The saw-whet owl, a small, relatively unknown owl whose behaviors are sparsely recorded, is the focus of one graduate student’s thesis.
Christine Volonte, a candidate for a Master of Science in conservation biology at Antioch University of New England, displayed her thesis on saw-whet owls on Friday, Sept. 30 at Keene State College.
Volonte started this project, called “Fall Migration of Northern Saw-Whet Owls in Southwestern New Hampshire,” in 2008 when she set out to catch and band saw-whet owls. She studied this particular species of owl because its migration habits and routes are not fully understood.
Volonte and a group of volunteers set up mist nets in four areas: Beech Hill Preserve, Horatio Colony Nature Preserve, Pigsah State Park, and in Westmoreland. Volonte said mist nets are specifically designed to capture birds; they allow birds to fly in and are then caught in a hammock of netting. She said her objectives for this study were to get measurements of the owls, identify what time of year they migrated, record sex and age ratios, and band the owls for tracking purposes.
“We played a loop of a saw-whet breeding call,” Volonte said. “We put the speaker between multiple nets to draw in birds to the banding site.” Volonte said she would go to one site per night, and the goal was to stay there for four hours each time.
Volonte described the nights, with the sounds of nature including coyotes, owls, and other animals, saying, “It’s pretty magical sometimes.”
She also said that larger, predatory barn owls would often be attracted to the looping calls and perch in nearby areas, unafraid to approach the nets.
The presentation was chock-full of numbers and statistics, with a total catch count of 434 owls over the three-year process. Volonte said her nets caught only five owls she had already banded, two of which were recaptured in the same spots.
“The bands,” Volonte said, “are issued by the U.S. Geological Survey in coordination with the Canadian government.” She said the bands have two sequences of numbers specific to a tagger, and also have contact information so taggers can share information about the birds.
“One of the problems with banding is it’s highly technical,” Volonte said. “People have to be trained, and it’s potentially harmful to the birds.”
Volonte wasn’t alone in doing this. “There were over 30 volunteers who logged over 900 hours,” Volonte said. She added that most of the volunteers came through the Ashuelot Valley Environmental Observatory (AVEO), which is a program run through the Harris Center for Conservation Education.
Tom Warren, a 25-year trustee of the Massachusetts Audubon Society and Dublin resident, went out a few nights with Volonte to volunteer.
“I went out three years ago now and ever since I have been involved,” Warren said. Warren is now a trustee at the Harris Center and works with the N.H. Audubon Society as well.
“I thought it was excellent,” Warren said of the presentation. “Christine is a very skilled and knowledgeable researcher.” Warren added that this research is in connection with the citizen science program through AVEO.
“‘Citizen science’ is a trendy way of saying volunteer research project,” Brett Thelen said, who is part of KSC’s environmental studies department as well as a director at AVEO. “Here at KSC we incorporate undergraduate students to collect data on ecological studies,” Thelen said. She added that students join through internships, capstone courses, and seminars.
Thelen said he has volunteered with Volonte, going out at nights carrying equipment and also releasing the owls after banding. She is also involved in recruiting other volunteers to help Volonte.
In the audience was Chris Scheiner, an intern with the Army Corps of Engineers based out of Springfield, V.T.
“I know a little about song birds and their migration, but not so much about saw-whets so it was interesting to see that they migrate too,” Schenier said. He said that he does some work with wildlife as well. “We do general purpose wildlife management, and thought it would be interesting to learn about these owls,” Scheiner said. “We band bats, using a similar technique to the birds.”
Volonte will continue to catch and band owls this fall, although she has yet to capture one in these first few weeks. She will use only the data from the first three years for her master’s thesis.
Kevin Bulter can be contacted at email@example.com.