Saturday, March 14, 2015

Watching a Pint-sized Hunter: Pygmy Owl

Blue sky.  The barest of breeze and almost shirt sleeve weather.  Dale and I are just a few miles from the Oregon Coast, driving down the Seven Devils Road.  In half an hour we’ll be picking up a nice shrimp cocktail for lunch in Charleston Harbor.   We’re passing a big, ugly clear cut, acres and acres of stumps, both new and old.  The first time this land was logged the trees were huge.  Loggers cut a notch for a board and two loggers stood on either end of the board while they shared the cutting job. By cutting above the flare of the tree’s roots, they left several feet of wood but reduced the amount of sawing.  Wood was cheap then.

 Just a couple of years ago the land was cut again, this time with power equipment and much smaller trees.  The old, punky stumps rise far above the multitude of smaller stumps.  I’m idly looking at the new and old stumps, and wondering what bugs we might find out there, when I realize one on the nearest, tallest stumps has a funny little lump at the very tip.  What’s that?

I immediately tell Dale, “Keep driving.  I just saw a pygmy owl.”  That may seem like a strange thing to say, but he immediately knows it’s close to the road and we’ll want to turn around and plan just where we’ll stop.  Backing up is almost guaranteed to spook the owl.  Critters know what to expect from humans.  They often spook when we don’t behave according to plan. 
We turn around a quarter of a mile down the road. Back at the owl the shoulder of the road isn’t very generous and forces us to park at a spot close to the owl.  Will he stay?  Dale eases his long lens onto the windowsill.  My journal is on my lap so I can start sketching right away. The owl holds!  In fact, he doesn’t seem interested in us.  This little owl’s mind is on dinner. 

He stares to the left and he stares to the right, watching each piece of ground for a long moment before swiveling his head to a new spot.  Pygmy owls have fierce yellow eyes when they look at you, but the back of their head has ‘eyes’ too.  On the back of his head are two big black spots trimmed with light feathers.    When he looks away, it still looks as if he is watching. 

It’s been years since we’ve had more than a quick look at a pygmy owl.  They are common enough in Oregon.  We hear them every so often, but to quietly sit and watch is rare.  I still savor the memories of one we found about 30 years ago, also in a clear cut.  I spotted it way off perched in the tippy top of a thin snag – too far for more than a speck in a photograph.  So we got out and slowly worked our way up the steep tangle of old stumps, cut off branches, brush and vines.  The owl dropped down onto a fallen log, and there he sat.  All too soon Dale had finished his roll of film and whispered to me to go get another. 

Back down the slope I went and fetched a roll of film.  Well by now, Dale was even closer and fired off that roll in no time at all.  …. “Get another.” 

I’m wiser now.  That was the last time I ever fetched one roll of film at a time.  I made 4 trips down to the car, each time bringing back one roll.  I was a slow learner.
Eventually that pygmy owl coughed up a pellet.  We totally missed that.  It was only later, when we were looking at our slides, that we saw no pellet, and then a pellet on the log  next to the owl.  Apparently that owl needed to cough the pellet before getting serious about hunting.  Owls swallow much of their prey whole – a whole vole or mouse.  They eat little birds too but I suspect they pluck at least some of the feathers off.   After digesting, they cough up a pellet, a neat little bundle of fur and bones. 

Soon after coughing up his pellet, this little pygmy dropped down into the tangle and came up with a big, fat vole.  He paused long enough to give us a couple of good photos and then flew off to a farther tree and dinner in peace. 

I’m amazed today’s owl is sitting tight in one spot for so long.  He is very alert.  Hunting must not be good, but this is wonderful for us. 

Finally the owl decides it is time to try another hunting perch.   Thirty two minutes in the first spot with no prey.  He flies off, paralleling the road. This time he perches on a tall burnt snag, left over from a recent logging burn pile.  Beautiful! We can’t park quite as close this time, but at least we have a better spot to park.  I can wiggle around and get my pens and better paper while Dale starts photographing again.  Unlike most owls, pygmy owls are diurnal; so seeing this little guy out in broad daylight is not unusual. 

I have my little owl all drawn and inked before he takes off again.  I’ll paint it later – 27 minutes in this spot.  Still no dinner for him.

We drive on down the road and find him again, this time perched on a pile of logging litter, but too far to be much fun to watch after having him almost in our lap.  He continues to hunt.  It’s obvious this clear cut is his hunting habitat of choice.  There is lots of forest nearby. 

Thanks to the owl our lunch is going to be sardines, but it was well worth it. 


  1. Wow! What a treat! Great photos and sketches for your patience. Bet you'll be back to look for him again.

  2. Lovely story and sketches! I would like to meet him one day, too!

  3. You Guys! One Pygmy Owl is worth a pond full of Muskrats---I feel properly trumped.
    Great pics and sketches. You sure took full advantage of the opportunity. Glad to see those clear-cuts are good for something.

  4. Terrific spotting, observing, sketching, and photographing - what a pint sized GIFT 😀

  5. A beautiful little owl. Great sketches and photos.

  6. What a delightful tale! Love your sketches and I'd have to say sardines would be a good trade for time with this little guy.

  7. These are great photos. And sketches. I need to read this yet. Makes me think about that angry owl attacking evening joggers at the park near Salem OR. :)) this one looks more docil :)