A northern saw-whet owl, smaller than a bobwhite quail, roosts deep in a pine tree near Ida Grove, Iowa.
I just returned from a 1000-mile roadtrip to Ida Grove, Iowa to see and photograph one of the tiny, saw-whet owls that winter each year in a forested park near the town. My friend, Bill Fritz joined me for the trip, which I arranged with a local birder/photographer in Ida Grove, Don Poggensee. Don has been following the wintering saw-whets for about 30 years since he discovered one during a visit to the park. Don has become somewhat of a celebrity in the birding world as he has graciously guided visitors for a look at the owls, and shared images of saw-whet owls in several publications. You can see some of Don’s great images of the tiny owls on his Facebook page here:
Upon arrival, Don met us at the park and walked us to a pine tree where a single saw-whet owl was roosting. The little fella was buried deep in the pine tree so I knew a classic owl image would be out of the question. I decided that my best image would be a simple shot of the saw-whet’s cat-like face, including its giant yellow eyes, taken from an acute angle. The resulting featured image was my very first capture and the only one I kept, as the setting sun immediately made further photography problematic.
Saw-whet owls are found throughout the forests of North America during winter, but they are so nocturnal, and well-camouflaged during the day that even avid birders such as Bill rarely see them. It was such a joy to see the teeny raptor, about the size of a kestrel, with its perfectly coiffed, angular head plumage. Bill and I also enjoyed Don’s anecdotes from three decades of monitoring the saw-whets of Ida Grove. Although some winters bring as many as five individuals to the little park, Don has only found two this winter.
After thanking Don profusely for his invaluable assistance, Bill and I headed over to the Ida Grove Super Eight. We were pleased to find a steak house, Zimmy’s, right next door where we each made short work of ribeyes that had been aged for 28 days.
That evening before retiring to our rooms, Bill and I relived the experience of seeing the impossibly tiny owl, and talked about future adventures. The next morning we decided to head home because we knew it would be a needle-in-the-haystack process to find one of the two owls on our own. On the way home, we stopped at Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge, now called Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge, and enjoyed some time watching and photographing bald eagles. Most of the quarter-million snow geese from a few days earlier had departed due to ice.
I spend most of my wildlife photography time in Missouri but the occasional road trip is just what the doctor ordered, especially when Bill, who is actually my doctor, decides to come along. I bet this picture of a cute little saw-whet owl will inspire a few of you to take a roadtrip to Iowa yourself. If so, you can count on Don Poggensee to do his best to make your visit worthwhile.
Thanks for looking,
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