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Nighttime banding effort underway at Turtle River State Park aims to shed light on migrating saw-whet owls

TURTLE RIVER STATE PARK, N.D.--Offering a guarantee of success is a dicey proposition with any pursuit, but Tim Driscoll liked his chances of catching at least one Northern saw-whet owl on this crisp, early fall evening.

A saw-whet owl (left) and an eastern screech owl wait to be released after various measurements are taken in Turtle River State Park. (Joshua Komer/Grand Forks Herald)
A saw-whet owl, left, and an eastern screech owl wait to be released after various measurements are taken in Turtle River State Park, ND Tuesday night, September 27, 2016. (Joshua Komer/Grand Forks Herald)
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TURTLE RIVER STATE PARK, N.D.-Offering a guarantee of success is a dicey proposition with any pursuit, but Tim Driscoll liked his chances of catching at least one Northern saw-whet owl on this crisp, early fall evening.

"I almost guarantee you tonight's going to be a big night," he said.

Driscoll, a Grand Forks' resident raptor expert, and park naturalist Erika Kolbow were on a mission to catch saw-whet owls within the park's boundaries and band them. They had set up a series of four, small-mesh nets in a square pattern among a patch of hardwood trees along one side of the Turtle River near Woodland Lodge and another net across the river.

With big yellow eyes and heads that seem to take up half of their bodies, these smallest of North American owls are, simply put, cool-looking birds.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, saw-whet owls are found year-round across the southern half of Canada, much of Minnesota and the far northeast tip of North Dakota, wintering in dense forests across the central and southern U.S.

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The banding program, which targets saw-whets migrating through Turtle River State Park en route to who knows where, is part of a continentwide effort to learn more about the tiny owls and where they migrate.

"They're not this classic north-south species," Driscoll said. "They're somewhat nomadic in that they follow food."

Eastern screen owls, which breed in the park, occasionally show up in the nets, as well.

Learning process

The fall banding season was off to a good start, and Driscoll and Kolbow already had banded six saw-whets, including one last spring, going into the night's operation. They caught their first saw-whet of the fall Sept. 21 and were ahead of last year's pace, when they didn't start banding until Oct. 1.

Last year was their first extensive attempt at catching and banding saw-whet owls in the park, Driscoll said, but they tallied 102 birds before calling it a season in mid-November. Among last fall's highlights was a saw-whet that had been banded a month earlier in Prince Albert, Sask., more than 600 miles northwest of Grand Forks.

The park also offered a public banding night last October that attracted more than 30 people.

"If you had told me last July (2015) that I would catch 100 saw-whets, I would have said I'll be thrilled to death with 20," Driscoll said.

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The nets were in place as the sun dipped toward the western horizon. A half-hour after sunset, Driscoll fired up a digital recording of a calling saw-whet, a rhythmic, high-pitched "toot-toot-toot" cadence. In saw-whet speak, the call basically says, "I have food, come on over, and I'll share it with you."

And then, the owls come-hopefully-getting caught in the nets as they swoop in for a closer look. Driscoll and Kolbow, along with a handful of volunteers, would check the nets every half-hour.

"Early indications are good, but who knows?" Driscoll said. "I'm encouraged. We're certainly off and running."

Ideal conditions

This night was nearly perfect for catching saw-whets, which hunt and migrate by night. The northwest wind had subsided, and there'd be little more than a sliver of moon.

Still, Driscoll predicted the first check of the nets would be unproductive.

He was right.

"Prime time is probably 9 to midnight," he said; they'll work into the wee hours if the nets are producing.

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The owls Driscoll and Kolbow band at Turtle River will help fill an information void for the species in the Upper Midwest. Banders are relatively common on the East Coast and in British Columbia, but not so much in this part of the world, Driscoll said.

The federal bird banding lab in Maryland keeps a database of the banded owls.

"We sent 100 saw-whets out there with our bands on them last fall, and I'm guessing 40 of them are still floating around somewhere," Driscoll said. "Where are they going? There's many more than people thought, and they're finding them as far south as Arkansas. Three or four years ago, you'd have said there are no saw-whet owls in Arkansas."

Owls in hand

Driscoll and Kolbow hit pay dirt on the second check, and the nets held a screech owl and a big-eyed saw-whet. They freed the two birds and carried them to nearby Woodland Lodge to measure, weigh and band.

The owls are aged by looking at their wings under a blacklight. A chemical called porphyrin is prevalent in the wings of hatch-year owls and shows up as a pinkish-red color under the light. The chemical fades as the bird ages, and the reddish color disappears.

Judging by its glowing wings, the first saw-whet of the night had been hatched this past spring.

Kolbow also has begun collecting a series of "mug shot" photos of each owl, along with their corresponding band numbers, before releasing the birds. As of Monday, she'd photographed 21 owls, a collection that will grow as banding continues.

Every face is different.

"You wouldn't think there would be such a dramatic difference, but there is," Kolbow said.

Driscoll says they'll keep banding as long as they catch migrating saw-whets. The final tally on this night was seven, but catch rates slowed with the weekend warm snap and south winds, Driscoll said.

Most likely, the best is yet to come.

"It sounds like there are lots of owls coming from the north," Driscoll said. "We just need a cold front and some north winds."

Related Topics: BIRDS
Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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