Wednesday, 4 November 2020 – Three more saw-whets

by Ben Spory

Conditions last night were much the same as Tuesday night. The temperature at opening was in the mid 50’s and had dropped into the 40’s by last net check, clear skies with no noticeable wind and a partial moon rising around 9pm. Our capture total for the night was three. Two new birds and one recapture banded Tuesday. All three birds were HY and while the two new birds were fairly docile the recapture was clearly not pleased to be repeating the experience. She made her displeasure known by trying to take a piece of my finger, fortunately without success.      


First year (HY) saw-whet under UV light

In addition to the three Saw whets captured there were signs of larger owls in the area. Upon driving into the station I caught a glimpse of a larger owl on the wing. I didn’t get enough of a look to make an ID but it was larger than a Screech owl and within a quarter mile of the nets. We also heard a Barred owl call during one of our net checks but fortunately saw no further sign of it.         

A second flying squirrel made an appearance on our walk back from the second net check, although this one displayed a much calmer disposition than its predecessor. Our last net check of the night yielded a single Saw whet in net #5, which was a bit of a surprise as we capture few birds in that net. While Vic was working to untangle the owl we heard a rustling of leaves a short distance away. We turned our headlamps in that general direction and had another surprise in the form of a large skunk who seemed to be as startled by the encounter as we were.   Wisdom would generally dictate that creating more space between the involved parties would lead to the most favorable outcome however we still had a bird in the net so retreat was not a viable option. Some harsh tones were exchanged, raised voices on our end and a small warning shot from the skunk’s end as it made haste down a nearby gully. Fortunately the exchange stopped there and nothing was said that could not be forgiven.  Hopefully this will be a singular encounter but we will need to be watchful as there is little doubt that a low netted Saw whet would make an appealing target for any opportunist. We may increase the frequency of checks to better monitor the situation but there has been no evidence of any predation at the nets thus far.

A Change in Plans for 2020

Ben Spory

“After some discussion about banding this year we decided that we would open the nets with some precautions in place but determined that it would be best not to open to the general public. Chris Lehman, Jake Myers, and myself (Ben Spory), will be operating the station with the additional help of Victor Buckwalter, Matt Gingerich and Bridgett Brunea. We will have the continued support and experience of Clair and Zig who will be submitting data and helping from a distance to ensure that things are running smoothly.
After the low numbers of birds captured last season we have been hearing positive reports from stations further north who are experiencing higher numbers of birds moving through and we hope for similar success.
We opened for our first official night of banding 03NOV20 after delaying for a few days due to high wind speeds. Weather at the station was calm and fairly clear with a waning gibbous moon rising later in the evening. The temperature at the station was in the mid forties and generally the conditions were fair for migrating Saw whets. Our first net check was around 6pm and yielded a single Saw whet, which after last season was a nice start. We were thrilled to then capture and band an additional 7 birds over the course of the evening.
In addition to Saw whets we saw and heard some other interesting wildlife. Coyotes could be heard calling at multiple points and during a later net check we heard a mysterious and frenzied chirping while we were retrieving birds. The chirping turned out to be a very agitated flying squirrel occupying an oak tree a short distance from our nets. The squirrel was alarming, not at us, but at a Saw whet that was perched in a hemlock tree a few feet away. Despite our best efforts at a stealthy approach the owl decided that a bit more distance from the situation was prudent and perched herself well out of our reach.Out of the 8 total birds captured we had a nice variation in age, hatch year, second year and after second year birds were all represented. Six of the birds were female and two were of indeterminate sex. The weather looks like it should remain fair until early next week so we are looking forward to at least a few more nights of good banding, hopefully with similar numbers. Overall a very positive start to the season with a good outlook going forward!”

Vic Buckwalter checks out the first saw-whet banded at the Highland Retreat Banding Station in 2020.

2020 Plans


I am thinking that I will not open the saw-whet banding station this fall for several reasons.

Since Mamie has a chronic respiratory condition that puts her in an even higher Covid-19 risk category than our ages alone would indicate, we have been trying to keep as low a profile as possible. We could probably keep socially-distanced at the station but driving to and from the station, etc. adds some possible risk.

I am also not as comfortable as I used to be being at the station and climbing the hill alone. My equilibrium is not what it once was and I do have the heart coronary valves stents plus an aortic valve heart murmur to consider as well. Driving at night is also something I no longer enjoy as much as I used to.

So despite the fact that the migration numbers look good at stations north of us, I am thinking that I will not open this year. I have talked with some of you about your ability to help this year and I appreciate your offers to help. If you can think of some thing or somebody to offset these problems, please let me know. It would be nice to keep the project running but I don’t think that I can head it up this year.

Clair Mellinger


The season ended with a total of 40 newly banded Northern Saw-whet Owls.  This is our lowest total for a full season since we started banding in 2001.  However it is not too far below 2002 when I banded 49 and 2013 when we banded 47.  Almost 60% were second-year (SY) birds which is to be expected because we banded a large number of hatch-year (HY) birds last year.  This year the few HY birds that we banded (about 12%) came late in the season – none before November 16.  All these statistics are similar to those of other eastern North America stations posting reports on the ProjectOwlnet listserv.  Those of you who were at the November Rockingham Bird Club meeting heard Dave Brinker, one of the founders of Project OwlNet, say many of these same things.  At his station on Assateague Island, MD, he banded only four new owls this year! Both he and Scott Weidensaul, the other Project Owlnet co-founder, are predicting a peak year for saw-whet migration next year.

My colleague Charles Ziegenfus did not get to the banding station much this year but is feeling a little better he says and as usual is handling a lot of the paperwork, especially the data submission to the USGS bird banding lab.

Special thanks again to Christopher Lehman, Ben Spory, and Jake Myers for their consistent help with the net-tending and banding.  Jake also helped me to set up the upper nets.

We will see what 2020 brings.

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Ben, Jake, Chris and undoubtedly an SY saw-whet

The visitors outnumbered the owls again this year.  Part of the reason for that can be deduced from this photo.


The Blue Ridge Young Birders Club visit Highland Retreat

Owling season ends; Christmas season begins?

It looks like the banding season may be over.  Charles or I may get out a time or two to check on late comers and those owls that will hang around Highland Retreat for the winter.  However, I think that I will declare the season ended and calculate the totals for this year.

On Thursday night one of the founders of Project Owlnet, Dave Brinker, will be speaking at the Rockingham Bird Club monthly meeting.  Dave is currently an ecologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.  The meeting will be at VMRC as usual, but in Strite Hall (not Detwiler Auditorium, our regular meeting place).  It should be a very informative meeting.

I will try to post the season totals here soon for any of you who are interested in the details for the year.

One new owl, one re-trap

Last night I banded one new saw-whet and made the acquaintance of 1124-02357 for the third time!  She was first banded on November 4 and re-encountered on November 19, and now again on 29 November.  This is not that unusual but provides another data-point for the answer that I usually give to the question, “Where do these go from here?” For some of the owls the answer is, “Nowhere.”

Eight of the last 16 birds that we have caught have been re-traps of birds that we have banded earlier this year. This is a normal feature usually indicating the end of the migration period.

The other saw-whet we caught was our fifth HY (hatch-year) bird of the year.  This is an extremely low number, amounting to about 12 percent of the total number of birds banded. This percentage varies a good bit but can go as high as 60%.  “We” in this report refers to Conrad Brenneman and I.  Conrad is a “nephew-in-law” (if there is such a person) from Indiana, who is visiting relatives here over the holiday.

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Tonight and tomorrow night look rainy and Monday night has predicted winds that are too high for banding.  It is possible that we will open the nets sometime next week again, but for “all practical purposes” we have reached the end of the banding season for this year.  I will try to post a summary of the banding totals here in a short while.

Monday, November 26 – No new owls, but one re-capture

The Yoder family came up last Thursday night but no owls showed up.  Last night they came again and stayed until the last net check.  Their persistence was rewarded by one owl … an owl that we had banded on November 19.  This pattern of capture – the few owls caught are re-captures – usually suggests that we are at the end of the season.  However, this year it has been the pattern for the entire so maybe it means nothing.

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Mira and Wayne watch Chris do the actual banding

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Jill and saw-whet 1124-02379




Wednesday, 27 November – due to uncommonly high winds.

Thursday, 28 November – closed for Thanksgiving

Friday, 29 November – probably open; check here again tomorrow or Friday morning

Saturday and Sunday, 30,31 November – closed due to bad weather

We may band on one or two nights week, but the migration season is probably over.








Three more saw-whets

We added three more saw-whets to our list of owl guests and two more human visitors.  Our total for the month/season is now near 40 but this year will remain one of the years with the fewest birds banded.

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Roy and Ron seem to find this process more amusing than Ms Saw-whet?

The schedule for the remainder of the season remains pretty much the same:

Tonight, Tuesday, 26 November 2019 looks good.

Wednesday – probably closed; strong winds predicted all night 

Thursday = like the Post Offices banks, etc. we will be closed for Thanksgiving 

Friday – probably open 

Saturday – closed – rain