Pittsburgh Project Owlnet

Project Owlnet – Scientists and Citizen Scientists Tracking the International Travels of the Northern Saw-whet Owl 



As usual, the public is invited to observe the owl banding process (DISCLAIMER:  We can make no guarantees you will see us band an owl when you visit, but we can assure you, you won't see it if you don't!).  However, fall 2018 is predicted to be a good flight year for Saw-whets in the East! 

We plan to attempt owl banding three nights a week (Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday) weather permitting, from October 9th through December 4th.  The banding "station" is set up at the picnic tables next to the main parking lot for Sewickley Heights Borough Park, which is at the terminus of Hallaway Road (off fern Hollow Rd.).  We always arrive to set up the nets about an hour before dark, and we check for owls continually from dark until midnight.  The nets themselves are located along Pine Tree Trail about a quarter of a mile from the parking lot.  There are no facilities at the park, but there is a very convenient convenience store located just a few miles away at the Mt. Nebo exit off I-79!  

Summary of the Spring 2018 Season

2018 marks our sixth consecutive year of banding for Northern Saw-whet Owls at Sewickley Heights Borough Park near the city of Pittsburgh. This past spring, we operated the station on 15 nights between February 27 and April 3 (5-6 mist nets erected from sunset until midnight), and we caught and banded three Northern Saw-whet Owls (two on February 27, and one on March 6), bringing our total number of owls banded since we started the project in fall 2013 to 79; in addition, we have recaptured 14 owls through spring 2018:



More About Pittsburgh Project Owlnet 

In fall 2013, with help from Fern Hollow Nature Center and Sewickley Heights Borough Park naturalist, April Claus, National Aviary ornithologist Bob Mulvihill established the very first Project Owlnet banding station anywhere in western PA west of the mountains, and one of very few stations located anywhere near a major urban center.

In just one season (22 nights from early October to early December), Bob and a team of volunteers learned that, yes, there is a migration of Northern Saw-whet Owls in the Pittsburgh region!  They netted eleven birds in this first pilot season—single birds on six nights; three birds on one night; and two birds on one night—all in November and early December.  With some good luck, the researchers also learned something about the direction and distance from which owls migrating past the city may come.  They learned this because one of the owls that they caught already had a band on its leg--and the number on the band didn't match the ones they were using!

It turns out that they had recaptured an adult female Saw-whet Owl banded just three weeks earlier at Long Point, Ontario, about 135 miles due north!  In fact, it is the not-too-infrequent exchange of banded owls among Project Owlnet cooperating sites that provides the bread-and-butter data for research into the timing and direction of movements of this once enigmatic species. 

banded owl foreign retrap

Since this initial foreign retrap, two more owls from Sewickley have been connected through band recoveries to the same stretch of the north shore of Lake Erie near Long Point, another was recaptured in Allegheny National Forest in northern Pennsylvania.  And amazingly, we recaptured a third banded owl that had been marked two years prior 1600 miles away in Elkwater, Alberta, Canada!!

What Have We Learned About Owl Migration?

Some patterns are beginning to emerge:

From the above charts it is evident that the fall migration of Northern Saw-whet Owls peaks between the last week of October and the second week of November.  On the nights when we caught owls, there seem to be two peaks, between 7:00pm and 8:00pm and again three hours later.  Moon phase also is a factor, with more than three-quarters of our captures coming on nights when the moon phase was less than 50%.

You can use the information about regarding peak dates and times as a rough guide for maximizing your chance of seeing an owl when you do visit.  As mentioned above, we have found that dark skies (a new moon or cloud cover) and northerly winds seem to improve our chances for catching owls during those dates and time periods.  But, there is always something to see, hear and learn if you stop by Sewickley Heights Borough Park on one of our scheduled banding nights, and visitors are welcome to come and go on whatever schedule is convenient for them.

Group watching owl banding

Again, weather is always a factor, so if steady rain or high winds are in the forecast, there may not be banding.  If you do plan to attend a banding session, be sure to dress appropriately (we are outdoors the whole time), bring a flashlight or headlamp, snacks and a thermos of coffee if you want, and plan to arrive anytime from a half hour before dark until midnight. 

So, why in the world would people spend hours and hours sitting outdoors at night, even when it's very cold?

Mighty cold!


Well, this is why!!


Many Thanks To Our Volunteers and Supporters

We could not run this program without help from a dedicated crew of volunteers, especially Doug Cunzolo, Victoria Wefers, Debbie Kalbfleisch, Sue and Jim Ralston, Courtney Sikora, Joe Lee, and Don Koch.  Our success is not only measured in numbers of owls caught, but also in the number of people we are able to engage in the process.  Many hundreds of people have signed our visitors book, and many have visited our station on multiple nights and year after year. 

Our sincere thanks to all our volunteers and visitors, and also to April Claus at the Fern Hollow Nature Center and the Sewickey Heights Borough Police department for their help in facilitating our efforts every season.    

Special thanks go to the more than thirty people who have supported the continued operation of our Project Owlnet station by 'adopting' an owl--funds from these adoptions help defray the costs of mist net replacement, replacement batteries for our callers, other necessary field supplies, and incidental expenses. 

Adopters receive a certificate with a photograph of one of the owls banded during the season, relevant banding data for that owl, and the promise of updates if their owl is ever recaptured! 

If you'd like to adopt an owl, go to: https://www.aviary.org/adopt-a-saw-whet-owl