Friday, February 15, 2013

Searching for Saw-whet Owls

One of the hardest groups of birds for birders to find sometimes are owls. It can be easy to hear them at certain times of the year and if you know where a breeding pair are you often get a good look. However if you know where to look and what to look for when you're out in the woods you can improve your chances of finding owls that might otherwise go undetected. Most often though seeing owls is a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

When I'm out in the winter time here in east central Minnesota, if I want to know if there are any owls lurking in the area I'm visiting, I'll look for telltale signs of an owl roost. For the elusive little Saw-whet Owl I'll check the Eastern Red Cedars along the trails I'm hiking. Every once in a while I'll find some "whitewash" on a tree trunk. This is a sign that someone is spending significant time in that spot.
Once you see what might be a roosting branch the next thing to check is the ground below the tree. Owls, of course, swallow their prey whole and cannot digest everything they take in so they regurgitate the undigested material as a "pellet". You can even see a pellet on the ground next to the tree trunk. If an owl is spending time in the same spot these pellets tend to accumulate. A careful check can produce a handful of surprises.
These Saw-whet pellets are quite large for a bird that is so small but that appears to be normal. If you want to investigate the owls diet it is easy to tease apart the pellets and look for bits of bone and skull. This bird was eating lots of rodents.

A little patience and some careful skulking can reward a birder with a close up view of a bird that many people have never even heard of. If you do find a roosting owl, please keep a reasonable distance and try not to disturb the bird since any extra expenditure of energy can be a detriment to the wintering owl. But if you do get a look it will be well worth the effort!
Here's to good birding!

No comments: