The pint-size Northern Pygmy-Owl was one of the star attractions in Juneau Audubon Society's recent Christmas Bird Count.
Four were sighted during the Dec. 18 count, a record number for Juneau's Christmas count.
Two Northern Pygmy-Owls were sighted in the Mendenhall Wetlands, often quite close to the Christmas counters. One appeared to follow them for about an hour, according to participant Bob Armstrong. But the owl was more likely pursuing three American Tree Sparrows, another unusual sighting for this time of year.
Voles, shrews, insects, even small birds larger than itself are among its prey. Perhaps in sheer defiance, the Northern Pygmy-Owl has been described as one of the fiercest and most bloodthirsty birds in the world for its size. In one textbook account, a pygmy owl dug into the neck of a full-sized chicken weighing about six pounds and hung on until the hen was dead. Quite a feat for an owl weighing a mere two or three ounces.
In something of a turnabout, small songbirds also like to mob the little owl. Watching for the mobbing songbirds can sometimes lead you to a sighting of the owl as well. Unlike most owls, who are active only at night, the Northern Pygmy-Owl moves about and forages for food during the day.
Just seven inches long, shorter than a red squirrel or a robin, the Northern Pygmy-Owl is the smallest of the owls occurring in Alaska. It takes a keen and practiced eye to spot what is often little more than a fuzzy bump on a limb.
It has a tail decidedly longer than most owls, and two black spots on the nape of its neck that look like eyes on the back of its head. Its bright yellow eyes are topped with distinctive white eyebrows. Look for a white chest, belly and sides, with vertical brown streaking.
Sightings have been more numerous than usual this fall, according to birder Mark Schwan. The bird is listed as rare in Southeast Alaska, though it is known to be a year-round resident. Its year-round range extends from Southeast Alaska through the coastal and Rocky Mountain states into Mexico.
Local birders can't explain the increased sightings. Overall numbers have increased, or more likely, there has been a movement of birds to this locale, or something has caused them to behave a little differently and just be more conspicuous, Schwan said.
As last spring was approaching, another small owl, the Northern Saw-whet Owl, attracted the attention of local bird-watchers. This species is nocturnal and feeds mainly on mice. But with last winter's heavy snow pack, they were generally seen in yards with active bird feeders. Birders surmised the saw-whets were targeting small birds at feeders because deep snow made their usual prey hard to find at night.
Winter bird-watching can offer dramatic views of birds of prey at work during the short daylight hours.
Christmas Bird Count participants in the wetlands saw four bald eagles diving at an injured Vancouver Canada Goose which likely became a Christmas goose dinner. And birder Rich Gordon observed a Gyrfalcon, which is rarely seen during Christmas Bird Count week, taking down a Sharp-shinned hawk.
Record-high Christmas Bird Counts were recorded for 13 species: Red-throated Loon, Horned Grebe, Green-winged Teal, American Wigeon, Canvasback, Hooded Merganser, Gyrfalcon, Northern Goshawk, Dunlin, Rock Dove, Northern Pygmy-Owl, Northwestern Crow and Common Raven.
Notably below average in this year's count was the Stellar's Jay. This year only 16 were counted, compared with 64 last year. Over a period of years, fluctuating numbers of a particular species may reflect impacts of global warming, weather trends, urban sprawl and other factors.
About 30 volunteers logged 13,554 birds of 72 species during December's sparse daylight, on what was an uncharacteristically pleasant Christmas Bird Count day.
Juneau Audubon Society meets 7:30 p.m. the second Thursday of each month at the Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School library. Next week's program will feature a slide show, Four Seasons of Berners Bay, by Gerry Landry. To reach chapter members, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.