It was a pleasant surprise to be able to add two new owl species to my bird species photographed list over my long holiday break. The second owl species and subject of this specific post is the Northern Saw-whet Owl. Although this species can be found in the Show-me State during winter, I heard of a location along with a Radagast like wizard who could conjure up this species upon request within a mere eight-hour drive from our front door. Having waited longer to do this than we should have, Sarah and I loaded up the Subaru and headed for the wilds of west-central Iowa.
Don Poggensee is no mere wizard, but an accomplished photographer, pilot and naturalist who loves spending time during his retirement monitoring the park’s owls and showing them to anyone interested in getting exceptional looks and knowledge about these visitors from the north. Don has been monitoring, helping in banding projects and showing folks (in the hundreds, if not thousands by now) the owls since 1989. Sarah and I met up with Don one morning along with a couple of other birders, including The Birding Project’s Christian Hagenlocher. We grabbed our cameras and binoculars – not that we would be needing these and followed Don to the specific roost tree that he knew the owl would be found.
Winter weather in this part of the Midwest can be brutal and unpredictable. In the days preceding our visit, temps bottomed out at ~ -25 F. As Don explained to us, colder temperatures and heavy snowfalls often force the owls to find more suitable roost sites that he is typically not able to find. We lucked out and had rather comfortable conditions for the short hike to the owl’s roost tree.
Saw-whets are year-round residents across southern Canada and the northern U.S. but winters across most of the continental U.S. They typically can be found roosting 3 – 12′ in conifers but can also be found in honeysuckle tangles in winter locations where their preferred conifers may not be abundant. Banding programs, made up of mostly citizen scientists have only recently begun to shed light on the seasonal migratory movements of this species. Along with locations and dates, these banding programs have shown that most migrants are females or immature males. Adult males stay on breeding grounds during winter, presumably to hold onto prey-rich territories.
In case you are wondering, Saw-whets got their name from the apparent similarities that one of their common vocalizations has to the sounds made by the sharpening, or whetting of a saw’s blade. They actually make at least nine distinct vocalizations, including an ascending wail that is reminiscent of an Eastern Screech Owl.
At six to nine inches high, our typical response is to wish to put one in our pocket to take home. They are quite cute. However, to nearly anything that is their size or smaller, these guys must be regarded as horrifying. While checking roost trees we found a number of their tiny pellets, each with surfaces studded by the stained bones of their rodent prey.
Works used and recommended readings:
- Weidensaul, Scott. Peterson Reference Guide to Owls of North America and the Caribbean. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015.
- Dunne, Pete. Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006.
Until next time…