Yellowstone Reports

Printer-friendly version

Animals I have Known #4

Pygmy Owls
by Dan Hartman

March 8, 2011

The other morning I was awakened by chirping chickadees. Looking out the window, I soon spotted a tiny pygmy owl perched some 20 feet away. It had been awhile since I last came across one of the little owls, so I tried to absorb every detail. His long skinny tail, fake eye patches on the back of his head and yellow piercing eyes. Suddenly it was gone only the bobbing pine boughs proving it was ever present.

Iíve had many encounters with pygmy owls in the past. Even stumbling across nests on two occasions. Oddly enough, both nests were found ten days apart in June of 2001.

Looking back, I now realize how special that summer was. Though it did not feel much like summer the morning I discovered a pygmy nest near Tower. It had snowed all night and I was wading through 16 inches of heavy wet slop when I heard the little owls call. It took me a while but I finally located him perched high in an aspen. It was clutching a vole as big as he was. When he flew off I ran after it, trying desperately to keep him in sight. Eventually I was lucky enough to see it disappear into a tree cavity. I had found the nest!

For the next two weeks I would leave our cabin at 4:45 a.m. so to be positioned at the nest site at first light. This was usually when the first feeding occurred. Day after day I watched the goings on at the aspen cavity. Some days were slow and I took nary a shot, but other days were magical. I observed the male owl bring in chipmunks, mice, small birds, even insects. One day a great gray owl appeared to hunt the aspen grove. The tiny pygmy owl wouldnít allow it. Over and over he darted at the big owls head. Eventually the great gray gave up and moved on.

It wasnít only the owl nest that kept things interesting. Standing quietly in an aspen grove high on a mountainside one blends into the scenery. Soon every day life resumes all around you. A fox moused by walking logs to stay out of the dew soaked grass. A pair of black bears courted 100 yards down slope. Once a coyote chased a ground squirrel a few feet from where I stood. Sapsuckers and bluebirds fed families in aspen cavities near by. Blue grouse strutted on the hilltops. We could have done an entire wildlife film right there on that slope!

I was lucky enough to be present when the little owlets fledged. I watched as the four chicks struggled through tall grass, and then fought their way up into the aspens and safety.

I remember thinking, the next time I find a pygmy nest, Iíll be better prepared. But here it has been almost ten years and I am still searching.


View slide show

Pygmy Owl Nest

Pygmy Owl

Pygmy Owl Fledging

Pygmy Owl Fledgling

Chick fighting it's way up an aspen

Another Pygmy Owl Nest

Pygmy Owl With Rosey Finch