Monday, March 28, 2016

Back To The Desert To Search for a Rare Owl

As my North American Owl Big Year has gotten off to a great start, there is still a lot of work to do to complete the goal I have set for myself for my birding year of 2016.  Prior to today, the remaining owl count was seven species that I need to see and photograph to complete my Big Year.  I'm hoping to get four of those seven owls in the next month, which are Elf, Spotted, Flammulated, and Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl.  The latter, the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, is primarily a mexican owl that has a very small range in the United States in Texas and Arizona.  While this small owl is common in Mexico, it is very rare and declining in North America, where it is an endangered species.  Unlike it's forest dwelling cousin in the Northern Pygmy-Owl, the Ferruginous favors the opposite habitat such as densely vegetated desert settings dominated by paloverde and mesquite trees, and habitats that have many saguaro cactus lining their habitat.   As I already missed this owl once before on this Owl Big Year, I was wanting to make a second attempt at landing it.  And I was ready!

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was the destination for searching for the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, once again.  This Monument is a neat place, and one I like to visit, owl or not.  With me having two out-of-state owling trips coming up in the summer and with me needing more for Arizona by the end of April to set my pace to being comfortable for this Big Year, the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl is one that I have been wanting to get and one that I certainly don't want to put off.  Besides, I've only seen one of these birds in my entire life and I really wanted to see one for only the second time in my life.  With sketchy wind conditions over these next few days, I had a risk to take in trying for this bird today, but it was a risk I was willing to take.  I invited Tyler Loomis to join me on this search.  Tyler quickly said he was interested in coming, and the two of us joined forces to search for the small owl in the paloverde, mesquite, and saguaro lined canyons at Organ Pipe.  If we were indeed successful, the owl would be a huge addition to my Owl Big Year and it would very importantly be a life bird for Tyler.  I met Tyler at a Phoenix Park and Ride at 3:45 A.M. and we arrived at Organ Pipe just before 6 A.M.  We encountered some wind on the way, and we could tell that it was already somewhat windy upon our arrival at a canyon within the Monument and that the wind would continue to increase.  But nevertheless, we were at Organ Pipe and there were Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls around without a doubt.  Could we find one?

We began our search and started to walk up and down along the edge of the canyon that we decided to look for the owls at.  As owls have been seen and heard at this location over the years, Tyler and I thought an effective plan would be to walk back-and-fourth along the canyon top.  As we walked back-and-fourth listening for any action vocally from any owls, an hour quickly passed without any luck.  When we arrived on the Monument, it was barely light out and we felt like our best chances were soon going to be behind us as the morning continued on past the first hour.

As 7:10 A.M. rolled in, a Red-tailed Hawk got our attention when it soared over a cliff.  As we were waiting for the Hawk to show up again to make sure it was a Red-tailed Hawk, we heard a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl calling!  We could tell that it is was close, and that it was coming from the direction we had just past.  In a few saguaro cactus along the trail were some holes in the cactus that looked perfect for the owls.  An impression I got made me think that the owl was calling from a cactus hole, where they reside in for their home.  As I was checking the cavities within the saguaros, Tyler called back to me, "Right here!".  I thought at first that Tyler was hearing the owl calling, but when I looked over, he said, "It's sitting in this paloverde".  From where I was, I looked and saw a chunky bird sitting almost trail side and in that paloverde tree.  I couldn't believe my eyes, and Tyler had spied the target bird and my 13th owl species of the year!

As we watched the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, it simply stared back at us.  I was pumped up that we were actually looking at this bird.  Wow!

The short burst of call notes that this owl spoke proved to be vital.  As we started to watch this Pygmy-Owl and continued to watch it move about throughout the morning, it wouldn't vocalize again.

What makes a Pygmy-Owl?  For starters, these small owls have false "eye spots" on the back of their head.  This tells larger predators that these owls can see them, thus, the larger predators will quickly abort any ideas of predation on the small owls.

The Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl differs from the Northern Pygmy-Owl both vocally and with some marks visually.  While Northerns have a spotted head, Ferruginous has a streaked head.  Northern has a black tail, and the Ferruginous has a rusty "reddish" colored tail along with a rusty coloration overall throughout it's body.  "Ferruginous" means rusty.  So we can name this owl, "Rusty".

Ferruginous was out and was active, and started to move around often.  While it didn't seem too concerned about Tyler and I, the two of us enjoyed it from a respectable distance.  For a bird that Tyler had never seen and a bird that I have only seen once, we made sure to make a good observation out of it.

For a small brown bird sitting and hunting almost motionless at times, spying it without hearing it calling first can come with a huge challenge.  Can you spy the owl?

Here it is!

Something interesting about this observation when it started was that Tyler and I had the Owl right along the trail we were hiking and it wasn't in the nearby canyon.  The first time I ever saw this species was in one of the dense canyons.  After awhile, the owl flew into the canyon where mobbing songbirds and hummingbirds gave away it's presence.  The owl was found again as we made our way down and we continued to enjoy the bird at a respectable distance.  Gosh, these owls can sure blend in well with their surroundings!

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls are endangered species in Arizona.  Therefore, I won't say the location of where we found this bird.  Also, because of their status, it is unlawful to use playback on this species.  Tyler and I got lucky, and happened to stumble upon a bird that was calling nearby.

Before declining rapidly in it's former range in Arizona that ranged as far north as Phoenix, the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl was once very common.  Now, birders hope to hear a bird calling and really hope to catch a glimpse of one.

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls are intense predators, and will often take prey larger then themselves.  

Here is the best shot of what I was able to get of the owl's false "eye spots".

Before Tyler and I left the cooperative owl that we enjoyed and got everything we could've asked for out of it, we spent a few more minutes with one last view.  What a morning, and what a neat bird!

A huge thanks goes out to Tyler for spying the owl.  As I looked up into cactus holes for an owl peeking out, Tyler kept his eyes at eye level perches to first spy our bird.  Well done Tyler!

How would I repay Tyler back?  By spying something dangerous he was about to step on as we headed out..

Yeah, it really was close!  Let this serve as a reminder that rattlesnakes are out now.  While bites are generally pretty rare, keep in mind that some of them don't give warnings and will strike if they are accidentally stepped on.  That is what almost took place today.  Our first rattlesnake of 2016.  A Western Diamondback.  

As this post comes to a close, stay tuned for more adventures from this Owl Big Year and birding in general in the near future.  I'm hoping for Elf Owl, Spotted Owl, and Flammulated Owl to join my Big Year in the next month.  Good Owling (Birding) everyone!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Other Awesome Birds!

I've been working to the extent on my Owl Big Year lately that I haven't really blogged about the other birds I have been seeing.  I have still been an all around birder like I have always been (don't worry), and lately, I have seen many cool birds besides owls.  Now is the perfect time to recap some of those other birds.

The San Rafael Grasslands are one of Arizona's finest locations, both scenic wise and bird wise.

When Short-eared Owls are a no show and if the White-tailed Kites stay distant, the rising song from the Eastern Meadowlark is a good fall back.

Here is a distant shot of a White-tailed Kite as it hunted and hovered over the grasslands...

I have yet to see a Baird's Sparrow perched on a fence line at San Rafael out of the many times I have been here.  But yet I encountered one with killer binocular views while walking through the grass once.  American Kestrels can be abundant on the fence lines.

Patagonia has some very awesome birds.  While I was birding at Patagonia Lake State Park, this male Pyrrhuloxia popped out right in front of me.  This is a species that I haven't seen much of, and getting this incredible view of this adult male is the best I've had of this species.  It is a bird a see a few of every year on treks to southeast Arizona or if I get extremely lucky in Maricopa County.

The other cardinal, the much more common Northern Cardinal, is prevalent all over Patagonia too...

Oodles of birders were at Patagonia Lake State Park in search of the famous Elegant Trogon who winters there every year.  I can say that I was part of that crowd.  Without a Trogon in sight, a Black-capped Gnatcatcher family had to be my Plan B.  Black-capped Gnatcatchers are a traveling birder's treasure too, as they have a very limited range in the United States:  Southeastern Arizona.

I love birding along Soniota Creek.  As a birder, I guess I never know what may show up in the vicinity...

Along Soniota Creek, I also encountered a mammal I have only seen once in my life, and there was a big family group of this mammal of at least twenty individuals...

White-nosed Coatis everyone!  I probably spent close to an hour watching these interesting animals.

Thanks to my friend Dr. Carol, I had an epic cabin to spend the night in in the Patagonia and Soniota area.  On the way home I birded more of Southeastern Arizona which included stops to Florida and Madera Canyons as well as the Santa Cruz Flats.  On the entrance road into Madera, I found this pair of Rufous-winged Sparrows.  This is a species I haven't seen a lot of in my birding time, and it was fun "catching up" with this bird.

Once I got to Santa Cruz Flats, I want to Sasco Road where it intersects with the Santa Cruz River.  My target bird was to see the continuing Louisiana Waterthrush, who has indeed spent the winter along this riparian area.  It didn't take me long to find this bird, and I spent well over an hour watching it and trying to get some decent photographs of it.

Up next was a pass through the fields and farmlands within the Santa Cruz Flats to look for Crested Caracaras, or "Tractor Falcons".  I came upon a field that was being plowed by a tractor, and there were my Crested Caracaras!

Caracaras feed on insects and other crap that is kicked up in the plowing process.  They are interesting and fun to watch.  The tractor driver found me more strange than the Caracaras.  "What the heck is this guy doing, what's so interesting about this tractor?"

I got lucky as one young Caracara perched very close to the road.

My treks continued up into Prescott.  Besides owl searching, I enjoyed many other birds.  One of them was this Violet-green Swallow.

And the other was this more rare Eastern Phoebe, my first for Yavapai County!

Caleb and I saw these Snow Geese in Maricopa County while we were on our way back from Organ Pipe.  It's rare to see blue morphs of this species in Arizona, so this sighting of this mixed-morph flock was pretty cool.

Cliff Swallows have their impressive nests built under bridges.  Colonies of these swallows are quite the thing to watch..

Dominic and I went up to Mount Ord in our recent encounter with a Northern Pygmy-Owl.  Other than the owl, I was amazed at the sight of the Western Bluebird pair..

We also got to see a few female Olive Warblers, and we heard quite a few more.

Other awesome outing recently came when Melissa and I went to the Thrasher Spot together.  We were hoping to get a wave of migrating Sage Thrashers, which is exactly what we got.  Melissa and I had at least 8 birds, and the birds were all using the same immediate area.  What a cool sight this bird is!


Conspicuous Bendire's were pretty numerous too.

"Look Melissa, a Roadrunner!"

Melissa and I went under that big Phoenix bridge in pursuit of the creatures that live there.  We were surprised to find this Great Horned Owl.  I don't think I've ever seen a Great Horned Owl with it's tufts raised up so much, what a neat sighting.

Owls are on this post, after all!  The final bird of the day was a new owl for Melissa, her first Barn Owl.  Other than a roost like this, Barn Owls can be very challenging to find.  Good thing for this spot!

More awesome birding expeditions are bound to be around the corner!