End of Season Owls (Summary for Lowville)

Owl banding summary – Fall 2022- Lowville

What a great fall of owl banding we had this year. While it is true that the songbird banding season often runs into November, I find the focus is usually more on owls towards the end of the season, at least for me. When migratory songbird numbers are starting to wind down near the end of October, owl migration is ramping up. Additionally, owls are much more cold tolerant, so we can band owls on cold frosty nights, even when it would be too cold to band songbirds the following morning. This is of course assuming the banders themselves can handle the weather (lots of layers help!). The best nights to try for owls are north wind nights, so that also doesn’t help when you’re trying to stay warm! We definitely had some cold nights this season, but I find most people are willing to stick it our for at least a couple hours to get a glimpse of one these pint-sized owls.

A rare release photo; rare because we turn our headlamps off at release to let the owl’s eyes adjust to the dark (or occasionally have on just a red light). This little one sat on Sam’s arm for the longest time so we were able to snap a red light/low light photo. After a while longer of sitting in the dark, the owl finally flew off and gave Sam’s arm a break from being an owl perch.

Owl banding can also be quite unpredictable, not just night to night, but season to season. Northern Saw-whet Owls (the migratory species we target) exhibit population cycling, which means there can be ‘boom’ and ‘bust’ years. So some seasons might have massive numbers of owls on the move, and in others the owls can be quite sparse. The last two years have been neither boom nor bust, but rather slightly above average for owl numbers (based on information from other Eastern N.A. owl banding operations that have standardized protocols). I think we did very well at Lowville this season considering we had a bit of a late start, and banded less than 10 nights; we ended with 58 Northern Saw-whet Owls and 2 Eastern Screech-Owls! Of the Northern Saw-whet Owls we banded, 62% were hatch-year birds, 21% were second-year, and 14% were after-second-year. There were also 2 individuals with unusual molt patterns that could not be aged past after-hatch-year (AHY). We were able to categorize 30 of the owls we caught as female (53%), 3 as male (5%), and the remaining 24 birds (42%) had measurements that fell in-between the two gender classes and were therefore categorized as unknown sex. These patterns are not particularly unusual as most saw-whet banding operations report the majority of the owls they catch are female.

Below you can see the comparison of a hatch-year vs. second-year wing. Northern Saw-whet Owls are one of several owl species that have a pigment in newly grown feathers that fluoresces under UV light. This can be an easy way to see differences between older feathers and newly grown ones.

This wing belongs to a hatch-year owl, and because the feathers were all newly grown this year, they all glow pink.

The contrast you see here is due to the bird retaining some feathers from a previous year. Because those feathers are older, they don’t glow anymore. This is a second-year owl.

Season totals:

57 Northern Saw-whet Owls banded
1 Northern Saw-whet Owl recaptured – foreign recovery (more on this below)
1 Eastern Screech-Owl banded
1 Eastern Screech-Owl recaptured from previous season

Notably, the night of October 27th (and into the morning of Oct 28) ended up being our biggest night. There was a steady flight of owls that night, which we had anticipated might happen based on the weather forecast. There were 4 or 5 nights of unfavorable winds leading up to the 27th, and that evening the wind switched to a steady northeast (i.e. favorable) wind across central/southern Ontario. Several of the youth group banders made it out that night, and I think everyone really enjoyed getting to see so many owls up close. The night overall certainly did not disappoint considering we ended up catching 32 individual saw whets including our one foreign recovery of the season! We discovered after receiving information back from submitting this owl’s band number that she was originally banded in the fall of 2020 as a hatch-year bird at Purdue University in Indiana. This means that since fall 2020 (her first migration), she has two more years of successful migrations under her belt, and we wish her many more!

Our foreign recapture owl along with the other two owls that were with her in the same net (they were both hatch-year birds). Luckily, Sarah and Eila were with me, which is how we were able to take this group photo. I’m not sure whether they were all in that net together by coincidence but I’ll leave it up to you whether you want to speculate on other possibilities :). Photo – Sarah Sharp

This photo turned out so cool, and not by design. It just so happened the owl stretched it’s wing out covering the arm and hand of the person holding her.

The night of Nov 7/8 concluded our banding season and ended up being an interesting night. Dave joined me for the beginning of the night and it was quite cold. It had dropped below zero and frost was starting to coat everything as early as about 11pm. In addition to that, it was a full moon, so everything had an eerie beauty. The moon was so bright, we could walk the trails between the nets without turning any lights on. The frost made everything sparkle in the moonlight, and we also saw an unusual number of moths actively flying around. I believe they were a species of owlet moth; some species belonging to this group only fly when the temperature is near freezing. I’ve read about these moths, but hadn’t previously seen them because I don’t usually spend a lot of time outside at night in the winter months. Such a neat thing to get to see!

My phone camera doesn’t seem to handle the direct light of the full moon very well but I still thought this shot turned out neat. I was trying to capture the surreal beauty created that night by the extremely bright full moon.

Species in the owlet moth family

Despite the cold, we were rewarded with a very respectable final night of banding with 7 owls. It was great end to a wonderful fall season.

A week or so after we wrapped up with banding, we took the site down and packed the nets away, and good thing we did, considering it started snowing just a couple days later. The Northern Saw-whet Owls are now likely settled into their winter territories, and so we will await next year’s fall migration!

Eastern Screech-Owl

Thanks so much to everyone who helped out this year, and hope you have a fantastic holiday season!


Soundtrack of the night

Owl banding – Lowville

Night of Oct. 23/24, 2022

~by Sam Lewis

What an interesting night this was. Naturally, for any inaugural day for any project – things can be a bit rough around the edges. And oh my – were things rough. Starting off at half past 7, we were scrambling around to find the size 4short bands needed for Saw Whets, which were concealed in an incredibly obscure location – which took over 20 minutes. We were also planning to set up a new owl net – which, didn’t go as planned. The net exhibited some extraordinary entanglement and suffice to say, we gave up on it. By the time we finished bothering with the net, it was time to check the rest of our nets. The following several hours exhibited some really nice owl numbers given the overall migration conditions. In total, we banded 14 Northern Saw Whet Owls.

First Northern Saw-whet Owl of 2022!

Aliya with one of the first owls of the 2022 fall season

Curiously all of the owls banded today were either hatch year or after second year birds, no definitive second year birds. Wing of an after second year bird pictured here.

Its always interesting how each and every individual has a unique expression on them

One notable thing about the petite valley that our site is located in, is that our area is absolutely littered with raccoons and coyotes, though they don’t pose a threat, they can be fairly startling at times: for instance I was spooked by raccoons on three separate occasions – twice on the way in and once on the way out – what made the last one particularly frightening was that, about twenty minutes prior the coyotes were going absolutely ballistic (screaming, howling, etc.) – with the most closest pack about 150 metres east of the site, near the trail back to Guelph Line. But such is life owling at night!


Night of Oct. 25/26, 2022

~ by Sam Lewis & Ashley Jensen

Tuesday night proved to be an unusually warm night which was very pleasant, but was also very slow as far as catching owls was concerned. On the positive side we finally got the owl net untangled and set up! And, despite the incredibly slow night owl banding (we didn’t catch anything until 22:30) – we eventually caught our resident screech owl which was first banded 363 days prior, on October 27 2021. Aside from that, we only caught one Northern Saw Whet Owl – which was banded earlier this week. And finally, near the end of the night a second, unbanded Eastern Screech Owl was caught. This turned out to be the only bird banded for the night, and likely means we have now banded both of the screech owl pair that claim our banding site as their territory. Eastern Screech Owls are not migratory like some other owl species (for example Saw whets), so they will defend the same territory pretty much year-round.

1 Eastern Screech-Owl

1 Eastern Screech-Owl
1 Northern Saw-whet Owl

Our resident Screech Owl one year ago (in fall 2021)

Current photo of our resident screech

Both screech owls were aged as after-hatch-year. I found the differences slightly easier to see on the underside of the wing. If you look in the mid-secondaries there’s a couple fresher (slightly pinkish) feathers. The two very outer primaries are also fresher. Seeing two different ages of feathers means this bird must be over a year old, at minimum.

Second screech owl of the night. Although neither of the birds had measurements in the range that would allow us to definitively determine gender, this was the smaller owl of the pair so in all likelihood, this is the male.

Between multiple owl species calling and coyotes howling it sure can give off a spooky vibe out here, but this is the soundtrack of the night, and we should all appreciate it’s beauty.

The Day of the Myrtle (a Lowville record!)

Oct. 2, 2022 – Lowville

October 2nd was definitely a day for the books, and certainly not one I’ll soon forget. This is both because it was a fantastic day of banding, and also because today’s numbers were a first for the Lowville site. The number of birds banded for the day broke triple digits, which has never happened at this site before! I was joined by Sarah, and I must say I was very happy to have her help because it was quite busy. The area we call ‘the meadow’ was alive with birds from before the sun had risen until after we closed nets. The most unusual thing though, was the sheer number of Myrtle Warblers. They seemed to be everywhere, and we had at least a few of them in the nets every single time we checked. At some sites, it is not that unusual to band large numbers of Myrtles during migration, but for whatever reason, the Lowville site has never caught more than a handful of this species in day. There were probably a couple hundred of them at the site, and we ended the day with 46 Myrtle Warblers banded!

Myrtle Warbler – this is the eastern subspecies of the Yellow-rumped Warbler, and they are so named because they are one of very few birds that can readily eat Myrtle berries

A banding data sheet completely filled with only Myrtle Warblers 🙂

I do suspect something more than just good north winds precipitated this large number of birds (in particular MYWA), and while I can’t say for sure, I do have some thoughts. On the night of Oct. 1-2, the massive storm that was the remnants of hurricane Ian sat just southeast of Lake Erie. It’s very possible that this enormous weather system acted as a barrier for migrants that normally would’ve headed towards the east coast, and therefore pushed many birds onto a slightly more westerly route that skirted around the storm and through the Great Lakes region. You can see something resembling this pattern of nocturnal bird migration on the US weather radar for the night (see birdcast.info), with large numbers of migrants detected all over the east except in the area of the Atlantic US states where the storm was. The other possibility is that it’s just down to sheer chance that a large flock of Myrtles (and other species) descended onto the Lowville site that morning just because it’s the green patch they were closest to at dawn. Being an inland site in southern Ontario means that there are no geographic features (like a large body of water or mountain range) to encourage the birds to stop at our site, so large numbers of migrants are usually down to either weather conditions or just random chance. I will say, if I had to speculate, that this is a ‘a little of column A, a little of column B’ scenario. Whatever the reason, we were beyond pleased to see so many migrants today. Full banding list is below.

A feisty Swamp Sparrow from the morning rush

Myrtle Warbler – this bird is even showing a few black mask feathers

We ended the day with 107 birds banded which is the first time we’ve hit 100 birds banded in a day at this site (for now anyways), and I was felt lucky to get to be there for it. I know excitement may not come through very well in a typed blog post, but I was thrilled with how the day turned out. I really should’ve taken a picture of Sarah with bird bags loaded on her arm, but sometimes when you’re busy you just don’t think of these things!

A beautiful Blackburnian Warbler

This bird is a lovely example of an adult (after-hatch-year) Eastern White-crowned Sparrow

These two Western Palm Warblers were a nice surprise on one of the last net rounds of the day

8 Ruby-crowned Kinglet
2 Golden-crowned Kinglet
1 Orange-crowned Warbler
7 Nashville Warbler
1 Blackburnian Warbler
3 Tennessee Warbler
1 Common Yellowthroat
46 Myrtle warbler
2 Western-Palm Warbler
2 Black-capped Chickadee
1 White-breasted Nuthatch
2 Hermit Thrush
8 Slate-colored Junco
2 Swamp Sparrow
5 Song Sparrow
2 White-crowned Sparrow
11 White-throated Sparrow
3 Blue Jay

2 Common Yellowthroat
1 Gray Catbird
1 Hermit Thrush
1 Song Sparrow
1 Black-billed Cuckoo

107 banded (whoo hoo!) + 6 recaps

One last shot of the species of the day.. this shot shows off their namesake yellow rump (aka butter-butt)




Resources: see birdcast.info to view migration radar maps for the night of Oct. 1 (or any night for that matter)

A Mid-September Saturday

September 17, 2022 – Lowville

I was joined on Saturday by some of our young volunteers: Sam, Aliya, Liam, and Maggie. I haven’t seem them since the spring, so I got to hear all about the awesome adventures they had over the summer; mostly birding adventures, which are of course the best kind.
We ended up banding 22 birds for the day, and although it was a slower day, we had fantastic diversity. Of the 22 banded, we caught 17 species! I personally really love this time of year because while we may not catch large numbers, we do tend to get great diversity. We also have the time to discuss plumage characteristics and aging in a little more detail on days like this. There was one tense moment when Maggie came running back from net 0, which is very close to the station, anxiously telling us how a Sharp-shinned Hawk was in the net but as she ran to the net to close the pocket to secure the hawk, it managed to flap and free itself before she could get there. The young volunteers were all very disappointed that we so narrowly missed catching this hawk. Hopefully next time we’ll get lucky and it will stay in the net. Unfortunately because we are targeting songbirds and not hawks, the nets we use aren’t very good at catching them (the mesh is too small). For this reason, any hawk that hits the nets is more likely than not to escape. We did however, catch some lovely songbirds. I’d think we’d all likely agree that the highlight of the day was this gorgeous male Mourning Warbler..

Mourning Warbler

Mourning Warblers are closely related to the elusive Connecticut Warbler. Their behaviour can also be skulky and secretive, similar to Connecticut Warblers. However, they aren’t as elusive or difficult to observe as CONWs.


We caught two thrush species at the same time and managed to take this shot showing two species side-by-side.

Swainson’s Thrush on left and Gray-cheeked Thrush on the right – notice how the GCTH has plain look to the face (almost totally lacking an eyering) which is one of the characteristics you want to look for to identify them in the field

Chestnut-sided Warbler – one of our warblers that looks quite different in fall vs. spring

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher – this species is an early season migrant, and it’s starting to get late for them. This could possibly be the last one we see until spring.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak – Liam decided it was worth risking the painful bite of this grosbeak to get this lovely photo 🙂

1 White-breasted Nuthatch
2 Black-capped Chickadee
1 Carolina Wren
1 Gray Catbird
3 Swainson’s Thrush
1 Gray-cheeked Thrush
1 Least Flycatcher
1 Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
2 Red-eyed Vireo
1 Magnolia Warbler
1 Nashville Warbler
1 Chestnut-sided Warbler
1 Mourning Warbler
2 Common Yellowthroat
1 Song Sparrow
1 American Goldfinch
1 Rose-breasted Grosbeak

3 Black-capped Chickadee
1 Tennessee Warbler
2 Common Yellowthroat
2 Gray Catbird
1 Song Sparrow

TOTAL: 31 (22 banded, 9 recaps)


It was great to get to band with some of our young volunteers, and we ended up having a really nice day of banding.