Owl I Want for Christmas

Yesterday I met my friend Sulli in Iowa to find Saw-whet Owls with a local "owl whisperer" Don Poggensee. We had a fantastic time, followed by a great interview with Don and tour of the nature center at Moorehead Pioneer Park. Then we drove to South Dakota and birded in my 49th state this year. As my EPIC Big Year winds down, it's these kinds of days I'll remember the most. 


All year I have wanted to see a Northern Saw-whet Owl. Although it is fairly widespread, this pint- sized owl can be extremely difficult to find throughout its range. Well-aware of it's abundance and distribution, I purposefully waited until later in the year to look for this species. In the worst case scenario, I would try and find it in my backyard in Seattle over the Christmas holiday. However, after seeing a Little Gull in Massachusetts, my count was 749*. What would be my 750th bird including provisionals?

The answer: Northern Saw-whet Owl. After dark one night I decided to drive around some back roads searching for this elusive owl. You can read about that adventure here. I was genuinely surprised to get out of the car and whistle a series of monotone toots, and have a Saw-whet answer nearby. Then another. I located several by their call that night, and was able to get a brief glimpse at one in my spotlight as it flew off, but it was unsatisfactory to only hear a bird that could be written about in a future Milestones blurb in Birding magazine. If was going to see this bird, I needed a Christmas miracle.

Enter Don Poggensee, a jolly Iowan  who nearly 30 years ago was supervising children on Moorehead Park's sledding hill, and he casually glanced into a pine tree and noticed his first Northern Saw-whet Owl. Captivated by an owl the size of a soda can, he would spend the next decades showing Saw-whet Owls to visitors with just as much excitement as the first time he saw it. This infection enthusiasm and accumulated knowledge about owls is what makes birding with Don so much fun. I've heard this year from multiple people that I "had to go" and even the "g-word" was thrown around (guaranteed) I decided instead of spending money on a Common Pochard chase trip (by air) or flying after a Graylag Goose whose provenance would be questioned, I would drive to my last three U.S. states I haven't been to yet this year. Iowa was on that list, along with Nebraska and South Dakota. A quick bout of text messages with a friend and our road trip and owl prowl was set. 

*Pine Flycatcher and Cuban Vireo have not been added to the ABA Checklist yet, but in all likelihood they will be accepted in 2017, making them countable in my final total. However, I'll keep birding for a "clean" 750 (excluding provisionals) which I will reach after Christmas surrounded by friends

Don observes a roosting Northern Saw-whet Owl at Moorehead Pioneer Park. 

Don observes a roosting Northern Saw-whet Owl at Moorehead Pioneer Park. 

I called Don pretty early in the morning, after my friend Sulli and I had spent over an hour in the cold, walking through neat rows of tall pines, searching for Long-eared Owls at a nearby park. The secret ingredient to finding owls is effort. Sometimes, luck is the secret ingredient, and yesterday luck and effort in combination brought sweet success. As I listened to the phone ringing on the other end, I pictured Don sleepily answering the phone at home as I was calling pretty early in the morning. After almost one too many rings, the phone was answered by a chipper Hello! followed by slightly labored breath, and a background of crunching snow and branches whisking off coat fabric. Don was already in the field searching for Saw-whets! I was in disbelief as he gave me directions ("after you pass the depot, you'll round the corner and see my red truck parked on the right...") and he interrupted himself to say, "I just found a Saw-whet at eye level- why don't you drive on over here now and see it?"  I couldn't believe it. Is this real life?

Sulli and I met Don at a parking lot near the outdoor bathrooms he'd described in his directions. Also accompanying us were two birders from St. Louis who had driven up to Ida Grove just to see the owls here in the park. People have come from dozens of states around the country, driving to this small park to meet Don and have a almost-certain close up view of the Saw-whets. We walked across the crusty patches of snow through scattered Cedar and Pine trees, following Don up the hill. I carefully stepped through straw colored brome grass, already matted down in clumps across the hillside from prior owl excursions. As we walked through the trees, Don pointed out different branches owls had occupied in the past. He referred to them by name, such as "Faithful" who always sat in the same spot. Just as a tour guide would, Don excitedly explained different ecological aspects of Moorehead Pioneer Park. The reason these owls are attracted to this spot is the abundance of food. Many mice eat the seeds from the brome grass and owls take advantage of such a high concentration of food here. Some years, Don has found up to 8 Saw-whets roosting inside the park. This winter, he's tracked down two individuals, which is equatable to trying to pin the tail on a live donkey. Every night after hunting the owls take a different roost, often close to where they caught and consumed prey the night before. Sometimes it's easy to find them if you know the preferred perches, and sometimes it's a hunt. Don has spent decades in these hills locating Saw-whets, and he seems to have it down to a science. 

Don paused amidst his stories and explanations with a twinkle in his eye. I looked past him into a short pine tree, and spotted the owl he'd found in the morning. He smiled, building the dramatic effect for others who had not yet spotted the bird behind him. Soon all of us had spotted it, and in amazement Don walked directly underneath the bird, talking to it like an old friend. He ushered us closer too, beyond my initial comfort zone. It was clear that he knew these birds and respected them, yet this owl seemed unfazed by our presence after initially checking us out- we passed inspection. We took all the pictures our hearts desired, then left the owl in the same spot, eyes slitted and snoozing away. 

We hiked around looking for the second bird, who was likely so well-camouflaged that he avoided detection today. Maybe the next group of visitors will find him tomorrow on his new perch after hunting throughout the night. Afterwards, Don took us to the new Nature Education Center, which was a beautiful building with educational displays, bird feeders, and friendly and knowledgable staff. I sat down and interviewed Don for The Birding Project, learning more about his military service, conservation work, and development of Ida Grove's unofficial owl tourism industry. I look forward to transcribing and sharing the interview with you in a later project. 

I couldn't have had a better day and experience finding Saw-whet Owls. I affectionately dub Don Poggensee as the "Saw-whet Santa" who gave me an incredible gift yesterday, which was more than just a check on my list. I drove away from Moorehead Pioneer Park with a deeper understanding of the park's history, and a glimpse into the secret lives of Saw-whet owls. Even more importantly however, was a handshake and a friendship that will last for years to come. 

If you'd like to experience Northern Saw-whet Owls with Don, please contact The Birding Project and I'd be happy to put you in touch- you're in for a treat! 


Errors in the form of spelling/grammatical mistakes are not intended, but plausible, given much of this post was written and composed on an iPhone using Siri while driving. Please contact Christian if any errors are encountered, so they may be resolved. Thank you!

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