Every autumn, a massive migration goes largely unseen. It follows the river corridors and through the adjacent riparian habitats. Hundreds of birds pass by my home during the ever darkening nights. Waves of Northern Saw-whet Owls head southward as the lean times of winter near. One of the rivers that they utilize is the Bitterroot River that passes by my window as I type this posting and along the Maclay Flat National Recreation Area as well. This past Saturday, as the quarter moon arced over the Missoula Valley, the Five Valleys Audubon Society and the Owl Research Institute hosted a gathering of folks who were interested in seeing this small elf of the owl world.
Not all of the Northern Saw-whet Owls migrate, but many do undertake the task. A considerable segment of the migratory population are young birds. This makes sense as they are still seeking territories and are somewhat transitory and more apt towards migration. This scenario is seen in many other owl species and other raptors as well.
It suddenly occurs to me, what the heck is a saw-whet anyway? According to Merriam-Webster, the name saw-whet comes from the resemblance of the owl’s call to the sharpening of a saw using a file. The first known use of this name occurred in 1834. Seems to be plausible to me.
The Owl Research Institute is run by Denver Holt, who is a more than capable researcher and public speaker. He and his field team discussed the biological particulars of the Northern Saw-whet Owl and its migration, and fielded a barrage of eager questions from the crowd of around ~50 folks, which is a tremendous turn-out for an event on Party Night. Once the evening is free of the Sun’s last twilight gasps, the field team headed out to check the mist nets, and ten minutes they returned with…well, empty-handed. We waited for an additional half an hour, and this time they returned with a small, big-eyed owl.
The little owl was measured and weighed in at a hefty 99 grams (nearly a quarter-pounder). It also was relieved of 4 undertail coverts, which have material that will be DNA sequenced and analyzed. A small aluminum band with an unique identification number was attached to its left leg. If the owl is ever recaptured, then researchers will know from where it was first banded and any subsequent captures as well. Denver related a story where one of their Northern Saw-whet Owls was actually recaptured in Chico, California, a journey of some 600 miles over several mountain ranges. The audience was allowed to take images of this more than cooperative owl…he was ready for his close-up.
After all the pokes, prods, and flashes, the star of the show was release into night. I watched as it flew into the dim silhouettes of the ponderosa pines, and I imagine it continued on down the Bitterroot River towards its final destination.