Birds of North Carolina:
their Distribution and Abundance
Northern Saw-whet Owl - Aegolius acadicus
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General Comments The smallest owl in eastern North America, the Northern Saw-whet Owl usually requires a special search to find, typically a drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway in the dark on a late spring evening, often in foggy and dangerous driving conditions. However, persistence often pays off, as the species is by no means a rare breeder in the spruce-fir forests, or forests where spruce is mixed with hardwoods. Though hearing birds calling is not difficult, it can be frustrating to actually see one, as the birds do not typically fly to the edge of the forest; thus, one often must go into the forest at night to spotlight a calling bird. The winter range is poorly known, but in recent years small numbers have been found somewhat routinely in some coastal areas. At that season, birds seldom call, at least without stimulation by a taped recording or whistling. Breeding habitat is typically where some hardwoods are mixed with spruce and fir (mostly above 5,000 feet elevation); however, some birds do occur at lower elevations, even where such conifers are lacking. In winter, the species roosts in thick cover, and feeds in small wooded openings, though much still remains unknown about winter season habitats and foraging behavior, in part because birds have been found in a very wide range of habitats -- even in pocosins!
Breeding Status Breeder
NC BRC List Definitive
State Status T
U.S. Status
State Rank S2B,S2N
Global Rank G5
Coastal Plain Winter visitor or resident. Status is poorly known, but generally rare (to possibly locally uncommon) in the northern half of the region, south to Carteret, casually to the southern coast; inland mainly only south to Halifax, but likely occurs farther south, but no records as yet from the Sandhills, Goldsboro, or Greenville areas. The fact that considerable numbers have been banded in Halifax strongly indicates that the species must winter in small numbers farther south in the inner Coastal Plain. Quite notable were two head calling at Fort Fisher (New Hanover), 6 Dec 2018, with one again heard there on 30 Dec 2018. One heard calling in southern Moore, in the Sandhills region, on 4 Sep 2020 defies explanation for that early in the fall season, as well as location. Primarily from early Nov to late Feb, but there is a banding record in Halifax as early as 21 Sep, and a heard bird on 13 Apr. Peak counts: 15 (banding operation), Halifax, 4 Nov 1995; 6-7, Mashoes (mainland Dare), 30 Jan - 9 Feb 1996; 5, Bodie Island lighthouse road (Dare), 6 Jan and 3 Feb 2015.
Piedmont Winter visitor. Very rare (or at least very rarely reported) in the northeastern portion, with about 16 records for Wake, Durham, and Orange. Remarkably, there are apparently just six other records for the province -- one seen at Kernersville (Guilford), 15 Dec 1997; one detected at Mayo River State Park (Rockingham), 14 Dec 2012; one in Nash, 19 Jan 2013; one responding to an audio recording on Sauratown Mountain (Stokes), 21 Dec 2014; one responding to playback in Rockingham, 26 Dec 2018; and two along Mayo River Road (Rockingham) on the very early date of 13 Sep 2019. Certainly, the species must winter in small numbers in the province, but there have been no reports of road kills, as there have been in the northern coastal areas. Mainly early Nov to early Apr. Peak counts: all records are of single individuals except for the 2019 report of 2 birds.
Mountains Breeder in the higher elevations; winter resident over most of the region. Uncommon to fairly common in the breeding season along the southern Blue Ridge Parkway (Great Balsam and Pisgah ranges) and in Great Smoky Mountains NP, above 5,000 feet. Generally uncommon elsewhere in spruce-fir stands, being found at essentially all such stands (Black Mountains, Grandfather Mountain, Roan Mountain, Long Hope Valley, etc.). Also apparently nests in some hardwood stands, such as Pickens Nose (Macon). On the breeding grounds, arrives probably in Mar. At lower elevations, probably Oct into Apr; abundance poorly known in winter, though likely not truly rare except at lower elevations. Peak counts: 8, Blue Ridge Parkway between Richland Balsam and Shining Rock Wilderness, 26 May 1984; 7, Devils Courthouse area, 4 Apr 1982.
Finding Tips To find the species in the state, it is obviously more advantageous to try for it on the breeding grounds. The best place is the Blue Ridge Parkway, where there are numerous spots from Waterrock Knob southeast to Devils Courthouse. Make many stops, and first listen for a few minutes, as the birds will sometimes call on their own. If no birds are calling, do some "tooting" on your own. It may take a few minutes, but the birds will respond (like the Eastern Screech-Owl does). However, they normally do not approach the birder as readily as does that owl, but a few birders have actually been hit by angered owls! Another good spot to try is the Clingmans Dome Road in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Grandfather Mountain, Mount Mitchell, and Roan Mountain also have Saw-whets, but the birds are not as easily reached by road. NOTE: Getting off of roads at night in the high mountains is very dangerous, as one can easily slip and fall on the wet and steep terrain.

If you must try for Saw-whets in winter, such as on a Christmas count, there are no good techniques. A few birders have heard birds tooting, or giving the "scree-aw" call. It wouldn't hurt to try a few calls, either by calling yourself, or with tapes. You have a very low chance of getting a response, but it certainly wouldn't hurt. The pine stands along the entrance road to the Bodie Island lighthouse had have a few birds in recent winters.

Attribution LeGrand[2021-03-06], LeGrand[2020-02-08], LeGrand[2019-06-26]
NC Map
Map depicts all counties with a report (transient or resident) for the species.
Click on county for list of all known species.
NC Breeding Season Map
Map depicts assumed breeding season abundance for the species.