Sunday, March 6, 2016

North American Owl Big Year: From Deserts to Canals to Bridges to Forests

Last week, I went on a huge owl expedition in both Maricopa and Yavapai Counties.  I hit two out of my four targets.  On my two days off this week, I was in a similar circumstance.  I had four owl targets once again.  Some were revenge targets from last week, and others were ones that I really really wanted to see badly.  Regardless, I wanted to see all of my targets, badly.  Some were easy, some were tough, and some seemed harder than they were.  By the end of these two days of owling in early morning, afternoon, late morning, evening, and late at night-I felt grateful for what I got.  Here is the next story to my North American Owl Big Year.

A North American Owl Big Year?  What?  Yes, that is my birding goal this year.  I want to see and photograph every owl in North America this year.  It's going to be a tough task, and I don't even know yet if I'll be able to make an attempt at all 19 species, but as of right now, that is what I'm shooting for.  Owls are my favorite family of birds, which makes this goal a lot of fun.  Secondary goals include what owls I can also hear, which two species this year (Northern Pygmy-Owl and Whiskered Screech-Owl) I have only heard and not seen.  I don't see it being a problem with me eventually locking eyes with those two species and getting some cool photographs of them to go along with the sighting.  But the main goal is to see and photograph every owl.  And of course, on these trips I get to do a lot of birding besides the owling birding.  Right now I am hustling and am trying hard to get some of those harder owls here in Arizona out of the way.  On this past Wednesday, March 2nd, I made an attempt at one of those harder species, the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl.

Caleb Strand and I joined forces and set out to explore the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in pursuit of the small Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl.  This species is very common in Mexico, but is yet rare and endangered in it's limited United States range in southern Arizona and southern Texas.  These owls used to range as far north as central and northern Maricopa County in Arizona, but the last confirmed record in Maricopa County was from the Salt River in 1971.  With a lot of Maricopa County's very southern reaches being on Indian Land that is inaccessible, it wouldn't surprise me if the owl is in one of those areas.  I've only seen one Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl in my life, and that was at the Organ Pipe Monument in May of 2014.  It was an awesome day.  By looking at the scenic pictures above, you can see that Organ Pipe is a very scenic place.  The desert there is lush and full of vegetation.  If the owls are missing-in-action, then the scenery is a positive plus to fall back on.  Caleb and I tried and tried and searched and searched several different areas on the Monument for this bird.  Long story short, we didn't succeed, but it wasn't for a lack of effort by any means.  It isn't all that far of a drive for me, so, I guess we'll just have to do it again.  After all, it really isn't the peak time for them to start calling even though it is still a good time to hear them calling.  It would have been nice to get it this time so I wouldn't have to come back again, but hey, it's a neat spot I should bird more of.  Most importantly, Caleb and I had a great time birding together and enjoying the Monument.

Gosh, it's sure starting to get hot out too fast.  Caleb and I were sick of the "heat" by noon and we started to head back to Caleb's house.  We then agreed that the day shouldn't be owlless, and we decided to search for Burrowing Owls in the way home.  The Burrowing Owl was the first owl I saw this year on January 1st, but I saw it by Tres Rios while quickly driving through the area, I never enjoyed it.  Technically, enjoying a Burrowing Owl and getting a picture of it would make it a Big Year Bird.  And by Caleb's house, that is exactly what we did.  The Burrowing Owl frequented a nearby canal.

The Burrowing Owl allowed Caleb and I to get very close and it was very approachable.

As the Owl remained cooperative, I decided to get my first Burrowing Owl selfie.  Thanks Caleb for taking this picture!

After dropping Caleb off at his house, I started to head home.  I was then interrupted by this pair of Burrowing Owls along a canal, and I thought it was cool that I was going to be able to get two of them in the same frame.

At first, the male guarded the hole..

And the female sat on top of the canal bank..

And then something awesome happened.  The male climbed up to the top of the bank where his mate was, and he was then at her same level and only a few feet away.  I was starting to hope that he would stand closer to her.

All of a sudden, the male owl ran up to his mate and let her know how he felt about her.  This was awesome to see, and I decided to stick around on that road side that I pulled off on.

And the Burrowing Owl show continued on for a long time.  I'm sure the real show takes place once both of them go inside their home, but this was good enough for my camera!

As I was sitting in the driver's seat of my truck, I then decided to move over to the passenger's seat on the right, the side that the Burrowing Owls were closest to.  And it actually made a much bigger difference than I thought it would!  When I first made the maneuver, it made the owls more attentive, especially the female.  Although she looks quite small in the first pictures above, one can clearly see now that the female (left) is bigger than the male (right).

Throughout the twenty more minutes I spent with this pair, they continued to put on a show.  I couldn't help but watch and have fun, and I can't help but sharing a lot of those pictures with you all right now.

Because I was thirsty and needed that water out of my cooler, I accidentally flushed the birds from their spot, but the male quickly returned to the perch.  The female landed in the surrounding alfalfa field at first, but then flew right back and landed in their burrow.  What a great time with these two Burrowing Owls, and probably the best photographs I have obtained of this species (when this pair was side-by-side).

When March 3rd, Thursday, came about, I had more owling that I wanted to do and I had several options.  The day at Organ Pipe wore me out and I wasn't sure about getting up super early to go birding at Mount Ord to search for high elevation Maricopa County birds with Northern Pygmy-Owls in mind or to relax during the day and go somewhere at night.  I didn't set an alarm clock so I could let my body have a natural amount of rest and by the time I woke up, it was later than when I would have wanted to get up if I was to go to Mount Ord.  After I got up, I decided I wanted to make another attempt at the Northern Saw-whet Owls in Prescott.  Because I missed them last week and because of the fact I know that right now is a great time to hear them singing away at night, I had a strong feeling to go back.  And that's what I was leaning towards on this day.  Because I did have a long wait ahead of me before I would start my trip to Prescott, I decided to search for Barn Owls at a Phoenix location.  Last week in Prescott, I looked for a Barn Owl that has been seen underneath a bridge at times, without luck.  I wanted to see if the Phoenix bridge would treat me any better.  Sure enough it did, and I got to see two Barn Owls at the location, my 9th owl that I've seen and photographed this year!  The first Barn Owl I saw is always at this location whenever I see it and it is usually pretty reliable.  The reason I say usually is because I tried for it in January without any luck.

The second Barn Owl I found underneath the bridge was even better because I haven't found a Barn Owl on this section of the bridge before.  And this bridge is huge!

Something cool about my owl obsession is that it's taken me to far away places this year and has pushed me to new limits.  We all remember the Minnesota trip where I owl lifered four times as well as overall lifered 15 times.  I wasn't thinking North American Owl Big Year during that trip, but over this last month, oh boy, I want to do this!  Other limits this year has broken have been my willingness to take longer trips alone.  A recent jaunt down to southeastern Arizona's San Rafael Grasslands to strike out on Short-eared Owls was one example.  I have never like going far beyond Maricopa County for trips on my own.  After asking four friends about Short-eared Owling and after none of them could go, it proved to be good for me to do something alone.  I didn't find a Short-eared Owl, but now I look forward to trying again in October through December of this year.  Another limit I have broken has been my willingness to bird alone in the dark.  A lot of that fear has been overcome, and with owling, many of those outings have to be owled at alone in the dark in order to be successful.  I'm not very scared of desert owling at night, but forest owling at night is pretty creepy.  With adrenaline rushing, I missed Saw-whet Owls last week in the Prescott forest in the dark.  And on this night of March 3rd, I was ready to try it again!  I left Phoenix at 3:30 P.M. and got to Prescott around 5:30 P.M. with plans of looking for Northern Saw-whet Owls at two creeks in the area.  Last year on December 31st, Susan Fishburn and I had an astonishing 4-5 Saw-whets in a close area of each other at one of these creeks.  I came back very early in the morning last week only to strike out on them.  After wondering if it was because it was in the latter hours of darkness that they weren't calling, I felt better about my evening and first-hours-of-dark chances.  I met up with Prescott birder Felipe Guerrero for awhile at Banning Creek, and he gave me some tips on finding Saw-whets here as well as the second creek I was going to stop at.  Felipe heard a Saw-whet before I arrived in the area, and there was still a lot of light left in the day!  My Yavapai County Lewis's Woodpecker flew overhead.  Felipe also told me some surprising facts about Northern Saw-whet Owls in Prescott: they are more numerous than people would ever think pretty much!

After Felipe left I was alone in the darkness for the next hour-and-a-half, trying for Saw-whet Owls.  Things started to get to me as I was getting skunked...again.  I even had a close encounter with a Javelina walking by at about 30 feet away from me.  As I searched through the pine, oak, and juniper forest along the creek, I was starting to lose hope.  I went back to where Felipe had heard his Saw-whet Owl and decided to stand there for a good twenty minutes.  At last, the small owl finally called lazily for about twenty seconds before going quiet.  I felt like my hopes were shot and I decided to go to the next creek that Felipe was telling me about.  To be honest, I was bummed, and I was starting to think that I would have to make more trips to get Saw-whet Owls for this Owl Big Year...

Every stop brings something different..right?  When I got to this next creek, I leaned out my truck and I could hear a Northern Saw-whet Owl constantly giving it's rapid "toot" song!  I quickly grabbed my stuff and started to make my way up the creek, which was also lined by ponderosa pine, oak, and juniper.  As I made my way up to where the owl was calling, I could constantly hear this one going off.  At times this owl can sound very loud and it's voice really carries.  What seemed to be closer to my vehicle was actually pretty far.  As the owl would get louder, the terrain would get steeper.  Before I knew it, I was running up a ravine.  Luckily, the owl was now close.  Felipe told me that despite Saw-whet Owls are almost always tame-acting, they do get spooked very easily be flashlights.  As I got to within feet of where the owl was calling in front of me, it all of a sudden stopped calling with the more that I scanned with my light.  I said to myself, "crap".  I looked down and the creek was well below me and the highway was too.  I was out of breath and was hoping the bird would continue calling.  Luckily, a minute later, it started to constantly go off again.  As I tracked it down, I had my first look at a Northern Saw-whet Owl in 2016, at about 9 P.M.!

After trying so hard at the previous creek, I then felt very grateful for this sighting and photograph.  Regardless of what else would happen for the next hour I would spend at this second creek, this sighting made the trip a huge success!  The owl seemed nervous of the light, and didn't stay on the limbs of that oak tree for very long.  Luckily, that was his time of getting used to a flashlight, and the following hour would be a lucky one for me.  Before I get to the remainder of the night, check out this short video I made during my time of observing two Saw-whet Owls here at this second Prescott creek.  Every part of this video was filmed with my iPod touch camera!

When the Saw-whet Owl left this time, he flew lower into the ravine and started calling again immediately.  As I approached the calling bird, I scanned almost every limb of the trees it was calling from with my light and I couldn't find it.  I then noticed a hole at the side of the tree.  And in that hole was the bird!  Wow, just wow...

The owl sat there for a few minutes before moving on to a different perch.  It was perhaps the coolest site I've had of this species.  Northern Saw-whet Owls are known to vocalize for hours upon hours during breeding season, and that is exactly the rate this bird was going for.  Unlike a lot of other Arizona owls, Saw-whets will start breeding in February and March and will go almost silent throughout the rest of the year a lot of times.  Because of this, many miss out on seeing this bird most years.  If you watched the video above, the persistent calling of the Northern Saw-whet Owl is shown perfectly.  After Saw-whet left the hole, I followed it around to more and more of it's perches.  At one point, I whistled an imitation of the Owl, and it came right in and up close to me out of curiosity.  

At times, the Saw would sing higher in pine trees.  Perhaps this makes his voice carry much further.  An endless and high pitched: toot, toot, toot, toot, toot, toot, toot, toot, toot, toot, toot (repeat X 100)

The final time I got close to Mr. Saw before he consistently moved up into tall pine trees to broadcast call away really showed this species fearlessness and bravery.  Or it may see me as it sees a deer?  Who knows?  As this Saw-whet's mate passed over his head, he followed her for a short distance.  I could see his mate fly in to greet him, and she then went to another nearby perch.  But he then landed below my eye level in a small pine tree.  I walked right up to him, and looked him in the eye for about a minute from less than five feet away.  In the long run, I think I messed up the sighting.  Instead of getting some of the best pictures of Saw-whet Owl known to man, I took video of the bird and tried to get in a selfie with it.  When I jolted my light while trying to do the selfie, the light made the bird nervous and he left.  But wow, what a sight.  If you watched the video, that video scene is included on it.  Here is a shot I took of this bird at about twenty feet away.

After awhile, I found myself back down at the creek and enjoying the sound of the Saw-whet Owl as the male continued to vocalize non-stop.  At one point, I think he went on for thirty minutes straight.  I left after an hour-and-a-half's worth of sheer fun.  I love Saw-whet Owls, they are one of my favorites.  When I was a little kid in science class in fourth grade, we did a unit on owls in science class.  We dissected pellets and split up into groups, where each group had a different owl that they had to research.  Whichever owl each group had, the group would then get up in front of the class and talk about that owl.  My group got the Northern Saw-whet Owl and this bird always intrigued me from that day on.  Perhaps that is why I get stoked whenever I have a chance to see this bird, there are some deep roots going way back!   As breeding season will continue for this bird during the remainder of this month, I want to hear and see more of them.  A huge thanks goes out to Felipe Guerrero for his help on finding these Prescott locations.  The Northern Saw-whet Owl was my 10th bird of my North American Owl Big Year.

Have room for one more story?  On March 5th, Dominic Sherony wanted to be a part of the excitement on my owl searches.  The two of us teamed up and decided to head up to Mount Ord at the northeastern tip of Maricopa County.  We were excited to search for the high elevation bird life within the County as well as search for another owl, the Northern Pygmy-Owl.  Northern Pygmy-Owls are very small, chubby, and fierce owls and are very well-named.  Because their preferred habitat is forest dominated by pines, Mount Ord is an excellent place to look.  Dominic and I hiked down Forest Road 1688 and listened for the small owl.  We went to a territory that I know about and after thirty minutes worth of searching and listening at the spot, we finally heard our target calling.  Unfortunately, it was calling above us from a very steep ravine.  This area had a mix of burned trees, thorny scrub bushes everywhere, oaks, and pines.  Live forest with burned forest is something the Northern Pygmy-Owl often likes.  After we hustled to get up to the spot, the bird stopped calling.  Dominic and I were both out of breath as we stopped and as the owl stopped.  I felt as if my chest was going to explode from running uphill.  As we waited some time in frustration before it started calling again, we thought we were going to strike out.  Luckily, it called long enough for me to get a pinpoint on where it was this time around.  Several Olive Warblers came to the scene.  After scanning some oak and pine trees, I saw a little blob sitting in a pine, and it was our owl!  Can you make out the chubby bird?

Here is a zoomed up version of the above photo.

As Dominic was down the ridge, he came running back up when I told him I had the bird.  We had to climb over rocks and logs and bushwhack through thorny plants which did cut me up in places.  But Pygmy-Owls are worth it.  Dominic and I both enjoyed the bird as it sat there high in a pine tree.  Every once-in-awhile, it would look down on us.

Unless a Northern Pygmy-Owl is calling, this is a very tough owl to find.  They are easily overlooked.  By looking closely, a part of the false "eyes" can be seen on the back of the bird's head.

As Dominic and I watched the bird, it switched perches several times.

Our last look at the Northern Pygmy-Owl came when we went to the other side of the pine tree and had a view of it directly and high above us.  Gosh what a small owl!

Also, here is a picture of the pine tree the owl was in, as well as a shot of the immediate area the owl was in.  Photo taken by Dominic.

I have a long ways to go for this Big Year, but hey, the Northern Saw-whet Owl was my halfway mark and the Northern Pygmy-Owl put me over the halfway mark at 11.  

The Owls I have are (for this Big Year, species have to be both seen and photographed to count):

Barn Owl
Long-eared Owl
Great Horned Owl
Snowy Owl
Barred Owl
Great Gray Owl
Northern Saw-whet Owl
Burrowing Owl
Western Screech-Owl
Northern Pygmy-Owl
Northern Hawk Owl

Owls I have heard only:

Whiskered Screech-Owl

Owls that I have remaining to be seen and photographed:

Short-eared Owl
Spotted Owl
Boreal Owl
Flammulated Owl
Whiskered Screech-Owl
Eastern Screech-Owl
Elf Owl
Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl

For the remainder of this 2016 goal, the obvious goal is the get to see and photograph eight more birds.  Three of those owls:  Spotted, Elf, and Whiskered Screech-Owls will most likely be easy to get.  If Flammulated Owls are tried for enough, they should be seen and photographed also.  The Short-eared Owl will require several winter trips to San Rafael Grasslands this upcoming winter while the endangered Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl will needed to be searched for carefully at Organ Pipe.  That leaves me with Eastern Screech-Owl and Boreal Owl, which will require a trip out of Arizona...

Stay tuned for more as this year goes on.  Also stay tuned for an upcoming post that will highlight all of the other birds I have been seeing besides owls, and it should be a fun post...


  1. What a fly post Dr. Tommy! Congrats on the Saw-whet Owl, I enjoyed your post, it was great! In the mean time I found a new location for Ferru Pyg in Organ Pipe that we could get. If anyone can get all ABA owls in one year it would be you! You're doing an awesome job!

    1. Thanks Caleb! The Saw-whet was awesome, and I was very fortunate to get what I did with it! I'm glad you found a new potential spot for Ferrug, that is very helpful as we go fourth with our searches!

  2. Mr. Saw looked pretty evil in a few of those photos!

    1. That's right Josh, he isn't so "cute-looking" after all right?!

      I don't use the word cute much, but that is what most people call Northern Saw-whet Owls..

  3. So much awesome in this post, Tommy. Those Burrowing Owl photos are quite fun. And, a fierce-looking Saw-whet that destroys the cute stereotype? Well done!

    At the rate you are progressing on your Owl Big Year, I think you set your goal too 2017 you need to go for a Selfie Owl Big Year!

    1. Thanks Josh! I was blessed to get what I did with both the Burrowing Owls and the Saw-whet Owl. I was surprised at the Burrowers and I think my Saw-wet may be a first in it's class?..

      A Selfie Owl Big Year! That would be awesome, but could you imagine how tough Flam, Short-eared, and Northern Hawk-Owls would be. Long-eared would be the hardest, but by far, the most rewarding...

  4. Wow! What a new goal! If anyone is going to pull that off, it will be you. Wish I had your youth and enthusiasm. Already have some awesome photos and can't wait to see more in the rest of the year.