Many times over the years—sleep
deprived and cold, shivering in
the wee hours of the night, and
questioning my sanity—I’ve
thought, “Be careful what you do
to impress a woman.”
More than two decades ago,
hoping to score some points with
a woman I was dating, I arranged
to take her and her young daugh-
ter (who loved animals) to visit
friends who were banding owls.
Biologist Eric Atkinson and his
wife, Melonie, were catching
surprising numbers of northern
saw-whet owls—a supposedly
rare species—in their backyard
in eastern Pennsylvania. I was a
hawk-bander, so this was profes-
birdwatchersdigest.com • SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER’ 17 • BIRD WATCHER’S DIGEST
SHINING LIGHT ON A NOCTURNAL MYSTERY
Tracking Northern Saw-whet Owls
BY SCOTT WEIDENSAUL*
thought it would be a fun field trip
for Beth and her daughter Jill.
It was. After dark, Eric opened
a line of mist nets in the trees
behind their house and turned on
a tape-player loop that sounded
like a garbage truck backing up—
the monotonous, tooting call of a
male saw-whet. The lure worked.
An hour later, our first check of
the nets revealed a saw-whet in the
flesh, plump and fluffy, the size
of a soda can, with huge yellow
eyes and a remarkably placid disposition. The owl (once banded,
weighed, and measured) perched
calmly for long minutes on Jill’s
little shoulder before fluttering off
into the darkness.
Northern saw-whet owls are secretive, but not necessarily rare.
* KEYNOTE SPEAKER AT
AMERICAN BIRDING EXPO.