Saturday, May 30, 2015

A Case of Flam Fever

It's starting to get freaking hot out in Phoenix.  Summer and a lot of extra summer-like change will be in effect through much of October.  I'm not a fan of extreme heat, and I'm also not a fan of extreme cold.  I guess I like San Diego weather.  Yes, yes, yes, the San Diego trip is over and I need to get over it someday.  But I have had some unfinished business with a certain Arizona birding excursion that has bothered me over the years.  It's been a goal of mine that I really should have tackled a month or more ago but I didn't get around to doing it.  More than a month later, I got to attempting that goal last night.  I have been busy with life, so I have somewhat of a valid excuse for not being able to attempt my wanted goal.  There's one bird that I've seemed to hear in the woods a whole lot, but I haven't been able to catch any of my highly wanted glimpses of it that I have wanted.  Have you ever had a bird that seemed too hard to see?  One that always seems to get away?  One that is smarter than the others?  Luckily, this bird favors pine, oak, and fir woodlands in more cooler and forgiving areas within Arizona.  Even if this bird doesn't give any sort of hoot about it's fans, at least the weather is pleasant.  This is a picture from the Kendall Camp Trail in the Bradshaw Mountains.  The Bradshaw Mountains are in central Arizona's Yavapai County, and the Kendall Camp area is above and south of the town of Prescott.  It's a lovely area, both day and night.  A night picture can't do this location much justice, but a day picture sure can.  Pretend this picture as taken yesterday during the morning, and then fast-forward that to the night.  Kendall Camp Trailhead at 8:10 P.M. was where my next birding expedition took place.

I got in contact with my friends Kurt and Cindy Radamaker, and they had the same highly wanted goal that I was wanting to achieve.  That goal was to not only hear, but SEE and hopefully PHOTOGRAPH a Flammulated Owl.  The Flammulated Owl is a very small owl that ranges throughout western North America from southern Canada in it's northern range south to Mexico.  It is our only small owl that has dark eyes, and it is the second-most smallest owl in North America behind the Elf Owl.  While the Elf Owl is 5.75 inches in length, the Flammulated Owl has one on the Elf with a length of only 6.75 inches.  The problem with Flammulated Owls is that they are very difficult to detect due to their small size, quieter voice than most owls, coloration, retiring behavior, and the main fact that they like to sit up high against tree bark on average with the camouflagey of camouflage postures.  As expected with these birds, Kurt, Cindy, and I knew we would most likely have our work cut out for us and that we would have to get extremely lucky to have any sort of encounter with the Flammulated Owls beyond hearing them.  When you decide to attempt at seeing a bird this elusive and difficult, you've gotta have a little fun in the process!

Flashlights can do some crazy things to people.  We don't quite look like ourselves, but are still freaking awesome even in this lighting situation.  Here's another picture of our trio!  Look how freaky I look.  

After Kurt, Cindy, and I arrived at the trailhead at about 8:10 P.M. we got our stuff together and started our night birding quest.  While the goal was a visual of a Flammulated Owl, we did take a try at locating Mexican Whip-poor-wills.  Although a few of them were heard calling in the area, we weren't able to get very close to them, yet alone get a sighting of any of them.  We then moved onto Flammulated Owls and started to listen for them with full intent minutes later.  It didn't take long for us to hear a Flammulated Owl.  As we were along a steep bank, the Flammulated Owl was in it's traditional spot, which was on the other side of the bank.  We worked out a detour and got to the spot where we had the owl calling, and of course, the bird decided to stop calling.  And then it would start calling a few times.  Things started to look like the same old heard only stories that we have had with Flams in the past as we would get near to our target and we would find the correct tree, only to have the bird be seemingly invisible despite being close by.  Things then got a little interesting.  After shining my light in a tree where our source was calling from, we saw the bird take off and fly close by in a different direction.  The bird then started to call from a dense oak tree after we waited for it for a minute.  This oak tree was above the trail after we had been walking off trail to other places where we had heard birds calling.  After scanning for a minute, I got lucky and caught the correct movement from the Flammulated Owl.  And there it was, finally!  It wasn't easy to spy even with lights on it but once we figured out where it was, the three of us had our first ever enjoyable looks at a Flammulated Owl.

The bird sat there still and called away.  The voice of a Flammulated Owl is soft, and it gives a single-note "poooot" or a double-note "poodoo-pooot".  It looked around back-and-fourth, and every once-in-awhile, it would take a glance down in our direction to show off it's big black eyes.

It was hard to believe that we were finally looking at our wanted bird!  The picture above clinched a new photographic life bird for me as well as give me a photograph of each and every one of the 13 owls that are known to occur in Arizona.  I've heard plenty of Flammulated Owls in the past before this and I also saw one in flight three times at Maricopa County's Slate Creek Divide last year in one night.  Despite the past, this was my first good look at this neat owl.  After we observed it for a few minutes, it flew over our heads, across the trail, and over a hillside that we were standing by.  It landed close by on the hillside, which was covered in oak and shorter pine trees.  I climbed up a steep slope after the owl as Kurt and Cindy continued to look from the trail.  After a few minutes, I heard the owl calling a few trees away from me once I got level on the slope.  I felt like I was in a great position to get killer looks at the Flam this time, and honestly, my heart was racing.  When I came around the corner where I suspected the Flammulated Owl was going to be, I was shocked to see that it was sitting up and right out in the mere open for me.  And it didn't budge!

Even though the Flammulated Owl was sitting close to me and was right in front of me, it also gave a sense of how well it may camouflage with it's bark coloration.  Imagine if this thing was thirty feet higher than this?  A lot of times, that is the case with these micro owls.

Right after I found the owl, I called down to Kurt and Cindy, "hey, I've got the bird and have killer views!".  Luckily, the owl continued to sit there.  Kurt and Cindy ran up the slope and the three of us were having a blast while enjoying views of Flammulated Owl that we didn't think we'd ever have by the end of the night.  Don't you love scenarios like this?

 We all took turns holding flashlights and each getting our own awesome shots of the dreaded and hard-to-see Flammulated Owl.  Looking at this bird live in the field really gave me an appreciation of how mysterious and awesome nature really is.  With owls like the Flam who are hard to see, it makes me think about how much of their lives we still have yet to learn about.

The behavior of this small owl is poorly known overall, although it is thought to be similar in it's behavior to that of Screech-Owls.  Flams are completely nocturnal.  Their main source of prey consists of insects, as well as moths and arachnids, scorpions, and spiders.  It occasionally preys on small birds and mammals.  

The habitat makeup at Kendall Camp Trail is rather diverse.  It consists of ponderosa pine, Gambel's oak, aspen, white fir, and Douglas fir.  In the past when I've birded here at night, Flams often perched higher in the firs and ponderosa pines, which made them practically impossible to see.  While this is a good habitat combination, the dominating habitat sequence for Flammulated Owls in Arizona come from ponderosa pine dominating forests with some Gambel's oak in the mix, as well as forests that are completely dominated by ponderosa pine (Arizona Breeding Bird Atlas-by Troy Corman and Cathryn Wise-Gervais).  It is in these habitats where Flammulated Owls may be very common and numerous in places.  Although common in numbers and constantly heard, they are rarely seen by observers as mentioned before.  

Kurt, Cindy, and I got extremely lucky with our observations last night of the Flammulated Owl.  This bird is an awesome one, and I'm glad to say I've now gotten to see and observe one well.  There's a lot left to learn about this owl, and after seeing this one, I want to see another one soon.  Whenever I have tried for these birds in most cases, it has been in the earlier stages of their breeding season.  When this has happened, the Flammulated Owls have been very high up in trees. Perhaps this is because they want to have their voice carry further to establish territories, or perhaps I'm completely wrong.  This time around when we were chasing this bird, it didn't hug the tops of trees as much as it would in most of the other times that I have gone.  This time was the end of May, while other times were mid to late-April.  Just one mans thoughts I guess.  Anyways, this was an epic night to remember.  Whether I see a Flam again or not, I am grateful for this sighting and photographs.  Thank you Kurt and Cindy for an awesome night of birding!


  1. Wow Mr. Tommy, what a post!!! Photographing all of the AZ owls is CRAZY!!! I am so happy for you guys. Have a great week!

    1. Thank you Caleb!

      It was a great thing to have happen the way it did! I still have a lot more to photograph to owl wise, I want different plumages and just any shots anytime or anywhere...

  2. Congrats on your adventure and succeeding in obtaining this goal! Truly awesome photos of this difficult owl to get visuals on. Great blog post!

    1. Thanks Gordon!

      It was a night to remember, I didn't think we would get as lucky as we did! I've figured the Flam out....well at least that one....