Saturday, June 20, 2015

Night Owling: Something New Learned

I guess there's a first time for everything.  For this post, I guess it's one that won't include pictures.  Last night, I went owling with my friend, Susan Fishburn.  We met up on Friday evening north of Phoenix, and then drove north to Prescott, owled in the Yavapai County's Bradshaw Mountains for about three hours, and then came back late the same night.  It was a very fun expedition, and we even learned something completely new about one of the owls.

Susan is working on a Year List in Arizona, and there are some owls she didn't have prior to last night, which are Northern Saw-whet Owl and Spotted Owl.  Northern Saw-whet Owl is one Susan hasn't had yet, and it's one that I've wanted to observe more of.  It's safe to say that the Northern Saw-whet Owl was our main target last night.  And of course, we were hoping to repeat the Flammulated Owl luck at Kendall Camp Trail with visuals and not just heard-only birds.

Susan and I got to Kendall Camp Trail with a little over an hour remaining before dark.  We were able to observe a handful of neat forest birds during that time which included Mountain Chickadee, Red-faced Warbler, Virginia's Warbler, Painted Redstart, Hairy Woodpecker, Western Bluebird, Dusky Flycatcher, and more.  Once it got dark, a Mexican Whip-Poor-Will called.  The Flammulated Owls then started to kick in.  I was excited to hear them, but every time we followed their calls they would stop and would then call again from another area further away.  I took it that the Flams were back to their usual selves.  But maybe next week they'll be back to being cooperative again, they are moody as we all know.  And then things got interesting when we heard two Spotted Owls counter-calling to each other on a ridge that was well above our location.  It already made the night a success for Susan, as the Spotted Owl was a new bird for her year list!  The typical four-syllable calls were coming from one of the owls, and a few times we heard the female giving her contact whistle throughout the time we were listening to them.  While this took place, the Flam called again close by and it left as we got closer and then called from further away (again!).  The Whip-poor-will called once more, and I even thought I heard a few toots from our highly wanted Saw-whet.  Between all of these calls, it seemed like we ended up listening to the Spotted Owls the most when it was all said and done.

Then something interesting happened.  Susan and I heard this strange barking call coming from the ridge.  It was one I wasn't familiar with, but we both thought it was likely a Spotted Owl giving a different call.  The call really took me by surprise and I said, "What in the heck is that?"  Because it was coming from the area we were hearing the Spotted Owls calling from, that was our best guess as to what it was.  And when I went onto Zeno Canto after a long night's sleep, sure enough, that's what it was!  Owls have a lot of different calls, and they have plenty of calls that aren't described in field guides and even birding sound applications.  Zeno Canto has 47 Spotted Owl recordings as I write, and only a few of them contain this call.  And that is with people listening to and recording Spotted Owls at night intentionally.  Concluding, this is a call that is rarely heard, and I think it's awesome Susan and I were able to experience it!  On Zeno Canto, one recordist recorded this call near the Grand Canyon and he didn't know what it was.  He uploaded it to the site's mystery bird call category, where only a few folks were able to provide examples of this strange call.  The call is given occasionally by female Spotted Owls, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a great example of it.  Listen to it at the link here:

Spotted Owl "agitated contact call"

The weird call is an extreme it seems like, and as your listening, the higher pitched calls "wheeeerrpp" are the normal female Spotted Owl contact calls.  And for the fact, we didn't use any playback on Spotted Owl.

Susan and I stayed at Kendall Camp for about an hour after dark, and because we weren't hearing Saw-whet Owl, we decided to move on and make many stops to listen for Northern Saw-whet Owls throughout the Bradshaws.  We took about a twenty mile drive throughout this neat mountain range on both the Senator Highway and Walker Road in a loop drive.  I think this place is filled with Spotted, Saw-whet, and Flammulated Owls.  The remainder of the night resulted in one more Flammulated Owl calling repeatedly on Walker Road.  We know we passed by many owls, but there is so much habitat here to bird so it's hard to know where to stop.  I guess it's the effort that counts, and we sure did give it a good effort!  Birders will hear Northern Saw-whet Owls calling at this time of the year, but they are much more vocal earlier in the year when they start breeding in March and April.  The mountains are still very cold at that time, which scare a lot of birders away and don't really give birders good excuses to bird in the cold (especially at night).  But here it is, I really want to observe and see more of the Northern Saw-whet Owl.  And so does Susan!

It was a great night of owling and learning more about these epic birds.  Thanks Susan for a great time, and I am rooting for you everyday to keep up your awesome pace!


  1. And this is why you lead the owler pack: you continue to learn by putting yourself out there. Nice work!

    1. Thanks Josh! There is always a lot to learn out there, especially with these species who are primarily nocturnal like the Spotted Owl..