Hopkins forest helps track the fall migration of tiny owls

We’re all used to seeing flocks of honking geese heading south at this time of year, but did you know that some owls migrate too? Hopkins Forest is participating in an effort to monitor the migration of the Northern Saw-Whet Owl.

“This is our second year of owl-banding at the forest,” said Drew Jones, manager of the forest.

There are over 50 stations participating in Project OwlNet, located all over New England, the mid-west and mid-atlantic states that catch owls, measure them and give them a uniquely-numbered ankle band. The owls are then released and allowed to continue on their journey. When an owl that was seen at Hopkins forest is recaptured in Maryland, researchers can determine its path and how long it took to get there.

The birds are captured when they fly into “mist nets,” which are so fine that the birds do not see them at night. A recording of a male mating call attracts owls towards the nets. The researchers disentangle the birds and proceed to measure and record things like wing length, eye color, sex and weight.

The birds are quite tiny, and the official method of weighing them is placing them head first into a small juice can, so that they are calmed and immobilized on the scale. An average owl actually weighs only about a quarter pound. “That’s as much as a hamburger,” Jones said.

The Williams Outing Club (WOC) organized a trip to the forest at night to see the operation during peak season. That night about nine owls were caught and measured. The group was excited to see the wild animals at such close range. The banding station has been popular with students and community members, especially local bird clubs.

“Now that the season’s winding down we’re catching more people than owls!” Jones said.

Some owls are relaxed about being held captive, but others get flustered. Jones can show you a collection of little marks left by the beaks of this year’s birds.

“It is easy to forget that were dealing with raptors here,” he said. Saw-Whets are in fact carnivores. They hunt at night for mice, voles, moles and other small animals. They are not, however, at the top of the food chain. Larger species of owls actually hunt them.

The season is winding down now, but Jones is available to answer any questions about the owls or the forest (Andrew.T.Jones@williams.edu).The Banding station will be open for visitors and helpers again next fall.