If you want to know how the health of the wild owl population changes from year to year, how do you do it without harming these nocturnal birds?
In southwestern Pennsylvania, a team of volunteers from the Allegheny Plateau Audubon Society are literally losing sleep to document these birds of prey.
Brian M. Wargo, chapter chair, said they managed to trap 51 little owls this fall at the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch, east of Central City, on the border of Somerset and Bedford counties. The location is on private property owned by the Tom Dick family, but is managed by the company to watch migrating birds including owls, hawks and eagles. It is open to the public free of charge when the road barrier is open.
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“It’s a magical place,” Wargo said of the plateau 2,850 feet above sea level and a “super highway” for birds.
“This is the highest falcon watch on the eastern flyway,” he said of the ridges themselves allowing migrating birds to float.
“This is their last route to go,” he said, referring to the travel route to and from Canada.
Several days this fall, when the weather and wind were favorable, the volunteers, led by Dave Darney, the group’s official bander, set long nets about 8 feet high along the field and woodlot. A recording of little owls is then played to attract the attention of other owls.
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Some nights they catch multiple birds in one evening, including one night with 20 birds. Friday evening, only one was captured. Depending on the number of birds they catch, they can work all night, almost until daylight.
Birds are small raptors, not much bigger than an adult’s hand. The northern goads have a certain notoriety. In fact, they’ve been featured on Pennsylvania license plates that fund environmental concerns.
“It’s halfway there,” Wargo said of the 51 birds they’ve caught this year. Last year was a high season with 99 and the year before they had only 26. “Years come and go depending on food sources and weather.”
The chapter is in partnership with the Eastern Ecological Science Center of the United States Department of the Interior at the Patuxent Research Refuge Bird Banding Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.
When an owl is caught in a net, volunteers remove it and begin to document it.
Owls are given rings with a unique serial number, and volunteers measure the size of their wings and tail and document their eye color and gender.
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“All the data is captured and shared so that people who study the little owls can somehow see the condition of the owls,” said Jeanine Ging, one of the bandagers. “If their populations increase and decrease (and) where the birds are going. If they are recaptured, that data is shared among the banders so that we know where they came from, when they were previously banded, how old they were. It just gives us some hints on the flight models.
The birds have been documented in Canada, at Presque Isle in Erie and south to the Smokey Mountains. A few flew to Florida and Georgia.
“It all depends on an army of volunteers,” Wargo said of efforts to collect data on different types of birds at different times of the year.
In addition to the owl project, chapter volunteers also document the falcons that fly through and have a monarch butterfly migration station. You can follow their efforts on alleghenyplateauaudubon.org and on Facebook by searching for Allegheny Front Hawk Watch.
Brian Whipkey is the outside columnist for USA Today Network sites in Pennsylvania. Contact him at [email protected] and sign up for our weekly Outdoors Newsletter on your website homepage under your login name.