By Matt Stansberry, Illustrations by David Wilson
Our pilgrimage began on a freakishly warm day in early November. A south wind calmed the lake as David Wilson and I crossed the four-mile stretch from the Marblehead Peninsula to Kelleys Island.
The strand of archipelagic islands in Lake Erie’s Western Basin is a remnant of an ancient limestone ridge, gouged by glaciers in the last ice age, stranded in the lake by rising water levels.
The ferry pulled up to the nearly deserted town still glowing with fall color. It felt as if we’d landed in some distant foreign place.Spraying Lake Erie surf and thin alkali soil create a unique environment that supports many species not found on the mainland. Kelleys Island, the largest of the set, is covered in Eastern red cedar trees swarming with birds eating the powder-blue berries, rare rock elms, thick grape vines, swamp button bush, rare daisies, and beach fossils.
The ferry pulled up to the nearly deserted town still glowing with fall color. It felt as if we’d landed in some distant foreign place.
We walked the eerily empty streets in the too-warm winter sun. The Village Pump was the only restaurant still open, and we were the only guests at the Inn on Kelleys Island.
We had snuck in at the very last gasp of the season, before the lake would freeze and the boats stopped running. Soon the only way to get on or off the island would be by small plane. Only about 100 people stay on through the winter, and on this day it felt like less than half of them were in town.
We had come to this nearly abandoned island to catch owls.
* * *
We are attracted to animals in ways we don’t understand.
I have a large owl tattoo on my back, gouged into my skin over half a lifetime ago. I’d drawn the owl in my notebook in Spanish class with the caption, “I don’t give a hoot” scrawled underneath it.
The drawing was terrible, even in my own estimation at the time. And yet for reasons I can’t explain, I took the ballpoint pen drawing to the nearest tattoo parlor and had it transferred permanently to the middle of my back. I could not tell you why I did that, but I will go to my grave with that moronic phrase and cross-eyed doodle stamped in my skin.A few years ago, right before my second son Jonathan was born, I decided to make something to brighten up his bare nursery. I bought a huge canvas, and instead of painting a colorful scene of childish characters, I painted a clear night sky and four owls huddled together, mother and father with two little owlets. They stare out of the dark painting with eyes that seem to follow you. They look afraid, but also defiant. The subjects seemed to take form, unbidden.
The owls watch over my son’s bed. My father has nicknamed Jonathan “the barn owl” because of his big dark eyes and oversized square head.
The owl looms large in my personal mythology.
I identify with the contrarian streak of any nocturnal animal, living outside of the normative influence of the sun. But there’s something more human about these birds – the way they seem to stand upright, the round face with its human proportions.
The owl is encountered on the road to the next world. Its song or presence presages a death. The direct gaze of the owl suggests it has the will to do what needs done. You can get lost, trapped in those eyes, pupils as black as the night sky on a new moon.
* * *
The Northern saw-whet owl is one of over 200 species of owls worldwide. These owls are tiny – about six inches tall. They’re the smallest owl species in the eastern U.S.
“They’re adorable with their big eyes and soft feathers – it’s hard to think of them as a predator,” said Andy Jones, curator of ornithology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. “But they also have sharp talons and beaks. Their main prey item is mice, but they can eat songbirds. I’ve seen photos of them with surprisingly large prey.”
The owls are named after the sound they make. The term is “saw-whet” – as in the sharpening or whetting of a saw, which might sound like somebody in the distance dragging a file across the teeth of a blade.
Jones grew up in the northeast corner of Tennessee and went to college in Knoxville. “I could see the Smoky Mountains from my dorm room. If you got into the Smokies over 5,000 feet you could hear the males singing in April. I went on a lot of failed trips to high elevation to hear that bird. If it’s windy they don’t sing, and sometimes on perfect nights they still don’t sing.”
Ornithology experts assumed that Northern saw-whet owls were permanent residents in the far north and rare in the U.S. even just a few decades ago. But actually, the Northern saw-whet owl is one of the most common raptors in North America, and can be found in the winter throughout the country, down to Alabama, and even the mountainous regions of Mexico.
Yet, the owls go unnoticed. They travel at night, barely make a sound, and are damn near impossible to find during the day.
“Nobody even knew they were migratory until people noticed flocks of owls flying over the Great Lakes in the early twentieth century,” says Scott Weidensaul, a Pennsylvania author and naturalist, and a leading researcher on Northern saw-whet owls. Weidensaul is one of the organizers of Project Owlnet, a research project comprising over 120 owl banding stations across North America.
In the autumn of 1903, a fallout of “small owls” landed on a steamer boat crossing Lake Huron, and three years later, in October 1906, an early snowstorm forced huge numbers of exhausted migrants to the water, where they drowned. Among the nearly 1,900 dead birds collected by an ornithologist were 24 saw-whets, which he called “a surprise… Evidently they migrate in considerable numbers.”
In the 1960s, researchers banding songbirds at the Cedar Grove Ornithological Station in Wisconsin discovered that if they left their mist nets open at night in the fall, they could catch a few saw-whets. They were soon catching predictable numbers of the owls, even though they never saw them by day nor heard them at night.
Other banders in the Great Lakes region followed suit, and in 1986, Tom Erdman of Little Suamico Ornithological Station north of Green Bay, Wisconsin began using a tape-recording of the male saw-whet’s advertising “toot” call. The number of saw-whets he caught increased 10-fold, and the modern era of owl migration research began.
The owl sound effect system is called an “audio-lure” in birder-speak. And nobody understands why it works, but it does.
“The males sing in the spring to attract mates and claim territory, but I can’t explain why a female Northern saw-whet would care if a male were singing in November,” Jones says. “There must be another function to their calls that we just don’t know about, some reason they are compelled to investigate and they fly into nets.”
Yet, the owls go unnoticed. They travel at night, barely make a sound, and are damn near impossible to find during the day.“They’re not social owls, there’s no reason for them to come to the call this time of year,” Weidensaul says. “The catch is 75 percent females. You’d assume that’s because we’re playing a male advertisement. But even in the years before using the audio-lure, the rate was still 65 percent females. Out of the 10,000 owls we’ve caught at my three stations in Pennsylvania, maybe a half dozen have been adult males.”
The adult males seem to stay north in the breeding range through the winter, while young owls and females disperse to the south and east.
“Much of this is still speculative – we don’t know where the adult males are, but assume they remain north, as is known to be the case with their closest relative, the boreal owl,” Weidensaul said. “The suspicion is that the males (again, like boreal owls) move nomadically to find areas with large numbers of mice, then set up territories there and wait for the females to return come spring.”
It’s just a theory. Researchers are working on radio telemetry tracking to better understand what the adult males are doing during the non-breeding season. But even with over 120 banding stations and nearly half a million owls banded to date, researchers are just beginning to unravel exactly what is going on with these owls.
* * *
Over 800 acres or approximately one-third of Kelleys Island is protected in its natural state. Of this, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History stewards 196 acres, or 25 percent of the preserve land on the island.
The 28-acre Scheele Preserve on the northeast corner of the island protects a rare alvar forest habitat of hackberry, juniper, and rough-leaf dogwood trees.
We found Tom Bartlett at the entrance of the preserve, puffing on a giant cigar and cracking jokes with a small group huddled around his pavilion tent.
Bartlett is a retired biology teacher and research associate with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. He is a master bird bander, hosting a long-term owl research project for over a decade in this location.
The banding is open to the public and a half-dozen people wearing headlamps had shown up by 7 p.m. Bartlett had strung a series of mist nets that looked like very fine volleyball nets throughout the woods, strategically placed to capture curious owls attracted by the audio-lure.
The study protocol dictated that the call be played at forty decibels. The repetitive sound quickly bored its way into my skull. The call reminded me of a wheezy plastic toy my kid might squeeze to drive me nuts.
“All of the fishermen who stay at the camp nearby this time of year know about it,” Bartlett said. “They’ll stop by the banding station and say, ‘Hey Tom, that call drives me crazy. I hear it all night long, and now I’m hearing that sound in my head!’”
A timer went off to remind us to check the traps every thirty minutes and I followed Tom out into the woods to take the first look at the nets.
I glanced up to see the incredible night sky. Out on the island, far from the lights of the mainland, the whole galaxy seemed to be visible – a terrifying swirl of nebulae and stars.
I imagined it would be a much better world if more of us could look up every night and see clearly into the cold, infinite depth of space. The experience tends to override any delusions of grandeur or self-importance and reinforces the fact that we’re all trapped on this very finite, tiny ball together, and could probably be nicer to each other.
The first two trips to the nets yielded no captures.
But then on the third trip, Bartlett caught his fourteenth owl of the 2015-16 season.
We surrounded Bartlett with our collective headlamps as he disentangled the trapped little raptor. He worked the fine mesh around the talons and sharp beak without gloves. The skin on his hands looked like leather from years of gently but authoritatively gripping wild animals.
The birds often claw him and sometimes they bite. Sometimes, the cuts get infected with avian-born viruses.
“One day in 1988, after banding birds all day, I woke up with all of my joints swollen and painful,” Bartlett said. “I went to the hematologist and when he pricked my finger and put it under a microscope he said ‘Holy smokes, look at these red blood cells!’ They were all chunky and granular-looking. It wasn’t Epstein-Barr, so they didn’t pursue any treatment. But it wore me down. I was in recovery for six weeks.”
Bartlett slipped the first small owl into a cotton sack and carried our prize back to the anxious crowd at the observer tent. He carefully pulled out the small bird, firmly fixing its talons between his index and middle finger, gently pressing his thumb against the animal’s back. The bird reluctantly but calmly submitted to the banding process.
Tom closed a small numbered metal band around the bird’s leg as his wife carefully noted the number of the band, time of day, the color of the owl’s eyes, its sex, and its approximate age.
The facial disks of owls concentrate and collect sound. The owl’s face was shaped like a sideways eight, two big, liquid eyes ringed in black eyeliner, surrounded by a fringe of whitish feathers sweeping back toward a darker brown-and-gray body. The owl had long black eyelashes and a sharp dark beak hooked down from the middle of the face.
We looked on, like kids in the presence of this little owl, held close.
Bartlett has been banding owls for fourteen years. “Some of my birds have shown up in Eastern New York, Western Massachusetts. They’ve found my birds in Quebec, north of where they’re supposed to breed. There was a bird we banded here that was caught in Poughkeepsie, New York. That bird had been caught four times that season.”
A lot of the owls caught on Kelleys Island go to Southern Ohio and northern Kentucky.
As to recaptures – birds with existing bands – Bartlett has caught birds from Duluth, Stevens Point (Wisconsin), Cobalt and Long Point, Ontario, and one owl banded in Western Pennsylvania.
“Owls are magical. Everybody gets turned on by owls. What’s amazing is having these children come out to visit with Tom at the banding station, and even these adults. I don’t care how rough and tumble they are, some 45-year-old guy, he’s got an 11-year-old’s eyes when he sees one of these owls.”“I still don’t think we know much about their migration. They don’t just go north to south, but rather are very nomadic, and dependent on weather patterns,” Bartlett said.
As we finish with the first owl, the alarm rings and we head off to do another check of the nets.
We found another owl, the second of the night and fifteenth of the year.
Everyone huddled around the tiny owl to get a closer look.
“Owls are magical. Everybody gets turned on by owls,” said Pat Hayes, president of the Kelleys Island Audubon Club, as we watched Bartlett work. “What’s amazing is having these children come out to visit with Tom at the banding station, and even these adults. I don’t care how rough and tumble they are, some 45-year-old guy, he’s got an 11-year-old’s eyes when he sees one of these owls.”
Pat and Lori Hayes own The Inn on Kelleys Island and this was one of their last weeks open.
“Kelleys Island is about twice as big as South Bass, but has about a fifth of the businesses,” Lori Hayes said. “We’re the nature island. The whole region is moving toward ecotourism. We had always been nature lovers, but we became serious birders when we got here.”
Bartlett finalized the documentation, and we surrounded him as he let the owl fly silently from his hands into the sky.
It was apparent that Bartlett was having a blast. He would work the banding station until 11 p.m., and then head back out to the lake at dawn to watch the sunrise and to net migrating songbirds. He would see Mars and Venus low on the horizon, and count the loons and tens of thousands of mergansers on the lake.
* * *
Northern saw-whet owls are now the most banded owl in North America. Around 400,000 of them have been banded so far and out of those, 82,000 have been recovered.
Ornithologists have learned so much about Northern saw-whet owl migration, and a big part of the reason for that success is Maryland Department of Natural Resource’s Dave Brinker’s brainchild for Project Owlnet back in the 1990s.
“We’re all working out of the same playbook, using the same protocols and sharing information,” Weidensaul said. “This is not how science is typically done – the turf issues, researchers jealous of data, siloed projects. Owlnet is almost completely the opposite. We’ve got a mix of academic researchers, federal agency personnel, non-profits, and even people working out of their backyards.”
I asked Weidensaul what the strangest thing he’d ever caught in an owl mist net.
“Once we’d caught a four-foot black morph timber rattler,” said he said. “The snake had eaten something and couldn’t get through the mesh with the lump in its stomach. I’d just given my annual ‘thou shalt not cut the net’ speech!”
“They’re just so secretive and so easily overlooked. It’s amazing how well they can hide.”With over two decades of research, the fundamental discovery of Project Owlnet is how unbelievably common these birds are.
“Pretty much anywhere south of the Arctic tree line, when you put up mist nets and put out an audio-lure, you’ll catch saw-whets,” Weidensaul said. “Prior to Project Owlnet there were almost no records of Northern saw-whet owls in Alabama. After years of trying to convince a friend to try for saw-whets, I was visiting him in Alabama, and the night after I left he caught his first owl. Some local birders, in all seriousness, thought I’d brought it down in my luggage.”
These birds are everywhere, literally hiding under our noses.
“They’re just so secretive and so easily overlooked,” Weidensaul said. “It’s amazing how well they can hide. I can’t tell you how many times I would follow a radio signal of a bird we’d tagged to a thicket, circle, peer and pry and finally flush the owl.”
Scott Weidensaul is one of my heroes, one of the best nature writers, and a Pulitzer finalist for his 1999 book Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds. He seemed to spend a huge amount of time and energy researching Northern saw-whet owls, and I wanted to know how he got interested in these birds.
“Do you want the answer that sounds good, or the real answer?” he asked.
Can I have both?
“Well … I started with this owl thing to impress a woman.”
Any man who can impress women with owls is a badass. This is why I love this job.
“I was dating a woman who had a young daughter who was really into birds. I knew about a colleague who’d started netting Northern saw-whet owls as a pilot project. I took the girlfriend and her daughter to see the owls.
“Six months later we’d broken up, but the reason I’ve stuck with it for so long is that they’re really fascinating birds,” Weidensaul said. “We knew relatively little about them. Nobody was studying migration until the 1960s. They were considered rare because nobody ever saw them. They are an engaging bird, mysterious and enigmatic.”
Matt Stansberry was born in Akron, Ohio. He is a dad, nature writer, and fly fisherman. Find him on Twitter @LakeErieFlyFish. More of David Wilson’s illustration work can be found at dwillustration.com.
Matt and David’s monthly column, “North Coast Biodiversity,” is collected here. Order copies of the first edition of Redhorse — a print collection of the first six “North Coast Biodiversity” columns — here, and signed prints of David Wilson’s original art for the column here.
Find out more about the journey to Kelleys Island in search of the Northern saw-whet owl, along with information about Matt & David’s publications/additional projects on the newly launched Redhorse site: http://redhorsemag.com.