Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Adirondack Wildlife: The Saw-Whet Owl

As the moon becomes full this week, the opportunity arises to be able to hike on a woodland trail or backcountry road well after dusk without the aid of an artificial light. Regardless of the amount of cloud cover, there inevitably exists on nights around this phase of the moon enough natural light to be able to travel into the woods using only lunar illumination. While nocturnal outings in mid spring can provide a great audio experience, there are relatively few sounds that disturb the silence at this time of year. However, among the seldom noted noises that occur in the Adirondacks in March and April is the call of the Adirondacks smallest nighttime aerial predator, the saw-whet owl.

When initially heard, few people associate this distinct sound with that of an owl. Rather than bellow out muffled hooting notes, the saw-whet makes a rapid series of short “beeps” that resemble the noise produced by a back-hoe or other piece of heavy equipment when in reverse. The very quick tempo, or rate at which the saw-whet makes these beeps, (over a dozen in a 10 second interval of time) creates an air of haste to this bird’s call. Also, once it starts calling a few hours after sunset, the saw-whet continues uninterrupted for several hours in its seemingly intense bouts of vocalization.

As is the case with other owls and most other birds, the male saw-whet produces this song and uses it in an attempt to advertise his presence to other saw-whets in that general area. Even though this bird does not engage in courtship or breeding until the end of March or early April in the Adirondacks, the male begins his search for a potential mate as the winter season starts to wane.

Because of the nomadic nature of the saw-whet, an individual must often travel to numerous places in late winter to search for a partner. It is not uncommon at this point in the season to hear the call of a saw-whet one night, and then note only silence for the next several weeks before hearing this distinct call again. This indicates that a male is on the prowl for a mate, and has not been successful in locating a breeding partner in your area. When it’s frantic sounding beeping song is heard on successive night for a week or more, it can be assumed that the male has encountered a female in the general area, and that he is now laying claim to the same location until the completion of the nesting season.

Like other owls, mice form the bulk of this predator’s diet, especially in winter when few other forms of life are active. Because of the relatively small size of this owl, a mouse must be ripped into several chunks before it can be swallowed. An adult saw-whet average only 4 ounces in weight, while a mouse can ranges up to one full ounce. This allows a saw-whet to be well nourished for several days after it has been successful in killing a mouse.

Any place in which there is an abundance of small rodents is inviting to the saw-whet, and patches of softwoods are especially attractive to this bird. It is in dense stands of pines and other conifers that the mottled gray and tan of this bird most effectively blends into the background. By perching on a limb close to the trunk of a tree, the pattern of dark and light on its plumage makes it nearly impossible to spot, even when it is sitting only four or five feet above the forest floor.

Because its protective coloration is so effective in concealing its presence from potential meals and larger predators alike, the saw-whet has learned to remain perfectly still as it perches during the day. This allows those individuals fortunate enough to spot one of these owls to approach very closely without having the bird fly away. While this gives the saw-whet the impression of being tame or completely unafraid of humans, it is merely this owl’s innate response to any intruder in the immediate area. Although it is possible to get within a few feet of a saw-whet, it is highly recommended to maintain a much further distance in the highly unlikely event of spotting one when traveling through a wooded setting.

It is also strongly recommended to confine nighttime hikes to familiar trails, and should you venture into the woods after dusk, some type of artificial light should always be taken. Over the course of the next few days to a week, it may not be necessary to turn on that light however it is always best to be prepared. And should you decide to explore the world of darkness at any time over the course of the next few months, be aware of the sounds of the night, as one of those persistent background sounds may be the incessant beeping of the saw-whet owl.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

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5 Responses

  1. Ellen Rathbone says:

    How apropos! I just got back from a quick jaunt up the road to see a saw whet here in southern Michigan!

  2. Tom Kalinowski says:

    Hi Ellen: I hope that you were successful in seeing one of these birds. I only have had the fortune to ever see two in the wilds, although I hear them all the time in the late winter and in spring. I hope you were able to get a good picture of the bird, and maybe share it with us sometime.

  3. Edelpeddle says:

    I saw one of these suckers when I did Wright/Algonquin/Iroquois peaks last summer. I started a day break and saw it from behind on a spruce branch. From behind it looked like a chickadee but when it turned around it clearly wasn’t and it quickly flew away once it turned it’s head around to see me.

  4. Edelpeddle says:

    I have a habit of hiking without my glasses on at lower elevations and whistling at wildlife that I get uncomfortably close to. My face got within 10 feet of this owl before I whistled at what I thought was a fat chickadee. Then it turned it’s head around and it clearly was an owl. My face got within 5 feet of it as it stood on a branch overhanging the trail from the Loj to the trail to Algonquin. Then it finally flew away.

  5. Paul says:

    You might get lucky and see some flying squirrels also. They are not that hard to see when you get out in the woods at night.