• Donald Attwood

For the birds - New owl


A small owl, the Northern Saw-Whet owl that hunts at night for mice, is fairly common but seldom seen.

This season I’ve often walked the Taylor-Bradbury (also known as Dwyer) trail in Hudson. On a recent visit, there were not many birds to see. Among those I saw, few were cooperative: they would not agree to sit somewhere visible. They went darting through the foliage, demonstrating all too well their ability to disappear in a twinkling.

Small birds are difficult. They process visual and aural information twice as fast as humans, their hearts beat ten times faster, they live life in a faster lane. Between thinking “gotta go” and being gone, there’s no gap. During the instant it takes to raise my binoculars, most small birds contrive to vanish from their perches. They have no inertia to overcome. Unlike a cartoon Roadrunner, they don’t even leave a blur, just empty air.

So I was walking along, peering into thickets, hearing twitters and flutters, seeing shadows in the leaves. Suddenly, through the binoculars, I found myself almost nose to beak with a bigger bird, an owl. Owls are easy to miss because most stay quiet in the daytime. I stared at this bird for many minutes, and I remember waking, so to speak, to the discovery that my mouth was hanging open. I learned that a “jaw-dropping” event is something that actually happens.

The owl was quite still, with its eyes closed, less than three meters away and visible without binoculars, if you knew where to peek through the leaves. After some staring, I thought about learning its name. There are Barred Owls in this area, but this owl was too small to be one of them. Could it be a young Barred Owl? No, because this was fall rather than spring; our birds are all fully grown in the fall. They may look like awkward teens in some respects, but they’re as big as their parents.

So who was this owl? My phone has an eBird app produced by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology; that’s usually a good place to start. My version of the app includes only birds in Quebec, and when I start a new checklist of birds I’m seeing, the app suggests only species found at this time of year within a radius of about 10 km. Thus I quickly learned there were five species of owls that might now be seen in Hudson. (No mention of Snowy Owls because they’re in the Arctic for the season.) The eBird app conveniently links with the Merlin Bird ID app, offering pictures and info about these species.

One possibility was the Great Horned Owl; but if the Barred Owl (at 53 cm) was too big, the Great Horned was even bigger, so that was out. A Long-eared Owl would be a bit smaller, with a distinctive face and long ear tufts. Not my bird. An Eastern Screech Owl would be smaller yet, with prominent ear tufts, though these are not always raised. My owl (about 20 cm) showed no ear tufts and had a distinctive, pale, V-shaped eyebrow dipping to its beak. It was a Northern Saw-whet Owl – a bird I’d not only never seen but never heard of. It was silent in my presence but was so named because somebody thought its territorial call (heard in spring) resembles the sound of a saw being sharpened.

After a while, a bunch of chickadees noticed the owl’s presence and decided to register their objection. The owl paid no heed, but I was impressed by how much noise can be produced by 10 or 12 chickadees, all giving alarm calls in one spot. This demonstration died down, and not long after, a couple of jays showed up to squawk at the owl. A handful of jays can make a big racket, but for some reason, other jays did not join the protest. (In almost the same location, I once saw a dozen jays drive a Barred Owl away with their squawking.) The Saw-whet owl opened its eyes and took careful note of what the nearest jay was doing, but otherwise remained still. The jays gave up after a few minutes, and a bit later the chickadees came back for an encore. The owl paid them no mind at all. He or she gave me a careful look, however. Wow!