A few weeks ago I posted about a sweet little Northern Pygmy-Owl that I found. I had an another excellent encounter with a small owl a couple of nights ago, when my friend Nathan Pieplow guided me to a vocal Northern Saw-whet Owl that another local birder (Walter Szeliga) found last week. Nathan had been out to the owl's territory for a few successive nights to get sound recordings- he's a top-flight bird recordist (look for his upcoming article in Birding Magazine.) Sure enough, as soon as we got into position and stopped, the bird could be heard toot-toot-tooting away. We enjoyed listening to the variations on its song- basically is was tooting fast or faster, sometimes soft and sometimes loud and occasionally throwing in a little more "jazz". Then it moved to a more open area with a big cottonwood and a few smaller trees, where we could easily walk without crashing around through undergrowth.
Walking over, it sounded like maybe the bird had crossed a small lake as the sound seemed distant from the waters ahead. But then something strange happened- as we walked by the cottonwood the sound rapidly shifted perspective- we were walking right by the softly calling owl! Strange how these little guys can seem to throw their voice, and how you can be right next to a bird that sounds distant. Anyway, Nathan swept the tree with a flashlight and the owl was poking its head out of a hole, whisper-singing. Despite the illumination the bird never hesitated or even looked our way. Nathan began to record, and I got some pics of the bird doing its thing. (You can barely see the small owl in the vertical shot of Nathan- look for the eye shine.) We kept a wide-angle flashlight on the tree so we could see what was going on and so my camera could focus on the bird, but there was no need for a mega-spotlight as we were very close- just wide illumination from propping my flashlight against a downed limb worked fine. The bird just ignored us, continuing to sing, sometimes loud and sometimes soft and in different directions. It got a thin, high "reep" as a response a few times. Each time it heard that, it whipped its head around to the direction that call came from. During the approximately 30 minutes that we stuck around the owl occasionally would fly off to a nearby perch to sing some more from the open, always later returning to its hole to continue. At one such perch, only about a foot off the ground, I got some shots of the bird out of its hole. All of this was done without any playback and without any obvious disturbance- the owl had a one-track, hormone-fueled agenda and seemed oblivious to our presence (although subtle, slow movement and being as quiet as possible probably didn't hurt anything.)
All in all, this was one of the most satisfying owling experiences I've had.