DISCLAIMER: photos and videos of a Northern Pygmy-Owl with prey may not appeal to sensitive viewers.
I had been walking through Weaselhead Flats nature area in Calgary for over an hour searching for Boreal Chickadees. It was a cold clear winter’s day in February and the sky was a blinding sapphire blue. Despite the beauty of the day, I was at the point of frustration. Where were the Chickadees? My mind began to wander to my plans for the rest of the day. Maybe there was somewhere else better for birding today?
The alarm call of Black-capped Chickadees jolted me back to the present. My birding experience has taught me to investigate alarm calls as there might be an owl or other raptor present. I walked further down the trail and the sounds got louder. It wasn’t just Chickadees, I could hear Nuthatches and a manic symphony of other cries. My heart rate sped up I stepped off the trail and walked towards the noise.
I had to bush bash between branches with snow rising up past the height of my boots. I pushed an endless sea of twigs away, trying to make sure they didn’t scratch against my lens. The snow was getting deeper, but I still couldn’t see what the commotion was about. I took a breath and noticed the alarmed Chickadees were concentrated low to the ground. Glancing downward, my eyes widened with surprise as I saw a Northern Pygmy-Owl on a low branch.
After registering what I was seeing, my head filled with a flurry of thoughts:
It’s a Pygmy Owl! Wow! It’s so close! There are so many branches. How will I get a photo? Am I too close? I should adjust my camera settings. Where should I stand? There are so many songbirds here. I’ve never seen anything like this!”
I fired off a few shots with branches obscuring the owl and then I surveyed the area. I decided to walk away from the owl and circle back to a better spot with a clearer view.
Since it was low to the ground, I sat down and crawled through the brush to get to the spot. I was disappointed to discover there were still some branches blocking my view. Looking around, I couldn’t see anywhere better. I found a small window between branches and started taking photos.
Once I was comfortably positioned and reasonably happy with my window through the branches, I could breathe again. I began to take in the scene. I noticed the Northern Pygmy-Owl had prey. A relatively huge Bohemian Waxwing, still looking glorious despite its fate.
The surrounding brush was dotted with Black-capped Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches, a variety of Woodpeckers and Blue Jays making sounds I had never heard before: screaming, whinnying and chirping. They would land close to the owl for a few seconds, often with crests raised and feathers puffed up. Meanwhile the owl was trying to enjoy its lunch. It would take a few bites and then look around, constantly on alert to the mobbing crowd.
Play the video with the sound on.
The number of songbirds seemed to increase with each passing moment. Eventually the Pygmy Owl decided to move to a better spot. It flew clumsily carrying such a large prey, stopping periodically to re-position things.
The owl ended up right beside the trail. I wasn’t sure what to do. If I headed back to the trail to go on my way, I would have to walk right by it. I didn’t want to add to its stress, but after sitting for a while I decided I had no choice but to go past. I bush bashed my way back to the trail and walked quickly by without making eye contact. When I was far enough away, I sat down and then turned around. The owl was sitting on a log and two Blue Jays were on a branch above raising their alarm. I was able to get a few photographs before the owl moved down behind the log and into a more secluded spot. This was my cue to leave the area.
Walking away from the owl, my thoughts were racing. I realized I had no idea where I was, so I ended up using Google maps on my phone to make my way back to the parking lot. It’s hard to make navigation decisions when you’ve just had a once-in-a lifetime owl experience. Owls are difficult to find and I never expected I would find an owl with prey in the middle of a forest. Northern Pygmy-Owls hunt during the daytime and are known to eat songbirds so it wasn’t unprecedented, but still unexpected.
The adrenaline and excitement lasted for a good 48 hours. I shared the video of the owl on social media and had some great discussions with others about the experience. Most concurred it was an awesome encounter. But, some had a negative reaction to seeing a video of an owl eating prey. A few even said I was macabre for celebrating this experience. Through all the excitement, it hadn’t even crossed my mind that some people might be bothered by this type of thing. The reality is that Northern Pygmy-Owls eat songbirds. I thought it was incredible to experience this unique scene in the forest. After spending so much time in nature, I’ve come to accept and enjoy every aspect of it even if some of it might be difficult to watch.
What do you think?
Northern Pygmy-Owl Gallery
I was interviewed twice by the CBC about my experience with the Northern Pygmy-Owl: