Eastern Screech-Owls become hard to find over some of their range in June. Even though this is a common owl, they don't vocalize much in the summer months in certain areas. June in Minnesota is a perfect example. I've recently made plans to take a Minnesota vacation this summer to bird with my good friend Josh Wallestad. For this upcoming trip, Eastern Screech-Owl has been my biggest target. Josh and I wouldn't have any hesitations to go and look for them in the late hours at night. But then, Josh discovered a problem. He found out Eastern Screech-Owls become tough in June and don't vocalize very much at all. I had heard this before, but I ignored it and didn't worry about it too much. As Josh did research, we realized that what we thought would be easy may be a steep climb up a mountain. With Eastern Screech-Owls being much easier right now then they are in summer, Josh had a clever idea. He suggested that I fly into Minneapolis for a day or less and we can look for Eastern Screech-Owls then. I liked his idea. After fighting through a plethora of plane ticket deals and looking for the best price possible, I decided to go for it...
The idea of Josh's seemed crazy only for the first few seconds when I read his suggestion, but then on the fourth second into reading his suggestion, I was sold. It took a mere four seconds for me to obsess over the idea. As Josh was spot on awesome with his itinerary and guiding on my first birding trip to Minnesota, I had no doubt he would put me into another winning position for this birding trip. Trip options that came to mind was for me to fly into Minneapolis late by leaving Phoenix in the evening, crashing at the Minneapolis airport for a few hours, owling with Josh for 8 hours, and then Josh dropping me off at the airport for my flight back. From plane flight to plane flight, we were looking at a mere 21 hour trip. Was it crazy? Yes. Was it awesome? Yes. Would it be worth it? You better believe it! Josh and I were already standing on the hill of righteousness.
The next step was to buy plane tickets. Prior to this post, I have never bought my own plane tickets or flown to and fro solo somewhere before. This year isn't just about the birding for me, it's about trying many new things in life. Doing a trip like this would certainly fall into that category. When Josh noticed the Screech-Owl problem in June, he didn't like it. He wanted me to see a Screech-Owl, and he said he'd split the plane ticket cost with me if I did this day trip. To Josh, he just wanted to get this bird out of the way for TOBY so it wouldn't be a stress in June. Josh and I started to look through ticket options and we were hoping to find one that worked with both of our complicated schedules. As we looked at days in early April, it seemed as if nothing wanted to work for us. We then found something that really worked for the both of us, and that was a trip for me to fly out to Minnesota on April 12th at night, bird the morning of April 13th, and then I would fly out of Minnesota early afternoon to get back in Phoenix before 4 P.M. In total, that trip would be about 21 hours. For that to work out, my co-worker Sean was kind enough to switch shifts with me so I could get out of work on Tuesday the 12th at 2 P.M, and my boss Jennifer was awesome to let us switch shifts. Josh was able to get the 13th off of work if need be. For awhile, the problem was that when the ticket prices looked good, I'd only go home to purchase these tickets to have the prices shoot right back up again to a hundred bucks more. It was discouraging. Could Josh and I see Eastern Screech-Owls in June if we really tried hard? Probably so. When Josh presented me with this idea, I couldn't get it out of my mind to go to Minnesota for less than a day. If something gets on my mind, the only therapy to cure it is to go out and live it. The plane prices were getting in my way, and I wanted something cheap. It was discouraging. Josh was frustrated with them too, and he was constantly monitoring ticket prices just like I was. For awhile, things didn't look like they were going to work out for April 12th and 13th. The constant changing prices for tickets were annoying, and I wasn't gonna buy anything over $200, and there was this one deal of $127 that had me drooling. Here's a sample of a conversation we had while talking about the freaking tickets.
If you look on the picture, you'll see that Josh saw a good plane price on April 6th. I had already left for work that morning before I had a chance to get on my computer and look at the tickets. Minutes before I got home, the tickets would jump back up to 247, which was pricey. Josh had been looking at them a lot and said they went up right at 2:30 P.M. On April 7th, I went to Miller Canyon early to get the Spotted Owl for TOBY (see previous post) and I then got a text from Josh saying the prices went back down again and that they likely wouldn't go down until 2:30 like they did the previous day, "Get your owl and then get back to a computer!!!!!". I was three-plus hours from home, but I decided to come home an hour early. Luckily, the prices were the same when I got home and I booked my flight with American Airlines. Good grief! Just like that, Josh and I had four days of preparation for the trip ahead of us. Plenty of people, including my family, thought I was crazy to go for this owl for less than a day. Josh already had several locations up his sleeve where he knew Eastern Screech-Owls are. These locations are all thirty minutes or less from the airport.
For this post, we are going to do something a little bit different. We are going to treat this day-long trip like it's an episode of 24 hours. April 12th and April 13th were two awesome days in my hobby of birding.
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF T.O.B.Y. (USING OWLING HOURS)-APRIL 12-13, 2016
April 12th, 2016
2:00-3:00 PM: I got off of work and headed straight to Sundance Airport Parking for the Sky Harbor Airport. After paying and checking into the parking area, I took a shuttle to Sky Harbor Airport. The trip was officially underway.
3:00-6:00 P.M.: I printed out my boarding passes at the Airport once I got there, went through security quickly, and found the gate where my flight would board. Once 3:30 hit, I had over three hours to sit around and wait. I charged my batteries for devices, watched hundreds of people I have never seen in my life, ate pizza, talked to this random old guy named James who gave me a free dessert, and I of course looked at owl stuff on my iPod. Around 6, I stared at the screen for when my plane would take off. The wait actually seemed to go by pretty fast.
6:48-9:55 P.M. (8:48-11:55 P.M. Minnesota time)-The flight to Minneapolis. It seemed to go by fast. Sleep attempts failed for me and it might by impossible for me to ever get sleep on a flight, only time will tell. I enjoyed listening to Disciple, Killswitch Engage, and Lacey Sturm, as well as enjoy some videos. I looked over owl information some more too. As the flight safely landed in Minneapolis, I realized it was only 10 P.M. as to what I was used to, but is was nearly midnight in Minnesota. Weird. So now, lets switch to Minnesota time.
11:55 P.M. through 2:00 A.M. (9:55 P.M. through 12:00 A.M Arizona time)-Once I was at the Minnesota Airport, the next two hours saw me walking around to kill time before I would get ready for the owling expedition. Most of this time was spent trying to sleep. There was a center for wandering folks who look more like zombies walking around where they can sit and rest. I found two nice chairs with a table in the middle of them. I moved the table and made the chairs into a bed. From 12:30 A.M. to 2:00 A.M., I got some "sleep" without truly falling asleep. For the first time in my life, I saw the Best Buy vending machine. I never even knew this existed.
2:00-2:45 A.M. (12:00-12:45 A.M. Arizona Time)-I "woke up" and got ready for the owl search. Although not as cold as January, Minnesota was still going to be cold. My phone rang at 2:15. Morning Josh! At roughly 2:45 A.M., Josh arrived at the airport.
2:45 A.M.-5:00 A.M.-Josh and I had our search officially underway! We got to our first destination after 40 minutes of driving, which is called the Chimney Rock State Natural Area. Chimney Rock, at about 76 acres, is a fairly small spot. But, it has Eastern Screech-Owls and it is a location that is open all day and night. Josh researched that multiple Eastern Screech-Owls have been seen and heard at this spot, and I was pumped for the search. One can climb a trail over the rock that looks like a chimney and further uphill through a forested habitat. We arrived at Chimney Rock at roughly 3:30 A.M., and the second I opened the door to the car, I realized there was a big problem. Wind! Gusty wind at that. Josh and I were confused because the forecast said otherwise. We decided to make the best out of it and give it a shot. Josh pulled out his phone and looked at the weather for the area. Despite the windy conditions we were in, the forecast said 8 MPH winds, which is nothing. The two of us walked through the woods and still tried to hear any owls vocalizing for the next hour as well as try to randomly find one visually. No luck. A bird we kicked up surprised me at first, and it turned out to be a Slate-colored Dark-eyed Junco. How bizarre is that!
And then the weather not only remained to be windy, but it started to rain and then rain pretty hard. Wow! The start of our expedition wasn't off to a good start birding wise, but at the same time, I was having a blast that we were out in the wind and the rain being hardcore birders that we both are and trying. All for that Eastern Screech-Owl. The more the rain came down, Josh and I decided to go back to the van. We still had a good six hours ahead of us to check two more potential Eastern Screech-Owl spots, and talking birding and life in general was fun.
5:00 A.M.-7:00 A.M-Josh then drove to a place called Beards Plaisance in Minneapolis, where there is a park that a gray-morph Eastern Screech-Owl has been frequenting. The area is beautiful, and Lake Harriet borders the section that we would be birding. Because this owl favors an old hole in a tree in a park, many birders have had the chance to see this owl and it is quite famous. I was hoping to be the next birder to see the owl. At 5:40 A.M., we arrived at the park when it was still dark out. As the light was a good twenty minutes away, Josh and I were glad that we would have a chance to find it around dawn. Surprisingly, the wind was not a factor in this location after blowing so much at the last stop. Josh and I checked the hole. Nada. We checked the bird's favorite pine tree and a few other pine trees nearby. Nada. I wasn't too worried because the owl was probably still out-and-about as it was still dark out. We carefully scanned many trees over the next twenty minutes without any luck. Further uphill from where Josh and I were searching, I heard a few American Robins giving that harsh call of theirs when they are mobbing a predator. I had a feeling they were on the owl. As I made my my up the hill to check the pine tree where the Robins were doing this from, I saw a medium-sized bird flying in my direction. For a split second I thought it was one of the Robins, but then an actual Robin started chasing it. I realized it was the Eastern Screech-Owl! The Owl flew below eye level and about two feet away from me as it flew past me and into the pine tree it is most often seen in besides the hole. Before it landed I yelled, "Josh!!! I've got it!!!!". Josh made his way up to where I was, and there was the Eastern Screech-Owl. Just sitting there for us!
Both Josh and I knew how awesome this was without having to say it in words for several minutes. We knew that everyone else was seeing it in a hole, and we had it actively flying around and sitting out in the open for us!
The Owl was vocalizing a lot while we were watching him. It wasn't giving the "whinny" call that the species is known for the most commonly, but it was giving it's trill song. The trill song is very cool, and I enjoyed listening to the owl at the same time we were watching it.
The "this is so awesome's" started to fly out of our mouths. I couldn't believe that I was looking at an Eastern Screech-Owl. Not only was it my 16th Owl for TOBY, but is was a life bird and my 18th North American Owl out of 19 species that occur in North America regularly.
There were a few times he'd fly into perches that were much harder to see...
As light was starting to come in, the flashlights started to lose their purpose more and more. At one point, the owl flew out of the pines and landed in a bare tree. This sequence was probably the best view that Josh and I had of the bird.
Eastern Screech-Owls are variable in their appearance, as they have three different color morphs and many "in-betweens". The gray-morph is the most common, but brown (intermediate) and red morphs occupy the same areas also. Someday, I would really love to see a Red Eastern Screech-Owl. Gray Eastern Screech-Owls can look nearly identical to Western Screech-Owls. The Eastern can be separated visually by it's gray-greenish bill, where as the Western has a black bill. Eastern-Screech Owls are slightly browner on average than Western Screech-Owls on gray morph birds, and to me, the eyes of the Eastern Screech seem to be a lighter yellow. Vocally wise, the two are very different from one another for the most part. Following Screech-Owls around in the dark is always something fun, and most Screech-Owls love to be cooperative.
At one point, I was fortunate enough to get underneath the owl to obtain this video of the owl looking around as well as vocalizing a lot. I love the trill song that this bird gives! It would be cool to camp in the east someday and listen to this bird while trying to sleep at night.
The Screech-Owl seemed territorial and pretty fearless. At one point, Josh and I were standing and watching the owl two feet apart and when he left his perch, he flew between both of us at shoulder level! When he perched on the same bare tree that his hole is in, we were almost sure he would probably fly into the hole to spend the remainder of his day.
The Owl would then fly into the usual pine it roosts in, where it would spend the remainder of it's time. As it got lighter and lighter, Josh and I didn't need our flashlights. We were thrilled. We got to see the owl in action, rather than stationary the entire time.
I think Josh was just as excited as I was to see the Eastern Screech-Owl!
The Eastern Screech-Owl vocalized often, but as the morning got lighter and lighter, he eventually went completely silent.
The Screech-Owl also had an amazing view of Lake Harriet and the surrounding environment.
Josh and I had every reason to celebrate, as the Eastern Screech-Owl officially gave us a show and was now a part of TOBY. I had my life bird come in a way that a classic life bird should come. This Eastern Screech-Owl was also at a convenient enough perch that Josh was able to snap a selfie of me with it!
Here's an epic celebration picture that Josh also took with his camera. Not only are we in celebration of 16 owls for my Big Year, but Josh is also holding up the six on his hand because I have seen six owls in Minnesota first this year, five of which have been lifers, thanks to Josh!
On the grass in the park was also a bird I've only seen one of in my life over 11 years ago, a Common Grackle! This blackbird is common in the east, true to it's name. Since I haven't been in the east much at all, that is why I haven't crossed paths with it much. It was pretty cool to see one and they are a pretty cool-looking bird.
Josh and I watched the Eastern Screech-Owl for about an hour and were ready to head out of the park around 7 A.M. What a memorable stop it was! Josh was then thinking of what we were going to do, because we had about five hours of birding time with many options before I had to go back to the airport. One option was to go to Chimney Rock and explore more there and try and find a day-roosting Screech-Owl there. Another was to go look at another Screech-Owl home that was another thirty minutes away and was also in challenging and wet terrain. Another was to bird Fort Snelling State Park to look for Barred Owls, American Tree Sparrow, and other goodies. And then final option was to look for my first ever Tufted Titmouse at a location also nearby. The third option sounded the funnest, and we went to look for Barred Owls at Fort Snelling where we both have seen them before. Although I wanted to see another Eastern Screech-Owl, finding them during the day was going to be very tough.
7:00 A.M-8:15 A.M.-Josh and I headed to Fort Snelling State Park, and we arrived there at 7:20. We looked for the Barred Owls while we walked and drove down the main road through the park.
We didn't find the owls, but there were some other great birds around. One of those birds Josh spied, and it was my first ever American Tree Sparrow. It was my second life bird of the day, and one that I certainly wasn't expecting to get on this short trip.
Also present and a nice highlight were many Wood Ducks. One pair was close to us for a brief moment.
While at Fort Snelling, Josh was talking to fellow owler Jeff Grotte. Jeff was doing a Great Horned Owl Big Day in the Twin Cities and his goal was 50 GHOW's. During his big day, he tallied an impressive 58 Great Horned Owls. Josh called Jeff to ask about another Barred Owl spot nearby. Jeff told us the area it was in, and Josh and I decided to go look for it.
8:15 A.M.-11:00 A.M.- Josh and I headed over to a spot where I haven't been to yet, the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. We birded at a location within the refuge that is called Bass Ponds. We were targeting a Barred Owl sitting on a nest here as well as any other neat birds we could possibly cross paths with. This ended up being my favorite place we stopped at on the trip. Although the Eastern Screech-Owl can't be touched and is the best bird of the trip by a mile, this place on the Wildlife Refuge was so awesome that I wanted to stay there for a long time and finish up the day there. Upon arrival, Josh and I started looking for the Barred Owl hole and we couldn't find it. Josh didn't completely understand the directions of how to find the nest. As Josh tried calling Jeff, we birded until we heard back, and I think it's awesome we didn't hear back right away. We found some very awesome birds as we birded this location and found 42 species in just over two hours. The location had some open ponds and lakes, as well as mixed deciduous and pine forest. A stream ran through the spot in places, it was beautiful. Things got very exciting for me when I spied a Pileated Woodpecker flying through the woods. This is our largest woodpecker in North America (at least we think....), and I got redemption in the photograph department after getting poor photographs on the last trip to Minnesota. Pileated Woodpeckers are awesome and look dinosaur-like in flight. They also have these super loud calls that really echo through the woodlands they occupy. There's something awesome about this woodpecker that makes me want to see many more of them..
Josh and I then heard a Winter Wren singing it's pleasant song. Right now, Winter Wrens are migrating through the Minneapolis part of Minnesota. This was one of two birds that Josh and I had here. The first one we heard gave us a few good looks, as it sang it's heart out at times.
As we worked our way around the area to observe some waterbirds out on some of the ponds in search of Josh's first ever Willet, we got to see this more cooperative and much closer American Tree Sparrow. I'm glad that these pictures turned out pretty good!
Remember when I stated I was glad Jeff didn't answer his phone right away? Here's another reason why. As Josh and I were birding, I happened to look up in a pine tree along the trail to see a chubby big blob sitting up in it. Right away I knew what it was. "Josh, I have a Barred Owl!"
"Are you being serious", Josh asked. I can be a joker a lot of times, so Josh had every reason to wonder. When I pointed the owl out to Josh, he started laughing. "You've been looking and scanning for Barreds this whole time, haven't you?". The Barred Owl sat there and seemed to be fine with Josh and I looking at it. It was probably perched up a good thirty feet.
It was awesome finding our own Barred Owl while looking for one that someone was telling us about. As this Barred Owl had many branches in the way of it's perch, I attempted to get in a different location to get a better photograph. I'm used to Spotted Owls being tame in Arizona, so with this Barred Owl being in the same genus as Spotted Owl and looking very similar, I expected that it wouldn't fly. I have heard that Barreds can be shy, and this guy got nervous and took off. It flew across the creek that Josh and I were by. We could still see the Owl when it landed in a large pine tree.
Still nervous, the Barred Owl stayed in the same pine tree and switched branches a few times on both sides of the tree.
As the owl took off, I carefully watched where it went.
Jeff then called Josh back right after the Barred Owl flew off to tell Josh and help us out with the location of where the Barred Owl nest was. On a Facebook group, Owl About Minnesota, which is run by Jeff, folks have posted pictures of this nest. The female always has her head up and is viewable. In the coming weeks, it would be fun to observe the young. After Jeff's instructions, Josh and I headed over to that neck of the woods a short distance away from where we had our Barred Owl. Perhaps the Barred that we found was the male and mate of the female who was on the nest. As Josh and I got in the area, we searched for about five minutes before Josh went clutch and spied the nest. The nest was much higher than we thought it was going to be at about forty feet up. The sight of it was awesome!
I would love to hear a Barred Owl sing someday. Their calls and songs are some of the best among North American Owls. Seeing this female Barred Owl on her nest was neat, and it really shows how interesting the lives of the birds around us can be. With many trees in the small area we hiked through, it would be very easy to miss this bird. That's why it pays off to bird often and to bird slowly. Thanks Jeff for helping Josh and I find this owl.
After looking at this Barred Owl, we decided to look for the first one we saw. After watching where the first one went, I had two patches of trees picked out where I figured that it was in. Josh and I crossed the creek and made our way over. I checked the first patch while Josh made his way over to check the second patch. After a quick check in the first patch, I didn't see the bird and I caught up with Josh as he was entering the second patch. All of a sudden, the Barred Owl flew out from where Josh was and back across the creek and into the original spot we saw it in. Josh and I quickly made our way back to relocate the Barred Owl, who was sure enough back in the first spot. Can you spy him?
As I made my way around to the front of the owl, it was still covered by vegetation.
Sometimes I'll admit, I can be a little bit of a jerk. As I was looking at the owl, about five other birders were walking down the trail in both directions. I couldn't help myself, but I briefly walked away from the owl and acted like I was looking at something else. I wanted Josh and I to have the bird to ourselves. This is an owl I don't see much. When I pretended to be looking on the ground it really worked and before I knew it, the birders were gone. For the owl's sake, it's better for two sets of eyes to be looking at it than seven sets of eyes, right? Here's a picture Josh took when I was hiding out. The Barred Owl can be seen in this picture if you look hard enough..
When the coast cleared, I went back to the owl and he got nervous again and left the perch and flew back to a nearby tree. This time he was closer to Josh than he was to me. Before he left again, I had some really cool looks at him more in the open.
When the Barred Owl flew off, it flew straight back to the area further across and up the creek where it came from. Each time we saw the Barred Owl, it flew back and fourth to the same perches. Obviously it is a more sensitive bird and it's probably good I didn't tell the other folks about it, especially since it has a retreat routine and isn't very hard to find. I did manage some decent flight shots of it.
After Barred left, Josh and I had time for another fun sighting. When I came to Minnesota earlier this year, I got 15 life birds. I photographed 14 of those birds, and the Gila Woodpecker-like Red-bellied Woodpecker was the only one I couldn't document. Just like I got decent pictures of a Pileated Woodpecker, Josh spied a still Red-bellied Woodpecker that we both were able to get good looks at. Wow, what an awesome way to close out the visit to this location!
The woodpecker was obviously working on it's latest cavity. After the woodpecker, it was time to head back in the direction of the airport. Red-bellied was a great way to close out a fun day of birding.
11:00 A.M.-12:00 P.M.-Josh and I headed back to the airport, but first grabbed lunch at the Swedish Ikea. They have really good food. Josh dropped me off at the airport and we said, "till the next epic time!"
12:00 P.M.-2:48 P.M. (10:00 A.M.-12:48 Arizona time)-I went through the airport process, hung out and ate at the airport, found ways to pass the time by, and boarded the plane. It was minutes away from takeoff and departure back to Phoenix.
12:48 P.M.-3:30 P.M. Arizona time (2:48 P.M through 5:30 P.M. Minnesota time)-In what seemed twice as long of a flight as it actually was, I arrived back in Phoenix, completing what practically was a 24 hour trip. Less than one hour of sleep was involved in this trip. I got to the airport at 3:00 P.M. on Tuesday the 12th and just over a day later on the 13th, I arrived back. Although I had a blast, I was also just as tired. As a conclusion, it was a nice trip home after being successful and I got a great sleep.
A huge thanks goes out to Josh Wallestad for everything-the trip and for working hard to find birding spots so I can succeed at this goal of mine. Thanks Josh, your the man!
With Eastern Screech-Owl being on TOBY for my 16th Owl of the year, I have three more owls to go. A Flammulated Owl search is next, and then that will be followed later this year by searches for two tougher species: Short-eared Owl and Boreal Owl. The latter is the only North American Owl I don't have on my life list. Speaking of Eastern Screech-Owls, I reviewed a video today that I took of the Eastern Screech-Owl calling only to realize there was a second owl calling with it! Josh and I didn't even realize what was going on when we were live in the field. Here is the video, listen especially within the first 20-30 seconds to hear this second Eastern Screech-Owl.....
North American Owl Big Year: Numbers to Date
For fun, here is a list of the 16 Owls I've seen this year and how many I have detected of each.
1. Barn Owl: 4 (seen, photographed, and heard)
2. Western Screech-Owl: 17 (seen, photographed, and heard)
3. Eastern Screech-Owl: 1 (seen, photographed, and heard) Can I count that second one?
4. Whiskered Screech-Owl: 15 (seen, photographed, and heard)
5. Great Horned Owl: 16 (seen, photographed, and heard)
6. Snowy Owl: 3 (seen and photographed)
7. Northern Hawk-Owl: 2 (seen and photographed)
8. Northern Pygmy-Owl: 3 (seen, photographed, and heard)
9. Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl: 1 (seen, photographed, and heard)
10. Elf Owl: 5 (seen, photographed, and heard)
11. Burrowing Owl: 8 (seen and photographed)
12. Spotted Owl: 1 (seen and photographed)
13. Barred Owl: 4 (seen and photographed)
14. Great Gray Owl: 1 (seen and photographed)
15. Long-eared Owl: 25 (seen, photographed, and heard)
16. Northern Saw-whet Owl: 3 (seen, photographed, and heard)
Total: 109 individual Owls of 16 species. Here's one more cheers to the latest addition of my Owl list.
Keep staying tuned for more, TOBY will hopefully be a score!