How We Spotted the First Ever Saw-whet Owl at the ABA’s Camp Colorado

Having eluded scientists for a century, the Northern Saw-whet Owl is more common than you might think. In fact, if you spot one, it is likely that there are dozens more nearby that you won’t see. This is because they are so camouflaged against most trees and so still when approached by a possible predator. It has been discovered the Saw-whet Owl is actually very common in migration season because all the owls in an area are concentrated into the one migratory route nearest them. Positioned in the right place during migration, one banding station can catch over 100 owls in a single night.

Our search for the the Saw-whet Owl began on the night of June 27, 2018, at the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, Colorado. It was 6:30 P.M. and we had just finished dinner. Normally, at that time we would mark the daily checklist, listen to a lecture on birding, and then go to bed. But tonight was different. Instead, we piled into the vans in search of the elusive Northern Saw-whet Owl. As dusk fell, our group of young birders came to a complex of stables on either side of the dirt road that we were driving on. At this point, we got out of the vans. The road was evidently used for riding horses as there were piles of manure all over the ground. Our visibility was waning, which our instructor would prove with a little experiment.

Once it was dark, each camper was given a small piece of paper and a crayon. Next, we were told to write what color we thought the crayon was. Later when we got back to the lodge at the Y we would look at our papers to see if our color choice was right. The purpose of this experiment was to demonstrate that a person’s observation abilities are reduced at night. I thought my crayon was dark blue, but actually, it was brown. Apparently, my eyes weren’t seeing that well in the dark. However, an owl has more cones in its eyes, so it can see at night like I can during the day. By using red light, though, my eyes can somewhat get used to the dark.

As we hiked down the path, the forest got denser. Only red lights were allowed now that it was completely dark, and we didn’t want to frighten the birds. After a half-mile uphill walk, we found ourselves in a deciduous forest. Five minutes later we were suddenly at the edge of the forest and looking upon a meadow with nighthawks swooping and snatching insects for dinner. Now we switched off our red lights and listened intently for any noise from a Saw-whet Owl.

Then one camp leader made the series of hoots normally given by a male Northern Saw-whet Owl. After a few calls, one male owl started calling back. We heard 5 to 10 distant hoots coming from the other side of the forest. Calls went back and forth. The owl sounded closer every time until it stopped responding. Then it happened. A dark mass swooped in and I heard a muffled cry through owl feathers. The Saw-whet Owl had hit our leader in the face! The owl then confusedly flew to a random branch where we lit him up with a flashlight. The tiny owl sat for a few minutes while we observed him through a scope and took photographs. Eventually, the owl flew south along the edge of the forest and decided to resume hunting where there were no camp leaders to get in his way. Later, we heard another one, but this time chose not to chase it.

Satisfied with our sighting, we headed back with red lights only again and dodged piles of horse manure. When we reached the vans, we did another experiment. Everyone partnered up and took turns watching their partner chew a lifesaver candy. If we chewed hard enough, it sparked between our teeth. Some campers alternately hit theirs with stones on the ground for the same effect. Then we drove back to the lodge and met in the fireside room for our nightly discussion. It was then we learned our sighting was the only Northern Saw-whet Owl seen in the history of Camp Colorado. This also would be the only nocturnal owl we encountered during our week at camp.

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