to figure out what you are looking at.  I wish I could say with confidence that I’m getting better at it… but it is still very hard for me to distinguish the differences.  Tom seems always to know, and Kyle (a Canisius College student who also helps band) is getting better and better – already way better than me!  (You go, Kyle!)

I felt a little better when I read about Song Sparrows at the Cornell website.  Turns out this very widespread bird can look different from region to region:

Scientists recognize 24 subspecies of Song Sparrows and have described some 52 forms: they are one of the most regionally variable birds in North America. In general, coastal and northern birds are darker and streakier, with southern and desert birds wearing paler plumages. (Cornell)

No wonder it’s so hard.  I have less trouble identifying the Song Sparrow in the field when I can’t see it, but can hear it.  Go to the Cornell site and you can listen to Song Sparrow songs:

The baby was very cute… not quite grown into its bill.

Song Sparrow Baby

We had to let one sparrow go, unbanded, because even Tom was unsure of the species.  I guess the experts have a hard time sometimes, too.  (We were pretty busy at that point and didn’t have time for pictures.  Darn.  You can’t band a bird if you aren’t 100% sure of the ID.)


All spring I’ve been trying to get down to the National Forest to tag along with Scott Stoleson’s team.  I never made it… until the first full day of summer!  This is the second year they have been targeting Cerulean Warblers for banding.  Why Ceruleans?  Audubon’s Watchlist entry for this species explains:

Formerly one of the most abundant breeding warblers in Ohio and the Mississippi River Valleys, its population plummeted in the 1900’s due to habitat destruction.

Cerulean Range MapCerulean Warblers nest in the upper canopy of mature forests in North America.  Their wintering grounds are in South America.  Both breeding and wintering sites have been changed considerably by human activity through the 1900s causing one of the sharpest population declines of all warblers…  70-75% overall decrease, according to Scott.

The mist-netting demonstrations that Scott’s team does at Audubon in spring, and the MAPS projects run by Tom LeBlanc throughout the summer do not target a single species.  In those projects, several nets are set up in various locations near the banding station and nearly the all birds that come into the nets are banded.  It’s a little trickier to target just one species.  Here’s how Scott’s team caught its first bird:

  1. We drove out to a spot in the National Forest where Ceruleans had been spotted before.  We watched and listened.  It didn’t take long to hear a male singing fairly close to the road.  Scott played a recording of Cerulean song to draw the bird in.  During breeding season, Ceruleans are fierce protectors of their territories.  The sound of another male nearby was sure to cause concern.  Sure enough, down he came to investigate.
  2. All binoculars went up to see if this male had a band or not.  (Having the curse of extremely bad eyesight since childhood, I was astounded they could find the tiny bird so quickly, let alone see an even tinier band around the fellow’s ankle!)  This one was unbanded!  The team mobilized to catch him.  Now remember – Cerulean Warblers like the upper canopy… so a standard ground-level net is not going to work.
  3. No, Linda is not trying to shoot the bird with a bow and arrow!  Having located a suitable branch from which to hang the net, Linda shoots an arrow attached to fishing line.  Mike mans the reel.
  4. Up and over a high branch goes the arrow.  When it returns, the fishing line is removed from the arrow and attached to a (tan) rope.  Mike reels in the line until the rope is up and over the branch.
  5. Next they will attach a pulley system (that’s the blue ropes in the picture)  to the (tan) rope and hoist it all the way up to the limb.  Mike crawls into the brush to find a tree that will serve as an anchor for the system.
  6. In the meantime, Scott and Emily are busy setting up the frame that will hold the mist net.  The MP3 player and the decoy are attached in the upper center part of the net.
    The frame is assembled.IMG_0918
    Attaching the mist net.

    The decoy:  Scott admits that they don’t know if the decoy really helps, but it amuses them, so they use it.

  7. The net is hoisted up and secured.  A (black) rope on either side of the frame will allow Emily and Linda to turn the net to the desired angle and stabilize it so it doesn’t spin randomly.IMG_0924
    Scott turns on the MP3 player.IMG_0926
    Up she goes!
    The net is now in position, the decoy singing away.
  8. Then we wait and watch.  We are lucky.  June 22nd is pretty late in the season to find males that are still aggressive about defending territory.  Many pairs are already feeding young – some that have fledged.  This little guy displayed all the classic behaviors of an aggressive, defensive male, and while it took a bit of time, he did finally “attack” the source of the other song.
  9. The net is lowered; Scott removes the bird.  Linda, Mike, and Emily disassemble the net contraption and Scott processes the bird.IMG_0934
  10. The bird will actually get 3 bands:  the standard numbered aluminum band will go on the bird’s left leg, and two colored plastic bands will go on the right.  (Last year’s birds were banded with aluminum on the right, colored on the left.)  These combinations will help the team identify individuals in the future without having to re-capture them.  (This year, the team has spotted 5 birds that they banded last year – most having returned to the exact same nest site.)IMG_0936
    Purple and blue colored bands for the right leg, aluminum for the left.IMG_0937
    Attaching the aluminum band.

    A little heat seals the plastic colored bands.  (The bird is unharmed and Scott’s burn is only mild.)

  11. After weighing and many photos, the pretty fellow is released (by me!).IMG_0940
    Weight:  9.3 grams

    Cerulean Warbler

    A fine Cerulean Warbler Male – with new jewelry.IMG_0946
    Scott takes many photos – from all angles.

    "My" Cerulean Warbler

    And they graciously let me hold him for a photo opp, then release him.

This first bird we caught and processed made it all look so easy.  We tried two more times – not on the road, but halfway to the summit of steep hillsides.  In the second attempt, the net placement was apparently on the boundary between two territories.  The bird on one side would not go in; the bird on the other side would not go in.  The third placement seemed perfect, but the birds were not interested in the “intruder’s” song… they seemed only interested in eating.  In fact, I watched through binoculars as one warbler extracted whatever critter rolls up the leaves… that was fascinating!

It was a fun, exhausting day of learning for me.  If I could do my life over, I would pursue a career in which I could do this sort of thing.  Maybe next time around?  For now, I’ll live vicariously through the lives of those who let me tag along.

Many thanks to Scott, Linda, Emily, Mike and Don for being patient with me (and sharing their lunches).

Learn more about Cerulean Warblers:

Three Warblers

We had three different species of warblers last Saturday.  Two are pretty common throughout the continent.  Scroll down slowly and see if you know them before you get to the text below each picture that gives you the names:

Common Yellowthroat Female

Common Yellowthroat Male

Did you guess: Common Yellowthroat?

How about this one?

Yellow Warbler

You’re right if you said Yellow Warbler.

The third warbler from last Saturday is an eastern bird:

Blue-winged Warbler
Blue-winged Warbler

According to Cornell, the Blue-winged Warbler has expanded its range northward during the last century… Maybe it will expand to the west in the next century?