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Undergraduates Spend Precious Moments with Saw-Whet Owls

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - The term night owl is used to describe a person who tends to stay up until late at night or into the early hours of the morning. It is derived from the nocturnal habits of owls, who tend to sleep during the day and hunt for food at night.

This term applies to many aspects of the research of Purdue Forestry and Natural Resources undergraduate students Tabitha Olsen and Helen Nesius.

northern saw-whet owl
First, there is the elusive nature of the species they are studying and the fact that they are typically found only after sunset. The second is that this research often has them burning the midnight oil, working in the woods until as late as 3 a.m., all while balancing a full slate of classes to prepare for graduation.

“Every new bird that we capture that hasn’t been banded already and is of our target species adds an extra hour to the night,” Olsen explains. “On nights later in the year where it gets to be higher volume, we usually cap it at 3 a.m. because people have school and other things to do the next morning. But when you do capture one, it makes those late nights all worthwhile.”

Their subject, the northern saw-whet owl, is the smallest owl in Indiana, and it only passes through the state twice a year, once on the way to its breeding grounds up north and once on the way to its winter home to the south. The owl, which has a large rounded head and no ear tufts, typically is no larger than seven or eight inches tall and weighs between two and five ounces.

The saw-whet owl is pretty secretive as well. Unlike some other owl species, saw whet owls don’t flush out or move when you spot them or they feel threatened. They instead like to hunker down and are often times not noticed despite being nearby as they blend in so well with their habitats.

So, each September, the banding station crew sets up mist nets three times a week at sunset and waits all night for a net capture, so they can measure and band the owls and input the information into a national bird banding database. Days are selected based on weather and wind conditions. Right now, a north wind is preferable because birds are more likely to fly south when the winds are pushing them. The wind speed is key to make sure it is safe to have the nets up.

In addition to the nets, the team uses a FOXPRO game caller, on which the northern saw-whet owl call is uploaded and then blasted as loudly as possible. Since the owls are on their migratory route and only stopping in Indiana briefly to replenish their energy and food supply, the caller causes them to get curious and come investigate the source of the noise.

Researchers compare eye color of northern saw-whet owl to color chart as part of research project.
The owls, which are pretty docile but still have needle sharp, dagger-like talons, are then carefully extracted from the mist net for quick measurements (wing, bill, tarsus), other data collection (fat, body condition, age, sex and eye color) and banding before their re-release into the wild.

Olsen and Nesius are the second generation of research leaders at the Purdue Northern Saw-Whet Owl Banding Station, which spans two locations at the Purdue Wildlife Area and Martell Forest, each with patches of pine stands, the owls’ preferred environment.

“It has always been my dream to work with animals that people don’t really know about,” Nesius said. “It is pretty special. I am really driven to see the owls and have them share a moment of their life with me. That, in itself, makes it worth it to go out and see them, but also keeping this project in general alive at Purdue is really important to me because it is being passed down and this is really just the beginning of it. Having this research around is going to be awesome for every generation of students that gets to volunteer or pursue their own careers at the banding station. And lastly, this research is just adding to the overall international database of this species that we don’t know a lot about, particularly body condition and migratory information. It is going to help in understanding their role in the ecosystem and their importance. Those are the reasons why it is really worth it to do this project, even with all of the late nights.”

Olsen and Nesius first joined the owl project as volunteers under Landon Neumann and Ashley Higdon a few years ago. As the project leaders now, Tabitha and Helen have three or four volunteers a night working with them. While Tabitha and Helen do the extractions, the volunteers have the opportunity to handle owls under their supervision and learn techniques so they will have experience and maybe be able to take over the project in the future.

Neumann and Higdon studied stable isotopes to see where immature birds came from. Helen and Tabitha are now looking at eye color data. They are comparing the eye colors of different individuals to see if there is a relationship between either age or body condition, following up on the findings of a recently published paper. The pair is collaborating with other banding stations in Indiana, Ohio and Illinois and others around the Midwest to collect the eye-color data. There are several banding operations in the Great Lakes region that are connected via email or social media.

Researchers check northern saw-whet owl with ultraviolet light.
Olsen and Nesius are in year two of their project. The pair was limited on local data collection in 2019, catching only a single owl for banding due to it being the end of an eruptive cycle for the species, weather patterns and more. For weeks, the duo set up their nets three times a week and came up empty. Thus far in 2020, they have banded 16 owls and have high hopes for many more as it is projected to be a much better year for the migration. The team banded 12 owls on Saturday, Oct. 24 alone.

The excitement of catching the first owl of the year in 2020 was palpable. After getting accustomed to the frustration of empty nets, Helen was wrapping up her net for the night, only to hear her phone ring and a text alert go off as Tabitha called to notify her of the owl. The distance between the two, with Helen at PWA and Tabitha at Martell Forest, was quickly erased and together the two would process their first owl of the season.

“It was really disheartening not to get any owls last year; it was really hard to be motivated, we were doing this for the research and to see owls, but we weren’t getting any,” Nesius shared. “After three months of doing this last year with no owls, I was so used to just packing up at the end of the night, but then while we were rolling the net, my phone started going off. It was Tabitha saying ‘We have an owl! We have an owl!’ so I said ‘open the nets back up’ to my accompanying volunteer and we did it as fast as we could and raced over to Martell.

“It was really exciting and surprising. I immediately clicked into work mode. I wasn’t tired anymore or stressed out about the exam I had the day before, that was all gone. It was like ‘Drop everything, it’s owl time. We have to get this owl out, and prepped and released.’ I went through the motions in my head of getting the equipment out and as I watched her take measurements and work it all up, I was like ‘yes, I have missed seeing owls so much. I am so happy that we have this owl.’ It really brightened my mood and after it was over, I felt so excited and happy and pumped to be doing this again.”
While the first banding of the season brought much excitement, the record 12-owl effort on Oct. 24 barely left time for anything but work. Olsen finally closed up the nets at Martell Forest at 4 a.m. and left for home around 4:30 after banding eight owls. Nesius banded four owls before 3 a.m. at the Purdue Wildlife Area.
"Saturday set an amazing record for our little station," Olsen said. "We normally don't receive very many birds compared to other stations in Indiana, but that night we caught 12 owls! Helen and I were checking nets nonstop, extracting, processing, and releasing birds to the point where we didn't even have a break to celebrate. This is what we've been waiting for since last year. My headlamp was dying, my hands were freezing and starting to numb, but each bird I held reminded me of my purpose for being here. These birds have such a short lifespan compared to humans, so spending even a few minutes in their lives is precious and humbling. I am grateful for the time I am able to spend with these birds and I whole-heartedly wish them the best of luck on their migratory journey."
The owl banding, while exciting and moving the pair’s research forward, it is not their only goal. They want to expand the public’s knowledge about the species and have done so through a Night of the Owls collaborative event with the Indiana Audubon Society, although this year’s event was canceled due to COVID-19. They do have another event happening on Nov. 6 in conjunction with the NICHES Land Trust organization to continuing spreading the word about saw-whet owls.
Here’s to a successful and plentiful year of banding and research in 2020.

About the Research Team
Olsen, a senior double majoring in wildlife and forestry, began volunteering with the saw-whet owl project as a freshman through the Purdue student chapter of The Wildlife Society. She also got more involved with birds through Dr. Barny Dunning’s ornithology lab.

“Having volunteer opportunities available to freshmen and sophomore, even before you take practicum after your sophomore year, really helps instill the idea if this work is right for you or not,” Olsen said. “Having TWS and the volunteer program and Dr. Dunning’s lab really helped me a lot.

Undergraduate researcher Tabitha Olsen poses with a northern saw-whet owl.
“I have always been big into birds, so it was very exciting to be able to band birds and see birds in more of a professional research setting, rather than just going on a bird walk or bird watching. After volunteering with the project, I liked the idea of starting my own research project and having my own spin on it, similar to the two undergraduates before me.”

The research bug was planted early on and Olsen says research and graduate school are definitely in her future, although what exactly is next is still up in the air.

“I spent my summer and the last few semesters preparing to pursue my master’s degree,” Olsen shares. “I definitely would like to pursue ornithology professionally and pursue research the rest of my life, but I would like to see what other projects are out there and what else I can contribute to. My dream job would be doing some sort of field research in a wetland or salt-marsh ecosystem, preferably during the day. I think I have had my fill of nocturnal activities and being tired all of the time.”

As for Nesius, she is a late comer to the wildlife major, starting her Purdue career as a planetary science major, then moving into biology, before being introduced to the wildlife major through a chance encounter with the Purdue chapter of The Wildlife Society and the owl project her sophomore year.

“I discovered this project before I was in the FNR department,” Nesius recalls. “I was in biology when I joined The Wildlife Society. I joined their email list and I would hear about the owl project because the president at the time, Landon, would often advertise to the TWS club looking for volunteers. I would come out every week, because I really loved seeing the owls and I was looking for this field and was looking to find some kind of outlet where I could be involved in wildlife stuff. I found the club, saw the owls and someone there told me about the wildlife major and that’s why I am here.”

Undergraduate researcher Helen Nesius poses with a northern saw-whet owl banded as part of a research project at Purdue.
The owl project was not, however, Nesius’ first foray into work with animals. In high school she was a paid research technician for a PhD candidate at Indiana State, helping do surveys and tag crawfish frogs in Southern Indiana. Even after taking over the saw-whet owl project, Helen has continued to broaden her horizons, interning with the Raptor Rehab of Kentucky last summer ahead of her senior year, helping administer medication and physical therapy and aiding in rehabilitation efforts to a variety of birds of prey including great horned owls.

“I remember being just really smitten with the idea of coming out and banding the owls when I first started with the saw-whet owl project,” Helen recalls. “I met Tabitha and the person who ran the project before and they were super into birds. I always liked animals but birds were never something I was super interested in, but meeting them and having bird talk all around me constantly really got me interested. Landon saw that and ended up inviting me to join Dr. Dunning’s bird lab. From there I got to do a lot of things I had never done before, doing songbird banding, reading a lot of papers and expanding my knowledge and awareness of the opportunities you can have. My drive to find where I wanted to be in college brought me to the project, but my interest in birds and in the owls was just continuously expanded by the FNR community before I even took any FNR classes.”

As for the future, Nesius has many more things she wants to experience, but knows that she will be working with wildlife in some way for the rest of her life. She has plans to go to graduate school, but also plans to take some gap years to expand her experiences and even explore marine biology. Wherever her career takes her, Nesius is confident that from her experience with the saw whet owls and songbird banding that she will always work with birds in some way, whether that is through research or volunteering.

Volunteers on the project are constantly changing and have even included Nesius’ father on a few occasions. An email is sent out to interested parties with dates and times and volunteers are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis. Nesius and Olsen would like to thank all of the Purdue students, birders and all others who have contributed to the project thus far and are looking forward to many more positive encounters as part of successful Purdue University Northern Saw-Whet Owl Station banding nights.

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