Traditionally I always stop writing weekly articles once songbird migration ends. The simple reason for this is that without songbird migration I have very little writing fodder – I can only write so much about the owl monitoring program. Although I find owl banding enjoyable it is rather predictable; except on very rare occasions all I catch is northern saw-whet owls, the only thing that varies is how many I catch. This week unfortunately falls on the ‘not many’ side of things for banding.
I blame the moon for the lag in owl captures. Over the course of the week the moon has been waxing its way to full. Small owl species don’t tend to be as active during full moon nights as they are during the new moon when it is darker. This is because the small owls, once they reach adulthood, have one main predator – other, larger owls. To truly understand what the moon has to do with having other owl species as a predator, I will first explain a little bit about a nocturnal owl’s hunting strategy.
Most owl species hunt entirely by sound. They listen for the sounds of prey rustling around in the leaf litter or under the snow. Their hearing is so accurate that they can pinpoint their prey and swoop down to grab it. Owls dive (and fly) perfectly silently so that the prey can’t hear them coming. That isn’t the only reason, it is also so that they can continue to listen to the prey and make adjustments to their attack as the prey continues to move around – they wouldn’t be able to do this if the sound of their own flapping wings filled their ears. They do have phenomenal night vision, but they use their sight more for avoiding trees and navigating through the forest than for watching prey.
The one situation where an owl needs to use its vision to find and hunt prey is if it hunting another owl. The owl’s silent flight not only keeps it hidden from what it is hunting, it also prevents anything else from hunting it by sound. Clever saw-whet owls know that great-horned owls and barred owls won’t hesitate to snap them up if they see them, so on bright nights they hang-out deep in the forest where it is darker and in areas where the trees and branches are too thick for the large owls to fly though.
On a final note, family owl night on Oct. 4 was an incredible success. We had around 80 people come out and everyone I talked to seemed to enjoy the presentation, crafts, games, and hikes. Owl bingo seemed especially popular, as was the campfire with marshmallows and hot chocolate. According to Terry Kristoff who was supervising the fire he got many compliments that ‘it was the best hot chocolate ever!’ No doubt the highlight, though, was that this year I actually caught an owl and almost everyone got to see it get banded and released. After such a great turn-out we plan to try and offer at least two maybe three family owl nights next year.