Volume 12, Issue 51 ~ • December 16 - December 22, 2004
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Earth Journal
by Gary Pendleton

Saw-whet Owls

Look inside the Christmas Tree

The northern saw-whet owl is the smallest owl in eastern North America, about eight inches, tail included, with most of its bulk made of feathers. Annual migration brings saw-whets into the Chesapeake Bay region for the winter, where they are sometimes found roosting in evergreen trees.

I first went looking for a saw-whet a dozen years ago in a plantation of pines at Hughes Hollow Wildlife Management Area in Montgomery County. I never found one, even though I went back a dozen times over the years. In September 1996, at Mount Rainier National Park, we hiked to a quiet spot next to a remote lake where we stopped for lunch. Out of the corner of my eye I detected movement. Not 50 feet away, perched on a stump in broad daylight, was a saw-whet. Its head was moving side to side and up and down: It must have been looking and listening for prey. Saw-whets are known for their calm in the presence of people, and we had a long, satisfying look at the little hunter.

Research is beginning to show that here in Maryland, the winter population of the saw-whet may be larger than previously believed. Because they are so small and essentially nocturnal, the presence of a saw-whet owl is likely to be undetected by those who pass even within inches of where they roost in the boughs of pines and cedars. Signs to look for are a whitewash on leaves or owl pellets below the roosting spot.

This Christmas, instead of looking under a tree for a present, I might try peeking inside.

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