The Search for Secretive Saw-Whets

This is the latest in a series of guest posts from Mitchell Pruitt, a recent U of A honors graduate and current graduate student in the Department of Biological Sciences. An avid bird watcher for seven years, Mitchell – at age 17 in 2011 – ranked No. 4 on a list of people who had seen the most birds in Arkansas, when he documented 311 avian species. In this dispatch, Mitchell describes his search this summer for northern saw-whet owls in Pennsylvania.

Gear-laden and ready for almost anything, I watched the sun as it sank below the horizon. My watch read 8:35 p.m. and the sun had just disappeared, illuminating the clouds with golden-orange light. It looked like rain might come in the morning, but for now, the night would be beautiful. Our group piled into the car and began our expedition. We parked at the end of a road along the east bank of the Little Schuylkill River, which flows into the Schuylkill River at Port Clinton before working its way past Valley Forge. From there, the water flows into the Delaware River at Philadelphia, then to the Atlantic Ocean. Armed with a camera, binoculars, and a spotlight, I was going to find a very special bird, which to me, is adventure in itself.

Habitat along the little Schuylkill River, Pennsylvania | Courtesy Mitchell Pruitt

Habitat along the little Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania. | Courtesy Mitchell Pruitt

For two years, soon to be more, I have been trapping northern saw-whet owls in Arkansas, a state through which their migration was unknown before 2015. Like many states, Pennsylvania sees an increase in saw-whets during fall migration. Knowledge of their exact numbers in the state is limited in part due to their secretive nature, and in part due to being understudied. During the breeding season, they have a preference for riparian woodland with the thick cover for roosting and cavity-riddled deciduous trees for nesting. In Pennsylvania, their cover comes in the form of rhododendron thickets and hemlock trees. Among the smallest owls in North America, saw-whets are easy to miss, as I would learn after attempting to find them for the first time … and the second, and third, and fourth.

Near the Little Schuylkill, the habitat looks perfect for saw-whet owls. Mature hemlocks rise above the surrounding forest, a host of little ones intermingling with deciduous trees below. Nearby, rhododendron grows thick along streams, rivulets down the cool, north-facing slopes. It was in this perfect habitat, a few mornings before, I decided to play back the saw-whets’ call just to see if there would be a response. The night before brought rain. Mist and cool temperatures carried over into morning, which to a saw-whet must have been heaven. Enshrouded somewhere beyond visibility, a response was given: an ascending whine from near the river below. After two hours of heavy bushwhacking and no owl, I designated it a win for the birds. A few days later, I decided to try again, this time at night.

As the evening darkened, I tried playback to pinpoint the owl’s location. Not only was I surprised to hear a saw-whet respond from the exact same location as a few days before, I was even more surprised by a second response, much closer than the bird that would require bushwhacking again. I opted for the more straightforward location. As one might have expected at night, things weren’t straightforward and the bird was not located. It called several more times, even chattering angrily at something, maybe the intruders. Though tempting, I didn’t enter its domain this night.

The following night again found me silently wandering the dark forest. The owls knew I was there. With two other biologists from Mexico, I sat quietly in a grove of hemlocks. The forest around us was eerily quiet, maybe waiting on the rain that was to come later in the night. One saw-whet called from this grove, but it was nowhere to be seen or heard. I suspect we may have been near the bird’s day-roosting site. Now it was dark and we were once again on the owl’s terms. Looking downslope, we could not see the road where fireflies danced. We were at home only with flying squirrels – and probably one of the saw-whets watching silently.

After two nights of unsuccessfully trying to locate these secretive owls, it was time for a change of pace. While the cover of night brings victory on the part of saw-whets, the exposure of daylight could provide me easier winnings. My journey began on the east side of the road paralleling the Little Schuylkill River. On the slope above, one of the saw-whet owls had been heard a few nights earlier. Neither bird called to guide my search, as the morning was beautifully sunny. Over the next two hours, I walked silently through the woods, surprisingly free of understory debris. I scoured every evergreen in sight, high and low, to no avail. Several pines and a few hemlocks had remarkably thick crowns, but were hopelessly too tall to give a good search, even with the aid of binoculars. As well as verdant needle-trees, there were several homey deciduous cavities in the area, all of which left me empty handed. Leaving the first bird to spend its day in restful peace, I moved on.

A night out with fireflies, across the river from the saw-whet owls.

A night out with fireflies, across the river from the saw-whet owls. | Courtesy Mitchell Pruitt

The owls have found sanctuary in these woods, not to be discovered until they’re ready to divulge their most important secrets.

The next evening, humidity high and trees still dripping from afternoon rains, I attempted to find the saw-whets yet again. They gave no response and not a trace was found, despite my best efforts. Adorned with soft feathers for silent flight, water and owls are not a good combination. Their fuzzy feathers do not have the water resistance of other birds, so it’s no wonder they remained silent and hidden. Like any good naturalist when a wet night is still young, I turned my attention to finding salamanders.

Three days later, and finally dry from the on-and-off rain of the last few days, two friends and I again decided to search the faithful saw-whet spot. We traipsed up and down the slope east of the river without finding any birds. As opposed to searching for the birds directly, my attention turned to searching for signs of them: pellets, whitewash on trees, and whitewash on the forest floor. There were several protected openings with perches that I’m sure a saw-whet has used to hunt before, but not recently. Two trees had a nice amount of whitewash –a feature created by an owl pooping in the same spot day after day – but no owl. This was the spot at least one owl inhabited at some point. I’m almost certain this bird roosts high in a pine or hemlock.

A saw-whet after release at the Madison County banding station in Northwest Arkansas. | Courtesy Mitchell Pruitt

A saw-whet after release at the Madison County banding
station in Northwest Arkansas. | Courtesy Mitchell Pruitt

After several weeks of being too busy or too tired for saw-whets, I went out one last time before leaving Pennsylvania. Giving it a single round with the playback, we heard nothing at first, then what sounded like a quick skiiieeew, followed by a rapping on a hollow tree. The tree tapping already struck me as abnormal, but we were about to investigate anyway when a low, out-of-body sound came from the dark woods nearby. The second sound was vaguely human, but was definitely not normal for the middle of the woods after dark. Cryptozoology has never interested me. That said, we decided driving back would be better than facing this creature and the potential saw-whet that was probably too high up anyway.

Thinking back on my efforts, I decided to reconsider them mostly successful. Hearing becomes as good as seeing in the last minute panic of birding. Not to mention that in real ornithology, a detection is a detection whether it’s a sighting or merely hearing. I could find comfort in knowing two saw-whets called the beautiful riverine slopes home, though they still remain one of the greatest mysteries of this world. Relatively few people actually see saw-whets outside the nets of a banding station and those who have, either got lucky or tried much harder than I did, though I can hardly imagine that. My time for actually seeing a saw-whet on their breeding grounds has not come. I’ll keep dreaming and will find myself triumphant another day. In the meantime, I’ll just have to enjoy the capture of many in my nets back down south.

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