Sunday, July 12, 2015

Spotting the Best of the Best

I've really wanted to go out of town lately and get into cooler temperatures and elevations up north.  Such conditions also feature birding in coniferous forests, which is my favorite habitat to bird in.  I haven't been able to escape very much at all to such areas this year.  Despite wanting to venture north, the fact is that it costs a lot of money for trips.  With a vacation coming up soon that will put me in those habitats for a good amount of time anyways, it has helped sooth the strong urge over somewhat and go into money saving mode.  Slate Creek Divide has been one of those locations and it isn't very far away as it is in the northeastern corner of my home county of Maricopa.  I've wanted to go to Slate Creek desperately for the last month, especially since I got rained out the last time I went.  I made room for it once more recently, and I headed back up there.  My buddy Walker Noe joined me on my trip up here, and it was great to have company.  Walker and I left the city during the evening, and arrived at Slate Creek after dark where we would camp out and then plan on birding the Maricopa County sections of the area in the morning.  Slate Creek has towering Douglas firs as it's dominant tree, and the overall landscape scenes of the area never fail to impress me.  Walker and I wanted to bird and see a variety of species, but we really did have one bird on our mind that excessively exceeded the other birds.

That bird was the Spotted Owl.  Walker had never crossed paths with one and I was wanting to find fledglings of the species to see with my own eyes that they breed in Maricopa County.  With the species being very scarce and the area being remote and hard to navigate, I knew that finding evidence of Spotted Owls breeding would be challenging.  But it is that time of year to find such things, and I was hoping for the best.  We started owling in both Maricopa and Gila Counties when we arrived in the remote wilderness area after 8 P.M.  After failing to locate a Flammulated Owl in the area I did last year and failing to locate any owls over the next few hours, we grew tired and called it a night.  I made the horrible mistake of sleeping in my cab of my truck while Walker slept in the truck bed.  What was even more stupid of me was the fact I brought a tent and didn't set it up.  It would result in me barely getting any sleep.  We were camping out in Gila County with Maricopa County being close by.  At roughly 12:20 A.M. once midnight rolled past, I was almost asleep.  That almost had victory in sleeping and I was tired enough to sleep through until the morning.  I hate that feeling of being tired and not being able to sleep at all.  Just as I was ready to finally fall asleep after finding a comfortable position in my tiny cab, a Spotted Owl decided to sound his alarm.  Several hoots started to come from the forest.  I sat there calmly at first, at least I tried to be calm.  Walker was already asleep, and I didn't want him to wake up because of me.  But then it was a Spotted Owl.  The Spotted Owl got even closer and it was now very loud.  I jumped up and grabbed my flashlight and shined it out my window.  There was nothing to be seen, but the owl could be heard.  I shook the truck a bit when I got up, and it woke up Walker.  Walker heard the owl too, and he wanted to look for it.  We immediately forgot about being tired and started to walk down into the woods to look for our target.  The two of us probably looked like complete dorks.  As we started walking down into the forest, the Spotted Owl was right above us and was calling loudly.  A female answered him back further down in the woods in rough terrain.  The owl was in the backside of a Douglas fir, and Walker and I were prevented from seeing it.  Because the female answered the male with her own contact notes while he sang, I was able to get a feel from where she was calling from.  We walked down into the area.  After tripping once, I then picked up my slack and was able to find one of the Spotted Owls sitting in a Douglas fir.  It was curious about us, but it was also pretty high up and wasn't very easy to see.  Luck then hit us as one of the Owls flew in and landed on a dead tree right in front of us.  It perched on a limb that was pretty low and curiously gave Walker and I a stare down!

This was a milestone achievement for me.  I'm obsessed with owls, and I'm working on a long term project in observing them in the field this year and probably in years to come.  Having observations in day and night of each species and a photograph to go along with each is something I'd love.  This Spotted Owl was the first at night I have been able to photograph.  Boy were Walker and I lucky.

I haven't seem someone as glad to get a bird in a long time as Walker was with seeing this bird.  It instantly became his favorite bird when it flew in.  What was amazing about it was that we didn't do anything to bring the owl in or entice it to come in.  After all, it is illegal to do so because Spotted Owls are federally threatened in Arizona.  The Spotted Owl took it upon himself to come in and stare at us.  This species is very curious and really doesn't have a lot of fear.  This one seemed to be smaller than the other one who was perched behind it, indicating that he was probably the male of the pair.  Tyson and Nikki were their names to be exact.

Just like that, our excursion was already a huge success.  Because Walker is moving to Idaho next month, the Spotted Owl was tops on his wish list and it was awesome he got to see this bird the way he did.  After the owls flew off, we hiked a little more in the woods and happened to see them again as they appeared to be actively hunting in the area.

After the excitement, it was 2:30 A.M. by the time I got back into my cab bed.  Until light, I heard the female Spotted Owl barking a few times more.  Other than that, it was a miserable three hours with little sleep.  Being at Slate Creek was cool enough in itself and was worth it.  When sunrise came around, Walker and I walked around the Spotted Owl locations from the previous night without luck of finding any birds.  And then came our bushwhacking trip into the Maricopa County side of the area at 6:30, a hike that isn't an easy task.  I've been wanting to find a Spotted Owl fledgling in Maricopa County for some time being now, and it was my main hope for this trip.  Regardless, the trip was already amazing with the views we had of the Spotted Owl at night.  With it being July, it is the perfect time to look for young owls and other young birds.  I wanted to see evidence of this scarce Maricopa County owl breeding from my own standpoint.  Walking down and bushwhacking down the thick Maricopa County section was quiet to start off.  Not many birds were singing due to the time of year.  In similar ways to last night, a surprise was suddenly upon us as we were getting well into the drainage areas.  I spied a Spotted Owl sitting in a Douglas fir directly over the drainage, and it was a fledgling!

That immediately confirmed that Spotted Owl is indeed a breeder in Maricopa County.  After having birds here last year, I assumed it was likely but the proof was now right in front of my eyes!

The sight of the young fledgling was spectacular.  I said right away that there were going to be more birds around.  It then turned out that Walker was on a Spotted Owl too, and all along I thought he was on the fledgling I saw.  Turns out the wasn't, and he said, "I've got a second bird too!".  I realized he wasn't looking at my bird but was looking up on a large Douglas fir to the right of the first bird I detected.  It was quite ironic that we were looking at two different birds while both of us thought we were on each other's bird.  Walker spied the adult female as well as another fledgling.

Immediately, Walker and I almost switched places and we took more interest in looking at what the other person spied.  I was blown away by the female and the fledgling together.

The adult Spotted Owl could have cared less about us, but the two fledglings were more curious than ever.  Both were perched over the drainage, one about twenty feet high and the other about forty feet high.  Walker and I spent some time enjoying the owls while keeping a respectable distance of about 60 feet away from them.  Both fledglings jolted their heads back and fourth in curiosity of us and they were always watching us as if we were interesting.

The original and more view-able fledgling Spotted Owl provided us with great entertainment.  We named this one Wally, the other fledgling Whitney, and the adult female Roxanne.  You gotta have a little fun.  This one, Wally, seemed to be male sized, while Whitney was extremely big and chubby like her mom.  At times it but on a show for us, doing different branching moves and such.

And then it decided to doze off.

This area holds perfect Spotted Owl habitat, which holds shady conifer dominated forests mainly made up of Douglas fir, pine, oak, and maple.

Here is a video of the habitat that the area holds, which is excellent.

I could go on and on and on about the significance of how cool these birds are to me.  But I won't put it in words, it's all summed up in the pictures to document the presence of this secretive but yet friendly bird at the same time.  

Slate Creek Divide is a big area, and the Maricopa County reaches of it are extremely difficult to explore.  Honestly, I'm glad the terrain is rough and the area is hard to explore.  It keeps people out of there.  Because this owl is federally threatened, I am keeping the location of this birds a complete secret.  Do not ask me anything about their whereabouts, because I am not willing under any circumstances going to give it out.  I'm not trying to be a "bird hog" by any means, but I'm trying to do my part in keeping the owls safe from any harm in a part of the state that they are scarce in.  Spotted Owls can be seen easily at Miller Canyon by billions of birders every year, and driving there to see them is really quite equivalent to going up to Slate Creek Divide to look for them.  The wilderness at Slate Creek can be dangerous, I've lost count on how many times I've nearly stepped on rattlesnakes there.  Driving the forest road up there is a huge pain-in-the-butt.  

Slate Creek Divide and Mount Ord are my two favorite locations to bird at in Maricopa County.  Between the two, I'd have to say that Slate Creek has a slight edge.  I love the potential that it holds for certain species such as Dusky-capped Flycatcher.  Every time I come here, I'm on the lookout for something interesting that is thought of as mainly a Mexican species.  Whats on my wishlist next here?  I'm really wanted to find Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Magnificent Hummingbird, and Mexican Whip-poor-will in Maricopa County, and maybe Slate Creek is that place.  The habitat is good for all three of these species.  Several of us are also hoping for Red-faced Warblers to return here again as a breeder.  Walker and I are both serious birders, and we came on this trip to bird.  I know it seems like we were only about Spotted Owls on this trip, but we really were in it for everything else.  But everything else was quiet.  We detected four Dusky-capped Flycatchers, a few Mexican Jays, and more typical forest birds among 33 species observed.  July is a quiet time of month for songbirds and most birds for that matter due to young constantly being fed and cared for.  The Spotted Owls are doing that too, but because of their choices of visibility and presence over the trip, they completely stole the show.  Most of the other birds weren't even cooperative in even the slightest measure, and Walker and I didn't get any photographs of anything else.  That is a sequence I can certainly live with ;)

With Spotted Owls, it's important to note that observations of them shouldn't be broadcast-ed to the point where the specifics of the bird's exact locations are.  Spotted Owls can be very tame-acting, but as birders we should do our best to preserve their well fare by keeping our observations of them safe.  Robert Smith studied Spotted Owls in the Huachuca Mountains in southeastern Arizona and he came up with a code for watching and observing the owls if they are encountered.  He said to not use playback on the owls, to not approach within 50 feet of them, to talk quietly, and to not use flash photography.  Walker and I followed his system during our observations.  We even backed our 50 feet up to 60 feet :)  With binoculars and nice cameras, there really is no need to get closer.

I hope to get back into this area again in August and September and I also hope to explore it in the winter months, something I still have yet to do.  Shame on me!  Who knows what else will be found at Slate Creek this year and in the coming years.

And a huge thanks to Walker for coming to explore this area with me and for making this a fun trip!


  1. It was rocking! Hearing the call was great, and seeing a night pair and even fledglings almost made my head explode!

    1. Yes Walker, it was indeed rocking! I can't believe how lucky we got with these Spotted Owls. A great time!

  2. I too believe that those species could someday be found here in Maricopa. With as much as you cover those areas, I bet you'll find something. We both saw that White-eared Hummer way out of range at South Mountain didn't we?

    1. Thanks Josh, I'm hoping for the best one of these years. There are county records for all of those species, they are just very sparse. Yes, we did see the South Mountain White-eared Hummingbird, which was an incredible find and record!

  3. Chance favors the prepared. I think you have incredible owl opportunities like this because you are a diligent student of the vocalizations, habits, and habitats of these owls. What a fun night for you two! Congrats on achieving one of your goals.

    Good for you for protecting the welfare of these birds by not divulging the location and giving them space. You explained it in an intelligent way too and did not come across as an owl hog. I like how you offered an alternative with the Miller Canyon birds for someone to get a life bird. The only people who would need your Maricopa Spotted Owls would be county listers. Their precious tic is not worth disturbing a sensitive species.

    1. Thanks Josh! It does pay off to go prepared, that's for sure. I actually achieved two major goals, and those were photographing Spotted Owl at night as well as confirm it as a breeder for Maricopa County. It was a great time.

      Wrong exposure is the last thing I want to come to these birds. Miller Canyon is great, and it's good we have a location in the state where the Spotted Owls are used to many birders each and every year.

  4. Wow, Tommy! What a wonderful find for you and Walker! Your research is a plus for Maricopa County bird facts not to mention your personal enjoyment in the process. Breeding Spotted Owls in Maricopa County! Hard to believe - but you've got the experience and photos to prove it.
    p.s. No way I'm headed to Slate Creek Divide :)

    1. Thanks Babs! I had a great time seeing the Owls. I don't think I've enjoyed anything else in birding more than birding in my home County :) It is quite hard to believe we have breeding Spotted Owls. Slate Creek is a neat place, probably my favorite in Maricopa Co.