Portrait of a wild Northern Saw-whet Owl, taken on January 27th, 2015 at Newton Hills State Park in South Dakota. Click for a larger view.
I think every birder has “nemesis” species, birds that for some reason, you’ve had little luck in finding. For me, some of them have been surprisingly common. A “nemesis” for me typically means it’s a bird I’ve maybe even seen a number of times, but have never managed to get a good photograph of. Examples for me include a Greater Prairie Chicken, Broad-winged Hawk, Peregrine Falcon, and Common Nighthawk.
The Northern Saw-whet Owl is a species I’ve seen before, and even gotten decent photographs for. But in terms of “hours spent” per “bird found”, I don’t think any bird ranks higher on my nemesis list than the Saw-whet Owl. The last time I had seen Northern Saw-whet Owls? January 9th, 2005. This was on a trip to the Pierre area, where Kenny Miller, Ricky Olson, and Doug Backlund had been consistently finding the birds in the cedar breaks along the Missouri River near Oahe Dam. Even so, they aren’t an easy bird to find! Most people don’t even bother looking, given the difficulty in finding them in the thick habitat they use for daytime roosts. I admit that I wouldn’t have seen a Saw-whet Owl back in January 2005, if not for Kenny Miller and Doug Backlund basically walking me right to the perches of two birds, sitting perhaps 20 yards apart in thick cedar habitat.
The same bird as the top photograph, but a full body shot. I watched this guy from very close range for about 5 minutes. By the end he was nodding back off to sleep, and I left him alone to complete his daytime nap.
I’ve also remembered that day very fondly, seeing the two little owls that looked more like little wind-up toys than actual living, breathing creatures. I’ve also tried MANY times to replicate that day in the intervening years! I head to the Pierre area 2 or 3 times every winter to look for winter raptors, but also, to (hopefully!) replicate that day where I saw the Saw-whets. I know what to looks for, I know that habitat in which they’re found, but in the LONG 10 years since that last sighting, all my hours of bush-wacking through the cedar trees have led to a total of ZERO Saw-whet Owl finds.
THIS winter I told myself I was going to find a Saw-whet Owl. It’s a good 3 1/2 hour drive to Pierre, but given the distribution of Northern Saw-whet Owls in the surrounding area and states in the region, people always thought it was likely they were around southeast South Dakota in winter, but nobody was bothering to search for them. Starting in late November, I started looking through cedar groves in and around the Sioux Falls region, looking for the tell-tale whitewash and pellets that mark a Saw-whet Owl’s daytime roost. I was IMMEDIATELY encouraged by what I found. There were owl pellets, and whitewash, in many different locations, including the Big Sioux Recreation Area in Brandon, around Lake Alvin, and in Newton Hills State Park. But despite many, many hours of searching, none of the evidence ended up leading to an observation of an actual Saw-whet.
I’m glad to report the 10-year dry spell ended on January 27th of this year! The forecast was sunny and warm (well, warm by South Dakota winter standards), so I took the day off work, telling myself I would spend the entire day looking until I actually found one. I wanted to focus on Newton Hills State Park, because two local birders had recently gone “owling” in the early morning hours, and had Saw-whet Owls responding to played tapes. Going to the locations where they had heard owls, I started the search, and immediately started finding whitewash and pellets. But after 3 hours…no actual owls.
A more typical view of a Saw-whet Owl! Unlike the previous photos here, it's MUCH more likely that any Saw-whet you're fortunate enough to find will be partially obscured by the thick vegetation that he's roosting in! One reason I was so thrilled to get the photos of the previous bird in this post is that it's the ONLY time I've been able to see a Saw-whet Owl that wasn't obscured by vegetation!
The drought ended when I walked past a thick, young cedar stand I had searched earlier in the morning, and thought I’d look one more time, given all the whitewash on the ground. Frankly, I think I just missed the bird the first time. This time, I found a little ring of whitewash on the ground, looked up, and was rather shocked to see a tiny Saw-whet Owl staring back down at me, from about 12 feet high in a small cedar tree.
The day ended up being truly spectacular. I went on to find 3 more Saw-whet Owls, with all four being found in widely separated locations. Records of Saw-whet Owls are few and far between in this part of the world, with eBird only having 3 sightings registered in the entire eastern half of South Dakota. I think there’s little doubt Saw-whet Owls are a lot more common than most people think, and I have little doubt that there are many other Saw-whets waiting to be found in the state.
All it takes is a birder willing to sacrifice innumerable hours of their life bush-wacking through thick cedar stands! It’s a low-probability task in terms of the hours spent per bird, but it’s incredibly rewarding to actually find and observe a Saw-whet Owl at close range in the wild. Just as the birders of Pierre inspired me to search for Saw-whets, I hope others follow their lead and take the time to try to find these little beauties, and help us better understand the winter distribution and population of Northern Saw-whet Owls.