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This Week’s Creature Feature: Little Raptors in the Night

Saw-whet owls passing through on their annual southern migration

      Hearing something going bump in the night? Perhaps it’s a northern saw-whet owl passing through Chesapeake Country on its annual flight south for winter.
      Volunteers with Project Owlnet hope that’s the case this week as they set out mist nets at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater to try to catch the little raptors.
      Saw-whets, tiny owls with large yellow eyes, begin migrating south from the boreal forests of Canada every fall. Just where they are headed is what researchers want to know.
      “Project Owlnet, began by Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ Dave Brinker, is a network of over 120 banding stations throughout the country,” says Alison Cawood, volunteer coordinator at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. “They capture, measure and band these little owls to help us understand how fast they travel south and what routes they are taking.”
     Cawood leads teams of six in setting out the nets every night this week and next, hoping to find the little birds en route. 
      Trying to spot them is near impossible. Most measure seven to eight inches long and weigh just a few ounces.
     “Saw-whets were once thought to be quite uncommon outside of Canada,” Cawood says. “Turns out, it was just because no one was really looking.”
      At dark, volunteers set fine-meshed mist nets to catch birds and bats safely. Audio recordings of mating calls lure the owls in. The nets are checked hourly. If a catch is discovered, the owl is removed and its sex, weight, age and other health measurements recorded. Then the bird is banded and released, in hopes it will be recaptured some day.
      All this catch and release helps establish baseline data for the owl’s migration patterns. “It also tells us how certain human impacts, climate change, and other factors can change animal behavior,” Cawood says. The greatest threat to the saw-whet owl is the destruction of mature forests.
      So keep your ears peeled for this tiny October visitors’ series of whistled toots (listen at
sounds), and wish them many happy returns.