Thursday, May 15, 2014

Slate Creek Strikes Spotting Hard

The Spotted Owl sits in darkness and is pretty much an unknown ghost in the forests of Maricopa County.  It's at least become an unknown ghost in Maricopa in recent years, at least, since I've decided to bird Maricopa County avidly.  This bird has always been a dream of mine in Maricopa County, and is one that I have struck out on probably close to 10 times over the years between Mount Ord and Slate Creek Divide with a high amount of combined hours of listening in good habitat at night.  Has it sat in darkness all this time and gone silent whenever I arrive?  It certainly has seemed like it.  I have often wondered if this sensitive but yet friendly owl has left the Mazatzal Mountain forests on the Maricopa County sides.  

I had hope recently, as Cindy Radamaker had a conversation with an official Spotted Owl researcher while she and Kurt Radamaker were birding at Slate Creek Divide.  The researcher told Cindy he heard two Spotted Owls in one of the area's canyons.  He didn't say where to her, so I feared he was probably on the Gila County side.  Slate Creek is in both counties, with the majority of it being in Gila.  I needed a trip to Slate Creek after this report, and after getting one heck of a new Maricoper already this week, I was feeling lucky.  So Mr. Spotted Owl, are you real in Maricopa County today, or are you just a wanted dream or myth of mine?  

A Spotted Owl, photographed by me somewhere outside of Maricopa County.  I needed something to spice up the post, since photography is hard at night.  But let's pretend this is a real Spotted Owl in Maricopa County.  It sits there in the darkness of the night, laughing inside, at that crazy birder named Tommy.  

Kurt Radamaker, Tim Marquardt, and I were walking around in the mixed conifer and oak forests of Slate Creek Divide on May 14th, 2014.  It was actually well after dark.  There was a full moon on this night, and they do say that good things happen under a full moon.  I was hoping, it would be a Spotted Owl observation.  The time was 9:25 P.M. when we arrived.  And we were hoping to find a Spotted Owl.  We didn't waste any time to start our Maricopa County Spotted Owl search.  At first, we walked down the trail that starts at the end of the road into Slate Creek Divide.  This trail parallels a drainage I like to walk down to often when I'm at Slate Creek.  We listened along the drainage and trail for quite sometime, and we didn't have any luck.  I thought the Spotted Owl was going back to being a mythical dream for Maricopa County.  We spent close to an hour in that immediate area of the trail, of course, without luck.

There is another area not too much further east of the trailhead, one that overlooks my favorite Maricopa County Slate Creek Drainage.  This is one that I felt has always been appropriate habitat for Spotted Owl.  And we decided to give it a shot.  It was getting late.  We listened for any loud hooting, and loud hooting, we weren't getting.  As it was getting late and we were about to leave, we then heard that loud and wonderful hoot.....

It was a Spotted Owl, and he started to sing loudly, almost seeming like he was calling above the surrounding Douglas fir in the drainage.  But he was really calling loudly below us, and Kurt pointed out where the direction likely was.  We all started to celebrate, for our trip was a huge success.  As I'm writing right now, I'm still shocked that we had a Spotted Owl in Maricopa County!  Ah, finally!  The owl continued to call, and as I scanned the drainage with my binoculars, I saw a dead tree with a large owl-like object perched on it right where Kurt pointed.  As we carefully looked, we saw that the object was our Spotted Owl, and was in view.  Kurt quickly got his scope out.  Once his scope was on the owl, we had killer looks of the bird, despite the fact that it was still distant.  The night was a full moon, it didn't take a lot of light to see this bird.  I managed to get a poor but memorable shot of the occasion.  Maricoper #362-A Spotted Owl.  The bird was too distant in dark light for there to be any decent chance of getting a decent shot.

This may be a poor photo, but through Kurt's scope, "wow", is all I can say.  There's nothing like watching this smooth predator sit up in the open while watching him sing through the lens of a scope.  And at such a location like Slate Creek Divide, where I have come for quite awhile in hopes of finding this species.

The three of us watched the owl in amazement.  As it continued to call, Tim recorded the bird.  The Owl then left it's perch and flew closer to us, but it was somehow out of sight.  The audio was incredible though, and the bird was super close.  While we were observing the owl, I actually heard a Northern Saw-whet Owl calling in a forested area close by.  

It is good to get something that you have always wanted, and a Maricopa County Spotted Owl was just that for me.  The only Spotted Owl that I have seen or even heard prior to this sighting has been the famous stakeout Spotteds in Miller Canyon.  Yeah yeah, they are cool, but they are updated daily.  "No, they are in this side of the wash now and are 5 feet up the wash instead of 18 feet".  "The Owl is in the cherry tree now by the blue pipes, rather than the large oak tree with the super trunk at the first stream crossing".  This Spotted Owl sighting was 10 times better than the Miller observations.  We did know that Spotted Owl was up here somewhere because of the researcher, but we knew he was as far west along the road into Slate Creek as one may go.  Tim, Kurt, and I were definitely in a different location than he was, and we found our own bird and got to see and hear our own bird.  You can't beat that, especially for such a local species in a county like Maricopa.  Tim added as we were leaving, "Gosh it would be fun to search for that bird in daylight".  Hmmm...I think we have a new challenge now!

A special thanks to Kurt and Tim for this fun trip, you both are awesome company.

Prior to this week, I had never seen any of my four Maricopa County target high elevation life birds, which are Northern Saw-whet, Flammuleted, and Spotted Owls; and Mexican Whip-poor-will.  Now, in three days, I have had two amazing encounters!  What an awesome week it has been!

The Spotted Owl sits in his favorite perch at night, waiting for that tasty mouse to come scurrying along the trail.  He's thinking, "Tommy, you found me at night.  Congrats to you, finally.  Your next challenge is to find me in the day".  This Spotted Owl was photographed in Miller Canyon cf course, but let's pretend it's the Maricoper Spotted Owl.  And I now have the answer to my question, there are Spotted Owls to be found for sure in Maricopa County!  What a great realization!


  1. You got it!!

    That's awesome Tommy, congratulations. I bet you'll be doing lots of check-up trips in the future. They may start nesting soon too!

    1. Thanks Laurence!

      Finding our own Spotted Owl and seeing it perched while it was singing was a dream come true. The sighting didn't even feel quite real at all. We were very fortunate. These last three days have been epic and awesome for Maricopa County forest birding.

      I want to keep going back there now between there and Ord. I think I'm addicted to these places. If you have a night your free to bird and have the next day off and I have a similar schedule, how about a trip up to Slate Creek!!