Sadly, I've never seen a saw whet owl. But I'd love to. Apparently, the folks at the Willistown Conservation Trust are seeing lots of them. Or, at least more than usual.
They just sent a press release about the success of their banding efforts this year, and it's so cool I'll simply copy it below.
For more information about the Northern saw whet owl, this Cornell Lab of Ornithology site has information and a recording of the owl.
Here's the info from Willistown:
On a cold autumn night last week, bird banders at The Willistown Conservation Trust (WCT) set a Chester County record by capturing and banding 15 Northern saw-whet owls. These rare but regular winter visitors usually pass unnoticed through the meadows and woodlands of Pennsylvania. However, thanks to WCT's new banding station in their Rushton Woods Preserve, just 15 miles southwest of Center City Philadelphia, visitors are getting an up-close glimpse of these reclusive birds. In the last few weeks alone, the Rushton Banding Station has captured 89 owls, a record for the Delaware Valley.
The tiny Northern saw-whet owl (no bigger than a can of soda) is exclusive to North America. In certain years when the northern conifer seed crop declines, the population of Microta (mice-like species) also decreases. In turn, owls that feed on microta wander south in search of food, creating an event scientists call an "irruption year." The winter of 2010 is an irruption year not only for Northern saw-whets, but for other birds like the Black-capped chickadee and Purple finch that arrive at our feeders and in our woods as conditions worsen in the north.
"We're experiencing something special," says federally licensed bander Doris McGovern. "An irruption year presents an amazing opportunity for bird research".
"Once we band these owls and record their vital statistics, we can track their movements and health status as they disperse," notes Lisa Kiziuk, fellow bird-bander and Assistant Director of Stewardship at WCT.
In the past two weeks, Lisa, Doris and a handful of dedicated volunteers have been working tirelessly to catch, record, band and release Northern saw-whet owls into the Rushton Woods Preserve – to the wonder and delight of all who have ventured into the cold autumn night hoping to hold one of these tiny visitors.
Banding sessions are typically conducted during periods of migration in the fall and spring. Special "mist" nets, used to gently capture birds, are erected several mornings each week as weather permits. Amongst the record number of Northern saw-whets at the banding station last week, there was a special visitor - a "foreign recovery"- or bird already sporting a band. This owl was first caught at Massachusetts Audubon's Drumlin Farm, a wildlife sanctuary and organic farm located just west of Boston. That he found his way to another organic farm and preserve - in Willistown, PA, - was a notable phenomenon.
Rushton Woods is in an ideal location for bird research. Its large tracts of protected woodland, open meadows and stream habitat, combined with the sustainably managed crop fields of Rushton Community Farm, attracts a wide variety of birds, including predatory species like owls. Great horned owls eat Long-eared owls, that eat Screech owls, that eat Northern saw-whet owls. In truth, it's an owl-eat-owl world out there!
About the Rushton Woods Preserve Bird Banding Station: The Rushton Woods Bird Banding Station is the only one of its kind in the 5-County Philadelphia region. The Trust established this station at Rushton Woods Preserve in the spring of 2010, and in that short time over 60 species of bird have been tagged. The station's goals are to contribute to global bird conservation, demonstrate the benefits of preserving undeveloped land, and provide a open classroom for the entire region.