Humans are looking to become more wise to the ways of owls.
In particular, one Warren County educator is tracking the Northern Saw-whet owl.
Every decent night from the end of September through mid-November, John Fedak, a Warren County School District science teacher, has been in the Allegheny National Forest near Marshburg, banding owls.
“Northern Saw-whet owls are Pennsylvania’s smallest owl and we still need to learn a lot of information from them,” Fedak said.
Warren County is a breeding ground for NSWO and on their migratory path.
“We know that they migrate in the fall and spring,” Fedak said. “We also know that they breed in McKean and Warren counties. We don’t know a lot of the simple specifics. Do they stay in the area over the winter? If not, where do they go? Where are the owls from that do winter here?”
Each band carries a unique, nine-digit number. Any banded owl that is caught again will contribute information.
Fedak said the owls are not harmed in the netting process.
“Most of the owls are very docile,” he said. “I take them out of the net, band them, measure them, look at molt, get their weight and then release them.”
“Some even like to stay around the site for a while,” he said. “They are not harmed and are given a nice new bracelet. The risk to the owls is minimal. The information they can supply is tremendous. Few birds are recaptured, so every bird banded potentially has the capability of extending knowledge.”
“One of our owls from last year was recaught this year in Lac La Perrier, Quebec, Canada,” Fedak said. “The bird was already migrating south when it was caught this far north… where did it spend the breeding season?”
On Sunday, Fedak took down information and released a NSWO that had already been banded.
First-time catches are also helpful.
“We are learning a lot of specific information on physical condition, molt, gender, etc.” he said. “We need to know this information if we want to keep the population stable.”
It’s generally quiet, solitary work, but Fedak would welcome visitors who are respectful of the process.
“I invite visitors to the site if they are quiet,” he said. “Information about the site can be found on the Allegheny Highlands Facebook page and the Project Owlnet website.”
Fedak spends the evening hours at a campfire at a site in the forest. Every half-hour or so he checks the six mist nets – a total of about 120-feet in length – for creatures.
So far this season he’s removed 68 Northern Saw-whet owls (NSWO). That’s what he’s looking for, but the nets don’t discriminate.
He has also taken a barred owl, an Eastern Towhee (a sparrow), two American toads, and four flying squirrels, out of his nets.
“We don’t want to see barred owls around the nets, because they are predators of the NSWO,” Fedak said. “We will band them if they get caught.”
He banded the towhee, too.