Thursday, November 29, 2012

Flying for OWLS! In search of Gizmo, Belle and Cupcake

As a biologist you get to meet some cool people and do some cool stuff!  I met pilot Bruce King at an Altacal Audubon Society meeting. Knowing I was installing radio transmitters on wintering saw-whet owls with grad student Julie Shaw, he offered to take us up in the air if the owls flew our of the study area- the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve (BCCER).  Bruce is a pilot, farmer and photographer, taking pics of our beautiful region.  See his website: BruceKingPhotography for some amazing photos. 

Bruce King and his tail-dragger plane-seats 2!
Julie and I installed 3 transmitters on Saw-whets we named Gizmo, Belle and Cupcake. They stayed on the Reserve for only a few days each and we lost their signal.

Here's Belle before release, note her radio antenna
emerging from her backpack (under feathers)

Call in the Owl Detection Support Team: Bruce, we need to fly! I was the lucky passenger. Bruce's plane is a Super Cub model, light in weight for lift and maneuverability it provided a rather cozy ride!

Pilots seat and controls-I'm right behind this seat!

Ready to fly-sitting in the back seat with all my gear
including a receiver  to detect  owls.
We started at the Ranchaero Airport in Chico and flew just south of downtown then up highway 32 to where we released the owls at the BCCER. You can see it was a lovely view with the fall colors in peak and clear skies toward Lassen.
Flying up the Big Chico Creek Canyon 

We flew right over the Reserve. You can see the barn, maintenance facilities and ranch house.  The barn is where we install the transmitters and our OWL3 banding station is just west (left) of the meadow in the mixed forest.

Having no signal we headed north along the foothills to Red Bluff. I recreated the flight path here, although it is not completely accurate, we covered about 150 miles, flying south along the Sacramento River.  We passed over many of the wildlife refuges which looked so beautiful in fall color.

Bruce showed me several eagle nests including one with a bald eagle sitting in it, I suppose a good winter roosting site.  We flew over the Butte Sink and saw many large flocks of white-fronted geese, tundra swans, sandhill cranes, smaller flocks of snow geese and many groupings of decoys staged by hunters. And although we never detected an owl it was well worth this exciting adventure. Thanks Bruce for your expertise and generous donation!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

"Making and Keeping Memories - Ending Alzheimer's" Silent Auction Winners Meet the Owls!

Our crew met with the silent auction winners for an owl night out, at the "Making and Keeping Memories" Alzheimer's Association Fundraiser hosted by Becky, April and the Book Family Farm in June 2012.  This was a successful and tasty event, with wine and beer/food pairings and music by the Railflowers.

Friday's guests were an interesting group of 6 well-traveled and adventurous ladies (2 having just zip-lined over the forests of Costa Rica!) and they fared well during the coldest night of the banding season so far  -  38*F.  Fortunately we were able to treat our guests with a heater and hot drinks. At sunset we heard a N. Pygmy Owl trilling. In the early night we heard Sandhill Cranes and later Tundra Swans overhead.

Ladies from the Alzheimer's Fundraiser with me and a Saw-whet Owl
Although the night seemed perfect, a cold night following a storm with no moon, the first 3 net runs were empty, other than a rain beetle that we released from the nets. Then came the owls, 4 in total, including this photogenic After Second Year (ASY) male. Our 4th owl broke the season total at 100 owls! We think our guests definitely made, and will keep, the fun memory of meeting the saw-whet owls. Us too! 
ASY Male - photo by Steve King

Monday, November 5, 2012


We are having a fabulous season for owls!  Last year at this time we were at 77 owls at this date and we are currently at 84. Click here to see 2011/2012 comparisons. Our hatch year to adult ratio is higher this year, indicating a decent reproductive rate in the 2012 season. Here are the latest stats:
10/27 7 NSWO, 2HY/5AHY
10/29 1 NSWO, AHY
11/1   6 NSWO, 2 HY, 4 AHY
11/2   8 NSWO 4 HY, 4 AHY
11/3 10 NSWO 5 HY, 5 AHY

A first year male NSWO. Like other raptors, males
are smaller than females. Photo by Steve King


Our project is pretty well known in the community after 8 years, and we encourage and make room every season to have people attend field trips and other events to come see the adorable saw-whet.  Scheduling can be tricky with training new volunteers our owl protocol, inclement weather cancellations and banding only 5 nights/week for 5 weeks! This season alone we've great nights with the following groups and events plus several other guests not included in the following:
Donations Events
Candles in the Canyon winners
Snow Goose Festival winners
Alzheimer's Fundraiser
Field Trips
Sacramento Audubon
BCCER (2 groups)

The amazement on people's faces is obvious when a saw-whet is extracted gently from the nets or a bag for processing. The saw-whets make good candidates for showing the public due to their mostly mellow nature and tolerance for handling. Often they seem as curious about us as we are them. Check out some of our happy guests!

Sacramento Audubon Group
Guest of
Candles in the Canyon winner

BCCER outing - the owls can be calmed
when gently stroking their forehead
BCCER outing happy guest!
Lucky Owloween Group - Altacal Audubon Society and volunteers 
Early to bed Owloween boys, still got to see
an owl - and adopted her through our Adopt-an-Owl program!

TRACKING GIZMO!" - adventures of raffle winner

On our "Owloween" field trip we had our guests select 4 tickets for our raffle fundraiser winners. The prizes were a choice between a nighttime banding adventure or a daytime tracking excursion.  Winner Rachel Libby  (congratulations Rachel!) chose to trek the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve with MS student Julie Shaw. Together they waded across Big Chico Creek (barefoot!) and climbed steep slopes while scrambling through the brush in search of "GIZMO," our first radioed owl of the season. Julie and I installed a transmitter on Gizmo, a two-year old female, on November 1, 2012. By the next day she had flown across the creek and for days was tucked away in places impossible to get a visual on her.

"Gizmo", tracked to her daytime roost, a Toyon. Photo by Julie Shaw
On Nov 5, Gizmo was found across the creek from green gate, looking great, with her radio and harness in place. You can see her radio antennae in this picture. Click here to see her travel map. Nice work tracking the elusive Saw-whet owl Julie and Rachel!