Liz Garcia, the owl whisperer from Utica, Nebraska, told me in February that she was planning a trip to Ida Grove, Iowa, to see and photograph a northern saw-whet owl. I had never heard of a saw-whet owl, but my curiosity certainly was aroused.
My old fishing partner, Kent Hutcheson, and his wife, Francie, live in Ida Grove during the winter months when he is not guiding at Lake Oahe near Pierre, South Dakota. I decided to pay them a visit. But first I called Hutch and asked whether he knew anything about saw-whet owls. He was in the dark as much as I was, but he said he would make a few calls to some friends around town.
A few minutes later, my phone rang. “You’re in luck,” Hutch said. “There’s a guy who has been taking people to see those owls for years. His name is Don Poggensee. I knew him when we were kids in Denison. He said he’d meet us tomorrow morning at 10 o’clock.”
Poggensee, a retired corporate pilot and a skilled outdoor photographer, has been keeping track of saw-whet owls in Ida Grove’s Moorehead Park for 29 years. He saw his first saw-whet there in 1989 and delights in giving visitors a look at America’s second-smallest owl.
A saw-whet is only 6½ inches in length from the top of its head to the tip of its tail. The smallest owl in the U.S. is the 5½-inch elf owl that lives in the Southwest. Screech owls, common in the Midlands, are 7 to 10 inches tall. Burrowing owls are of similar size.
During the winter months, there are more saw-whets in the U.S. than any other small owl species, Poggensee said. They spend daylight hours in conifer trees — spruce, pine and cedar. Scotch pines are their tree of choice in Moorhead Park. Since scotch pines live only about 20 years, Poggensee has begun to plant new trees so the saw-whets will keep coming to Ida Grove.
Since Nov. 1, Poggensee has shown saw-whets to nearly 400 people. More than 1,000 people from 15 states and three foreign countries saw the tiny owls from 2015 through 2017.
“I want people to see them,” Poggensee said. “It helps (tourism) a little bit. Some people stay in town or buy dinner and gasoline. I just have an interest to share them with people. I’ve spent untold hours trying to help people see them.”
When visitors come to see the owls, Poggensee first spends two hours alone each morning pushing aside branches and peering into trees in search of the little birds. He seldom strikes out. But it’s a tedious search.
“When the weather is not really good, they go into deeper cover,” Poggensee said. “Then they’re almost invisible. You have to know what you’re looking for — the whitewash (droppings) and pellets on the ground if they’re in that tree more than one or two nights.”
The tiny owls migrate from Canada’s boreal forest in early October and begin to return north about mid-March. Females migrate farther south because they can’t hunt as efficiently as males do in deep snow. Poggensee has helped band owls in the park for five years. All banded birds have been females, and all were first-time visitors to Moorhead Park.