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!


  1. Truly outstanding and awe-inspiring, Tommy! You are steam-rolling your way through TOBY, crushing every Owl species in your path! Tyler is definitely the hero and rightfully deserves his photo in this post. Congratulations on a major milestone achieved and seeing your second ever Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl!

    1. Thanks Josh! Tyler is the hero and I wouldn't have that owl sighting right now if it weren't for him. I'd be planning another trip back (and I do plan on going back again, actually, this time at ease..). It's great to see a bird for the second time, it's always a huge follow-up to the first.

  2. Very nice find Tommy. Aren't they interesting owls? Pretty exciting birds for our state. They are everywhere in Mexico so it's always shocking for me to think of them living in a cactus but they do love that highly vegetative scrub. Congrats to you both!

    1. Thanks Chris! They are interesting owls, and ones that are always a big deal to find. Weird how common they are in Mexico but yet how scarce they are in Arizona and Texas..