Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Barred Owl in Dearborn

[2017 update at bottom of post]

I get a fair number of calls to help rescue birds from various situations, often inside buildings. Usually they are very common species (European Starlings, in particular, seem to have a knack for falling down chimneys). Often there isn't much I can do but offer advice, which is often sufficient to solve the problem.

Late yesterday afternoon I got a message from Jim Barber at the First Presbyterian Church of Dearborn, directly across the Rouge River from campus. They had a large owl (he thought Great Horned) trapped in the basement boiler room of the church. He was at wits end -- the bird had been there for at least several days and nobody he called was taking any action. The notion of a Great Horned Owl getting down a ventilation shaft seemed pretty unlikely to me, and he told me the room was around 20 by 20 feet with high ceilings. This seemed like a difficult situation, but my curiosity, the plight of the bird, and Jim's frustration compelled me to immediately head up to the church and figure out how I could help.

Within 15 minutes I was looking in the boiler room. Not only was it big, it was cluttered with all sorts of equipment and supplies. This was the part of the room I saw when I walked in:

To the right was the large boiler, and the ceiling went up another 10 feet, criss-crossed with pipes and supports. A large owl did indeed take off from a ceiling beam and fly over to a pipe above the boiler. To my great astonishment it was not a Great Horned Owl (or a Cooper's Hawk, which I sort of expected), but a Barred Owl (Strix varia), a species with only a single record from Dearborn, in 1976 (see history, below).

I decided there were two possibilities for catching the owl. One, with a long-handled net, although with so many obstacles I thought this might result in a lot of chasing around, which would stress the bird. The other was to use a bal-chatri trap, a common way of catching raptors. Bal-chatris are wire traps topped with small nooses made of fishing line. A mouse is placed in the trap, and when the raptor pounces on the trap it gets its talons caught in the nooses. The mouse isn't harmed, and the bird can be quickly released from the nooses. I figured the owl would be very hungry after three days, and this should work pretty well.

After outlining my plan, I called my husband Darrin O'Brien to have him bring a bal-chatri from home as well as a net for back up. I also called my good friend Jim Fowler. Jim has a great deal of experience handling raptors, and also spent 30 years at Greenfield Village as the head of the grounds department, rescuing plenty of birds from buildings. He would bring a long-handled net and a second bal-chatri. I went up to the RRBO banding lab on campus to fetch my banding gear.

When we all reconvened at the church, a member of the Michigan Humane Society wildlife department had shown up. He and the church employees had ambushed the owl and had it wrapped in a shirt, saving us a great deal of trouble. We took the owl from him, and after one loud screech, it settled down and stared up at Jim, who held it while we checked the bird's condition and I measured the wing.

Considering its ordeal, the owl was in great shape. It had some fat, and had no injuries or even broken feathers. Jim Barber and his co-worker Jamie told us there were certainly mice in the boiler room (and they also put out water for the owl), so we can only assume it probably ate while holed up.

Darrin took the bird so we could band it.

I let Jim Fowler do the honors. While it looks like Jim's nose might be in danger here, it's really the talons you have to worry about. Sure enough, it did grab Jim's thumb at one point, drawing blood.

Outside the breeding season, Barred Owls cannot be sexed, so we don't know if the owl is a male or female. But looking at the color, shape, and wear of the wing and tail feathers can help determine age.

All the wing feathers and their coverts (the row of feathers covering the bases of wing feathers) are quite uniform in color and wear, which indicates that this is a hatching-year (HY) bird. The outer six wing feathers (primaries) are slightly more worn that the inner four, but that might be due to flying around a room full of close objects and brushing against them. Further, at no age would we really expect all the inner primaries to be replaced and the outer primaries retained. The shape of the primary coverts is rounded, with the pale areas more round than block-shaped, also an indication of HY.

In the photo above, we can count the number of pale bars on primary number 9, the second feather from the outside. Five bars are visible, not counting the pale tip. In the first set of wing feathers on a Barred Owl, p9 will have 4 to 5 bars; there will be only 3 to 4 bars on it after it is molted. This feather might be molted in the owl's second fall, or not until the third fall. This owl was not actively molting any wing or tail feathers. If it was older than HY, it should have been molting some feathers, or there should have been some new wing feathers that looked different -- less worn with narrower bars spaced further apart.

The photo above not only proves I was actually present at this event, but also shows the pointed, whitish tips of the tail feathers. These are the first tail feathers, which will probably not be replaced until the bird's third fall molt, after which they will have darker, blunter tips and narrower bars. All of this leads to my conclusion that this is an HY bird. By October 10, we would expect that any flight feather molt would be nearly or fully complete, so if it were an older bird, we would see the contrast in old and new feathers discussed above. It's always tricky determining the age of a bird with which you have no experience, so I'm happy to take any corroboration or contradiction in the comments!

We walked to the edge of the parking lot to release the owl. It took flight and landed in a tree, shook itself, gave us one last look, and took off toward the Rouge River and UM-Dearborn campus. 

Barred Owls in Wayne County

According to historical accounts, Barred Owls nested in Wayne County until about 1910, after which they were apparently extirpated, being hunted and pushed out by agricultural and urban development. The next record I found was a report from the UM-Dearborn campus on 12 May 1971. I was unable to confirm the veracity of this record, but it was by a reliable observer. The only reliable report I have had from Dearborn is a bird seen on 7 April 1976 by Gary Hutman on land that is now the TPC Golf Course. Over a decade passed before a report came from Grosse Ile on 27 December 1987. In 1994, one was seen at Lake Erie Metropark by my husband Darrin on 17 September.

In recent years, Wayne County reports have become more frequent. Daryl Asprey found one at Crosswinds Marsh (phase 1) on 6 December 2003. When RRBO was coordinating the breeding bird atlas work for the county, one or two were reported calling in a wooded area in Canton Township from 2004-2006; we were never able to confirm nesting. Several years ago, a pair took up residence at Oakwoods Metropark, first heard calling by Daryl Asprey on 23 February 2007. Feel free to add any further records in the comments.

Thanks to everybody who participated in this rescue. Good luck to the owl, and to the guys who I understand will be on the roof of the church today, closing off a certain ventilation shaft...

Update: I had a report of a Barred Owl being heard at the far north end of campus on 23 April 2017.   

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Fall banding 2011: Weeks 6 and 7

The month of September drew to a close on a windy, rainy note -- the 9th full day of banding missed this month due to weather. Notable mid-way through the season is the near total absence of sparrow migration, with only two White-throated Sparrows banded so far, and no noticeable movement of Swamp, Song, or Lincoln's Sparrows.

Thrush migration has also been dismal. Gray-cheeked Thrushes are never numerous, and Hermit Thrushes have yet to arrive, but Swainson's Thrushes (left) are one of our bread-and-butter birds. Our average for Swainson's Thrush is 70, and a number of years we have topped 150. Our lowest year we caught 24, and we are tied for that number right now. It sounds like other banding stations are also below average. South of us, Black Swamp Bird Observatory was at 131 Swainson's Thrushes as of mid-month, and their mean is 480. If you have any thoughts or observations on thrush migration in the eastern U.S., please feel free to leave a comment! Looks like we'll have to put in at least one more year to increase our sample sizes for our dietary study.

Speaking of which, many trees and shrubs are still laden with late-ripening fruit. I don't ever recall having any substantial crops of arrowood (Viburnum dentatum) or elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) into September, yet these trees have had fruit most of the month, some still coming ripe. The Amur honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii) crop, a non-native, is still only about half-ripe. On the final day of September, I found multiple plants of this species, as well as gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa), woodbine (Parthenocissus inserta), and Japanese honeysuckle (L. japonica) still blooming! This year we have large crops of wild grapes (Vitis spp.), poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), and non-native climbing nightshade (Solanum dulcamara). Does anybody else think fruit crops are a little tardy this year?

Good numbers of warblers, relatively speaking, are still moving through, although we have yet to see Yellow-rumped Warblers in any numbers. This past week we exceeded our high number of Nashville Warblers (above), with 60 banded so far (our fall mean is 28). Two more uncommon species were also banded this period.

 This Connecticut Warbler was banded on 27 September...

...and so was this female Blue-winged Warbler. The Blue-winged is actually much rarer here in fall than the Connecticut. This is only the fourth Blue-winged Warbler we've banded in fall, whereas we've banded over two dozen Connecticut Warblers.

A reader asked for an update on the condition of American Robins, since I mentioned in our week 1 summary that the young robins we were catching were quite emaciated. For the month of August, the average weight of young robins was a full 5 grams below the average for previous Augusts. For August and September combined, it was about 1 gram below average. However, our sample size for this fall is very low. The ratio of young robins to adults is very out of whack. Normally for August-September, 75% of the robins we band are young. This year, it's only 36%. This is really surprising, since productivity (as judged by the multitude of young robins we saw this summer) seemed very high. What happened to them? Was there high mortality among other underweight robins? Unfortunately, we will probably never know.

Let's hope October brings us better weather, and more robins, catbirds, and thrushes!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Geolocators on catbirds

Geolocators are tiny devices that measure light levels for up to two years. This data can be used to calculate latitude and longitude when compared with sunrise and sunset times and light levels at noon in different geographic locations. They are accurate to about 200 km for latitude, with better resolution for longitude.

When mounted on a bird, a geolocator records light intensity data at intervals throughout each day. Retrieved later, the data can be downloaded and migration routes, pace, and destination can be determined. For species with broad breeding and wintering ranges, this can provide important information on exactly where particular breeding populations spend the winter. Given that we have long-term Breeding Bird Survey data indicating that populations of some species are declining in particular regions of North America, figuring out where these birds spend most of the year helps us identify what may be causing their declines, and helps us devise more effective conservation measures.

This fall, RRBO is placing geolocators on a sample of summer resident Gray Catbirds. This project is a joint effort between RRBO and Dr. Melissa Bowlin, who joined the UM-Dearborn faculty late last year and who is a research partner of the Environmental Interpretive Center. Dr. Bowlin's interest is in how physical traits of birds influence their migratory performance. In our catbird study, she will be looking at how the wing shape of individual birds impacts the pace of their migration. The geolocator data will allow us to determine the time it takes for each of the birds to reach their wintering destination, and hopefully where the birds stop each day, so we can calculate the rate of migration for each bird.

RRBO is interested in the approximate route followed by catbirds breeding in this area, as well as where they spend the winter. Previous data from other researchers have indicated that Midwestern catbirds winter in Central America, whereas catbirds Mid-Atlantic nesting catbirds winter in the southern U.S. and the West Indies. This information is based on small sample sizes: recoveries of 17 banded birds and 6 birds with geolocators. Our data will add to this knowledge. 

The geolocators are tiny, and are carefully fitted on the birds with a flexible harness that loops around the bird's legs. The total weight of the geolocator plus the harness is less than a gram, or about 2.5% of the weight of an average catbird. The recommendation for any kind of radio transmitter or attachment to a bird is 4% or less. The geolocator rests just above the bird's rump. Dr. Bowlin has done careful studies, published in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution, determining the effect of drag and weight of various types and configurations of geolocators, using preserved bird bodies in a wind tunnel. The set-up we are using is the best available configuration to minimize these effects.

A geolocator, attached with a leg harness, above the rump of a
catbird at RRBO. The little wand pointed toward the tail is
the part with the light sensor.

When the feathers are smoothed out, only the light wand
sticks out.
Catbirds were chosen for this pilot project because it is not only our most frequently banded long-distance migrant, but also because we recapture a lot of individuals in subsequent years. This is critical because in order to get the data, we have to recapture the bird next year, remove the geolocator, and download the information! Geolocators are typically put on nesting birds, because they have the highest probability of returning to the same site in subsequent years. RRBO banding data has indicated that both adult and young birds (hatching year) captured in early autumn, after hatching year birds have become independent, also have a high return rate. This study will also help us determine if deploying geolocators on hatching year or post-breeding birds is viable. If so, it could help expand the use of these devices by migration banding stations that do not operate during the breeding season. Since we are putting geolocators on both adult and young of the same species from the same population, we hope to also see if age is a factor in the choice of migration route or wintering site.
Because the geolocators are hard to see in the field (the arrow
is pointing to the wand on this one), catbirds are also getting
a single green color band to help us relocate them next year.
(The dark "mustache" on this bird is a juice stain from a meal
of berries!)

As you can see, the potential for these little devices to unravel basic life history mysteries is huge. The pioneering study with bird and geolocators was done by Dr. Bridget Stuchbury and published in the journal Science. The study looked at Wood Thrushes and Purple Martins, and is summarized here. Geolocators are being used to study Bicknell's Thrushes, Bobolinks, Red Knots, Ruddy Turnstones, and Golden-crowned Sparrows, among other species.  Much more information on this technology, as well as the importance of what we can discover is available at the web site of the Migratory Connectivity Project.

We plan to offer donors an opportunity to sponsor these catbirds. To be included in our fall campaign, add your name to the RRBO mailing list.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Fall banding 2011: week 5

Well, things can sure change in a hurry. After probably the dullest first month in 20 years of fall banding came two of the busiest days in RRBO's history. The same stalled low pressure system that was responsible for days of rain and/or wind eased up just enough on Friday, Sep 9 to let us open our nets. Birds that had been pushed west by the weather systems in the prior days were all over the place. We caught 127 birds on Friday morning, and nearly all of them were warblers. It was raining at sunrise on Saturday, but stopped for two hours which allowed us to open nets. It was clear things were still hopping. We closed when it rained, and re-opened again. Although we were not open as long as Friday, we caught 134 birds, again mostly warblers.

Twenty were RTHU, which we released unbanded. Subtracting those and recaptures, 216 were new birds. Thanks to Darrin O'Brien and Dana Wloch, two of my most experienced banders, we worked out a system where birds were fully processed -- measured, aged, sexed, and weighed -- in less than two minutes and we were never away from the nets for more than 40 minutes.

In the fall, Bay-breasted Warblers usually don't show
much bay color on the flanks. This one has a hint.
The big story for the week has been Bay-breasted Warblers. Our fall average is just two, and our previous fall season high number is five. We have already banded 26 and seen many others. Tennessee Warblers are more numerous west of here in fall, but we've exceeded our fall average of nine with 11 so so far. These two species (along with Cape May Warbler), are generally thought of as "spruce budworm" warblers, since their populations can be tied with outbreaks of this insect on their nesting grounds.

Black-throated Green Warbler

When there are large pushes of birds due to weather systems, it's hard to attribute inflated numbers to actual increases in populations, but a few other species have more numerous than usual this season overall (not just on the two big days). Blackpoll Warblers are much more common; our fall mean is 23, and we've banded 43 so far. Our current total of ten Black-throated Green Warblers is well above our fall mean of two and high of six. We've netted and released 52 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. Since they are not marked some may be repeats, but it isn't too unusual to catch three to five in one net. However, the most we've netted in the past was 50, and we usually get them into October.

Things tapered off after those two big days and have more or less returned to normal. I hope to have a post up about one of our special projects within the next week or so.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Fall 2011: Weeks 3 and 4

As you might imagine, banding has been largely at a standstill. Week 3 was very hot, limiting banding to only a couple of hours in the morning. Week 4 so far has been -- and looks to be -- completely rained out. A low pressure system (the remnants of tropical depression Lee) has been stalled just to our east, unable to move as Hurricane/Tropical Storm Katia moves up the Atlantic. Not much we can do but wait out the weather. Here are a few birds we banded when the conditions cooperated.

American Redstarts are quite numerous this fall. Most are young birds. Some young males and females can't be told apart. Male redstarts look a lot like females for an entire year. However, a few have more boldly colored orange patches on the sides, which you can just make out in this photo.

Wilson's Warblers are also common early migrants here. The young females show barely any trace of the dark black cap of males.

Yellow-bellied Flycatchers are a personal favorite of mine. It is really hard to capture their true lemony-olive color, but this photo comes close. Notice that their heads look too big for their bodies -- this can be a good field mark, especially when combined with the color.

I did take a look at the previous RRBO data and compared it to our August data to see if my hunch that birds seemed to have nested a little later, based on molt patterns, was correct. I mentioned this in my previous post. I examined all hatching-year birds banded in August 1992-2010. About 13% of those birds had not yet started their first post-juvenile molt. For August 2011, it was 26%. So it does seem that a lot of the juvenile birds we caught in August were a week or so younger than in previous years.

We hope to be able to resume banding over the weekend.