Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Nocturnal Return to the Bluff

Out of my most recent birding excursions, most of them have had owls involved.  Especially at night.  Owling is an awesome segment of birding, and people raise their eyebrows at the thought of owls.  I have enjoyed owling this year more than other forms of birding, and I find myself wanting to bird at night for these impressive creatures more and more.  Studying owls is fun throughout the year, and I want a collection of photographs to go along with it too.  Although I have seen all 13 owl species that can be found in Arizona, I am still far away from completing my goal of studying all of them as well as I would like to.  The pine-dwelling Flammulated Owl still awaits more of my observations and a photograph of that species, and that is one I hope to start searching for again very soon.  In the meantime, I've taken trips to explore the Lower Sonoran desert at night and the small owls that inhabit the saguaro and mesquite filled landscape.  No spider is safe when these two owls are on the prowl.

I often find myself telling people about my birding excursions and thankfully, some of them find it to be very interesting.  My buddy Skyler Hagg wanted to see some owls.  Skyler is an RN at the hospital I work at, and we often have interesting stories to tell each other about nature.  I've told Skyler a lot about birding and a whole lot about owls, and after talking about these owls for quite some time, we made plans to search for Elf and Western Screech Owls on April 29th.  When Skyler and I met up to head out on the owl prowl, his brother Eric asked if he could go along when he found out what we were doing.  Having Eric along was a nice bonus, and I was glad that I had the opportunity to introduce two brothers to birding at once.  The three of us also went to the same Ironwood High School, ironically!  It didn't take long for Eric and Skyler to become birders either after we arrived at our location, the Lower Salt River Recreation Area.

Birding with Skyler and Eric was awesome from the start, and they immediately liked the Salt River Area.  We enjoyed the River before it got dark out as well as a few bright Bullock's Orioles at Granite Reef Recreation Site.  Once the light vanished, we headed over to the Coon Bluff Recreation Site which is where our owl targets were to be thriving at.  As we started, we had Lesser Nighthawks and Common Poorwills flying around, and the ridge above us had Common Poorwills calling regularly.  It didn't take long to hear a bark coming from an Elf Owl.  We quickly headed in the initial direction of the bird and didn't see the first one we heard calling, but we did see an active cavity in a saguaro cactus with dripping white wash flowing from the hole.  More Elf Owls then called from across the street, which was more of the typical location that I have seen them in previous outings.  I heard a bird calling from a line of mesquite trees, and then it didn't call again after it's initial bark.  Recently, I've learned to search if the owl is calling or not.  Other birders seem to think that if an owl is calling and it stops, than it has left the immediate location.  More often-than-not, that isn't the case.  After walking along the mesquite line, the Elf Owl was perched nearly at eye level four mesquites in from the start.

This sighting was extremely cool because it was Skyler and Eric's first owl that they have ever seen in the wild.  They were thrilled!  Skyler exclaimed to his brother, "This is especially cool because it is the world's smallest owl!".  I think it's cool to see the extreme of a species within a bird family for the first sighting of that bird family.  For Eric and Skyler, they started their owl list out with the world's smallest owl, rather than the much more common and easier-to-see Great Horned and Burrowing Owls.  This Elf Owl was very cooperative for us, and gave us close to a five minute stare down.

This sighting took place within 15 minutes of our starting time.  It's always a relief for me after I successfully show friends these birds because I really want them to see how cool they are.  Seeing them enjoy the Elf Owl was freaking awesome!  The search then headed in the direction of finding Western Screech-Owls after we saw the Elf Owl.  A bonus in a Barn Owl flew overhead.  Although we could see the bird in flight fairly well, it never landed anywhere that we could see.  Shortly after, we went into Screech-Owl country and listened for our second target on one side of the road only to hear one calling on the other.  We quickly went to the other side of the road and followed the sound of the bird.  The bird shut up as we got closer but I went further into the area where it was calling from.  I scanned appropriate perches in the scattered mesquite trees and I eventually saw a blob sitting in a tree.  It looked like the owl and as I shined my light on it as it was somewhat distant, Eric confirmed it as he looked through binoculars.  We were now very successful on our excursion and we enjoyed the Western Screech-Owl at this distance before moving closer.

And after enjoying it at this distance for about a minute, we moved a lot closer.  The Western Screech-Owl was very tolerant of us as we slowly approached.  It almost looked at us like it thought we were boring at times.

We continued to get very close to the bird.  Here is the back of Skyler's head, no more than five feet away from the Western Screech-Owl.  And folks, it's clear that we aren't exaggerating at all at how close we got to this bird.

The Owl got wide-eyed when we'd get closer a few times, but other than this fleeting glance, it continued to look very calm and almost bored with us.

Skyler also got in a now-classic Owl selfie shot.

After a long and up close observation, the Western Screech-Owl flew off without making a sound as it left.

After enjoying more of Coon Bluff, we made one last attempt at seeing Elf Owls.  Success!

It was another epic night of owling at the awesome Lower Salt River Recreation Area.  Thank you Skyler and Eric for a great time!

1 comment:

  1. Nice shots on those owls Mr. Tommy! Have an awesome weekend!