By Nancy Tannler and

Steve Rice

Steve Rice’s pre-dawn treks around Mt. Tabor, has brought the distinct sounds of  screech owls coming from the porch area of Western Seminary.

During a recent renovation on the pillars of the historical Armstrong Hall, contractors discovered a nest of screech owls in a plaster cavity at the top of one of the pillars.

Nesting pair of screech owls

Nesting pair of screech owls

They contacted Oregon Fish and Wildlife to find out what to do. Western Seminary’s Physical Plant Director Cliff Stein wrapped a cardboard box around the nest to protect it from the weather and predators. The contractors will leave that pillar until the nestlings hatch.

According to Rice, the nestlings will be ready to fly around mid-June. The hopes of all those interested in saving the little birds’ nesting area is that they will find and use a recently installed nesting box.

Friends of Mt. Tabor Park Board donated $75 for a screech owl nesting box, only a short distance from their current nest in a Western Red Cedar with lots of perching branches.

“When they are nesting, the male likes to perch close by and keep watch,” Rice said. They have been very tolerant of the workmen, but become quite fierce if they feel threatened.

The workers will finish construction on the pillars and close up the gaps in the woodworking so this nesting place won’t be a possibility in the future.

Rice has seen screech owls around Portland for years. He is a longtime birder and has found their nests around Marylhurst College, seen them camouflaged in Mt. Tabor Park  and flying under the streets lights in NW Portland catching bugs.

“They are mostly nocturnal so we don’t see much of them and they are masters at sitting still and blending in,” he said, “so they are hard to spot.”

What an experienced birder notices is a slight flicker when scratching in an otherwise still environment.

Female screech owls are larger than the males. They are 7 to 10 inches tall and have a wingspan of about 18 to 24 inches. The birds are monogamous with both parents caring for the young.

They have excellent hearing and night vision which helps them locate their prey. Their diet consists mainly of small mammals such as mice or rats, birds, and large insects and an occasional fish.

The reason they are called screech owls is because of their piercing calls. Unlike the hoot of other owls, they make a trill of four different sounds per second.

Rice grew up in the Dalles and, as a kid, he was always traipsing around the rimrock checking on the bird population. His interest in birding has remained with him and he is now living close to Mt. Tabor Park where he is able to watch the spring and fall migrating birds in the park.

For the serious birder, there are many great locations in the area for watching and learning about these feathered friends.

Here’s advice and anecdotes shared by Steve Rice.

1. Birding is an actual noun. It is a fashionable very green lifestyle related to saving our planet. Bird watching, by way of contrast, is an old-school hobby akin to stamp collecting and reading paper books.

2. Start with used or borrowed binoculars.  Don’t buy new ones until you appreciate the trade-offs. If you’re shaky, rest your elbows on something.

3. Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds, while bible to many, is not the only path.

4. A loved one has failed to return home when expected.  Can you describe what they were wearing to police? Only if you were paying attention that morning, have an eye for detail, have cultivated your memory or take notes.

Same way with birds. It helps if your child is the only one in her school with green hair.  Similarly, there is only one bird in Portland that, while flying away, flashes a white rump and orange under its wings.

5. You are on a train and amid the hubbub hear the voice of a friend. How did you do that?  How can you be sure?  If this is a bird and you have a guess, google the species + audio  on your mobile device or, better still, catch sight of the bird.

6. Your friend may have a distinctive way of moving. Some birds run along, stop, run along then stop, some scratch in the dead leaves, some hop. Some scoot up the tree trunk, some down. Some fly straight with fast wing beats, some swim through the air with slow beats, alternating with swoops.

7. Where was it? On the ground, trunk of a tree, in the air? Wetlands, forested buttes, habitat edges are hot spots, as are hedgerows, ponds, where field meets forest.

8. When? Season, time of day, weather. Spring and fall, morning and evening are often most active.  Predawn morning is often the very best for birding.

9. Some birds do us the courtesy of lingering atop a fir tree in good light for a long time, turning this way and that to display every body part.  Most don’t.  Some tips: a) Scan all potential perches, b) Take in the entire visual environment in an unfocused way, then notice what moves.

10. Practice listening. If with others, stay quiet.  If you can get away from the city in early morning, start there. The city has a constant hum that one only notices when it is not present.

If you notice the  whoosh of night crawlers withdrawing from warm sidewalk as you pass on a summer eve, you will likely pick out, amid traffic noise, the soft trill of the screech owl in the tree next door.

Happy hunting!