I have been banding small owls (Western Screech-Owls, WESO; Northern Saw-whet Owls, NSWO; Flammulated Owls, FLOW; and Northern Pygmy-Owls, NOPO) for a couple of years now. Here I am fibbing a bit, as I've only banded three FLOW and one NOPO. My first small owl was banded a dozen years ago, when a WESO was accidentally caught while mist netting for passerine late in the afternoon/early evening. This prompted an effort to catch and band small owls at selected locations. I learned more about banding small owls during a sabbatical leave when I worked with C.J. Ralph at the Humboldt Bay Bird Observatory and John Alexander at the Klamath Bird Observatory.
A couple of years ago, I was approached by Mary Freeman (and later by Lance Benner) to assist in the study of small owls in the Angeles National Forest. Mary's focus was specifically on NSWO, while Lance was interested in all four owls but maybe more on the two rare owls (FLOW and NOPO). Their interest in these owls came about when the Breeding Bird Survey for Los Angeles County found holes in our knowledge of these birds. How many are there? Where are they? Are they breeding? Are they year-round residents? Are they migrants? etc. Fortunately, both of my "scouts" oddly enough work at JPL, located at the bottom of the Angeles National Forest, which affords them quick and easy access to the mountains. And so I must emphasize that the project is not mine. They do most of the hard leg work going up into the mountains regularly to find these owls. I get to do the fun part, catch them and band them.
Independently, both developed a strategy with me. I was never particularly interested in trapping and banding owls, because they were out at night. I like my sleep. The plan was that they would go up into the Angeles NF and find the owls by audio means. Once a bird was located and found to be reliably there, we tried to connect and set a date. In the late afternoon, they would lead me to the "spot." We would set up mist nets, maybe use a Bal-chitri trap with a mouse inside, and an audiolure. The plan was to try until 10-11:00p. That would get me back down the mountain and into bed at a reasonable hours. Thus far, it seems as if we would catch the bird by 9:00p most evenings. Without checking, I would guess we have been successful about 75% of the time. By success, I mean we caught an owl... maybe not quite the species we were targeting.
The schedule is irregular. Both Mary, Lance, and I have real jobs and must pay the bills. We get no grant moneys or other financial support. So they go up into the mountains as time permits. When they find an owl, my schedule must match with theirs.
You are more than welcome to join us. We try
to limit the groups size. Bear in mind, we might catch some montane passerines
making a late foray just before it gets dark, and if we were lucky, we'd catch one
owl. This is the end of the evening's effort, although we are developing
a strategy to possibly catch two owls in an evening. We are also
considering expanding our targets to include Common Poorwills. If we are
successful, everyone takes lots of owl pictures. If the bird is not
stressed, a picture of you with the bird is possible.
It can be cool up in the mountains. It can be quite buggy (mosquitoes). It can be quite boring, as we just sit around listening for owls. We can't have lights on, as it might distract the owls. Lance is a research astronomer, so we often have a "star party." It can be a harrowing drive in the mountains. There are accidents regularly as flat-landers drive into the canyon bottoms, so emergency vehicles are often blocking access into the mountains. I've had passengers get car sick on the winding drive up the mountain and BAARF in my van! And the commuters heading home to the Antelope Valley cut through the Angeles Crest Highway are rudely tailgating you. Sometimes we encounter dense fog, and high winds and precipitation are possibilities.
Station Fire: As of yet, we do not know what the Station Fire has done to our study area. I think I heard the tail end of a recent news clip saying that the Angeles Crest Highway is now open, but that is unconfirmed. And probably any significant rains will start flooding and slides, closing the road down again.