Netting the Saw-whet

A dedicated group of locals sets out to count the cute little owls in an effort to track their migration patterns

It doesn’t get much cuter: The little Northern Saw-whet owl.

It doesn’t get much cuter: The little Northern Saw-whet owl.

photo courtesy of Dawn Garcia

I was hooked from the get-go by the photo I’d seen of an incredibly adorable Northern Saw-whet owl cupped in a man’s hand. The tiny bird’s big owly eyes peering from its fluffed-up, feathery head, and its small feet curling inward as they dangled from between the man’s fingers were just extra touches of cuteness on an already cuter-than-cute critter that may actually be cuter than any animal I have ever seen. The only thing that compares is the spiky baby porcupine my 9-year-old daughter and I got to see up close this past summer at the High Desert Museum in Bend, Ore.

So imagine the disappointment I felt when, on a recent trip up to the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve (BCCER) with local bird-banders Mike Fisher, Raina King and Michelle Ocken to do their nightly observation of the Saw-whets’ fall migration pattern through the Sierra foothills, we netted not a one.

My hopes had been fairly high. On the approximately 10-mile drive from Chico up Highway 32 to BCCER that Thursday evening, all four of us packed into Fisher’s pick-up truck, he announced that just two nights before, they had caught eight Saw-whets in their “mist-nets”—delicate-looking, but very strong, nets stretched across poles, designed to catch the owls for banding without harming them.

The previous two years, Fisher offered, the owl-catch was “very flat.” He added that the number of Saw-whet nettings at BCCER had declined since 2005, when the birds’ habits first began to be studied there by pioneering local avian-ecologist Dawn Garcia. Her work in Northern California contributes to Project Owlnet, which documents the bigger, North American picture of the migratory habits of the secretive Saw-whets; most Saw-whet observation stations are on the East Coast of the United States.

Garcia would have been with us on this trip except that she was still on Metinic Island, off the coast of Maine, finishing up a different work assignment studying the migration ecology of various songbirds.

The eight owls, caught and banded at the beginning of the roughly one-month-long observation season from mid-October to mid-November, were an encouragement. It was their third largest catch in one night since the project began.

Mike Fisher holding a very miffed Pallid bat after removing it from a mist-net.

Photo By Christine G.K. LaPado

At dusk, we pulled into the dirt parking area of one of BCCER’s two active owl-monitoring sites, a wooded spot dubbed “Owl2.” We were joined there by King’s father Steve (a “tag-along bander,” as he called himself), BCCER Director Jeff Mott and Steve King’s brother Stuart, the reserve’s on-site caretaker.

No sooner had we exited the truck than we heard a hooting sound high above in the darkening forest. “A Pygmy owl,” said Raina King, pointing in the direction of the sound.

The Pygmy owl, I had learned on the ride up, was one of several owls the banders have spotted at BCCER. Western Screech owls and Great Horned owls are others.

We walked down a trail and set up two 12-meter-long and two 18-meter mist-nets into a configuration resembling the letter “I,” and turned on a boom box that broadcast the “lure” recording of a male Saw-whet’s “toot” (other Saw-whet sounds are a “chirp” and a “wail”).

Every half-hour over the next four hours, we trotted down the trail, lit by headlamps, to check the nets. In between net-checks, chit-chat topics ranged from Garcia’s pre-Chico Saw-whet banding experiences in the state of Washington, to the lurking fox that “messed up” the chances of netting any Saw-whets one night the previous week. We also discussed what the banders typically record about netted owls in their “mist-netting journal”—such things as time caught, temperature, age (determined by “molt,” or appearance/age of feathers), sex and tail length. Someone had even brought along a telescope—I got to see the craters of the moon, and three of the moons of Jupiter that night.

Long story short: Though we didn’t get a Saw-whet owl, despite hearing several of them calling from the trees all night long (“Sometimes they hover around and tease us,” Ocken said), we did net one very angry little Pallid bat. Fisher, who has had his rabies shot, was the one to remove it from the net and let it go shortly after it tried to bite a hole in one of his bulky gloves.

Bird-bander Mike Fisher setting up mist-net at Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve.

Photo By Christine G.K. LaPado

“Anyone who goes out and sees one of these owls is pretty much hooked because of their extreme cute-factor,” offered Garcia recently, after returning to Chico from New England. (King had told me she became a bander after coming out to a Saw-whet owl-netting one year “just to check it out,” and “Then, I thought, ‘Hey, this is cool! You kind of get sucked in.’”)

“We’re up to 30 owls so far and we’re only halfway through the season,” Garcia said excitedly, debunking any thoughts that the Saw-whet population might actually be declining. So far, owls have been netted at BCCER on every night since the fox scare, both before and after my visit. (Were those owls teasing me that night?)

Garcia said it seems that the Saw-whets flying through Northern California are subject to the same “boom-bust” cycle as East Coast Saw-whets, which have been studied longer—their numbers fluctuate cyclically depending upon availability of Peromyscus mice, their prey.

“It is a treat to find out that they are somewhat common and not on the brink of decline,” she added. “It looks like the Saw-whet still has a healthy population.”

“This is really novel research for this area,” Garcia acknowledged, when pressed, of her ground-breaking Saw-whet project. “Field guides said the birds were here, but there had been no data on their migration ecology.”

She is working on rounding up enough funding to extend her project for four more years, making it a 10-year study. “I think that will give us a pretty decent picture of what this population of owls looks like,” she said.

Garcia also insisted I give the elusive little Saw-whets another chance and go out to the reserve one more time with her and her fellow banders.

“Ninety-five percent of the time, if we hear ’em, we’re gonna catch ’em,” she said, adding: “You can’t do all this work for this story and not see a single owl!”

With any luck, my next visit—after this story publishes—will give me a close-up look at one of the cutest little owls I’ve ever seen.