Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A Prowl for Owls

Last night, I decided to go on an owl prowl.  I was hoping to be successful from the second my plans were made, especially since I was mainly going to help my good friend Dominic Sherony see some of these elusive night birds that he hasn't seen that much of in his life.  Not to brag, but Dominic was in good hands, because I can be quite the machine when it comes to finding these birds ;)  As I've mentioned before, I've decided to tone my birding down into being only a hobby of mine, not something that consumes so much of my life like it has the previous six years of my life.  Whenever I have gone into the field this year (such as last night), it has been more fun for me at this approach.  After all, there are too many things in this life to enjoy rather than focus so much on one thing entirely and I will say I have a much healthier balance in my life now.  My posts on here and reports will be much fewer, but if I'm enjoying this hobby much more than I was, that's all that it should be about.  I'm adding new interests in my life and catching up.  And birding will always be there, as that epic hobby that I can pick up anytime or anywhere.  The owl prowl last night turned out to be an example of that.

Dominic Sherony and I decided to target two small owl species in Sonoran desert habitat at the Coon Bluff Recreation Site, which is a part of the Lower Salt River Recreation Area.  This area is where thousands of people go tubing at during the summer.  The Salt River is also full of great scenery and is home to a lot of wildlife, including one of the highest densities of breeding Bald Eagles in Arizona.  Dominic and I arrived at Coon Bluff well after dark, and started our search for our two small owl targets roughly at 8:30 P.M.  It was quiet to start out and I was a little concerned about our luck at first.  Dominic is here for a few months a year (February-mid April), and he travels back to his home in New York next week for the remainder of the year, which is why I was concerned.  I really wanted to be successful in this search, because a Western Screech-Owl sighting and photograph was a huge deal for Dominic.  But Dominic remained calm, and I anxiously listened for any owl-like sounds coming from the surrounding saguaro and mesquite-filled desert.  I practically promised Dominic I would get him both birds, and I didn't want to look like a doofis in the end.  The faces of calmness and anxiety were clearly shown in contrast between us as we got to Coon Bluff and weren't finding cooperative owls to start the night out.  I wasn't jumping out of my own body though, despite what the picture is made to look like..

After hearing an Elf Owl briefly who wasn't very cooperative, we headed over to a section of the Bluff where I had Western Screech-Owls while showing the Wallestads around on April Fools' Night.  We had a killer look at a Western Screech-Owl that night two weeks ago, which even resulted in "selfie" pictures with the owl.  When Dominic and I got to this area, it didn't take long to hear a Western Screech-Owl call.  We had a fence to climb over, but after that we made our way to the sound.  And the Screech-Owl was close.  Once I had more of an accurate clue of where the bird was, it didn't take me long to find it.

Dominic and I had entered the owl's home, which was in a stand of large mesquite trees.  The owl was sitting there for us, and curiously looked at us right back.  This owl becomes active at dusk, and it's primary food source is large insects although it will take small birds, reptiles, and small mammals.  And Dominic and I were very lucky, as this owl turned out to be cooperative for both of us, giving the opportunities for both study and photographs.

Just like the sequence I had on April Fool's Night, this species was once again very nice and cooperative.

This bird can also display a wide range of facial and head expressions.  It definitely has a weird side..

We even found a second Western Screech-Owl and heard three others during the night to have our number at five for this bird.  Dominic's major target for the night was this bird, so the night was already good.  Gee, what was I so worried about?

When Dominic and I began this owl prowl, we tried for Elf Owls at first before looking for the Screech-Owls.  We heard the Elf Owls, but they didn't vocalize enough for us to clearly get clues to where their perches were.  Although common, I haven't always found Elf Owls to be as easy to get killer looks at and they don't utilize open perches as much as others.  But Dominic and I were hoping to get a good look at one, and maybe even a photograph to go along with it.  We decided to try our luck again where we first had the birds, and when we arrived to the spot, we heard them calling.  It was a good sign at first, but when we walked towards the sounds, they got quiet when we got closer.  This place I'm referring to is also a nesting location for this bird, which the owl's nesting hole is an old woodpecker cavity at the top of a saguaro cactus.  There were two Elf Owls calling throughout the entire area last night, which I think this bird hasn't arrived in full force yet.  In the past, I would be at Coon Bluff on late spring nights and the sound of the Elf Owl filled the air and seemingly came from everywhere.  Given a few more weeks, that should be the result at Coon Bluff soon.  Although these owls we were after weren't being very cooperative vocally on any consistent level, I have known Elf Owls to also sit still on one perch quietly for minutes.  I scanned the habitat and caught sight of our target, and it was just sitting there!  And on an open perch to top it all off!

One of the most exciting aspects about birding for me is that I get to see God's creation in great measures.  I'm blown away about how majestic God is, and how he has carefully created each and every creature we all look at.  And to top it off, he loves each and every one of us more than a million of anything else in all of creation.  The Elf Owl is a special bird because there are roughly 195 owl species in the world (15 in the Barn Owl family, 180 in the typical Owl family), and out of those 195 species, it is the smallest.  Tiny is an appropriate word for this bird, which is about the size of the average sparrow.  Dominic and I also heard a Great Horned Owl calling, which is Arizona's largest owl, and one of North America's largest.  The Elf Owl dwarfs in size to the Great Horned Owl.  The diversity of God's creation is an incredible thing to see live.

Maybe I was lucky I spied the Elf Owl just sitting there like it was, or maybe I've gotten good at spying them.  They do blend in very well with their surroundings, and when I told Dominic "right here!", he thought it was part of the tree at first.  Once we got on the bird, we approached it closely.  Like the Western Screech-Owls earlier, the tiny Elf Owl was also cooperative by giving us time for awesome photography chances and study.

Although the Elf Owl is a tiny owl, it's voice is very loud.  After all, we all know the saying "big voices can come is small packages".  If an Elf Owl is calling, you will hear it.  It almost sounds like a puppy yipping.

This Elf Owl was probably taking a rest from it's hunting activities during the night.  Or maybe it already hunting.  The bottom line is that it just sat there for us and gave us the best looks either of us have ever had of an Elf Owl, yet alone have photographed.  Moments like this are what birders live for.

Elf Owls feed primarily on spiders and insects for their food source as well as some small vertebrates.  I'm sure a small lizard, scorpion, or black widow spider would fill this bird up..

Dominic and I watched the owl for about ten minutes, and we even left it where we found it.  It still sat there as we were leaving, which made for an awesome sighting of the world's smallest owl.

After the Elf Owl sighting, the owl prowl soon after came to a close.  It was an awesome night of owling that I'll remember for a long time.  Thanks Dominic for the good time!


  1. Once again your SCORED! Big Time! Awesome photos and some very cooperative owls. I now know that I need to keep trying and going back. Sooner or later I will at least hear one! Thanks for some incredible photos and a great post!

  2. I WANT TO GO BACK!!!! Such amazing photos, Tommy, and if you don't want to brag about yourself, I'll do it for you: Tommy is the best owl whisperer there is!

    I could see this becoming an annual tradition....