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Superstorm’s effect on owls studied

Superstorm Sandy is affecting feathered air traffic in West Virginia.

Nearly 5,000 ducks have been recorded at Cheat Lake near Morgantown, according to Hoy Murphy, public information officer with the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources.

Bonaparte gulls have been sighted at Tygart Lake State Park, and the possibility of a little gull was also reported, according to DNR.

However, it's the mysterious, tiny saw-whet owl that has captivated the attention of Joey Herron of Fairmont.

This marks the eighth year for Herron to study the migration of these owls and conduct banding at Valley Falls State Park near Fairmont.

"I've been birding for 40 years," said Herron, 55, who holds a biology degree and is a certified bird bander. "This is my eighth year with Project Owlnet that has 100 stations all over the United States involved in banding saw owls."

Saw-whet owls typically pass through the Tygart Valley each year from October through November.  It's too early to tell how weather conditions have influenced the migration this year.

Herron caught six on Friday with plans to continue catching and banding the birds over the weekend. He has banded more than 200 saw-whet owls.

They are caught by using a large net and an audio lure call, he said. They are weighed, banded and charted as to sex and approximate age. Females are typically larger, and feathers help determine age, he said.

"The main purpose is to see how long they live and their survival rates," he said. "It's interesting to see where they go. I have banded some here that have been caught in Canada and Michigan."

They are fascinating, tiny and elusive. A saw-whet owl weighs about two and half ounces and is about seven inches tall.

While the bulk of their nesting is in the Boreal Forest of Canada, it has been discovered that some breed in West Virginia's higher elevations, he said.

"These guys are interesting," he said. "They are small and secretive. They are nocturnal. They are migrating here more than we thought."

They are also helpful.

"All birds of prey or raptors are beneficial," he said. "They manage the rodent population. Without owls and hawks, the rodent population would be a lot more."

He will continue to monitor this year's migration of the saw-whet owl through West Virginia.

"It's been a heavy migration year north of me," he said. "We think a lot might be hunkered down and might migrate later. We'll see when the migration ends."     

Contact writer Charlotte Ferrell Smith at charlotte@dailymail.com or 304-348-1246.


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