On Monday, October, 24, I was invited to participate in something that I had always wanted to do, but never thought I would get the opportunity. I attended a bird banding session at Mary Gray Bird Sanctuary in Connersville, IN. In the words of Alex Eberts… “Oh. My. God!”
The manager let me know that the nets were going up at 7:00 PM, and that the first check would be about an hour after. I planned my arrival time for 7:30 and headed out from the Dayton, OH area around 5:45. It was a nice drive down mostly empty roads. I had been to the sanctuary once before back in 2014 when a beautiful female Evening Grosbeak spent time at their feeders, so everything was somewhat familiar. Driving through Germantown, and Gratis, and Camden, then coming to the curve at State Line Rd. It’s not too far over the border to Mary Gray from there.
I parked at the manager’s house (I want to live at a bird sanctuary!), grabbed my gear and my cooler and headed inside to meet two of the nicest people I may ever know: Amy and Carl Wilms.
Amy and Carl Wilms are the Resident Managers of the Mary Gray Bird Sanctuary. The sanctuary is owned and operated by the Indiana Audubon Society. Amy currently holds a federal and state sub-permit to band Northern Saw-whet Owls (NSWO), Passerines, and hummingbirds. That night we were hoping for owls.
Soon after I arrived, Shari McCullough came through the door. Her energy and enthusiasm were evident immediately (she’s kind of crazy – in a good way). Amy gave us both brief but thorough instructions for how the process works, as well as safety requirements for the owls and ourselves – the owls have really sharp beaks and talons. We strapped on headlamps and headed for the nets.
I had seen NSWOs before, but only tucked away deep in a tree or a bush – never up close. This was a potential first for me and Shari, she having never seen one before at all. As we walked out to the nets the first thing I noticed was how much the temperature had dropped in the short time I had been there. Northwest winds were bringing cold air toward us, and hopefully some owls. It was also very dark with no moon visible, but millions of stars were shining. Our headlamps lit the way as Amy informed us that the first thing we would likely see was the “eye shine” of whatever was in the net, if anything. She also warned us that it might be a flying squirrel – and those are really tricky to handle.
We turned a corner and made our way through the woods. As the nets came into view.. Eye Shine!!! We were so excited. Something was in the net!
As we approached the net, I remembered Amy’s instructions. Well, one big one… Don’t touch the net. This was her domain. It was what she was trained to do. Shari and I stayed back and watched her work on untangling this little lady of the night. The process was delicate and took a few minutes. Amy traced each strand and removed them with a sensitive, but firm hand. No owls (or banders) were injured that night. After the owl was freed from the net it was placed into a mesh bag and secured.
Free as a bird? A bird in the hand? Pick your idiom.
As Amy led us back to the house, Shari carried our first research subject of the evening. She was so excited to have finally seen her first Northern Saw-whet Owl. She couldn’t stop talking to herself the owl about how excited she was.
At this point, Amy took over. She retrieved the owl from the bag and proceeded to band the bird and perform a “physical”.
The banding requires that she work the band through/under/over the many leg feathers. Here is the final band and a close-up.
Next, the “wing chord” is measured in a relaxed state. This is the length from the top, curved part of the wing to where the tip of the wing lands naturally on the ruler. Then she measures the wing chord with the wing flattened.
Next up, she measures the exposed culmen (below left), the bill depth, and the “nares to tip” of the bill. One of the cool things about seeing these owls up close, was the opportunity to see the parts that you would not otherwise get to experience. In the photo below (right) you can see the owl’s “ear”.
We also got to see it’s belly when Amy was checking to see how fat it was.
Finally the bird is weighed. This is accomplished by placing the bird, head-first, into a paper cone to keep the bird safe and still and placing the cone on a scale. These birds weigh, on average, just over two ounces. We had one that was a hefty 93 grams! Here is a clip from our first bird of the night.
Using an established chart, Amy is able to compare wing chord and weight to determine the sex of the bird. All 6(!!!!) of the owls that were banded Monday night we Hatch Year (HY) Females. This was their first trip south!
Oh yeah! How did Amy know they were hatch year birds? This was really cool! Using a black light, she checks the wings for “pink” – this shows how much porphyrin is contained in the feathers, as well as what feathers it occurs in. These birds were PINK! If they had been lacking the pink in certain areas of the wings, that would denote a different age of the bird. (Researchgate.net has great comparison photos here.)
This is one of our owls from Monday
Once the process is completed, the owl is placed back in the bag and taken outside for five minutes or so to allow its eyes to readjust to the dark. It would not benefit the bird to have it try to fly off while it was blinded by the change in lighting.
Following the examination of the owl, Shari and I were taught how to properly hold the owl, and then we were allowed to do so!
I can’t really find the words to describe the time I spent at Mary Gray Bird Sanctuary. It was educational, it was enjoyable, it was an unforgettable experience! Our later trips to the net landed three on the second trip and two on the third. A total of 6 birds – all hatch year females. A huge thank you to Amy and Carl Wilms for their hospitality and giving me the chance to experience these amazing animals up close. More photos below.
In the fall, Amy and Carl research NSWO abundance at the MGBS using the standard protocol through Project Owlnet (www.projectowlnet.org). By documenting the abundance, age, and sex of these small owls, the MGBS can add to a much larger data source of their movements in Indiana.
About Project Owlnet
Founded in 1994, Project Owlnet facilitates communication, cooperation and innovation among a rapidly growing network of hundreds of owl-migration researchers in North America and abroad. By providing standardized methodologies, information on capture techniques, ageing and sexing resources, analytical tools, data archiving and other services, Project Owlnet makes it easier for ornithologists to lift the veil on owl movements and biology. Their listserve, SAWWHETNET, provides a forum to share questions and provide answers.
Although Project Owlnet began with (and retains) a primary focus on Northern Saw-whet Owls, its member researchers study many other owls, and Project Owlnet provides species-specific interest groups.
Project Owlnet has three goals:
• Support the continuing expansion of a network of migrant owl banding stations.
• Advocate the use of standardized, comparable netting protocols.
• Improve communication and coordination among owl migration research stations in North America and beyond.