Last winter was a blast. OK, that’s not something you typically say when you live in frigid South Dakota, but I really enjoyed last winter, and am looking forward to the cold weather again. The reason? Northern Saw-whet Owls!! Prior to last winter, I’d seen them on rare occasion, when I went to the Pierre area. It was a quite a few years ago when birders in the area started looking for them in cedar tree thickets near the Missouri River. It takes quite a bit of work to find one however. Looking for Saw-whet owls typically involves bush-whacking through dense cedar thickets, looking on the ground and on tree branches for the tell-tale “white-wash” that accumulates when the little owls use the same roost day after day.
When I say I’d seen them on “rare occasion”, it was literally ALWAYS finding a bird that someone else had found. Oh sure, I’d given it the ol’ college try. Prior to last winter, there were a number of times that I myself would go tromping through cedar thickets in Pierre, trying to find the little owls. I was great at finding roosts where they USED to be! As for finding a live owl? Not so much.
I think people always suspected Northern Saw-whet Owls were much more widely distributed in South Dakota in the winter, but actual reports were few, likely due tot he effort involved in actually finding one. Last winter I was determined to 1) actually find my “own” Saw-whet owl, and 2) do so right here near Sioux Falls, rather than making the 3 1/2 hour drive to Pierre, where they’re known to be found. It wasn’t very encouraging at first. And when I say “at first”, I mean there were probably about 10 fruitless trips trudging through cedar tree thickets, looking for owls. The story was much like my attempts in Pierre…I was GREAT at finding owl pellets and whitewash, but wasn’t finding the owls themselves.
That all changed in January when I finally found my first Northern Saw-whet Owl in southeastern South Dakota. It was at Newton Hills State Park, and he wasn’t alone! On that truly magnificent day, I found not one, but four different Saw-whet Owls, all in the typical cedar thicket habitat that was similar to where they had been found for years in Pierre. At least according to “eBird” reports, these were the first Saw-whet Owls reported in this part of the state. The rest of the winter was great, going back to visit previously found Saw-whets (they tend to have roosting site fidelity, using the same sites for many days in a row), and finding new ones. I ended up finding a few more at Newton Hills that winter, and then also started finding them around Lake Alvin, just south of Sioux Falls. For the winter, at least 9 individual over-wintering owls were found.
Just in the past few days bird banders in the area reported capturing and banding the first migrating Saw-whet owls of the season. They’re here! Or, at least they’re starting to arrive! I’ll probably wait a couple of weeks before heading out to actually look for one, giving them a little more time to arrive, giving a little more time for the whitewash and pellet evidence to accumulate. In the meantime, last weekend in my excitement for the coming winter, I did a colored pencil drawing of a Northern Saw-whet Owl, using a photo of one from last winter as a guide.
I can’t wait! The owls are coming! The owls are coming!! 🙂