Owls in Our Lives

By Mary Freeman

October 10, 2012


Mary Freeman with the first banding of a Northern Saw-whet Owl, Angeles National Forest, 2008

We have friends who love to watch and study gulls.  Other friends love raptors. Some of our friends focus in on certain families of birds and take international trips to locate members of their favorite bird family. Some birders hone in on the exact migration dates of certain species; they love the stats. Many birders in the course of their bird watching careers eventually focus in on certain aspects of bird study. 

I picked up my first bird book in elementary school, “Introducing Our Western Birds” by Vessel & Wong, from which my first critical identification was made of a White-crowned Sparrow in the backyard.  Since then, this species has always been special to me.  When Nick and I lead fieldtrips for Audubon and the white-crowned are present, a full rundown on the various subspecies of this sparrow including a lesson on their song is guaranteed.  The Red-breasted Nuthatch is near the top of my favorite bird species.  The lovely salmon color on the breast, the supercilium lines through the eyes and the lovely slate gray upperparts make it a very handsome bird.  Its ringing “yank yank” is a sound not to be forgotten as these charming birds climb down trees in search of insects.  Coming across one makes a birding trip complete for me!  Participants seem to get a kick out of finding one for me during a fieldtrip.  As much as I still love these birds, and many others, a few particularly elusive species have come to captivate us.

This summer marks the 12th year Nick and I have surveyed the San Gabriel Mountains for owl species.  Thanks to the Los Angeles Breeding Bird Atlas Survey, Nick and I have continued our focus on the Northern Saw-whet Owl, trying not to ignore the other owls of the Crest.  We have accumulated many hundreds of travel hours on the Angeles Crest Highway in search of the Northern Saw-whet Owl.

Although Nick and I are not biologists by trade, this beautiful little owl has led us down the path to becoming “citizen science researchers.”  The Northern Saw-whet Owl continues to stretch our imaginations.  Our early survey work resulted in an abstract and presentation for the Western Field Ornithologist conference in 2008.  Attending Walt Sakai’s Zuma Canyon banding station, took us on a path to a sub-permit for banding owls.  We wrote a short article for the Mt. Wilson Observatory discussing our owl encounters nearby. 

After the Angeles National Forest was 2/3 destroyed by the Station Fire of 2009, banders persuaded us to continue our owl surveys since we had the kind of baseline data that biologists often yearn for.  After submitting a report of our fieldwork through 2011 to the US Forestry Service, we were granted a five-year permit to conductpost-fire owl surveys.

Why do we study our local Northern Saw-whet Owl?  Little solid information existed on the true status and distribution of the Saw-whet Owl in our local mountains.  Since 2000, we have learned to recognize their familiar toots, clicks, screams, and the “sssst” calls of juvenile Saw-whets. 

Over the years, we have documented many locations where the Saw-whet frequent and breed, giving us an understanding of their preferred habitat and elevation.  Saw-whet Owls breed along the Crest from April to July, after which they disperse to begin setting up territories.  Their calls can be heard each month of the year – especially October through May.  Numerous detections have been made during the fall and winter showing they are resident even at higher elevations.  We have attempted banding a number of times, but so far have been rewarded with a single female Saw-whet.  We will attempt to learn site fidelity and distance traveled should we be fortunate enough to have a recapture of a banded owl.  We will continue trying to band owls, but we also do a lot of audio surveying, to study basic questions of status and distribution in various types of burn areas.

Our interest in the Saw-whet Owl has allowed us to encounter and study other owls found in our local mountains as well.  We’ve come to understand when our local Flammulated Owls return from their winter vacation in Latin America.  We’ve learned the Spotted Owl will try to remain on territory even after a devastating fire, and the Western Screech-Owl is by far the most tolerant of moderate to severe fire damage in the forest.  We have encountered two separate families of Northern Pygmy-Owl, a first for our owl survey work with a few breeding records in the county!

Nick & Mary with Scott Weidensaul in Hidden Valley Banding Station, Friedensburg, PA, 2009

 Nick and Mary with Scott Weidensaul in Hidden Valley Banding Station, Friedensburg, PA, 2009

As members of a listserv that focuses on owl banding concerns such as recaptures, trends, and techniques, Nick and I have gained and shared a great deal of knowledge about the breeding, vocalizations and behavior of Saw-whets.  The listserv is mostly made up of a number of banders in the eastern part of the US where Northern Saw-whet Owls are studied in large numbers during migration.  Through this listserv, we have developed friendships with banding researchers that stretch out to the east coast, up into Canada, and back to California.  A six-day visit to Wisconsin was spent attending a hands-on class on techniques of owl banding.  Since 2005, Nick and I have made visits to banding stations in Pennsylvania, northern California, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and we have just returned from visiting a site in Colorado.  Each banding station has been an exciting learning experience.
Through a friend’s contact, biologists tapped us to participate in Flammulated Owl surveys in the southern Sierra.  Nick and I have visited these mountains frequently in the past and have found the density of Flammulated Owls and others to be significantly higher than what we encounter locally.  The summer of 2012 marked the second year of this survey project, during which we also joined the researchers in a nest box building project geared towards Flammulated Owl.  We will participate in monitoring the nest boxes in 2013.  I would like to place nest boxes for the Northern Saw-whet Owl in our local mountains at some time in the future.  It will take a lot of work, but it may be the best way to study the breeding biology of Saw-whets in our extremely rugged mountains.

To share our enjoyment of owls, Nick and I have scheduled fieldtrips from the Southern Sierra’s Quaking Aspen to nights on the Angeles Crest.  Stay posted for newsletter announcements of upcoming trips to focus on the Northern Saw-whet Owl and other denizens of the night.

I encourage you to consider picking a species (or a small group) to focus in on, and learn all you can about that bird’s life.  It’s a fulfilling endeavor!  You’ll soon find out that the more you know, the more you’ll know you don’t know.  It never ends!

In Remembrance of My Brother
Benjamin Alonzo Carmona


First Northern Saw-whet Owl banding station in New Freedom, PA, 2005

Published Western Tanager Vol. 79 No. 2 Nov/Dec 2012