Cape May's Night Owls

Posted 11/15/04
by Paul Kerlinger
Cape May Times Outdoors Columnist

CAPE MAY, N.J. –It is a very different Cape May than the July beach scene. Instead of a hot sun overhead, we look up into a black sky, strewn with the Milky Way.

Instead of shorts and a t-shirt, we are bundled in our parkas and heavy boots.

Walking along a wet trail cut through the Cape May Meadows marsh edge at 10PM on a November night, my wife and I hope to see an owl or two. Our efforts are rewarded.

While Cape May sleeps, thousands of owls migrate through the darkness overhead.

We know about this migration because of the efforts of Katy Duffy and Patrick Matheny, who have studied owls here for about 25 years.

Each fall, Katy and Patrick travel from their home near Yellowstone in Wyoming to learn more about the owls and their migration.

For nearly a month, they go out from dusk until dawn, banding owls to study their movements and behavior.

We watch as Katy carefully weighs the new owl and measures its wings, to try to determine its age.

Later in the evening, Katy and Patrick show the saw-whet to a small gathering, waiting in the parking lot to catch a glimpse of this mysterious creature of the night up close.

Weighing less than a McDonald’s quarter-pounder, Saw-whet Owls are the most numerous of the owls that migrate through Cape May.

But most people never get the chance to see these nocturnal birds. They could be right in your backyard, but they blend into the trees, making it more likely that they will see you and you will never know they are there.

Saw-whet Owls converge on Cape May from as far north as Quebec and Ontario, and as far west as Wisconsin.

So far this year Katy and Patrick have banded more than 100 Saw-whet Owls, plus seven Long-eared Owls and a couple of Barn Owls, in Cape May.

Thanks to their ongoing study, we now know that the peak owl migration here in Cape May is from the last days of October through mid-November.

Also because of the Duffy-Maheny studies, we have a better idea as to where these birds nest and where they spend the winter - anywhere from here south to the Carolinas.

Last night's small group stood in pitch black darkness and watched as Katy's owl took flight, starting on that southward trip.

As we walked away, we all hoped that the little Saw-whet makes it safely to its destination.

Patrick Matheny with Saw-whet Owl
Katy Duffy with just caught Saw-whet Owl
Weighing and measuring
Showing the Saw-whet to gatherers
Patrick Matheny, Katy Duffy and friend



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