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Busy Fall for Saw-whet Owls in the Dakotas

By December 3, 2014Science
Northern Saw-whet Owl

This Northern Saw-whet Owl, first banded about 660 miles northwest near Tofield, Alberta, in September 2013, was recovered in Theodore Roosevelt National Park by RMBO.

With winter around the corner, Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory wrapped up its fall migration owl banding season in the Dakotas on Nov. 8. Biologist Nancy Drilling reports that she and her team caught a whopping 277 Northern Saw-whet Owls in 55 nights. This is compared to 149 Northern Saw-whet Owls in 51 nights in 2013. It was a busy fall, Nancy said. Halfway through the season, her team had surpassed last year’s total and caught the 500th Northern Saw-whet Owl of this four-year project.

A total of nine owls were “recovered” this fall. A recovery is when a biologist recaptures a bird banded at another banding station or during a different season. RMBO recovered two owls banded at another station and four owls banded at the same station during a different season, and other owl banders recovered three owls previously banded by RMBO. These recoveries provide valuable insights into migration patterns for Northern Saw-whet Owls.

This year, RMBO operated banding stations in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota and in Custer National Forest and the Black Hills in South Dakota. The map below shows the locations of RMBO’s banding stations in green and other owl banders’ stations in pink. The blue lines represent owls first banded by RMBO and caught by other owl banders, and the red lines represent owls first banded at another banding station and recovered by RMBO.

2014 Northern Saw-whet Owl Map

2014 Northern Saw-whet Owl Map (click map to enlarge)

 
RMBO recovered six Northern Saw-whet Owls this fall:

  • 1 banded about 660 miles northwest near Tofield, Alberta, in September 2013, recovered in Theodore Roosevelt National Park; Nancy said this owl, pictured at the start of this post, is the first owl RMBO has caught from the northwest
  • 1 banded about 190 miles north in Theodore Roosevelt National Park by RMBO’s crew there, recovered just five nights later in the Black Hills
  • 2 banded as nestlings in Custer National Forest in mid-May 2014 by RMBO, recovered less than a mile away in Custer National Forest in October 2014*
  • 2 banded in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in October and November 2013 by RMBO, recovered in the same location in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in October 2014*

* There are no lines for these owls in the map above since they were recovered at the same owl banding station.

For the first time ever, other owl banders recovered three of RMBO’s owls:

  • 1 recovered about 600 miles northeast on the shores of Lake Superior in Minnesota, first banded by RMBO in Custer National Forest in November 2011
  • 1 recovered about 600 miles east near Eau Claire, Wis., at Beaver Creek Reserve, first banded as a nestling by RMBO in Custer National Forest in May 2014
  • 1 recovered about 540 miles southeast outside Omaha, Neb., at Hitchcock Nature Center, first banded by RMBO in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in October 2013

Cool recoveries were fun highlights of the season, Nancy said, but so were the amazing people who stopped by the banding stations to see Northern Saw-whet Owls up close and learn about these rarely seen but fascinating birds. There were 85 visitors to the stations this fall, including families, wildlife club students, photographers, birders and fellow biologists. “These banding stations are an opportunity for people to see and hold an owl, experience research firsthand and learn about owl conservation,” Nancy said. “Great people plus great birds make the owl banding stations great places to be each fall!”

Family

A family poses with a Northern Saw-whet Owl at a banding station this fall. Photo by Summer Boock.

 
This work is part of a long-term study of the migration patterns and local conservation status of Northern Saw-whet Owls, a little known but intriguing species. Thank you to our partners for assisting with this work, including Theodore Roosevelt National Park for letting us band in the park and North Dakota Game and Fish for housing our crew.

Learn more about the owl banding process and RMBO’s work in North Dakota in this article from the Bismarck Tribune: Banding owls provides close encounters of the nocturnal kind