Posted by: atowhee | January 6, 2011


It was a late afternoon expedition into the Cascades on the scant hope of spotting a Great Gray Owl.  They hunt at dusk along mountain meadows.  No big owls to be seen.  But at our first stop we found a few Western Bluebirds gathered in a barren black oak, to keep watch over this specter of death:

There is so much here to admire, to stir marvel.  The delicate white flecking on the brown back.  The 200-degree swivel in the tiny neck.  The pint-sized, no the half-pint size, of this crepuscular predator.  The fury with which small songbirds hate and mob this owl.  The cold stare of a born killer.  Every movement, every other creature is measured as pray or annoyance or irrelevance.  Apparently, nature photog Dan Elster and fellow birder John Bullock and I qualified as irrelevance.  When this Northern Pygmy-owl finally flew from his original post he came closer to the car and posed even longer.  I like to think we aided him a bit because the mobbing Western Bluebirds fled shortly after we arrived.  This guy was around milepost 7 along Dead Indian MEMORIAL Road, about 4p.m. as the winter was about to retreat for the nonce.

When insects and reptiles are unavailable this owl eats small birds, that is smaller birds, and small mammals.  It is easy to understand his status as “most hated” among small songbirds in his native land.  Scientists know him as Glaucidium gnoma. The eminent 19th Century ornithologist, Elliot Coues posits that “glaucidium” means glaring and “gnoma” connotes both gnome-like size and reason or knowing from the original Greek “gnoma.”

So there he sat, all 2.5 oz.  All of 6.75″ in height, the length of a dessert fork.  It would take ten of these small hunters to weigh as much as a quart of milk.  And this bird is restricted to forested and brushy areas of western North America and Central America.  Your cousin in Virginia will never see one in the garden out back.

Did I mention that we later saw a second one at Howard Prairie?  Shortly after we stopped staring at the freezing fog, sunset glow, snow-white beauty of Mt. McLaughlin in winter garb.

You can see Dan Elster’s great photos here.


  1. That owl is an absolute beauty as are the photos of Mt. McGloughlin.

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