I’ve always been fascinated by owls. Their eyes look like two annular solar eclipses, rings bursting with a golden flame, lighting their way through the night.
I have nothing but my cellphone to light my way through the thick dark forest at the end of Galloway Gulch Road, Nanaimo—just off Jingle Pot Road behind the VIU campus.
The sun has just set, and all I have with me is a notebook, a pen, and my camera. I’m looking for the Northern Saw-whet Owl.
My friend Kenzie, a Biology student at VIU, invited me to tag along on an owl banding trip, something I had never done before.
Biology Professor, Eric Demers, is in charge of the owl banding. As we walked through the trees, he told me about the bird we were trying to catch—the Northern Saw-whet Owl.
“[They] are about 15-20 cm tall,” he explained. “They live in these forests and migrate through them. In the spring, they move north, and in the fall, they move south. And right now, we are in the prime of the fall migration for these little owls.”
Where these owls have migrated from is a mystery.
“It could be North Island, Central Coast, maybe even further up,” Demers said. “And then they will be dispersing south. While they pass by, they are attracted to the sound we play.”
About 30 ft from where we camped out was a speaker blaring the sound of a male Northern Saw-whet owl calling. The device was surrounded by a bunch of nets, so if any owls were to investigate the sound, they would get trapped.
“We come back every 30 minutes to check the traps to see if we have caught anything,” Demers said. “If we do, we extract the birds from the net and process them.”
The “processing” Demers referred to is the banding of the birds. An aluminum band with nine unique digits is secured around the bird’s leg. No other owl will in North America will have the same numbers.
“It is like we are giving an individual name to that one bird,” Demers said.
Before the owls are released, they note measurements, weight, age, and body condition.
“If they get caught again, we learn something about them,” Demers said. “But even if we don’t catch them again, just that we have been able to uptake that information is quite interesting. And it serves the North American Data Base on these owls.”
Demers’ owl banding group is not done for credits, but for the passion of learning about these animals. The group is not just limited to Biology students, either.
“It’s mostly an activity to show students this aspect of the biological sampling of animals,” Demers said. “So, it’s not on a fixed schedule; I do it on the side of my desk whenever I can squeeze the time. I try to do it a couple of nights in the fall, as long as there is interest in the students who want to try it.”
Although we didn’t end up catching any owls that night, I met many amazing and unique people I wouldn’t have otherwise—like Ty, an RMOT student (Resource Management Officer Technology).
As Ty put it, “You never know if the wildlife is going to show up, but if you have other passionate people who show up, you always have a good time.”