Owl

A northern pygmy owl photographed on Jasper Mountain Road in Walla Walla County.

It is so hard to believe that, at last, the year 2020 is drawing to a close.

What a bittersweet year to experience.

Little did any of us expect a pandemic, political upheaval, social demands for change, and the increased influence of climate change on our lives.

Let us see, we had a massive flood across the entire Walla Walla River watershed in February that inundated and damaged homes, roads, water piping and wildlife habitat.

Hot, dry weather starting in May lasted through late October.

Then, 70-degree temps into early November.

So, I hope that each of you remains safe and careful as these last few weeks of this flea-bitten year pass on by.

Out in the natural world, seasons have changed and wildlife is attempting to adapt to these ongoing alterations in the climate.

This column will bring on stage a mighty hunter and a late-date discovery.

Scattered across the Blue Mountains, along most drainages in the riparian buffers, lives a powerful, diurnal hunter that causes fear and panic in all the small songbirds, mice and lizards in its territory.

This predator is an ambush hunter that seldom misses anything moving in its presence.

It is a day-hunting owl species that waits and listens for inattentive prey, such as mice, so busy in their runs that they just are not paying attention as they squeak and run along the well-established trails they have made.

This 6.75-inch long raptor is known as the northern pygmy owl.

It has one other closely related pygmy owl species that nudges across the Mexican boarder in Texas and Arizona, and is known as the ferruginous pygmy owl.

This desert species is not found in the Pacific Northwest.

Ferruginous refers to the reddish-orange coloration of this owl species.

The subject of this column is mostly gray, with a spattering of tan and brown across the back (mantle) and flanks.

Northern pygmy owls are almost entirely a mountain species during the breeding season, when they nest inside snags in cavities excavated by woodpeckers or rotted out branch sites on the trunk of a tree.

The first nest cavities in the northern Blue Mountains were discovered in old abandoned apple trees often found around vacant homestead sites.

Pygmy owls prey on everything they can take without injury to themselves, such as mice, small songbirds, insects, scorpions and small fish.

The most amazing documented prey species one pygmy owl latched onto and succeeded in killing was a long-tailed weasel, which would have been a battle-and-a-half to witness!

Northern pygmy owls lay four eggs about 12-14 hours apart in the cavity, and after incubating these eggs for 22 days they start hatching.

These owlets have a voracious appetite that both adults try hard to fill.

Time for a quick personal story about a family of northern pygmy owls.

One July evening we were hiking up a mountain road in Walla Walla County when I heard what sounded like a field cricket chirping.

Not thinking much of a hidden cricket sounding off, I kept walking — when a second and third cricket started all in the same general spot.

That got my attention, and that is when I discovered four half-grown northern pygmy owlets perched here and there on a big root wad.

The cricket sound masked their true identity from other passing predators like jays, ravens or hawks.

These owlets wanted fed, and the “cricket chirps” we heard were their location calls to mom and dad to come feed them.

Soon, one of the adults flew in with a prey item which proved to be a large black field cricket.

Within moments, the adult owl had pulled the cricket apart and pushed these fresh pieces of cricket into the chicks’ open mouths.

Northern pygmy owls perform a late-fall elevational migration down into the Walla Walla Valley starting in mid-October.

We have found this small little owl species right in our front trees in College Place during the winter.

I have seen them at Rooks Park in winter, and they have shown up in several neighborhoods in Walla Walla, again in winter.

The strangest spot we have ever located a pygmy owl was a the now-abandoned Central Ferry State Park in Whitman County.

This owl had located a large flock of English sparrows living near the park entrance, so had ample prey to feed on.

This small owl is the only owl in southeast Washington that has stiff, unmuffled primary flight feathers.

It has an extremely fast, direct flight, and counts on speed and surprise to grab its prey.

They frequently give a metered “toot” call during daylight hours — it sounds like a back-up warning alarm on heavy trucks or earth-moving equipment.

Listen for them as you walk through the forested areas in the northern Blue Mountains or in any of the towns at the base of the Blue Mountains.

These beautiful, bright yellow-eyed owls are so interesting and enjoyable to watch.

Never try to grab one as they have a fierce bite and powerful talons, and you never know what virus the last rodent it ate carried.

One last, exciting discovery at Fort Walla Walla Park was made by MerryLynn Denny on Tuesday. She found and photographed what appears to be a meadowhawk dragonfly.

This is the latest date ever in Walla Walla County — for that matter in eastern Washington — for a living dragonfly in December.

Wow, MerryLynn!