Views From the Trias House: Banding Saw-Whet Owls Near Ithaca

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(Banding in progress; later, I held this owl gently but firmly around the chest and the legs before placing her on a branch to adjust and then fly off.)

This post is one of several forthcoming about experiences in the Finger Lakes District in upstate New York as the Trias writer-in-residence at Hobart and William Smith Colleges (Geneva).

My experience observing the banding of saw-whet owls near the house of biologist John Confer outside of Ithaca, New York, had a little bit of everything really: unexpected discovery, the police, and, of course, owls. Since the Finger Lakes District is rich territory for birders and my fiction often includes ecological themes—my first journals as a kid growing up in Fiji didn’t contain personal entries but instead bird sightings–it seemed like potentially a unique experience and one close to my heart. And I accepted the invite not so much to learn how to band owls as to get a broader sense of bird migration studies and a better sense of the area. What I find fascinating about upstate New York, too, is the way in which everything is so much more self-contained than North Florida because the distances aren’t as vast and yet there’s a great variety of landscapes and micro-climates.

I’ve always liked owls, and enjoyed observing barred owls, screech owls, and great horned owls on hikes around Tallahassee. I once even came across an image so weird I didn’t know what I was looking at at first…until it resolved into the form of a tortoise…and the great horned owl on its back, pecking away at the tortoise’s soft bits. All of this owl observation culminating in a great horned owl having a pretty large role in my novel Acceptance.

Acceptance--FSG

I also found intriguing that John Confer–a respected “scholar in residence,” retired from Cornell–had also done what I would consider essential work charting amphibian mortality rates on local Finger Lakes roads. These kinds of studies can be grim, but are essential in making the case for crossing easements for all manner of creature, some of them endangered. (Confer told me that in many cases these studies allowed him to save a certain number of amphibians, which was good to know.)

Arriving at John and his wife Karen’s house, I found myself in the company of several veterans of owl banding, people who have been helping John for quite a while, and, to my relief, some who were there for the first time. One of these new volunteers ran a bed-and-breakfast near Interlachen and told a great story about encountering snowy owls. Another had had experience in a job involving a kind of song bird, but had never banded owls before. I enjoyed talking casually about birds and the comfortable vibe of the group.

After a hearty meal of stew and homemade bread, John took us out to the owl nets: fine black-mesh nets set up a little like badminton nets except with pouches that in a sense capture the birds. These nets were incredibly delicate and also just about invisible in the dusk; I feared walking into one so much I decided the better part of “do no harm” was to be less than useful and more than observant. John also mentioned that some of the net pouches hang low, so it’s important to watch the ground so as not to inadvertently tread on a captured owl. Devices that looked like bulky flashlights were revealed to play the saw whet owl’s call—which is remarkably loud and robust for such a tiny bird.

After unfurling the nets and waiting an hour, we went back out and eventually I witnessed the capture and banding of two saw-whet owls. The first I actually got to hold to release it back into the wild. The first one seemed very calm, although its heart was beating very fast. The second, which had gotten more tangled in the net, was less philosophical about its capture and seemed, there is no other way to say it, severely pissed off. This one made a warning sound like popping plastic bubbles in shipping materials…if those bubbles were made of steel and still being popped.

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(Weighing the owl in a juice concentrate container!)

I was impressed with the patience of the regulars, which included a molecular biologist, Debbie Mahoney, who had been coming out to John’s house for a few years. One of the other regulars, Julia Gilliswith the help of Madeleine Ulinski, also a regular, spent a lot of time delicately extracting the second owl from the net. I’d been sure this would require cutting it loose, but with their jeweler’s precision and great knowledge of owl anatomy—having a sense of how you could bend the wing bones in a natural way, for example—slowly but surely got the owl out of the net. On the walk back up to the banding shed beside John’s house, Madeleine told me that John’s willingness to let young scientists participate in the banding, and his overall generosity, had changed the course of her career in a very meaningful way.

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(Preparing to wrap the owl in cloth for its own protection prior to taking a tiny amount of blood.)

In the banding shed, we all huddled around while the more experienced volunteers demonstrated continued precision and quiet confidence while they weighed the owl, examined its wings, determined it was a female (by weight and other indicators), and then took two tiny drops of blood to study past and present parasitic invasions. After this process, and a period of re-acclimating the owl to the darkness outside, the owl would be set free on a branch to then eventually fly away.

At some point during trying to release one of the owls, a feral cat took too much of an interest and we stood watch, shooing the cat off. One of the volunteers told me she had trapped and relocated to a home far away a prior cat drawn to the area. Another threat are other owls, like barred owls, which have been known to linger and try to pick off a dazed saw-whet before the smaller bird has quite regained its bearings.

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(Owl on a branch after banding, as we wait for it to fly off, with feral cat in vicinity. No real light used as this would disorient the owl.)

Then the police came down the driveway in two cruisers—the recordings of saw-whet owl calls, needed to lure the birds to the nets, had been reported by a neighbor, and  the suggestion made that somehow the sound had been interpreted as part of a malfunction at a meth lab! “Local criminal activity” was mentioned and a huge six-foot-four policeman got out of one car and, while a second policeman sat in his cruiser staring at the owl at its eye-level in a kind of blase way, this other, giant policeman stood there looking down at the tiny saw-whet owl still perched on a volunteer’s hand and asked “What is that?” The juxtaposition would have made an amazing photo, but I was afraid taking that photo might be misinterpreted.

But the police were very polite and listened patiently as John and some of the veteran volunteers explained what was actually going on: banding of saw-whet owls during their annual migration. That saw whets are among the only owls that actually migrate and that they had previously caught owls banded at stations far and wide, allowing them to communicate to other researchers the movements and thus get a better sense of range and other useful data.

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(Three of the veteran volunteers–Debbie Mahoney (standing), Madeleine Ulinski (foreground), and Julia Gillis–and John Confer, in orange, in the back, regrouping after the police visit.)

The enthusiasm of the volunteers and of John reassured the police quite a bit, and they left after simply asking if John could perhaps turn off the owl noises closer to 10:30 than midnight, for the sake of the neighbors. It was, frankly, a bit of a puzzling encounter given he has been banding owls at this particular station since at least 2013, which is when the molecular biologist said she had first volunteered.

Returning inside, I listened with one ear to more data about owls, as John’s wife, Karen, had promised to show me more of her artwork in the basement of their house. I had no idea that Karen was a wildlife artist, and had been blown away by the art she had already shown me.

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(Poster from an exhibition of Karen Allaben-Confer’s artwork. This Google search showcases more.)

Discovering her art was actually one of the more remarkable things about the whole owl banding adventure. It was the molecular biologist who had told me I had to see her artwork, and I’d gone into the living room not knowing what to expect, only to just about drop dead on the spot from the joy because I was suddenly looking at some truly exceptional wildlife art I’ve ever seen in my life. Along with a poster of Karen Allaben-Confer’s art displayed at the Roger Tory Peterson institute!!! And mentored by the famous Don Eckelberry!

My mother used to be a biological illustrator, before computers, and I’ve worked with artists all my life, so I’m really picky, especially when it comes to wildlife art…and so it was just so amazing and unexpected and wonderful. The art in the basement included some stunningly hilarious cartoon art as well. What no photograph could convey is the detail work, the way the textures of the environments around the birds are so well done and so intricate. I mean, I’m totally a texture guy and I could feel the rocks and moss and lichen just from looking at these works.

Another wonderful piece, a print of which hangs in a museum, of a birch tree in the middle and on one side of the trunk a blue background with the leaves and branches white against it, almost like a block print, and on the other side the fine, fine detail of the birch trunk and the branches on that side in intricate rendering, with a nuthatch on the tree on that side. Just a brilliant composition that gave the viewer two different styles in a completely organic way.

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(More artwork, including a piece featuring their pet rabbit and dog.)

I didn’t take a photograph of that one or most of the other art in the basement because it felt a little intrusive. But, with permission, I did take the photo above of the rabbit and dog because I wanted to remember it was personal to Karen. The rabbit and dog were pets of theirs for several years, and every morning the rabbit would sit on that stone pillar and the dog would come up and they’d say hi to each other to start the day. Best of friends.

I enjoyed the art tour so much so I missed the third checking of the nets for owl, and then realized, at around 9:45pm that I still had an hour’s drive back to Ithaca. So I said my goodbyes, including to the African parrot that one of the veteran volunteers had brought along, and walked outside.

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(Yes, there was even a parrot mixed in with the owls! Brought by Julia Gillis. Photo taken shortly before I left to drive home.)

Earlier, someone had pointed out seeing the space station passing overhead, with a jet below it for context. The fact the night sky was so unencumbered by city lights should’ve led me to expect exactly what happened: I couldn’t see anything around me. The night had become pitch black. So I stumbled forward, rather than go back inside and admit I needed a light—my second mistake. I thought, phoneless as I was, that I could generate enough light by taking flash photos really fast, which proved false. All it did is blind me more.

At that exact moment, a car I thought looked vaguely like a Porsche roared into the driveway and, not helping at all, dimmed its headlights as it stopped, so I still couldn’t see anything. Someone loud and severely agitated shouted out, “Where’s John?! Where the hell is John? That goddamn sound has to goddamn stop!” Still unable to see and thrashing into tree branches, I told him that had nothing to do with me unsure exactly what kind of escalation was in progress and he stomped off. At which point I realized the recorded owl sounds still blaring out had become white noise to me, but clearly not to everyone. In the morning, John’s email to the group alluded to the neighbor, and having calmed him down.

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(Possibly the stupidest photo I’ve ever taken–my attempts at flash photos to see my way out to my car coinciding with the arrival of the enraged neighbor in his car with the lights dimmed.)

Post-neighbor encounter, I was even less able to see but even less inclined to fumble my way back to the house. So I stumbled around in the dark until I fell into the ditch across the road beyond the driveway, realized I might be close enough to the car to click the unlock button, and found my way to my car by the sounds it made in response.

Then, I drove home to Geneva, conjuring up the spirit of my grandpa behind the wheel: Thirty-five miles-per-hour all the way back—because there were no lights on the rural roads and critters teeming everywhere along the sides. After owl banding—or, really, after any kind of experience—I didn’t find the idea of now potentially killing an animal at all good. Even going 35 mp, I still almost hit three deer, a couple of raccoons, two extensions of liquid night I’m going to say were weasel-related, and something that could’ve been a skunk but was definitely not a swift beast.

All the way home, when I wasn’t worrying about hitting something with my car, I was remembering how I had held a saw-whet owl in my hands. An owl that had been tiny and calm and had stared up at me with huge eyes. An experience I won’t soon forget, especially in the context of meeting some great people, viewing wonderful art, and the splendid hospitality of our hosts, John Confer and Karen Allaben-Confer.

One comment on “Views From the Trias House: Banding Saw-Whet Owls Near Ithaca

  1. John Confer says:

    Well John, thanks much for your kind comments. I’m glad you enjoyed the evening as we enjoyed your company. I baked a loaf of bread for our neighbor, reduced the speaker noise, and he has calmed down. Owls continue to migrate with a few in our nets, and we continue to learn about their survival and movement. As for Karen’s art, I try not to let Karen get a swelled head about her work, but you come along and ruin that. By the way, I’m retired from Ithaca College. We are the academic institution on the higher hill and we higher above Cayuga’s waters and Cornell.

    We love all the little creatures in your “wall paper”. Karen thinks the face must be your wife’s.

    Hoot, hoot
    John and Karen Confer

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