The Bufflehead Birder

November 20, 2008

Waiting for Godot’s Owls

November 8th - Saturday Night

We were waiting for owls. So far none had shown up. But it was only 2 hours after dusk and we were to give it 4 hours because that’s when the owls really get active. That’s what research biologists Nate and Denise told us. So we sat back and opened a couple of more beers and passed the home-made brownies around again. I was with about 15 other members of The Delaware Valley Ornithology Club (DVOC) up in Hidden Valley on one of the highlight field outings of the year—spending the evening with researchers on the Northern Saw-whet Owl Project. The Saw-whet Project is headed by Scott Weidansaul, an author and researcher who works with migratory birds. I wish I could say that the owl photos below were mine but in fact, all the images in this post (including the puzzle afterwards) were taken by Philadelphia bird photographer Jamie Stewart, who was kind enough to let me use them.

SawWhetOwlBanding-1 by jaste1.

 Don’t you just love that face?

The Hidden Valley banding station is one of 3 located along the Pennsylvania Appalachians. The ridge alignment of these mountains, in particular Kittatinny Ridge, creates a corridor of favorable updrafts that comprise part of Atlantic Flyway. Nate was hoping for a low pressure system followed by a cold front because that would give the owls some umph to move south and improve the chance of a good capture rate that night.

From early October to the end of November many Saw-whets move south from Ontario and Northern New England. In winter months these owls may end up as far south as the Carolinas.

SawWhetOwlBanding-4 by jaste1.

The banding station cabin was unheated and there were port-a-potties located conveniently just outside. It was a nice rustic change for me from the Philadelphia suburbs. In a corner of the room was the banding table with a heat lamp, banding equipment, and then a short clothes line set up between two chairs with clothes pins. Nate said that some nights when there is a surplus of owls caught in a the net at the same time the researchers put them in sacks, which keep the little guys gently contained and calm. The sacks are then suspended from the clothes line as they await their turn at the banding table.


This is one of my shots. It’s the only one on this post without an owl in it.

The body of a saw-whet owl is the size of a baseball and the head with feathers is not much bigger than a tennis ball. Take the feathers away, and the saw-whet skull barely weighs more than a ping-pong ball. Saw-whets are the smallest owl on the East Coast. Males, in general, weigh 75 grams while the females get up to a whopping 100 grams. Wee, fluffy, and unbelievably cute and cuddle-liscious, these owls attract dozens of banding volunteers who devote 2-3 evenings per week for 2 months on the project, as well as groups of visitors who want to see and learn something about these enchanting little owls.

SawWhetOwlBanding-7 by jaste1.

Every 40 minutes or so Nate and Denise headed out to check the mist nets again hoping to get that haul of owls they had promised us. The weather was good, the audiolure was playing the sweet and, well…, alluring call of a male Saw-whet to stir the females to get out and about and hopefully into one of the nets. About 80% of the saw-whets that are caught throughout the state tend to be females. So far there is no completely satisfactory answer for that. The best theory is that the males with territories may hunker down to defend them as long as possible while females are freer to travel. Another thought is that perhaps the high capture rate of females reflects the actual demographics of Saw-whet owl populations.

In 15 minutes Nate and Denise return. Too soon. Not a good sign. We jeered as Nate assured us that the 3rd and 2nd to last net checks usually had the best results, and then we handed him and Denise more brownies.

To keep us from pounding the tables, chanting, “We want owls!”, Nate entertained us with more notes of interest about these birds. First of all, there are a lot more of them in PA than was previously thought, especially during migration. They are generally secretive and not as easy to spot as larger and more vocal owls, like the Great Horned or Barred. They are less active on nights with a full moon as their feared predators, Great Horned owls can spot them easier.

In fact, one banding stations had to be closed down as a result of predation. In the same way Coopers and Sharp-shinneds learn that backyard feeders are easy pickings, so Barred owls in that area discovered that this saw-whet banding station was a prime food spot.  Silent and lethal, the Barred owls would follow behind the banders and snag the newly released saw-whets.  “Sneaky” was how Nate described them.

Later in the evening we were joined by Scott Weidansaul and several board members of the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, and it got livelier and warmer with the extra bodies in the cabin. Scott made his rounds greeting us in his friendly and engaging manner.

“Isn’t banding exciting?” He asked one little girl, the youngest member of the group, who had shown absolutely no signs of getting tired as the night went on. “You get to see all this wildlife.”

Everyone laughed because it’s true both ways; as this night attested, you don’t always get to see something, but on the otherhand, sometimes you will experience more than you could ever imagine. Owl or no owl, the being there is good, and whenever I do finally see a Saw-whet it will be that much better appreciated for it’s not having been so available.

SawWhetOwlBanding-6 by jaste1.

Okay. One last net check. It was 11pm and almost time to call it a night and head home. Nate and Denise don their jackets and headlamps and head out again to check the nets. But soon they are back, empty-handed. Guess the owls had better things to do than fly into mist nets.  

So. No owls showed up that night. But I got to hang out in a cabin in the woods with other people who love birds, and be a part of something good. 

And then, there was an excellent bird joke told by our youngest member of the group:

Why don’t seagulls live by the bay?

Because then they would be bagels.


Waiting for Godot*

Saw-whet Owl - puzzle #8

Filed under: Bird Puzzles — Tags: — admin @ 8:35 am

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SawWhetOwlBanding-3 by jaste1

November 8, 2008

From Wood to Wren

On my kitchen table there stands a small brown Carolina wren. It’s perched on a small pile of lichen and pale green moss. The tail juts straight up like a wren’s should although its wings are a little too short for an adult bird. If you peer closely you might notice that the feather barbs are kind of crooked and chaotic and the bird is missing the first toe of each foot, but nevertheless, it’s definitely a wren.

Not too long ago it looked like a crooked chunk of wood with pencil marks on it. So I’m proud of the fact that it now looks like a little bird, even like a wren.

The last weekend in October saw the transformation of my chunk of wood into a wren when Ernie Muehlmatt hosted one of his bird carving workshops down in Salisbury, Maryland.

Ernie is a 3-time World Class Wildfowl Carving champion and teaches his art throughout the year in a variety of locations. Easy going and gifted with a good sense of humor, Ernie made the atmosphere of the workshop comfortable and inviting for a first-timer like me.

Ernie Muehlmatt

Ernie at work on his own wren.

It was also a blessing that two of Ernie’s long-time bird-carving friends attended this workshop and were willing to guide me along if they happen to glance over and saw that my wren could be on its way to becoming an avian Frankenstein.

We used tupelo wood, which has no definite grain pattern and is soft and easy to work with. We started with a “blank”, a chunk of tupelo with excess wood already taken off.

Dremel and Blank    

Someone in class said that the basic theory of carving is like that joke about how to make an elephant; just take away everything that isn’t part of the elephant. We all laughed because it’s basically true.

We started with a “blank” and beginning with the bill, worked back along the wings to the tail. 

First stage

So far, so good. But I thought of all those bird blanks that are going to get “wasted” if I intend to get into this new hobby. Kind of like all that film and money I blew back in the days before digital cameras while I was learning photography.

While bird blanks can be ordered from bird carvers, they are expensive enough that if you make lots of mistakes it could add up. I can save a little money buy getting my own saw. A band saw is what a lot of carvers use, but I don’t have the room for one, or the desire to donate any fingers to the cause, so I will most likely be getting a jigsaw later on. See, now I’m hooked and am thinking about what I’ll need to get in order to indulge in this hobby. Santa sure is going to be busy this year.

On the Saturday of our workshop weekend we took our lunch at the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art where Ernie led us on a tour of the galleries. If you are ever in SE Maryland a stop at the museum would be time well spent. It features early decoys carved by the Ward brothers, Lemuel and Steven, who made decoy carving into an art and more or less began the idea of bird carving into the art form that it is today.

Ward Wildfowl Carving Museum

One of the galleries here features a collection of the winning pieces from the previous year’s World Class Championship. These are some amazing works. Every component in the piece–the branches, the leaves, the pine needles, and rocks are carved from wood as well as the main bird. There are birds in mid-wing flap or mid-attack upon another bird who is poised in almost-escape, which are attached to their base by the merest feather or talon toe, giving the illusion of total free flight and movement. Each feather is flared or uplifted in absolute life-like detail, not painted but carved.

The joke about making an elephant popped into my head as I wandered among these carvings. Just remove what doesn’t belong and voila! But remove too much or what does belong, and there’s no slapping back of clay or rubbing out with an eraser. Just one mistake and entire piece that may have been weeks, months of long hours and excruciating concentration are for nothing.

Okay. Back at our workshop my little wren didn’t seem so overwhelming and I felt a bit more inspired.

So, once our birds had their basic shape we then carved the legs and feet and put the eyes in. That’s when I developed an affection for my little guy because now it could look out onto the world. Now it could look back at me.


A little wren looks content as it gets some wings.

Our birds then needed a “habitat” to perch on. So we carved lichens, rocks, and even a little toadstool.


Moss is a common feature of carving habitats and requires endless drilling of holes to accomplish the look. In the photo below I have barely started on my moss but you can see my uneven and crudely carved lichen.


After the carving there are more stages involved. Etching, stoning, and burning of feathes and markings. Then a laquering, application of Gesso, and a series of color washes, which I am still working on. However, below you can see the current stage of my wren as it poses proudly at the edge of my garden.

Almost There

Once the color wash is completed and cleaned up in some areas I will post a finished photo.

And no, sorry, my piece “Wren on Moss” is not for sale, but I’m flattered for the offers.

The puzzle below is of a Great Blue I digiscoped at the pond behind the Ward Museum. More pictures from the workshop are available for viewing at

Puzzle - Great Blue Heron

Filed under: Bird Puzzles — Tags: , , — admin @ 3:11 pm

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Great Blue Heron at Ward Museum

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