Say-what? You Saw-what?!

Birding. It never stops throwing surprises at me. After going on those raging birding benders this past month in northern Minnesota, it was time to settle down. Time to get back to the real job, back to responsibility.  And that’s exactly what I set out to do this Wednesday when I woke up ready to get stuff done. My work for the day involved collaborating with some of our district’s elementary teachers. Responsibility was going well. Productivity was happening.  But just as I was packing up to leave, Jeremy (Barred Owl Jeremy) started telling me about a “baby Great Horned Owl” in his friend’s yard.  My mind was slowly processing this information–February, baby Owls…something isn’t adding up here. While I struggled to understand, he held his hands about 8 inches apart and said, “Yeah, it was this big.” Now I was awake and shock was setting in as I realized he was talking about a Northern Saw-whet Owl. And the evidence kept mounting: “It just sits in a pine tree all day right by their window.” I nearly dropped my laptop. A quick Google image search had Jeremy confirm what I suspected. Jeremy then added fuel to the fire that was raging in me when he told me the Owl was in the tree that very morning. Then, nice guy that he is, Jeremy, through a flurry of text messages, arranged for me stop by his friend’s house that very evening after work.

Birders know that Saw-whets are tough, tough birds to get.  They aren’t rare, but hardly anyone finds them because of their size and their ability to remain still in well-concealed perches.  Then, when birders do find them, they often don’t share for fear that numerous birders will come and disturb the Owls on their roosts.  If a generous or green-horned birder does post a location of a Saw-whet on FB, you better screenshot it quick before Admin takes it down.  So, to find one, you either have to put in a lot of time searching, have a serendipitous encounter, or know a guy who knows a guy that owes that guy some kind of an Owl favor.  Nearly 4 years and 400 birds into this hobby, I had yet to be successful in getting a Saw-whet through any of those means.  I had seen 14 of North America’s Owl species, and this was not one of them.  I knew it would happen eventually.  I’ve put in time searching near and far.  I even went to great lengths to track down a roost site that was public knowledge for all of 5 minutes on FB.  But not even three visits to that white-washed tree this winter netted me that bird. Then a couple weeks ago I found out I there was one on a very road I had traveled that very same day in the Sax-Zim Bog.  The Saw-whet saga dragged on. Until this day.

My moment had finally arrived.

On hardly any notice, birding buddy Steve Gardner was ready to roll with me just as soon as I got out of work, picked up kids at school, and dropped Marin off with Melissa. I just assumed Evan wanted to go.  Strangely, and this may haunt him someday, he opted to go along to his sister’s dance practice instead. What the heck? He hates going there, and this was a lifer Owl.  As Steve and I pulled out, Melissa asked Evan if he was sure he knew what he was doing to which he responded, “Mom, I’m 8. I have my whole life to look for that bird!”

Steve and I don’t have our whole lives and much has already slipped by Saw-whetless. Needless to say, we were booking it to get to the location an hour away just before sundown. I don’t think Steve and I were prepared for how cool this Owl was in real life.

Northern Saw-whet OwlThe Saw-whet is not much bigger than a pop can. I don’t think I’ve seen an animal that’s cuter. Jeremy’s friends pinpointed it for us right away.  That was probably a good thing…

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Northern Saw-whet Owl

This tame Owl just sat and watched me and Steve, mostly Steve.

Northern Saw-whet OwlOccasionally it looked at me.

Northern Saw-whet OwlBut it was mostly captivated by Steve.

Northern Saw-whet OwlNorthern Saw-whet OwlWhat was fascinating to me was how sloth-like this Owl was in moving its head.  The movement was almost indiscernible. The fact that we were finally looking at a real Northern Saw-whet Owl combined with a close encounter with a tame bird makes this one of the best Owl experiences I’ve ever had.

Northern Saw-whet OwlAfter taking last looks at the Owl and admiring the massive pile of pellets and all the whitewash from an Owl that has sat in this same spot every day for the winter, Steve and I thanked the homeowners and headed home feeling good…or evil.  Steve called up his twin brother who is also a birder and rubbed in his new lifer.  I went to the liquor store.

This was a long-awaited day.  It felt so good. I honestly thought it was still years away from happening.  A huge thank you to Jeremy for an extraordinary addition to mine and Steve’s life lists!

14 thoughts on “Say-what? You Saw-what?!

  1. Congratulations on a great bird and fantastic photos! Evan just cracks me up. This is a bird I have yet to photograph. What a great experience!

  2. Congrats on a lifer owl even after all of the ridiculous ones you have just posted! I also think your victory response was totally appropriate. I have yet to see this owl and only have four species to my name, but the size thing would probably throw me waaay off. I have had a lot of encounters where my first thought was “I thought it would be bigger.” White Ibis especially comes to mind.

    • Thanks Greg! I agree it has been a bit ridiculous lately, but slightly more awesome than ridiculous.

      Apparently, there are all kinds of brews out there with birds on the label, and specifically, a number of them are Owls! Bell’s Best Brown used to even have a Boreal Owl on its label. How cool would that be for when I finally get that most ridiculous of all Owl lifers? Unfortunately, their label is now a GHOW. 🙁

      You could boost your Owl list greatly on a winter MN trip.

  3. I wish I was heading your way soon. I let you know a bit about my local stalking of a NSWO that turned out to be a NSHR roosting like one, so it’d be sweet to finally see one myself. Unfortunately, my in-laws are driving here soon instead of the other way around. (Fortunately, they’re not stopping here but joining us as we drive until we get to Charleston, SC. My life list should go up at least ten without any effort, and a little more effort could get me a few dozen.)

    My wife isn’t too into birds, but the NSWO is one that she likes because she thinks it’s cute. (Other favorites: American Kestrels and Indigo Buntings. Shrikes creep her out.) In our family, each of the kids has a plush owl of a different species, and we call them by that child’s name. So Barred Owl is “Lucy’s Owl”, Snowy Owl is “Alice’s Owl”, etc. The Saw-whet is “Mom’s Owl” even though I haven’t found a good plush. There is no “Dad’s Owl” yet.

    • Hawk Owl is like, a king of Owls–maybe that’d be a good one. Sounds like a fun tradition in your family and a way to get them all hooked on birds.

      Good luck on your trip; you’ll have to post a lifer list on FB.

  4. Great Gray Owl can be Dad’s owl, or Northern Hawk Owl.

    Great post Josh and congrats on getting your first Northern Saw-whet Owl! They are one of the coolest owls, and I guess..the cutest (I hate saying that word, but that’s the perfect description for it…).

    The story is great of how the owl was described to you, and funny how you had that gut feeling of what it was right away. One of the greatest things in birding are surprises like this: you wake up and think it’s an ordinary day when all of a sudden, a surprise comes in and you have a great bird in front of you.

    Saw-whet’s are tough man! Yeah they may be well distributed, but like you said, they carefully choose their perches. Evan cracked me up in this post, I could visualize the entire conversation. He does have his whole life ahead of him, but like you said, “What the heck?”

    • Actually, Great Gray is “Henry’s Owl”.
      I was actually thinking I may just claim all Screech/Scops Owls worldwide.
      I’ve got to see one first though.

    • Thanks Tommy!’s okay to call them cute. Even the toughest of birder dudes do.

      Yeah, birding can sometimes, unexpectedly take an ordinary day and launch it into legendary status.

      Evan’s a funny kid who surprises us all the time. Yes, he does have his whole life in front of him but Evan may be seeing this bird sooner rather than later…

    • Thanks a lot Caleb! They really are stunning little Owls. As for me, I just get lucky sometimes and know a lot of great people who share their great finds.

  5. LOVED this post! I have been researching NSOWs in northwest Arkansas for two seasons now (they weren’t previously known to be regulars in the state). I completely understand their cuteness and the effect they seem to have on people. Each one captured has had an equal effect on me. You should see if you can visit a banding station in the fall, I know there are plenty way up there in the northern regions :-). I promise, you’ll never be the same…the whole family would enjoy it too. Congrats and great blog!

    • Thanks for your nice words, Mitchell! I’ve read about your work before; it’s an honor to have you stop by the blog.

      I saw the bird, but once was not enough as you probably know better than anyone! I have considered going to a banding station (there are two just over an hour from me), but I always thought that was cheating to get my lifer that way…not that having someone literally point me to one was any better. Still, I was happy to finally see it, and now I may finally make those plans to bring the kids to a banding station. Now, if only I could achieve the ultimate and spot one on my own!

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