116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
One of Iowa’s most sought-after winter birds to see is the northern saw-whet owl.
Often difficult to locate, finding one can be a delightful experience. They are tiny, about the size of a pop can. Between their small size, temperament and all-around cuteness they can draw the attention of many bird enthusiasts.
There are a wide variety of people who seek these little owls. People will travel for many hours out of state to see and photograph them. I have met people from as far away as Indiana who came specifically to Eastern Iowa for photographs.
Beginning to the well-seasoned bird-watchers seek them. Tolerance-wise, they will not flush away when approached closely. Exactly why they do not flush may relate to their spot on the food chain. A smaller owl like a saw-whet is on the menu for larger owls such as great horned.
Northern saw-whet owls can be found year-round from southern Alaska all the way east throughout the Great Lakes region into eastern Canada and New England. Permanent residents also can be found throughout the Mountain West, Appalachians and even throughout mountainous regions in Mexico. Saw-whets migrate back to Iowa in the fall from about mid-October to as late as late-November. They vacate the state back to breeding grounds by March.
Saw-whets are a tad smaller than screech-owls dimension-wise and about half the weight. Only adults will be seen in Iowa. The sexes look identical; however, females are slightly larger than males. They have a brown back with white spots on the wing coverts and flight feathers. The tail feathers also are brown with a few white bands. The breast down to belly have rusty-colored streaks. The face is heart-shaped with two yellow eyes. Their brown forehead is V-shaped with short and thin white streaks.
Where do you find saw-whet owl?
They are more often found in young to mature cedar groves with dense understory. Some evidence suggests a propensity to roost near water sources such as lakes, ponds, gravel pits, etc. They can blend in extremely well or be obscured by vegetation, which often makes them hard to spot. They may change their roosting perch from night to night because they are nocturnal hunters, adding further difficulty when trying to relocate them.
Looking for white wash on branches or on the ground and owl pellets may help locate a nearby roosting owl.
When viewing saw-whet owls it is best to practice good owl watching etiquette. The most important question is: how close is too close? An owl’s body language will let you know. Waking an owl up from its slumber is an indication to not approach any closer. An owl rapidly looking away from a human observer may mean it is thinking about flying away. It can be easy to forget, especially with larger groups of people, that talking should be kept at a minimum. Try whispering or hand signaling if communication is needed.
Owls that rapidly and widely open their eyes or blink abnormally are signaling “too close.” Although saw-whets do not have ear tufts, those that do may suddenly raise their tufts when alarmed. Sleeping, preening or lazily looking around all indicate body language indicative of a safe and respectful distance.
- Early December can still produce some good birding, especially if unseasonably warm weather lingers. Things may quiet down once the grip of winter overcomes the land, water and sky. Owls, of course, can be great targets. Irruption years can be observed in snowy owl populations, although northern saw-whet owls also can irrupt in larger numbers on a roughly six-year cycle. Other owl species — such as northern hawk owl, boreal owl and great gray owl — also irrupt in larger numbers, but rarely as far south as Iowa.
- There may be indications of finch irruptions. White-winged crossbill and common redpoll have been counted in impressive numbers at more northern latitudes. Crossbills are usually found in large stands of conifers with impressive cone crops. Cemeteries can often boast such habitat. Parks like Pinicon Ridge County Park and F.W. Kent Park have nice stands of conifers. Redpolls can be found near conifers, but they also like to graze in grassy habitat. I have found flocks of 50 or more wondering agriculture fields, coming to the gravelly roadsides to partially ingest grit. I once saw a flock of 150 redpolls dining on a sorghum field. Crossbills and redpolls also will come to feeders. Black oil sunflower and Nyjer seed should be well-stocked in order to attract and keep them around.
- Any areas with open water can potentially attract birds like eagles, waterfowl or even kingfishers. Roller dams, also called low-head dams, are often worth checking. One of the most productive low-head dams in Eastern Iowa actually has a foot bridge over it. This is near the Iowa River Power restaurant along the Iowa River Trail in Coralville/Iowa City. This can be a great place to see and photograph bald eagles. Other good locations for eagles and waterfowl are at the tailwaters of reservoirs. The tailwaters area at Coralville Reservoir and observation areas along the Mississippi River lock and dams can be excellent for eagle and waterfowl photography.
- Visit https://iowabirds.org/Connections/CBC.aspx for 2021-2022 Christmas Bird Count (CBC) information. To the left of each listed count is a “Select” button. Click on that for more information about each CBC. Make sure to keep checking this list as it will continue to populate different CBC info up until mid-December. Christmas Bird Counts are longest-running community science bird projects in the nation. All bird-watching skill levels are welcome.
Brandon Caswell has a keen interest in natural and social sciences. He enjoys bird-watching and nature photography in his spare time. He resides with his wife and two young children in Marion.