Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Saw-whet Owl Prowl

There were eleven of us, tromping once again into the wilds of the Cherokee National Forest near Unicoi, Tenn, on the Unaka Mountain Auto Loop. We were ultimately looking for saw-whet owl (Aegolius acadicus) a very small (7 inches), rare, owl of the east. Saw-whets inhabit the older forests and, for such a small bird, command individually lots of territory. Most of us will probably never see a saw-whet or hear one. Besides “rare” you just have to be in the right spot and the right time, at night, up in the mountains. Many casual listeners would probably confuse with the Common screech owl (Otus asio) of which I have had many every year (but not yet in 2009!) in my back yard trees in Johnson City.

We were up at about 4,500 feet in mostly conifer forest. It was overcast with occasional lightning and misting rain. We called up one Saw-whet who answered one time. And that was it.

So goes birding.

We have five owls in the eastern mountain region. The saw-whet, however, is basically a northern owl that has survived along the Appalachian mountain tops. The boreal zone “up there” has offered us “down here” a lot of opportunities to see a varied animal and plant life not available to many folks in the east.

The Screech owl (7-9 inches) has a whinny, like a horse singing soprano, sometimes followed by a tenor warble. Maybe a loon with a cold? At my house I get more warble and less whinny. Once you hear the Saw-whet call, you will forever know the difference. The Saw-whet seems more like a metallic “reep” and “rove” compared sometimes to the boing sound you get when you bind your wood saw by pushing it too deep into the cut. Personally, I don’t equate the sounds my saw makes with what I’ve heard from the Saw-whet owl.

I was camping one time on the AT about 2 or 3 miles north of Carver’s Gap in the Highland Shelter. By myself. Nice, quiet fall evening. Nothing disturbing the air and I could hear this “reep” sound from a long ways off. I knew what it was and it was my only saw-whet owl. I tried valiantly to stay awake for an answering call. But, no, I dozed off at my post! I couldn’t tell you how many years have passed since that night.

Our other owls are the Eastern great horned, the Barred, and the Barn. These three are all different enough to avoid confusion.

We also heard (at least that is what I’m told): Acadian flycatcher, Swaison’s warbler, Veery, Black-throated blue warbler, Black-throated green warbler, Canada warbler, Blackburnian, and Junco. (I can’t tell one warbler call from another.)

We were above Red Fork Falls where the road soon switches over from blacktop to good gravel. There a several great photographic websites to either look at the countryside or find some images from Red Fork area and Beauty Spot.

For a map reference start with:



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