Pittsburgh Project Owlnet

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


NEW!  Our Banding Schedule for the Upcoming Spring 2017 Season

The public is always welcome to come and observe the planned migration season owl banding sessions at Sewickley Heights Borough Park (along Hallaway Road, http://goo.gl/maps/L85qm).  Nets will be set up shortly before dark (around the time of official sunset), and they are checked for owls at least once an hour until midnight, when the nets are all closed.  

Weather permitting (there will no banding on nights with steady high winds or heavy rain), banding will take place this spring on Wednesday and Friday nights from February 17 to March 10 (beginning around 6:30, but then an hour later after we "spring ahead" on March 11).   

A caveat for anyone who is considering joining us for one or more nights of banding this spring:  our spring banding has been much less productive that our fall banding.  We continue to put forth banding effort, however, because documenting seasonal differences is part of our overall research objective.  In the past we have not begun spring banding until mid-March, but we have learned from other banders that the spring Saw-whet migration is eariler than that.  So, between our heavy flight last fall (>30 owls banded!) and our adjusted spring banding season, we do expect to catch more owls than during either of the previous spring seasons.  An added plus for coming to Sewickley Heights Park in early spring is the chance to witness the amazing spring courtship display flights of American Woodcocks at dusk! 

About Project Owlnet

Project Owlnet is a coordinated, cooperative banding project to determine the timing, intensity and pace of migration of the Northern Saw-whet Owl, which was a little known species until this project began in the mid-1990s.  A few banding mist nets are set up in suitable habitat and an audio lure of the owl’s own call is played to attract any migrating owls closer to the nets.  Several dozen of these tiny owls can be caught in a single night at some locations in the mountains of Pennsylvania and along the Lake Erie shore.  But, until Pittsburgh Project Owlnet was started in fall 2013, we knew very little about the occurrence of these owls in the Pittsburgh region, which is well outside the classic ridgetop, lakeshore, and coastal areas where these small owls are known to be concentrated during migration.

These little owls are, to say the least, very appealing (O.K., even cute-looking!) They also are remarkably tame when handled, but like most owls, they will sometimes snap their bills to try and frighten whoever is holding them!

Uncovering the Mysteries of Owl Movements and Biology

Project Owlnet facilitates communication, cooperation and innovation among a network of dozens of owl migration researchers in North America.  It was the brainchild of Dave Brinker, an ecologist with Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and is managed by Brinker; Steve Huy in Maryland; and Scott Weidensaul in Pennsylvania.

By providing standardized methodologies, information on capture techniques, ageing and sexing resources, analytical tools, data archiving and other services, Project Owlnet has made it easier for ornithologists to lift the veil on owl movements and biology.

Project Owlnet in Pennsylvania

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 we recaptured a banded owl that had been marked two years prior 1600 miles away in Elkwater, Alberta, Canada!!

What Are We Learning About Owl Migration?

We have conducted owl banding at this location for four fall seasons, with these results:

Interpreting the Data

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

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!!