Phantom of southern Appalachian mountain forests, saw-whet owls

Published 10:40 am Monday, April 9, 2012

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Here in the southern Appalachians we have 5 species of owls that regularly occur and nest in our region. Most of these are familiar to many of us, such as Great Horned, Eastern Screech, Barred and Barn. The fifth member of this group is small, hard to see and quite uncommon. This is the Northern Saw-whet Owl.
This tiny owl breeds primarily in the spruce-fir forests along the crest of the Appalachian ridge. It was not known to occur this far south during the summer months until June 1941 when two university students heard the bell-like call notes of this small owl at Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Prior to this date, the Saw-whet Owl was thought to nest only as far south as Cranberry Glades in West Virginia.
The Saw-whet Owl is widespread in most of northern North America, and is found from California east to Maine, and north to central Canada. During the winter many of them migrate to appear much further south, even being found along the coast of the southern Atlantic states. But to really get to know this bird, it is necessary to make the trip to the higher reaches of the Appalachians during spring and early summer. Wait until the weather is still and listen for the rapidly repeated clear notes coming from spruce-fir woodland or in the adjacent northern hardwood forest. As in most nocturnal species, you probably will not see it, but no other owl in the southern Appalachians has this distinctive song.