A steady tooting was coming from up ahead in the dark woods. Old woodsmen would have said it sounded like someone filing a saw blade. It was 10 pm at night and although I’d never heard a saw being filed, I knew that wasn’t it. The sound was a recording of the Northern Saw-whet Owl, which we were hoping to catch and band. A small group of us followed two biologists down a trail where nets were set. The data they were collecting was part of a long-term study to better understand these nighttime predators.

Maine Audubon sometimes offers an owl banding program. Even though we were warned that we would spend most of our time standing around in the dark, we jumped at the chance. That’s how we ended up in the woods that night.

Arriving at the nets, all I saw were three clumps of leaves caught in the nets. One of the clumps blinked. Angry, yellow eyes glared and the birds snapped their bills as we untangled them to participate.  Each bird was weighed, measured and banded. I was allowed to release one after the scientist finished. As I held this wisp of a bird, it rotated its head 180 degrees and held me in his glare. Then, it turned to a nearby tree, spread its wings and, like smoke, rose and evaporated into the night.

Northern Saw-whet Owls weigh under three ounces and are common in our area. With brown, mottled color, they dissolve into dense evergreen forests during the day. At night, they roam on silent wings in search of mice, voles and large insects like moths. I hear them regularly at my house but, aside from this banding project I’ve only seen them a few times. Even so, when I hear a flock of chickadees scolding, I investigate. Usually, it’s only a squirrel. On one occasion, however, they were harassing an owl perched close to the base of a hemlock. The tiny owl glared down at me motionless, suffering the indignity of the scolding chickadees.

Scientists are trying to better understand how this bird is doing in today’s modern world. Their secretive, nomadic behavior does not make this easy, but it is feared that their populations are declining due to habitat loss. They can, however, be found at Valentine Farm where we are placing nest boxes to provide more nesting sites. The next time you are there keep an eye out for this secretive predator.

James Reddoch, of Albany Township and Boston, leads birding events for the Mahoosuc Land Trust. Visit Mahoosuc Land Trust at 162 North Road, Bethel, ME or at www.mahoosuc.org. To learn about upcoming events or to contact James, send your emails to [email protected]

Northern Saw-whet Owl. submitted photo

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: