Westward Ho(ly Cow)! Episode 5: “Saw Whet – Say What?!?”

If you know me, you know I am a bit owl crazy. I never get tired of seeing them, whether it is a tiny screech owl in our backyard, a barn owl in flight over the cane fields south of Lake Okeechobee, or a barred owl hooting above my tent while camping.

Whoo’s ready for a nap? blanket I made using my owl photos

We have traveled to Michigan in the middle of January to photograph snowy owls and spent a month at the Sax-Zim Bog one February to see the great grays. So, it should come as no surprise that we included a stop on our 5 1/2-month road trip in hopes of spying a northern saw-whet owl, Aegolius acadicus.

northern saw-whet owl, January 2023

These pint-sized little owls are found from Alaska and Canada into the north and western US. They can be spied further south on occasion, but the odds of seeing one in South Florida are zero.

Northern saw-whet owl range map — zero chance of seeing one in Okeechobee! (All About Birds.org)

With adorable, catlike faces and large, expressive eyes they captured my heart and I longed to see one for myself.

northern saw-whet owl, January 2023

We scouted the listings on e-bird and determined that the area around Fargo, North Dakota was a “hotspot” with multiple sightings over the years. We booked a week at an Airbnb in Dilworth, a short 20-minute drive from several of the most popular locations.

the blue pins are multiple sightings around Fargo every January (ebird.org)

In the happiest of coincidences, we were able to connect with Fargo’s northern saw-whet owl whisperer, Dan Mason.

Dan and me

Before we arrived, Dan did his best to set my expectations: “Be aware they seem to be getting harder to find than usual, possibly due to the heavier-than-normal snow pushing them to new hunting areas, and severely sagging their favorite roost trees/bushes.”

He also sent me a link to his photo set along with this caveat: While many of these are the standard, out-in-the-open “glamour shots” others are more realistic in showing how well these birds can be mostly hidden or only partially visible when on the roost. Seeing these is helpful in training your mind’s eye in what to look for when you are out in the field.”

hiding in plain sight, January 2023

He even offered to scout various locations before our arrival and seemed genuinely excited about helping me find one. On Jan 1, 2023, I received another email with an attached photo: “Found my first Saw-whet of the new year today in Fargo’s Orchard Glen Park, so there is at least one of the birds still hanging around, waiting for you!”

January 1, 2023 northern saw-whet owl (photo courtesy of Dan Mason)

Dan and I agreed to meet on the morning of January 7. But first, TG and I went to breakfast at the Fryn’ Pan Family Restaurant. They were so impressed with the fact that we were on a 24,000-mile road trip that they comped our meal! “We want to make your visit to Fargo just a little bit more special,” our server said. Thank you, Bailey and the Fryn’ Pan!

me, Bailey, and TG at the Fryn’ Pan Family Restaurant

With that auspicious start, we met Dan at our rendezvous spot. We scouted five different areas …

Orchard Glen Nature Park – one of five places we scouted

… With nothing but a beautiful merlin to show for it.

merlin

Recent snowfall had the tree branches weighed down. That, combined with the morning fog, made it difficult to spot much of anything.

too much snow weighing down the trees

But I learned so much from Dan about where and how to look. I left him feeling confident that at some point during the coming week, our quest would be successful!

Dan and me at Orchard Glen Nature Park

The next day we stopped by the Fargo-Moorhead Visitor’s Center, built in the now-familiar style of an old grain elevator.

Fargo-Moorhead Visitor’s Center with woodchipper
the actual woodchipper prop from the movie “Fargo”

We were chatting with the nice young ladies when my phone chimed. A text from Dan with some exciting news:  he had found a saw-whet owl at one of the parks we visited yesterday and was waiting for us there. “On our way!” I texted back.

“On our way!!!!”

Dan was in the parking lot when we arrived, and together we hurried to the spot. She was still there, a little ball of puff about three-quarters of the way up an evergreen tree.

a little ball of puff but a saw-whet owl nonetheless! (January 8, 2023)

Our first-ever northern saw-whet owl and TG and I got to share this wonderful moment!

TG and I sharing the moment (photo by Dan Mason)

Although she never lifted her head, she was still a thrill to see.

the top of her head is just peeking over her tail feathers (January 8, 2023)

The next day Dan texted again.  He had found another owl: “glamour shot possibility, unobstructed, and only 8 feet off the ground.”  Twenty minutes later we were at the spot, and it was everything I dreamed of.

everything I could have hoped for! (January 9, 2023)

She was roosting quietly on a branch, not at all perturbed by us or our clicking cameras.

roosting quietly on a branch (January 9, 2023)

She even lifted a foot and did a little face scratch.

lifting her foot (January 9, 2023)

The next day we found her again – in an even better spot than the day before!

an even better spot! (January 10, 2023)

TG said, “ if yesterday we got Monopoly money shots, today we got US Benjamins.” 

be still my beating heart! (January 10, 2023)

This time it was me texting Dan and he responded, “be sure to get some video!”

saaw-weet little saw-whet owl!

I had just finished shooting a little clip when she puffed up and turned her back to us. We took that as a clear sign she was done, and quickly left the area. We were the only ones in the park and were certain that once we left, she would settle back into her nap.

she puffed up and turned her back to us (January 10, 2023)

We left the park and headed into Fargo to capture a bit of the downtown.

downtown Fargo
TG doing his magic

Dominating downtown’s Broadway Street is the art deco Fargo Theatre. Built in 1926 as a cinema and vaudeville theatre, the beautifully restored Fargo Theatre now serves as an art house featuring independent and foreign films. It is also a venue for concerts and other live events.

the historic Fargo Theatre

That evening we returned for dinner and to take photos of the marquee at night.

Fargo Theatre at night

Later that night I received another email from Dan: “I went back out this afternoon and Lady Saw-whet was still in the same spot, snoozing.” 

Dan added that as he was leaving, he met a photographer who driven all the way to Fargo specifically to find a saw-whet owl. “Another kindly soul whose eyes and smile lit up at the sight of the bird … And the wheel keeps on turning.”

Dan Mason and me (January 8, 2023)

We are grateful for Dan’s time, expertise, and generosity. We could not have accomplished this goal without him and cannot thank him enough!  Also, it was nice meeting and spending time with another owl-lover.  Hopefully, he didn’t think I was *too* crazy for singing songs and talking to the owls.  🦉

You can view all of our saw-whet owl photos here:

northern saw whet owl-04446-DeNoiseAI-low-light-gigapixel-standard-scale-2_00x
hover on photo to arrow through the set or click on any photo to open a new tab in Flickr

Coming soon: Westward Ho(ly Cow)! Episode 6: “Sax-Zim Bog-Golly We’re Back!”

great gray owl, Sax-Zim Bog March 1, 2022

Author: TG&jet

Nature photographers - wildlife, landscapes, underwater; travelers; bloggers

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