The tiny saw-whet owl is named for one of its calls. When alarmed, it makes a call similar in sound to the whetting of a saw. The species has quite a few calls, but it doesn't often use them outside of breeding season. That's one reason why the residents of Arkansas used to think this species is just a rare vagrant during winter migration season. No one really heard them, and since they're nocturnal and stay well hidden during the day, no one saw them either. It was assumed they rarely visit the state, at least until grad student Mitchell Pruitt began taking a closer look.

In ground-breaking research on this species, the University of Arkansas Department of Biological Sciences student found the saw-whet owl is far more common in Arkansas than previously thought. And his work could alter the direction of conservation efforts for the species.

"Prior to my work over the last two years, saw-whets were virtually unknown from the state, meaning little is known about the secretive species in this region. Such gaps in a species’ natural history can be dangerous in today’s ever-progressing world," notes Pruitt.

To advance public awareness about his work, Pruitt teamed up with conservation photographer Melyssa St. Michael, who has been documenting everything from nightly mist-nettings to banding to the public education the project provides for avid birders and children alike. Her images are key for spreading awareness throughout the state about these tiny and adorable visitors.

We spoke with St. Michael about the research as well as her work documenting the project and the inspiration she's found in it.

MNN: How did you get involved in this project?

Melyssa St. Michael: University of Arkansas student Mitchell Pruitt and his professor, Dr. Kim Smith, had been posting on the university’s listserv for birders the October before this season. They had been wonderfully open and invited anyone who wanted to see a saw-whet to come and experience the mist-netting process. I was unable to make it last season, but had followed their progress through their first official field season. They had netted two saw-whets that season, and though I wasn’t able to be there for the first field season, I promised myself I would get involved this season.

I felt Mitchell had a very interesting story, with such a secretive species with so little known about how Arkansas fits into the saw-whet’s migration. I wanted to help support Mitchell and tell the story of the saw-whets in parallel with the hard work and research Mitchell was putting into his honors thesis around them.

I went the first night of the second field season, and that was all she wrote. I was hooked. It was amazing to watch the process, and even more amazing to see these beautiful creatures up close and in person.

I wanted to be there to help contribute by bringing awareness to the general public about these incredible owls in our forests every winter.

A saw-whet owl is checked over one last time by researcher Mitchell Pruitt before releasing it back into the wild. A saw-whet owl is checked over one last time by researcher Mitchell Pruitt before being released back into the wild. (Photo: Melyssa St. Michael)

How will Pruitt's work inform science about the saw-whet owls?

The northern saw-whet owl is a species that is common during the breeding season in Northern North America, as well as in the Rockies and Appalachians. In fall, there are large movements of the species down the East Coast and through the Northern United States. Quite a bit of research has been conducted in these regions, but almost none in the Southern and Central U.S. In our region, the only other banding stations are two in central Missouri. Prior to Mitchell’s work, saw-whets were unknown from Arkansas save for 12 historic records over the course of about 50 years.

With prompts from a researcher on the East Coast and one in Alabama, Mitchell was inspired to begin his work in November 2014. Due to a late start, he only captured two individuals in 2014. However, in this last field season, from October to December 2015, he started almost a month earlier and captured 22 saw-whets. His 2015 capture rate is similar to Missouri's, suggesting the species migrates through our area.

His work is groundbreaking, as the species was previously considered a rare vagrant to Arkansas, but has probably been a regular fall migrant all along. Saw-whets are such a mystery because they are a very small and secretive species, rarely vocalizing during the non-breeding season, therefore going undetected.

It is important to understand not just the saw-whet’s migration patterns, but whether or not and how long the saw-whets stay in our area during the winter. This information can lead to important conservation knowledge that can impact future development decisions of forested habitats.

What is the coolest thing that's happened in the project so far? Any particularly noteworthy owls captured?

There were a few really noteworthy events last season. We were excited to have multiple captures per night during the peak of the season (November 2015); five on one night has been the record so far. We also have documented several different vocalizations — which, for a species thought not to vocalize regularly outside the breeding season, is pretty cool.

We also captured a male saw-whet, which was very interesting as male saw-whets are thought to not migrate as far as the females. Lastly, we also captured two previously banded saw-whets, which was exciting to us as we knew we would be able to look the band numbers up and see their history and estimate their migration path.

The team can age saw-whet owls based on the amount of fluorescence showing on the underside of the wing. The more an owl glows, the younger it is. The team can determine the age of a saw-whet owl based on the amount of fluorescence showing on the underside of the wing. The more an owl glows, the younger it is. (Photo: Melyssa St. Michael)

There's a plan to put radio transmitters on some netted owls. How will those work?

One of the greatest mysteries of saw-whets throughout their range is where they go once they're released from a banding station. Hopefully the transmitters will aid in answering this in Arkansas. Our capture rate drops dramatically at the beginning of December when the birds stop coming to the audio-lure and, in turn, are no longer captured. However, sporadic records through February, in Arkansas, suggest some individuals could spend the winter here.

The radio transmitters emit a signal for several months, so by conducting telemetry surveys around the field site, Mitchell will be able to determine how long they remain in our area. These transmitters will attach to the birds via a cotton harness that will rot off after several months. The transmitter harnesses fit in a manner that still allows a bird full mobility. They are also very light so the birds will hardly know they are wearing one.

Each transmitter costs about $160 and we are hoping to have at least 20 individuals fitted with one. Mitchell’s third field season begins in mid-October of this year. We are working to raise enough funds to have the transmitters by September so he can make sure they work properly.

This year is a very special year when it comes to saw-whet migration. While some saw-whets seem to migrate south on a yearly basis, every four years they have “irruption year” where more than average migrate south. This is scheduled to be one of these irruption years, which is why it is critical that we raise enough funds to in time to get the transmitters. Our capture rates will most likely be doubled in 2016.

People are invited to come out for the mist-netting to watch as the owl's stats are recorded. What is the experience like?

It is so amazing to watch the pure range of emotions of the people observing — from children with huge smiles and amazed looks of wonder, to grown adults tearing up the first time they stroke the amazingly soft feathers of the saw-whet, to the elderly who can’t walk or move that well but tough it out to get the chance to see one (the field station is in a remote spot in the forest in the middle of nowhere, and is tough to drive to and then walk to).

A saw-whet owl is carefully untangled from the mist net, while tour participants see how the work is done. A saw-whet owl is carefully untangled from the mist net, while tour participants see how the work is done. (Photo: Melyssa St. Michael)

How has becoming part of this project changed you as a conservation photographer? How do you hope your images will help?

Becoming a part of this project has helped me realize how hard it is to get the word out about important research happening in our backyards, which in turn makes me want to work even harder to create compelling images that touch people’s hearts and minds, bridging the the gap between not being aware to caring.

The other way this project has changed me is I have learned positivity is powerful. While most of my conservation work centers around habitat loss, species decline and human/environmental/animal conflict, this project, by focusing on researching a little-known owl in the presence of the public, brings together a community of complete strangers every night that participate in a once-in-a-lifetime experience together.

That creates an amazing amount of positivity, and that positivity is what compels people to talk about it and spread the word unlike I have seen with anything else. That positivity also drives greater awareness in general about nature, our Earth and other important environmental issues at hand. It’s important to have a “spark” that opens the door to experiencing more of nature first-hand.

You can see the connection that happens when a person experiences seeing or touching the saw-whet for the first time — the light that comes on in their eyes, the smile that is amazingly wide. It is a beautiful and powerful moment, and one I wish everyone has an opportunity to experience. I am hoping my images convey the joy, the uniqueness and how special these amazing owls are,and that viewers are compelled to participate virtually or in person during Mitchell’s upcoming field season.

Ultimately, at the end of the day, my goal through my images is to inspire a viewer to take action, no matter how great or small. All actions count, be it participating in an environmental project near and dear to their heart, or learning more about an environmental topic. We are all powerful — we all have great potential to positively impact our earth’s future.

How can people donate to the project or stay informed about progress?

We have a Facebook group where we are posting updates and interesting tidbits of information about northern saw-whets. Is open to everyone, you don’t have to live in Arkansas to join.

We also are accepting donations at MitchellPruitt.com, where Mitchell will also be blogging once the field season starts.

Birders and supporters of the project can watch the research as it happens and get a chance to see the owls up close. Birders and supporters of the project can watch the research as it happens and get a chance to see the owls up close. (Photo: Melyssa St. Michael)

Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.