On Wednesday night, February 24th, I found myself at home talking to my brother Tyler and asking his opinion on what I should do with a Northern Saw-whet Owl search I found myself wanting to attempt nocturnally in Prescott. My choices were to drive up that night or wake up horribly early and go the next morning. I decided on going early in the morning. Something else I wanted to do was to get myself fired up for this year's upcoming owl season, especially those searches that would be on the nocturnal side of things. Ever since I got my new camera, I haven't taken it out at night to practice night shots at all. I figured that to do such, I should start off simple by finding the most cooperative owl in the world of nocturnal birding. I went out to Maricopa County's Lower Salt River Recreation Area to do such, and to look for my target. Watch this video to see what this target is and how friendly it can be to those wanting to find it...
If you watched the video, than you know that the owl is the Western Screech-Owl.
Western Screech-Owls are awesome, and I can't remember the last time that I set out to look for one and didn't find one. At night that is, I've only seen one Western Screech-Owl diurnally my entire life.
This outing was thought of at first to be a practice shoot for upcoming owling trips when I thought of how I am going to photograph birds at night in the upcoming year. Even though that was the initial goal, I found myself enjoying the Western Screech-Owls a lot, and it turned out to be much more than just a practice run. It's always neat to hear these owls vocalizing and duet ting back-and-fourth, but these owls were extra cooperative on this night, as shown in the video.
Western Screech-Owls are often tame, and that was the case on this night. I would practically walk right up to them, and some of these birds weren't too far above eye level. These owls are a little strange too. While sitting there, they sometimes appear motionless with the exception of the width of how open their eyes are, which changes pretty quickly.
The Western Screech-Owl itself a versatile appearance in many ways. It can look slim, and it can look fat. It can look mean, and it can look friendly. It can look like a round-headed owl one second, and then it will show it's ear tufts the next second. A neat but bizarre bird, and one that is sure fun to observe in the field.
Most of the time with these owls, I'm the one who leaves. When I look back, they are usually sitting in the same exact spot..
After I was going to leave the Salt River at about 9, the Screech-Owl in the video forced me to stay for another 45 minutes. I got home close to 11 P.M., and feel asleep shortly before midnight. My alarm was set to 2 A.M., and after getting two hours of sleep, I was then off to Prescott to search for Northern Saw-whet Owls on February 25th, leaving at 3. Arriving in Prescott at 5 A.M, I spent the next hour and change looking for Saw-whet Owls along a creek in midst of oak and ponderosa pine forest. What I thought would be a sure bet, turned into a shear regret. The birds were silent. What the heck? After seeing that others had them here easily a few weeks ago and the fact I was here on December 31st and had four of them reply back to me constantly throughout the evening made me think these birds would go off again. But perhaps the evening and night is better for them. And perhaps by the time their shift is almost over in the latter hours of darkness, maybe they are done calling? Who knows, I'll try and go back soon. At night. That's what birding is all about, you have hits and misses. I did have two Great Horned Owls calling in Prescott, as well as my ninth Western Screech-Owl in that same period of darkness (I had eight at Coon Bluff).
While birding around Prescott until noon after the miss, I missed by second owl target in the area, which was a Barn Owl. Oh well, I'll try again in the Phoenix area. I did get my first ever Yavapai County Eastern Phoebe, and I also searched for a Red-shouldered Hawk there that didn't show up for me at Willow Lake. Many birds were around though, as both Willow and Watson Lakes are bomb.
My last stop of the day targeted my fourth hopeful owl of the prowl. This owl is one of my favorites to pursue because it is extremely tough to see and if I can catch sight of an individual perched before it decides to take off, I consider it a huge accomplishment. These owls are the masters of camouflage, and they can make you feel just plain stupid when they take off at close range from a branch tangle you are already looking at. This particular owl is in this picture. Can you make any of it out? I will say, if you look hard enough, you can see the birds breast, bill, side of head, and talons.
The picture above showed this owl right as it was about to take off. Unfortunately, I spied the owl once I walked past it, and it knows whether I am looking at it or not. When I caught sight of it, I played it cool for a few minutes before it decided to leave. If only I had spied it sooner. Here's another view from a different pose. For this moment, I would almost say this is easy to spy compared to other tangles of crap that this owl likes to hide in. If this is generous, wow...
I take a few steps to get at a slightly better angle. As you can see now, it's a Long-eared Owl. And man, can they blend in or what! They aren't a small owl by any means either, they just know what they are doing and they do it well..
Long-eared Owls do not like people, including me. They are very sensitive to human disturbance. When I look for one and find one, I limit myself to how many times I follow it once it flushes. In this circumstance, it is different. I know of a day roost for Long-eared Owls in Arizona that I will keep undisclosed (undisclosed means don't ask me where I see these birds at). They like a dense tangle of trees, and there are plenty of Long-eared Owls in this tangle. I try to see them perched first, but because they spook easily and hide better than Waldo, that is usually not the case. Once they fly, they are obvious and as soon as they land in another tree they are usually back inside of another dense tangle or at the opposite side of a tree. They flush in almost a single file line, and once the many owls flush, they land in many other different trees.
Most of the Long-eared Owls flush into similar tangles of branches within trees compared to the tree that they were roosting in. Some of them will land in more open areas than others on occasion. I love it when they do this!
They are almost always in thick shady areas. Even with this one being perched relatively in the open, it would still be overlooked by most without a careful scan with binoculars.
As I walked through the grove of trees, the Long-eared Owls would continue to flush, but not all of them. Because I knew in general where some of them were, it wasn't completely hard as long as I scrutinized every branch, leaf, and tangle. And finally, there was a cooperative one. For the next thirty minutes, I walked a total of 30 feet in an attempt to view this guy better.
The long wait of edging closer turned out to be worth it, as this Long-eared Owl was braver than it's fellow companions.
I had a great view of it considering the fact it was a Long-eared Owl. This is a species I have yet to get "crushing" photographs of yet, but I do have good pictures. Because of this owl's sensitivity, it's not worth it to me to keep traipsing back and fourth through their roosting area. For me, this outing lasted three hours with me crawling on the ground and walking as slow as can be through this area. With Long-eared Owls, I love to observe them anytime and if I get good photos, great, and if I don't get good photos, that is great also.
I hung out with this owl for quite some time because I got to see some of both of it's postures. Here is it's typical alert posture that most see.
And here is some of it's relaxed "camouflage" posture. Notice the facial difference? He was starting to relax a little as I watched from a distance.
As I continued to inch closer, he was still aware of every little inch I moved or every time I lifted my camera up to take his picture.
See the opening to the branches on the right of the owl? The bird finally left as I was about to inch over and get a shot without any branches in the way. Yep, that's Long-eared Owling for you!
While I was walking, I even heard one of the many Long-eared Owls hooting. It was the first time of hearing one in the wild. I managed to crawl underneath my buddy once again who I previously looked at. As I inched closer, he was still ever concerned about my every move, and once again, retreated right as I was about to get an open view.
Some of the Long-eared Owls flushed into this large juniper tree, which was on my way out as I was leaving. As I looked down at my clock, what felt like one hour was over three hours. When your slowly trying to avoid disturbing something, time can sure fly! As I was leaving, the owls were piling into this juniper, as well as another stretch of thick trees along the wash I was walking down. They haven't ever flown into this particular section in the times I have visited the roost. Can you see the owls?
I would call spying these ones easy as compared to the other ones..wow. But they didn't stay very long in this spot either...
As I walked out of the area, some of the Long-eared Owls flew back to their main roost and past me. Some of them I managed to get a few decent pictures of.
What a fun time owling, all within a time span of less than 24 hours!