Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Southernmost Saw-whet Owl

We arrived just in time to see the Friday-the-13th Full Honey Moon creeping up over the top of  Devil's Courthouse, one of North Carolina's most infamous of rock faces set beside the Blue Ridge Parkway.  The national park sign explained that according to Cherokee Legend the cave below the cliff is "the private dancing chamber and dwelling place of the slant-eyed giant, Judaculla."  It was a dramatic start to our nocturnal quest.  

Of course our goal was not to slay a giant, but spot the tiny Northern Saw-whet Owl, one of North Carolina's most elusive breeding bird species.  Our guide was Marcus Simpson's Birds of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which proclaims that the area around Devil's Courthouse is one of the best places in North Carolina to see this northern species.

My friend, "Johnny birder," needed to see one for his life list and his wife Lesley, though not nearly the psychotic lister, was happy to join us on a short birding trip to the mountains. 

Up on top of the Courthouse we were treated to a jaw-dropping moonlit view of the valleys, clouds and towns below. 
View of the Friday-the-13th Full Honey Moon from atop Devil's Courthouse
It was a bit windy and we hadn't heard any owls after about an hour and I was beginning to worry that it was too late in the season to hear them sing.  How many silent owls were we walking past in the darkness?  Eventually, Johnny and Lesley noticed a squeeking sound that we might have passed off for branches rubbing in the wind except that it was too regular.  Further investigation with lights revealed a nest box and a fledgling calling from a branch just in front of the opening!

Fledgling Norther Saw-whet Owl, Devil's Courthouse
 After some photos and much celebration we made a late camp for the night.  Who should we run into at dawn the next morning, but none other than Marcus Simpson himself, the very author of the bird guide that had led us to this cute baby owl.

Better yet was the back-story he shared with us.  Marcus had set up the nest box we had seen, which he has been monitoring along with 30 others in the North Carolina mountains for decades. Despite diligent annual checks, he had never found evidence that any of his boxes were being used by Saw-whets.  So the owl we found was very important!  It demonstrated that these little owls were using at least one of his boxes.  On top of that, it represents the southernmost record of breeding for this species!

I can only assume that the confluence of celestial and calendarial events led us to make this discovery.  Thanks to Johnny and Lesley for helping spot this little treasure and to Marcus Simpson for writing up the map for us (buy your copy now!).