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Owl Research isn't just for scientists!

by Jenny Doty, Office Manager

Every year, scientists and volunteer citizens working alongside them, conduct research and collect data on migratory birds which is submitted to the US Geological Survey.This database, which contains over 70 million entries, is used to produce reports and publications, guidance documents, management and conservation plans, and hunting regulations - all of which are necessary to conserve and manage migratory birds. Recently, Quarry Hill staff spent a weekend at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center. Banding Northern Saw-whet Owls was one of the opportunities and just one of the many types of birds banded for research.
This is my experience. 

When our director announced the Quarry Hill staff-development weekend at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in Finland, MN, and told us to choose a workshop, my choice was easy. Banding Northern Saw-whet Owls would be an opportunity to experience what I had missed the year before. When Quarry Hill set-up last year to band Saw-whets, I went on a late net-check that did not catch any owls.The Rochester area is not typically a hot spot for this species, although we diligently set our nets and band those owls that are migrating through this area. Wolf Ridge, on the other hand, is prime real estate for watching and banding migrating birds, including Saw-whets.

I was not sure what to expect. I was the only Quarry Hill staff member that chose this workshop and I had grown used to having the expert staff members only feet away when faced with unexpected questions and situations involving nature.

Would I be an observer or get to help with banding? I was aware that wind and weather would be a factor, and we might not catch any owls at all. I was prepared for that. I was not prepared for what actually happened.

We arrived at Wolf Ridge at 4 PM on a Friday. I met the six other members in my group – only one had any owl-banding experience. At 6:30 PM our instructor Dave from the Forestry Service began teaching us how to age, sex, and band owls.

Just before dark we put up the mist nets in the forest and went indoors to wait. By 8 PM, three owls had flown into the nets. Dave knew these could be the only three birds we would see all night. He spread the banding duties out so everyone had a chance to use some of what we had just learned. We set to work recording band numbers, wing cord measurements, age and sex of the birds before releasing them back into the night sky.  

By 10 PM, we had 15 owls. We made a checklist to make sure everyone got to do every step in the banding process. We were all getting good at this! 

By midnight we had 25 owls. I began thinking we may need to wake up my co-workers for reinforcements.  

By 2 AM we were at 35 owls and at 3:30 AM we pulled up to the lodge – having banded a total of 37 Saw-whets. We all were exhausted, but exhilarated. I could not believe what I had just experienced!

The next night the winds weren’t as favorable. We caught 12 owls total – just enough to renew our confidence and build on our newly learned skills. It also gave us time to listen to Dave’s stories from his many years in the Forestry Service, and to share our own stories from the night before. What a weekend!

As the Quarry Hill office manager, I’m not expected to know all the answers, but rather to know where to direct the questions. My own experiences in nature help prepare me to do that. My Wolf Ridge experience has helped me be a better resource and given me more confidence standing behind the front desk. Thank you Quarry Hill for investing in me!

Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center hosts a Fabulous Fall Adult Learning Weekend each fall that is open to the public. We encourage you check out these unique experiences designed specially for curious adults that enjoy exploring and learning. The accommodations at Wolf Ridge's new Mac Lodge which meets rigorous Living Building Challenge standards are comfortable and the food is locally sourced and delicious. It's a weekend experience you won't forget on a campus that is quintessential Minnesota!