…is the question I pose to my husband when I return home following my first-ever encounter with the bird in the photograph above on May 25. My inaugural meeting with a juvenile Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus) is made possible thanks to a fellow birder who has espied her (I’m randomly assigning a gender) shortly before I happen to run into him at a popular local park. He generously tells me about his discovery, gives me detailed instructions about how to reach the tree in which her nest cavity is located, and shows me a photo he has taken.
But he also makes me promise to keep the location a secret, as it might otherwise attract too much attention and result in a potentially critical disturbance for the bird at a crucial stage of life. This is in accordance with the American Birding Association’s Birding Code of Ethics (other birding organizations have published similar rules of conduct).
After making my way to the area I recognize the tree and entrance to her nursery right away, but there is no owl. Has she flown into one of the adjacent trees? I systematically scan all nearby trunks and branches, seeing and hearing a number of different bird species, but no owl. Should I leave and come back another time, or hang out and wait? I opt for the latter, lingering in the grove, keeping my gaze trained on the cavity from a distance.
When I behold some slight stirring at the target tree, my heart responds in kind—with a stirring of its own. I watch excitedly as a fuzzy face peers cautiously above the rim of the tree chamber, before, inch by inch, she presents all of her glorious, regal owlness. Very aware of my presence and staring directly into my soul with her big eyes, she does not appear bothered by me and remains perched in full view for several minutes, before vanishing down into the tree trunk from whence she had emerged. This appearing and disappearing act is repeated a couple of times before the owl decides to remain in hiding, and I to take my leave. In subsequent days I return to this spot twice more without catching additional glimpses of the bird, who might not have been in the mood to be the center of attention, or who might have fledged already, as she seemed close to reaching that milestone.
The name Northern Saw-whet Owls is generally attributed to the fact that one of its calls reminded someone of a saw being sharpened on a whetting stone. The adult female lays 3 to 7 eggs which are incubated for 26 to 29 days. Once they hatch, the owlets remain in their nests for 27 to 34 days before fledging. Based on the size of this nesting site, there might be only one juvenile, even though the possibility of several more hiding inside the trunk is tantalizing.
It is a surprise for me to learn that Northern Saw-whet Owls are among North America’s most common owls in forested northern regions year-round, and across the U.S. during winter. They are also among the smallest, with adults reaching a length of only 8 inches (20.3 cm) and a weight of only 2.8 ounces (80 g). Because they are nocturnal, they aren’t usually visible during the day. I had never come across this species before—and might never have done so without help. If you live in an area where this owl occurs, keep your eyes open and take a careful look at holes in tree trunks, or listen for its too-too-too-too vocalization. Click here for a sound recording by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and for the full profile and range map of this charismatic creature.
With regard to my introductory question, once I share my owl photos with my husband, there is but one possible way for him to respond: “Of course, I can see why you are in love!”
I hope you agree.