Sunday, May 4, 2014

Rusty At Organ Pipe

Until recently, I had never been to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.  In my years as a birder, I just haven't quite gotten around to it yet.  But there is a first time for everything!  And recently, I decided to go to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument for a morning of birding.  I thought I had a good excuse to not visit this place, but it turns out I really don't have an excuse.  The excuse I was thinking of has a lot to do with distance, and for some reason, I thought the Monument was a good 3.5 hour drive.  But it turns out, it's only a two hour drive from my house!  I'm out of excuses for that reason.  But the area is close to Mexico, and it is a top notch drug running area, which is a great excuse to not go there, by myself at least.  I am a smart person, and I wouldn't go somewhere like this by myself.  My good birding friend, Magill Weber, is always good company and I invited her to come to Organ Pipe with me.  We were after a very special and very local Arizona bird.  I'll get to that shortly.  After meeting at my apartment complex, we carpooled in my truck and barely two hours and some change later, we had a location lifer!

As the sign indicates above, the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a reserve that is very important for this spectacular desert to thrive.  As indicated, this area is known for it's organ pipe cacti and wildflower displays.  It also has incredible scenery and views with many canyons, mountains, washes, and volcanic mountains.  And the desert birding is very good too.

Pretty huh?  What a beautiful desert!  The bird we were after on this outing is one that is highly desired by many in North America.  It's a small but fierce little bird, and it usually is active early in the morning or in the evening.  If I was to land this bird on this morning outing, it would complete a nice and rather challenging family collection of 13 species for Arizona.  And this bird would be a highly wanted LIFER!  Oddly, this bird's close cousin prefers pine forests, and we were looking for this guy in a thick desert wash surrounded by tall cacti.  It seemed rather odd to compare the two habitats.  But this bird is very rusty in coloration, especially on his tail, unlike his northern counterpart.  Rusty has several word meanings, but color wise it usually means a brownish-orange-red.  Another word for rusty is ferruginous.  And the small Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl was our desired target.  This owl is named Ferruginous for several rusty areas on it's body.

The Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl is very scarce in North America, and is limited to extreme southern Arizona and Texas.  It is endangered in it's limited range in North America, despite that it is common in Mexico.  Historically, it used to be common in Arizona, and it's range went north into central Arizona along riparian corridors dominated by mesquite, willow, and cottonwood.  In Arizona today, it's favored habitat is usually thick desert washes dominated by mesquite, ironwood, and paloverde in midst of tall saguaro cacti.  And they usually nest in a cactus hole, that was excavated by a woodpecker.  Like it's cousin, the Northern Pygmy-Owl (who loves the conifer forests), this small owl is diurnal and is active during the day.  It is active in the early morning and evening hours usually.  When Magill and I walked along a dense canyon wash at Organ Pipe, we were in high hopes of hearing a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl.  We walked along a steep canyon that had dense and thick habitat everywhere as well as tall mesquite, ironwood, and paloverde trees.  Luckily, we soon heard our target bird calling!  Without wasting time, we carefully but quickly skidded down one of the canyon walls and went towards the sound of our target.  Luckily, the birds continued calling, and luckily, there were a plethora of songbirds curiously mobbing and checking out the object we were searching for.  I saw the silhouette I was strongly hoping for, a Pygmy-Owl type.

And yep, it was our Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl!  It was the 13th and final owl I needed for my Arizona list.  Now, I still need visuals and hopefully photos of Northern Saw-Whet and Flammulated Owls.  The sight of the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl had me craving that!

Magill and I were thrilled at the sight of this cool bird.  While we were enjoying the owl, we did have to worry about the million bees that were in the thick, thorny, scary, and steep canyon as well as any wierdos hiding out in the wash.  After a few looks, Magill was pleased and I still wanted to spend more time with the bird in midst of the uncomfortable habitat.  Magill has seen many of these birds in Texas and Mexico already, it wasn't a lifer for her.  But for me and my lifer, I wanted to document this thing well.  While I was looking, many birds would come and go to the owl mobbing party, and Magill kept an eye on that.  One of those birds was even a Scott's Oriole.  I was too blown away by the owl to really notice and photograph the other awesome birds that were around too.  The owl was pretty tolerate and let me get pictures of it from several different angles throughout the time that I watched it.

As you can see, the owl has a reddish-orange-ish-brown, rusty, and ferruginous-colored tail.  This tail is really where this bird gets it's name from, as well as from it's primary and secondary wing coverts with the same color in places.  He ended up being very generous to me during the twenty minutes I spent with him.

After a second or two, he clearly thought I was too boring and went back to watching the curious songbirds.

Its bizarre to see a Pygmy-Owl who loves deserts and mesquites for the first time after seeing a pine and fir loving Pygmy-Owl so many times.

As with other Pygmy-Owls, the Ferruginous also has false "eye spots" on the back of it's head.  Because of this, other owls and raptors won't target this small bird during the day, because they will think the owl already sees them.  Amazing huh?

The Ferrgunious Pygmy-Owl is despised by the songbirds of the Organ Pipe desert, because they are his primary prey target.  These owls may even take prey larger than themselves!  They are definitely very fierce looking.  If they were the size of a Great Horned Owl, I would be terrified.  They do make me a little nervous now even.  What if they randomly decided to facebomb a human? 

With a nice lifer to add to my list with a great experience and awesome company beside me, this was a great outing for birding!  This was my first new Arizona lifer also for 2014, bringing my state list up to 421 and my overall life list up to 455.  A very special thanks goes out to Magill Weber for coming along with me on this trip and helping me find the bird, as well as the other birds.  Magill didn't like all of the bees around, so she stayed on the safe side of the canyon while I played around in the thorny and bee infested wash after our first two views of the owl.  She spied all of the other birds who came to the calling owl, including that male Scott's Oriole.

The sound of the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl is very distinctive, and is a high-pitched and rapid tooting.  If visiting Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, keep an ear and eye out for this small owl.  Check the mesquites or saguaro holes too, or listen for mobbing songbirds.  The Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl is a neat one, I'm glad I had the chance to go out and see one!  And Organ Pipe, I'll definitely see you again soon hopefully-your not that far away!


  1. What an amazing day! I love Organ Pipe, but have never seen the owl. You really hit the jackpot with the patient and photogenic owl. Congratulations!

  2. Tommy that is so awesome!!

    I didn't know you guys were heading down there this weekend or I would've canceled my plans!
    I'm hoping fit Organ Pipe in end of May/June with the southern California birdies and Salton Sea

    Congrats on this rare and fantastic lifer, and the super shots! Marvelous, really marvelous find!