For the last five birding years, I have actively been birding a lot in Maricopa County's "high country", the Mazatzal Mountains. The Mazatzal Mountains include the conifer forests of Slate Creek Divide, Mount Ord, and the Four Peaks Wilderness Area. These areas hug the Maricopa and Gila County lines a lot, and it is a challenge to bird in Maricopa County's transition zones a lot of the time. Gosh, I just hate Gila County sometimes :) Over these years, with the exception of Northern Pygmy-Owl, I've been deprived of three different owls and a nightjar I've wanted to see in Maricopa County even more than a little boy wants his first bicycle. And Northern Pygmy-Owl is diurnal (active in the day), so it's not that tough. But these three owls: Northern Saw-Whet, Flammulated, and Spotted, have been found in these high elevation Maricopa County reaches in the past, and the nightjar, the Mexian Whip-Poor-Will has been found too. Every year, I have made attempts to try and find these birds at night. And every year, I have come up empty. Slate Creek is the most logical place to find these species, but has been hit by fire. Mount Ord has had Spotted Owl, but I've never heard of anything else being there. Walking these forest roads at night and carefully listening has produced a big fat NOTHING. I've still had faith that these birds are still around, and I've refused to give up. The southeastern Superstition Mountains has an area in it called Reevis Ranch, and that has hosted most of these birds in the past when it was birded 40 years ago. It is hard to access, but I have dreamed of going up there. They did have Spotted Owl, a probable Saw-Whet Owl, and many Mexican Whip-Poor-Wills singing by their camp at night. My bet is that they are easier up there, because I can't get there.
But recently, a unexpected report came through to the Listserv from Kurt Radamaker. I read this report while I was at work, and it was a report I've wanted to read just as much as see live in the field at this point in my Maricopa County birding life. By the end of the report, two owls had rose from the dead, and are indeed officially on the Maricopa radar again. One was the Spotted Owl, and the other, I'll get to that in a second. Kurt and his wife Cindy were participating in the annual North American Migration Count, where they cover Mount Ord and Slate Creek Divide for their area in the count. At Slate Creek, they ran into a Spotted Owl researcher, who heard two Spotted Owls singing back-and-fourth to each other! My mind was going nuts as I was reading this. And then Kurt said in his report that he and Cindy stumbled upon a fledgling (baby) Northern Saw-Whet Owl, the second jaw dropper! This was just as crazy too, because that instantly indicates that Northern Saw-Whet Owl is a local breeder in Maricopa County. Kurt didn't say where in his report, but when I looked at his picture label, he said the Saw-Whet was photographed on Mount Ord!! I was at work and was now angry, I wanted to be out in those forested Maricopa heavenly regions as I was reading the report.
Because I see this as a rare occasion, I decided to go to Mount Ord that night in hopes of finding a Saw-Whet Owl, and I was joined by my birding friend Tim Marquardt. We also had some generous and helpful tips from Kurt on possibly finding this little bird. With a big area to cover during the night, and a small owl to locate, Tim and I had work to do! We started at 1:30 A.M. in the morning, searching the pine and oak forest of Mount Ord, my favorite birding location. As Tim and I were searching, we heard a strange noise that sounded almost like a "rattling hiss". It was bizarre and we were wondering what it was. Right away, it came to my attention that it was probably the fledgling owl begging for food, the likely source of what the weird sound was coming from. Tim and I walked in that direction to where the bird was. The sound got louder and louder, and I realized it was coming from an oak tree close to where we were traveling. I put my light on the branches and trees, and saw a form of something that Tim and I were strongly hoping for.
It was the fledgling Saw-Whet Owl! I was so glad to get this bird, and it seemed more like a dream. After 5 years of searching for three forest owls, it felt so good to get at least ONE of them!
Also, previously to this sighting, I had Northern Saw-Whet Owl on my list as a heard only lifer. This came from last year, when my buddy Laurence Butler and I were owling on Mount Lemmon. We had a Saw-Whet sing once, and then it didn't sing again. And this time, I officially got to see a Saw-Whet Owl, and learn a new vocalization. That vocalization is the begging call of the fledgling, which really helps to know if searching for these owls at night. Many fledgling owls give begging calls at night, ones that one wouldn't expect to come from an owl. For example, the begging call of a fledgling Northern Pygmy-Owl sounds like a trill from an insect. I have actually located Northern Pygmy-Owls by hearing that.
The baby owl continued to beg, and Tim and I watched it for awhile in hopes of finding one of the adults coming in to feed it's young. Despite a search of the immediate area, we didn't see an adult. The baby Saw-Whet was also pretty curious about us and changed it's position.
As most birders know, Northern Saw-Whet Owls act extremely tame if encountered. That is if one can even find a Saw-Whet Owl. I was able to get a few steps closer to the fledgling, and he was very cooperative. To him, I was probably similar to a tree in the forest, like the oak he was sitting on.
Most of the time, this little bird kept it's eyes shut. If a Saw-Whet Owl has it's eyes open, it's eyes will really look huge, like they are popping out of the bird's head.
Another interesting thing happened. As I was looking at this bird, I turned to my right and saw another fledgling Saw-Whet Owl just feet to the right of our first bird!
There were now at least two birds, amazing! I read that Northern Saw-Whet Owls will produce 4 to 7 eggs per brood. There were probably more fledglings in the area close by. I was amazed at the fact that Tim and I were now looking at two of them! Tim then heard one of the calls of the adult up in a forested canyon nearby. I consider myself very lucky to have this sighting, because Northern Saw-Whet Owls aren't very vocal throughout the year, other than when they are first starting to breed and set up a breeding location. Once the nest is found and eggs are incubated, these birds a generally silent during the rest of the year. Breeding takes place in cooler months, especially March and sometimes into April. So to have these birds after the key time when the adult is vocal, I consider myself extremely lucky. Visiting Ord now in March and April at night may produce vocalizations from the adult Saw-Whets if they return to the mountain in future years. But we know now that they have produced at least two pleasant children.
As an avid Maricopa County birder, this sighting is probably my favorite of the year so far. The word for it is EPIC! A huge thanks goes out to Kurt Radamaker, for finding these birds and giving me something to look for on Mount Ord!! Kurt's report to me really seemed like these forest owls were now back from the dead. Prior to the report, I wondered if these owls existed in the Mazatzal Mountains that I bird. And now I know, they sure do. And it is awesome! A Spotted Owl search at Slate Creek Divide is in the near future, hopefully that'll become a Maricoper for me too. For now, I'm extremely grateful just to have one of four of these high elevation nightbirds. I can't remember exactly where Tim and I were on Mount Ord that night, it was too dark to tell. The fledglings are at a critical stage in their life right now, and survival is key. We didn't stay with them too long, and didn't want to cause any disturbance. But wow and gosh, what a neat sighting and a neat bird to get to see visually for the first time!