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It’s chilly enough to see your breath, and dark as a pocket, the only light coming from Dan Small’s headlamp as he bends over a nearly invisible net. Gently, almost lovingly, he disentangles a Northern Saw-whet owl from the fine mesh, holding the diminutive fluffball in his hand. Its enormous eyes are like twin reflecting pools, set in an intricate mosaic of tiny feathers. The result is a gaze that’s startlingly direct. “Pretty spectacular, huh,” he says. “I never get tired of them.”
This year’s banding work is winding down at Foreman’s Branch Bird Observatory, part of Washington College’s Center for Environment & Society. With the help of College students, field ecologists Small and Maren Gimpel, as well as banding director and CES senior associate Jim Gruber, have been working nearly round-the-clock during the busy fall migratory season, banding songbirds from sunup to sundown, and Northern Saw-whet owls well into the night.
It’s been a great autumn for the owls; with two weeks still to go in the season, the station has banded nearly 250. “They’re coming south in unprecedented numbers,” Small says, down from their summer homes in the boreal forest of Canada. Inside a rustic wooden building (formerly a pheasant brooder), Gimpel and Small bend over a workbench to examine and document each bird, adding bands if they have none. They note the owl’s wing length, weight, band number, how much fat it’s carrying (leaner birds probably just arrived, while plumper ones have been hanging around, fueling up), sex, and age. Uniformly dark cinnamon feathers indicate a bird hatched this year, while subtle color differences mean an older bird that has already molted some of its primary feathers. Also, when fanned under a black light, the underside of a young owl’s wing shimmers a psychedelic fuchsia. New feathers contain pigments called porphyrins that break down over time as the bird ages. The more pink feathers, the younger the bird.
The banding “is a way of studying timing of migration and movement patterns,” Gimpel says. Next to her, an iPhone’s marimba tone chortles. “Time to check for owls,” she says, and back into the lively darkness they go.