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Quest For The Pygmy Owl Nest

It's more about the bear.
by Dan Hartman

June 16, 2011

I was checking out an area where I had discovered boreal owls last year when I heard a pygmy owl call. Knowing this is nesting season I was excited. It has been ten years since my last pygmy nest. It was nearing noon, so I decided to come back in the morning when feedings usually occur. Well it dumped rain for the next two days, so it was on the third morning that I found myself walking through the mixed forest of pine and aspen where I had heard the tiny owl. Even now it was raining lightly with pitch black clouds approaching. Black bear sign was everywhere. Tracks in the mud, piles of scat, beds scratched out under big firs. But no sight or sound of the owls.

The next day I thought Iíd try an evening venture. I arrived at 8:00 P.M. As it approached 9:30 and darkness was closing in he began calling from the west. I soon spotted the little owl silhouetted high in a dead pine being harassed by robins. He wasnít carrying food for the nest, so I walked out in the dark.

At 6:00 the next morning I was standing where he was calling the night before. As usual it was raining. At my previous nests the male would always call before he delivered food to the nest. Usually right at dawn. But once again, I heard nothing.

The next morning I arrived at 5:30. Again nothing. The following morning I arrived at 5:15. It was just getting light. On my drive in I had spotted a black bear with cubs, two moose and a grizz. By 7:30 I was getting bored so I went on a walk about. At the western end of my slope I came upon three new bear beds. One had a fallen elk skull and antlers propped up behind it. And the biggest pile of scat Iíve ever seen off to the side. The skull must have been 10-15 years old. It was one of the wildest things Iíve ever come across.

I climbed up a steep game trail then that brought me to a grassy bench that was under water from melting snow. My bear was there, a couple of hundred yards off grazing on the lush wet salad. The big fella seemed to feel my presence and ambled across the high pasture to then drop into the next valley far below. I decide to have a look, so I sloshed on across and edged to the rocky cliff edge to look down. There fifty feet away grazed the bear. At the click of my camera he lifted his head to glare at me. Mouth still full of grass he turned to race down slope. In seconds the big bear disappeared in the timber below. I wished then I hadnít bothered him. Getting back to the task at hand, I climbed back down to my familiar slope. At 11:00 A.M. I gave up and hiked out to my car.

Now here I am today. I know every tree cavity in the area and have seen activity at none of them. Instead of arriving at 5:30 A.M. this morning I waited until 8:00 A.M. thinking maybe the owls are late risers. As I sat in the large aspen grove listening, it seems summer has finally arrived. Aspen have greened up overnight. Sapsuckers and woodpeckers are drumming and western tanagers flit all around me. A sharp-shinned hawk suddenly screams and zips past.

By 10:00A.M Iím bored and decide to climb higher. Bear scat and beds are everywhere. I spook a small herd of elk. I found a spot where a mountain lion has buried its scat. An elk leg lies nearby. I make a final sweep of the area. I still think the pygmy nest is somewhere on this slope but it is time to admit defeat. The little owl has won.


View slide show

Black Bear

Bear Tracks

Bear Bed With Skull

The bear senses my presence