It’s not been a terribly cold or terribly snowy winter in South Dakota, yet…it’s WINTER IN SOUTH DAKOTA!!! It’s never all that fun here in winter. However, finding Northern Saw-whet Owls for the first time ever in this area has been a really delightful surprise, something that’s kept me going. I wanted to head down to Newton Hills State Park again yesterday to look for the owls.
The easiest way to find Saw-whet Owls isn’t to look for the owls themselves. Not to be gross (it’s really not when you find it), but it’s owl poo and barf that you’re looking for! The owls are often in such dense habitat that the easiest way to find them is to look for whitewash, their poo that may spot and streak a tree and the ground below a commonly used day roost. You’ll also find owl pellets lying below a commonly used perch (not really “barf”, but you get the idea). It was cold yesterday, but clear…at least when I left the house. By the time I got to close to Newton Hills there were clouds, and the road was slightly damp as if there had been some precipitation. When I got to Newton Hills itself…there was a fresh dusting a snow on the ground.
A DUSTING OF SNOW!!! DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT A DISASTER THAT IS!?!?!?! With a dusting of snow, the ground and trees have a coating of white. With a coating of white, it’s impossible to see the whitewash, and thus very, very difficult to find Saw-whet Owls.
I gave it a half-hearted effort for half an hour without finding any owls. I decided to head back home, dejected about the surprise dusting of snow that had ruined my plans. However, in between Newton Hills and home is Lake Alvin, a reservoir with many cedar trees scattered around its shores. Given that it hadn’t snowed at Lake Alvin, I thought I’d do a short search for owls, even though I’d never found one there before.
It was only 10 minutes of searching when I found the first really strong indication of an owl roost. The whitewash below the tree (and streaking a few branches) was unmistakable, something that always gets your heart racing, because you KNOW an owl has been there at some point. Then comes the real excitement…following the imaginary path straight up from the whitewash, hoping you’ll come eye-to-eye with a Saw-whet Owl. BINGO!! OWL!!! The first possibly roost that I found also yielded a beautiful owl, looking down at me from about 10 feet up in the small cedar tree.
Maybe the snow in Newton Hills was a blessing in disguise! I’d never have looked at Lake Alvin if conditions were better at Newton Hills. After enjoying the first owl for a few minutes, I continued the search, moving to the area directly below the dam. I parked, began the search, and literally within 5 minutes of looking found another splotchy pile of whitewash below a small cedar tree. The slow raise of the head, and BOOM! Another Saw-whet Owl! And what a find this one was! He was at eye-level, the lowest of any Saw-whet Owl I’ve found this winter, and in such a location that you could get an almost clear look at the bird. What a beauty! And a sleeping beauty at that, as he kept seemingly nodding off and falling asleep as I watched and photographed him from close range.
A disaster of a day caused by snow had now resulted in me finding Northern Saw-whet Owls at Lake Alvin for the first time! I continued the search, finding many obvious roost locations, but after the early success, I went another hour and a half without finding another owl. I was tired from trudging up and down the hilly terrain, slogging through the brush, but I tried one more location on the north shore of the lake. It didn’t take long before I found owl #3 of the day! This one was about 14 feet up in a thick stand of slender cedars, on a steep slope. Not the most photogenic of owls, but a wonderful way to end the day.
Thank you Mother Nature for the unexpected dusting of snow in Newton Hills! I now have another local (and closer!!) Northern Saw-whet Owl “hot-spot” to help get me through long South Dakota winters!
(OK…YES, it’s another post about Saw-whet Owls!! But hey, March is around the corner! With March comes the first migrants…hopefully I’ll be able to go birding for something else “fun” soon!!)