January 13, 2008

Pygmy Owl

Hanging out the laundry, M. noticed a collective twittering of nuthatches high up in a pine tree--and one larger bird sitting still.

Last year, on a sunny afternoon in late January, we swore we had seen a northern hawk owl, which if true would mean that it was way south of its normal range.

That time, we had a good look through binoculars and consulted field guides--but we did not have a camera with long lens ready. And then it flew away, having consumed the junco it had snatched near one of the bird feeders.

As Project Feeder Watch participants, we reported it to the Cornell ornithology lab. The response was polite but non-committal: Your report is sounds intriguing, but we would really like to see a photo. And we had no photo. So we did not rock the ornithological world.

This time, I had the new Pentax K100D digital camera and a so-so 500mm mirror lens, and I shot several pictures from the porch before the bird flew off.

After downloading and sharpening them a little in Graphic Converter (the poor man's PhotoShop), I realize that I was looking at . . . a sharp-shinned hawk. [No, see updates below.]

It was eating a pygmy nuthatch while being mobbed by other pygmy and white-breasted nuthatches--but being mobbed by nuthatches is not too scary if you're a hawk an owl.

Of course now we are wondering about our alleged hawk owl. Were we acting like newbies, getting all excited over an exotic species? Did our years of counting owls for the BLM make us too ready to see an owl rather than a hawk? Or was it really the hawk owl? If it was, I wish it would come back.

At least digital photography offers instant gratification. I do not plan to give SeEtta Moss any serious competition, however.

UPDATE: Steve Bodio votes for a pygmy owl. I was puzzled at the time by the slightly stocky body shape the bird presented, but I put that down to cold weather (feathers puffed) and to the fact that it was hunching over its prey.

UPDATE 2: SeEtta Moss (see comments) agrees that it is a pygmy owl, so I have changed the headline.


dr. hypercube said...

Hmmm. I'll be interested to hear what others say. In the top picture, especially, that looks like a facial disk...

Chas S. Clifton said...

Yes, it did look like a facial disk. But the barring on this bird's chest runs vertically, whereas on the hawk owl the "bars" seem more horizontal.

Steve Bodio said...

Chas-- check out northern pygmy owl, which will come out in the day. My feeling is that its tail is VERY short for a sharpie.

Chas S. Clifton said...


It seemed "chunky" for a hawk, and the pygmy owl's stripes do run vertically. Maybe that's it. I should revise the blog post?

SRM said...

Chas emailed me to look at his pics. This is definitely a Northern Pygmy-Owl. Indeed it's tail is proportionally much too short for a Sharp-shinned Hawk. N Pygmy-Owls have quite long tails with pale bars like this bird. Additionally, they have longitudinal dark streaks on their underparts.

Sharp-shinned Hawks are proportionally longer in body with much smaller heads and less dense streaking on underparts. Though not clearly visible in the pics, the beak looks close to the face like owls rather than extending
out from the face as in hawks.

Matt Mullenix said...

Count me in the owl column. But no one has yet made the obvious comment that a picture of a pygmy owl eating a bird is waaaaaay cooler than a pic of a SSH doing the same. :-)

Chas S. Clifton said...

Thanks, Matt. If only the photographic conditions and been more favorable -- and if the bird's face had not been at a bad angle and usually obscured by pine needles.