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Two old hands at bird banding give a hoot (4 photos)

This week Back Roads Bill takes us beyond owl metaphors

There is the expression “I don’t give a hoot” but on the contrary, there are others who do because as volunteers they like and care about owls.

Such is the case at the Hilliardton Marsh Research & Education Centre.

They are the real “night owls” because they like working in the dead of night. Owls are stereotyped for their hooting calls, but a number of species don’t hoot at all.

Owls stand out among all living bird groups. These slightly anthropomorphic winged creatures have conquered the night, while nearly all other birds are confined to the daylight. And just so you know, owls can rotate their heads 270 degrees, lots of little neck bones and flexible arteries allow for the mobility.

We humans can rotate our heads less than a third of that. While the stereotype of the “wise owl” is well established, owls can be regarded as demonic symbols or harbingers of doom. Connections to witchcraft are often made as well. Owls have also risen to prominence as icons in popular culture, such as the famous Hedwig, the snowy owl featured in the Harry Potter series.

A Wise Place

But let’s go to the marsh, if you are a “birder” or not, the Hilliardton Marsh is located just north of Temiskaming Shores (New Liskeard) comprising 728 hectares (1798 acres); it is designated as a provincially significant wetland and wildlife area.

A marsh is different from a swamp, fen or bog, it is an area of low-lying land that is flooded in wet seasons and typically remains waterlogged at all times. Hilliardton Marsh is one of two observatories in Northern Ontario, the other being Thunder Cape Bird Observatory east of Thunder Bay. It is home to more than 600 species of waterfowl, songbirds, mammals, fish and plant life.

Hilliardton Marsh is continentally significant for waterfowl migrating to and from the James Bay and Hudson Bay lowlands. Because of the five-star habitat, it is an important stopover for the owls.

It is a tourism destination of sorts, a couple from Iowa celebrating their 25th anniversary made it a mutual vow and travelled the 2,000 km to have their photo taken with a boreal owl.

There are many volunteers there, in particular two special species. Bruce Murphy is a retired high school teacher, he is a founding Hilliardton Marsh pioneer. His own passion developed during a childhood Grade 6 field trip to the Toronto Island field school where a single chickadee was banded.

See the Back Roads Bill story here for more on him. Another volunteer is his partner, Joanne Goddard a local elementary school teacher.

“Part of our passion about banding is to see the look on young and old alike when they hold an owl for the first time. You can never anticipate the impact it will have but you know they are forever changed.”

Joanne cites good reasons as to why people have affection for owls.

“Well there are obvious research reasons, the more we learn, the more questions we have, and there is so much to learn... but I would say the real reason is that owls are so freaking cool! I mean they are cute and powerful and mysterious and secretive all at once! Everyone loves owls. The fact that they are nocturnal and rarely seen by most people makes them so much more alluring. At school, my students love to learn about night creatures, and adults are no different. When we are walking through forest without headlamps anticipating owls in our nets, it is like going on a mini adventure every time. And I never get tired of the reaction of our guests when we take a saw-whet out of a bird bag for them to see for the first time! That choral "awwwhhhhh" is priceless!“

The HM is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institute’s Project Owlnet it is a continent-wide effort to monitor the migratory ecology and population dynamics of the northern saw-whet owl. This study involves intensive continuous effort in mist-netting and banding. This diminutive owl is solely nocturnal. Their migratory route takes them from northern Canada to southern Georgia. Due to their small size, they are prey for larger owls and so they tend to remain silent while on the migration. Joanne says, “In order to capture or attract these owls to our banding station, we play a lure tape. All owls that visit our station are measured, banded, and released unharmed. We hope that these owls will be recaptured at another station so that we may learn more about their movements.”

Owl Audio

The status of the Northern Saw-whet owls has changed because of the lure call. Years ago these species were not normally spotted in the day due to their habit of perching near the trunk of a tree and not many were banded. Bruce said, “Now with the encouragement of research by Project Owlnet we know they are the most abundant owl in North America. Many of the owls we banded show up across the American northeast, the majority seem to find their way to Pennsylvania and West Virginia, New York and across southern Ontario. As well every year we usually catch a number of birds that have been banded originally by other banders; so far this year we have captured six birds that we call "foreign birds” as well every year we catch one or two of our birds that come back to the marsh.”

“We band owls because our location is on the edge of the boreal forest and gives us a unique opportunity to band these birds and provide an opportunity for researches to see the distribution of a denizen of the boreal.” (Yes it was looked up…” an inhabitant or occupant of particular places.”). He said, “Owls are such incredible creatures that people are drawn to. I could tell people that we caught an incredible rare warbler at the marsh but tell them that we caught 40 saw-whet owls last night and they are instantly engaged, show them an owl up close and I have a friend for life. More importantly, it hopefully gives people pause to think about the importance of the boreal forest which is where these birds breed.”

Owl Stats 2021

Joanne and Bruce review the impressive stats. In 2012 Hilliardton Marsh broke a North American record with 202 boreal owls. As a comparison, before the audio owl calls were used as a lure, in 1969 only 62 saw-whets were banded in the entire province; with 31 at Hilliardton Marsh.

About the process, Bruce had the following to say.

The season was a challenge again this year due to extremely warm conditions in September which seem to be becoming a theme year after year.

When the weather did get cooler the moon phase was not the best for us and then we missed a week due to rain but overall it was a great season we met some amazing people and were able to have groups come to see the owls outside with our COVID protocol in effect and we managed to get some interesting birds.

We managed to band 354 northern saw-whets which is a bit below our average of 403 and we banded 26 boreals (58 is the average) and two long-eared owls.

So it was not business as usual but unusual business. I often tell people owl banding is my business and business is good! It is a quote from the classic movie Major Payne a must-see if there ever was one.

I often have to pinch myself to realize how lucky we are to live in the boreal forest and to be able to get a chance to show visitors these wonderful creatures.

They are awe-inspiring as is the passion that people have for owls. In the future, we are hoping to have ways to have more people see the owl banding process.

Hopefully, pandemic restrictions will fade and we will have more folks out to see the owls. I am sure I fielded more than 70 calls from people who were disappointed to hear the news that we were completely booked.

Hopefully, that will be a thing of the past and we will not be leaving folks without hope of seeing owls at the marsh.

"We were excited to catch four saw-whet owls that were banded in other locations,” Joanne said. “One was banded in Peterborough, another was from Burlington, and our long-distance fliers were from Wisconsin and Massachusetts.”

What about a full, “owl” moon?

Joanne and Bruce said the full moon phase is “counter-intuitive.” Apparently, a full moon reduces the chance of catching owls, the new moon phase is best.

Another factor owls move best when the air is cold. “We have had occasions when we have caught 40 owls at 2° C and then it goes to 15°C and we catch one owl. Is it the prey that feels vulnerable or is it the owls cannot fly well with a full moon, kind of like driving into a setting sun!”

There’s good news for 2022 because of FedNOR funding a new two-storey visitor/education centre will be built on-site with some accommodation/offices for researchers.

There will be an emphasis on program development for families, seniors and schools. The Hilliardton Marsh website and the map are here.

Owls are different, is it because of their silence in flight or their eerie vocalizations?

Owls loom at us out of the darkness with a rich sense of mystery. Mother Nature is always speaking to us. And contrary to the meaning of “I couldn’t give two hoots” these birders have been taught by the teacher, herself, with wise words from the night.

Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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