When the traditional Christmas tree for Rockefeller Center in Manhattan was cut in Oneonta last November, no one had any idea of the attention it would create. The tree itself, a Norway spruce, wasn’t much different from the others that stood in place for scores of years, it was what was hidden among its branches that caused all the fuss.
While unwrapping the tree, workers discovered a small owl in its branches. No one knows how it got there, whether it was in the tree when it was cut and wrapped for transport or, if it took shelter in the tree’s branches somewhere between Oneonta and New York city. My guess it was there when the tree was cut and wrapped for transport but, regardless of how it got there, the small Saw-whet owl who workers dubbed “Rocky” quickly became an overnight sensation.
I first became aware of New York’s smallest owl when I met Bill Lane, an environmental inspector working on the installation of a gas transmission line being built through my friend’s Tioga county property. Lane, who has a Master of Science degree in Wildlife Conservation, began to study owls in 1987. Lane is certified to trap owls and is considered a “Master Bander” by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
As was our custom, after an evening of bow hunting, I met my friend in his barn to discuss our evening hunt. It was there he told me about Lane and what he was doing in the woods below the barn. Curious, I decided to take a look. When I finally got to the bottom of the hill, Lane was already weighing and banding a small Saw-whet owl.
Lane explained that when conditions for trapping are good, he sets his nets about an hour after dark and begins checking them for ensnared owls. According to Lane, Saw-whet owls inhabit old-growth woodlands with dense conifer undergrowth and my friend’s Tioga county farm provided perfect habitat.
Lane explained that he spends his time after work trapping these small creatures in an effort to contribute to the overall knowledge of migratory bird species to which owls belong. According to Lane, Saw-whet owls migrate through New York’s Southern Tier until mid-November.
Lane informed us he traps these small creatures in an effort to contribute to the overall knowledge of migratory bird species to which Saw-whet owls belong. According to Lane, Saw-whet owls migrate through New York’s Southern Tier until mid-November.
Lane traps the owls by erecting very fine nets in natural forest funnels such as old logging roads. To lure the birds in the inky black forest, he plays a recorded mating call of a male owl. The birds respond to the call even though their mating season doesn’t begin until March.
Once caught in Lane’s net, the owls are gently removed, measured, weighed, sexed, and banded. After that is done, they are released to continue their migration.
When we first spoke to Lane, he said by the first week in November he had already caught one hundred-ninety nine Saw-whet owls. His best night was when he caught twenty-one owls. Because of the responsibilities of being an environmental inspector, Lane said he only spends only about three hours a night on his owl-banding project. He assured us the number of owls trapped would be much higher if he spent more time at it.
Lane explained to us that he submits the information he gathers to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s bird-banding laboratory in Maryland. There the information is kept in a database where it is studied and used by researchers. If someone else traps one of the owls Lane previously banded, the USFWS sends information about the bird to both Lane and the person who re-trapped it. Lane says this information then tells him where the owl went subsequent to the time he captured and banded it.
From New York city, Rocky was sent to the Ravensbeard Wildlife Center in Saugerties for evaluation. After Rocky arrived at Ravensbeard it was determined that “he” was a “she” and that the little owl was well enough to continue her migration south. After a few days of recuperation and a slight detour, she was released.