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Nemesis Birds – Part 1, Owls

It seems that once I started birding seriously (as opposed to just going out to see what I could see), I have always had nemesis birds, birds that I just could not find but that just had to be there somewhere. It is an ongoing fact of life, and I know it will always be the case as long as I go birding. That certainty however does not give me any peace of mind but it does certainly motivate me. Quite often owls are nemesis birds for me, as I am sure they often are for others.

Sort of the opposite of a nemesis owl is an owl that I see before I’ve started looking for it. That’s what happened on January 4th in Juneau with the Northern Pygmy-Owl. I was looking for the wintering Western Meadowlark on the Mendenhall Wetlands, and all of a sudden there was this little owl on top of a spruce. I had not even begun to think about where I might look for it. Very nice but not the usual case, especially with owls.

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My first remembered nemesis bird was an owl – the Northern Saw-whet Owl. I was living in North Carolina in the 1980s and I was told that they could be found in the NC mountains. This was before my bird-chasing days so for a long time I just thought about wanting to see one. Then one year the Carolina Bird Club spring meeting was in the mountains. The write-up for one of the field trips basically guaranteed that the group would at least hear a Northern Saw-whet Owl. I of course signed up for that trip. The designated night came, the cars drove the mountain roads to the designated spot, and we all got out. The wind was howling all around us, and I do not think we could have heard an owl if it had sat on top of one of our cars. So, it was still a nemesis bird. My non-birder husband even started making little “jokes” about Lynn always looking for a “saw-tooth” owl.

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It wasn’t until my 2008 ABA big year that I finally saw my first Northern Saw-whet Owl in California. Since that time, I have seen a couple in South Dakota where there are owl boxes in which they nest. Last late winter/early spring, we had one calling almost every night, audible from our Anchorage, Alaska porch. And this year, I actually got to see one perched high in a spruce for my Alaska big year. No longer a nemesis.

An owl that was a nemesis during my 2008 big year was a Boreal Owl, which I neither heard nor saw that year. A big miss. This year, however, as part of my Alaska big year, I have seen and photographed a Boreal Owl three times in Anchorage in the broad daylight, the object of excitement for the Black-billed Magpies and Steller’s Jays, which allowed the owl to be found.

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Until very recently, Short-eared Owls were Alaska nemesis year-birds for me. Years ago in North Carolina, they were also nemesis birds and I spent many hours at dusk watching winter fields get darker and darker with no owls appearing. I finally saw my first one in New Jersey at what was then called Brigantine NWR. Years passed and we moved to Fort Worth, Texas. The area I was assigned for the Fort Worth Christmas Bird Count happened to include fields that in good rodent years had wintering Short-eared Owls and we saw multiple Short-eared Owls most Decembers. When we moved to South Dakota, I also saw them quite a few times. But then we moved to Alaska and I obsessed about where I was going to find a Short-eared Owl for my Alaska big year. I was told that it would not be a problem and I tended to believe it because I had seen them in Nome and Barrow in 2008. But when others were regularly posting sightings recently in Anchorage and I was spending night after night and morning after morning not seeing them, I became a bit obsessed about them again. Finally about a week ago, when I was taking a break from looking for a Great Gray Owl (see below) in Kenai south of Anchorage, I saw my first (and so far, only) Short-eared Owl for my Alaska big year.

Right now my nemesis owl for Alaska is Great Gray Owl. About 125 miles south of Anchorage a Great Gray Owl has been making a regular, but not daily, appearance for months. Immediately after the owl has been reported, I have driven down there three times with the express goal of seeing the owl, and have had the expert guidance and company of the people who have seen it, but while I was there, nothing. So, it’s still a nemesis. I do hope to get it, and I know of some possible places to look and I will be looking.

Of course when doing a big year, or really, when doing any birding, there are no guarantees. Maybe I’ll never see one in Alaska. Maybe one will land on a tree in our yard, maybe very soon. That’s part of the wonderful allure of birding – almost anything is possible, some nemesis birds do eventually get seen, and there are always new birds to want to see, to keep me looking.

PS. I called this “Part 1” because I know there will be more nemesis birds and I know that my obsession with them will make me want to write about them some time in the future. I also certainly hope to be able to report that I have finally seen an Alaskan Great Gray Owl!

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Lynn Barber

Lynn Barber

Lynn Barber started birding at the age of 7. In 2005, she broke the Texas big year record with 522 species, and in 2008, she tallied 723 bird species in the ABA Area. An account of her ABA Big Year, entitled Extreme Birder: One Woman’s Big Year, was published in the spring of 2011. Her second book, Birds in Trouble was published in 2016. While living in North Carolina, Lynn was active in Wake County Audubon and on the board of the Carolina Bird Club. Moving to Texas in 2000, she was active in the Fort Worth Audubon Society, serving as its president for 3 years. She is a life member of the Texas Ornithological Society, and became its president in April 2009. She now lives in Anchorage, Alaska.
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