Owl Banding at the Dunes



A light colored ball of feathers hits the mist net and rests cradled in a pocket until a bird bander retrieves it moments later.  Inside the nature center, the little saw whet owl is weighed and measured, and a tiny silver-colored band with an ID number is fastened like a bracelet on its leg. After the data is recorded, the owl is taken back outside and released into the darkness.

At Indiana Dunes State Park, in Chesterton, Indiana, this ritual is repeated nightly in October and November, weather permitting, as part of “Project Owlnet”, a coalition of owl banding stations across the northeast.

Saw whet owls are the smallest owls in our region, about the size of an adult human hand. With large black and yellow eyes, they easily top the “cutest” category. They breed farther north and, unlike other owls that eat mice and birds, saw whets migrate south in fall to southern states and Mexico. They get their name from one of their calls that some people say resembles the sound of a saw being sharpened or “whetted.”

A few years ago, Park Interpretive Naturalist Brad Bumgardner wondered if saw whets migrated along the shore of Lake Michigan and through Indiana Dunes State Park which sits at the lake’s southern terminus. With the proper permits, he set up his banding station in a remote area of the park.

The gear includes several sets of mist nets strung between tall poles. The netting is so fine, that even in daylight it is difficult to see. At the center of the net array is a large gray box with a powerful sound system that belts out the monotonous “toot” call of a male saw whet owl from an MP3 player.

Just before dark, Brad unfurls the mist nets and turns on the sound system, then retreats into the park nature center to wait. Every hour, Brad and a team of volunteers make a “net run.” Wearing head lamps, they hike out to the nets to see if a saw whet owl has been captured.

Some nights they catch nothing. When they do net an owl, the data collected from this and other “Project Owlnet” locations help answer questions about migration and the habits of these birds.

Owls of all shapes and sizes are notoriously hard to see, primarily because they are nocturnal. Many avid birdwatchers have never seen one. Brad and the volunteers provide public programs at the nature center a few nights during banding season so people have a chance to learn about these owls and about bird banding. “I think it’s one of the best ways to share conservation messages. When people see a live bird up close, they understand the importance of protecting our natural areas,” says Brad.

Family Activity

Adopt an Owl!

Banded saw whet owls are eligible for “adoption.” Families, businesses or individuals that adopt an owl get a certificate with a photo of their owl taken before it is released back into the woods. Funds raised from adoptions provide supplies and materials for the banding station, such as replacement nets and tools. Owl adoptions make a unique gift! If you are interested in adopting, contact Indiana Dunes State Park Nature Center at: (219) 926-1390.

Learn about bird banding

The last saw whet banding night open to the public is November 3, but Indiana Dunes State Park bands song birds year round, sometimes setting up nets near the feeders to band chickadees and other small birds. It’s a chance to see them up close! For information about banding days and times, visit: www.in.gov/dnr/parklake/2980.htm or call the park at the phone number above.


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