Friday, April 22, 2016

Pump Up The Flam

On April 21st, 2016, I was ready to attempt at seeing my 17th owl species of 2016 for my North American Owl Big Year.  This Owl is an epic one, and one that can be very challenging.  It's one that is a master of camouflage and one that birders dream about seeing.  When it arrives in Arizona forests on it's breeding grounds in mid-April, it sits near the top of a pine or fir tree and will call for hours.  This owl is in the picture below, can you find it?

The owl I am talking about is the tiny Flammulated Owl.  Most of the birders who seek out this bird have to settle on it for a heard-only.  With the combination of the owls similar coloration to conifer bark and with another combination that it likes to perch high in trees make this owl a tough challenge.  My good buddy Dominic Sherony has never seen a Flammulated Owl in his life, and has always dreamed about seeing one and photographing one.  Dominic and I have tried for three years in a row prior to this year in April for this bird.  As I got lucky with low and close views with a Flam last year in May with Kurt and Cindy Radamaker, that bird has remained to be the only Flam I have seen well.  And as it became my 17th potential owl for TOBY (Tommy's Owl Big Year), I wanted to have that second ever look more than any words on Tommy's Birding Expeditions can say.  As April rolled around and as Dominic is getting ready to go back home to Rochester, New York, we were in big talks about searching for Flammulated Owls again.  In previous years, Dominic and I searched in Yavapai County's Bradshaw Mountains.  We struck out every time on visuals.  Hearing the small Flammulated Owl is a piece of cake.  But this year, I had knowledge of a location that is very promising, thanks to my good buddy Caleb Strand.  Last year, Caleb went owling for Flams on summer nights in Happy Jack, Arizona, in forests that are dominated mainly by ponderosa pine.  There are scattered Gambel's oaks in midst of these ponderosa pines.  Last year, Caleb hit the jackpot with Flammulated Owls in this area.  By jackpot I mean that Caleb was having amazing views of these birds every single time he tried for them (5 attempts I believe)!  I told Dominic we should try and go to Happy Jack this year for the Flammulated Owl attempt, and that we should also have Caleb, the Flam King, to go along with us.  After some talking back and fourth, a plan worked out for the three of us to go on the trip to search for Flammulated Owls.  With Caleb leading the charge, I felt confident in this talented young man's ability to find these birds, and I didn't feel any doubt as we made our way into the pine forest just outside of Happy Jack Lodge.  As it got dark outside, Caleb and Dominic were ready to go!

After I got off of work on Thursday, Dominic, Caleb and I met up and headed straight up north to Happy Jack Lodge in Coconino County, Arizona.  As I mentioned before, pine forest surrounds this area and the elevation is roughly at 7,500'.  I was anxious to start our search for the tiny Flammulated Owl, which is 6.7" in length, which isn't much larger than a sparrow.  After eating burgers at a small restaurant and checking into our rented cabin at Happy Jack Lodge, we took a rather short hike through the forest that is near the lodge.  I felt confident we were going to get Flams as we walked through the woods before it got dark out.  Caleb made things seem simple about the whereabouts of the owls, and at that alone I felt like we were going to score.  As we walked through the woods, a herd of Elk crossed paths with us.  Caleb led us down to an area that had an open meadow and creek area surrounded by forest.  I made a Flam imitation from my own mouth and shortly after had a Flam calling back!  After looking and listening, we couldn't turn up this owl before it got completely dark out.  As we headed back to the forest and drainages we originally came from and after it officially got dark out, a Flammulated Owl started calling right from a spot where Caleb said a territory was last year.  The three of us walked through the forest and got close to the owl twice.  Each time we tried to find it as it called high in pines and would eventually move on to the next pine.  This was something I worried about from the start.  Whenever I have tried for Flams in the past in April with Dominic and otherwise, male Flams returning on territory stay high and don't come down lower often at all.  I worried that we would have problems seeing these owls because of what it was appearing to be, but Caleb, Dominic, and I put together an awesome effort.  Even though we didn't see the owl the first two times we got underneath the trees it was in, that didn't prove to be the case throughout the remainder of the night.....

Caleb, Dominic, and I had good eyes up in the trees and some good flashlights to go along with it.  The pine forests we were in contained trees that aren't as tall as a lot of pine trees which helped our case.  During the night of Flam-owling, we got very good at finding Flammulated Owls perched up high and we certainly learned a lot.  Before I explain more of how we found these birds and got decent looks at them despite their higher perches, you can see the photo above.  At the time of this picture, this Flammulated Owl perched nicely for us and was one of the lowest perches it utilized during the night.  For me, it was a new TOBY addition and a fun look at my second ever perched Flammulated Owl.  For Caleb, it was seeing his favorite bird.  Yes, Caleb's favorite bird is the Flam, and it is an awesome favorite!  For Dominic, it was a result of years and years of wanting to see this bird and photographing this bird.  His dream and desire all at once became true.  All thanks to Caleb.  The three of us had plenty of reasons to be pumped up about the Flam.

As we continued our search, we got better and better at locating this small owl.  How did we do it?  We got used to it.  As we had a good light with us, we scanned the pine tree and found that the Flammulated Owl really likes to sit on a branch of the tree almost against the trunk.  With this owl having coloration similar to what bark of pine, fir, and oak trees have, this is never an easy task.  We had to scan carefully for shapes among many branches and pine needles against the trunk also.  What really helped us is that Flams have white undertail coverts and a lower white belly.  At times, the white on the Flam's undertail coverts would somewhat "stick out" and it would help us locate birds better.  This next set of pictures is of course taken with a 300 mm lense, but it does illustrate the point I'm trying to make, right?..

Caleb noticed the white lower belly/undertail coverts aspect of making locating the owl easier.  Well done Caleb!  If there are several people looking, it does help to have one person scan the tree with binoculars while the other person looks with the light.  As these birds were nearly 30-40 feet above us at all times, it's certainly a challenge to see because these are very tiny owls.  At one point in the night, I wished I had my scope with me.  With the high power my scope has, getting the scope on the Flam would have made life much easier from a digi-scoping standpoint.  After all, I have learned how to take pictures that way fairly well!

Throughout Arizona, Flammulated Owls arrive in mid-April.  They are highly migratory and their diet consists of mainly insects.  As with most small owls, they nest in cavities.  Regarding their high perches upon arrival, our theory is that they stay up high and sing all night until mating has taken place.  They call on their own and aren't responsive to imitations beyond simply calling back.  In May and June, it seems as if they utilize lower perches once mating is done and territories are established.   After June, this bird isn't very vocal as the young will hatch and need to be raised.  Just the thoughts of three men.  Speaking of Flams vocalizing, here is a recording I made of one of them.

The three of us got many good looks at the high perched Flams we sought in nearly five hours of owling.  We learned a lot about these small and elusive owls and we better understand how to find them when they first arrive on territory in April.  What an awesome night!  One of the coolest observations we had was when Caleb spied one of the Flams up against the pine bark.  I couldn't see it until I scanned with my binoculars.  It was simply amazing!  I can't say how much I thoroughly enjoyed this search.

Moving over a few feet from the views of the pictures above, my best photograph of the Flammulated Owl was obtained.  I really like this picture a lot!  Look how this owl truly blends in with it's surroundings.

Landing the Flam for my 17th Owl of TOBY was an amazing thing to accomplish.  I hope to see more Flams this year and I hope I'll be able to try for more of them this year.  Seeing Caleb's spot for this species was incredible and it is certainly the best location I have ever seen for this bird.  From Caleb's perspective, seeing his favorite bird and spending a night observing it and helping two birders see it who really wanted to see it must have been an awesome night to be searching for Flams.  And I think seeing Dominic land this bird at last with everything he's wanted out of it was as good as it gets.  Congratulations Dominic!!

In the morning of April 22nd, we went over to the area where we were hunting for Flams at night.  Here are a few Flammulated Owl habitat shots.

During the morning we went and explored the nearby Blue Ridge Reservoir.  It's a very beautiful lake and area, and it's one that I spent a lot of years during my childhood camping with my family.  The end of the road to Blue Ridge Reservoir has excellent mixed conifer habitat.  Seeing our first Red-faced Warblers of the year added more fun to our trip!

Many first-of-year Virginia's Warblers were also a neat highlight.  As we walked along Blue Ridge Reservoir, the songs of both Virginia's and Red-faced Warblers could be heard in almost every direction.

Speaking of Blue Ridge Reservoir, it may be one of Arizona's prettiest places...

Here's a short video to show a better view of this awesome lake:

After birding at Blue Ridge Reservoir, we called it a day at about 10:00 A.M.  The trip was a blast.  Thank you Caleb and Dominic.  Here's a picture I took with each of my two buddies.  Hanging out with cool people and seeing cool birds is what makes the hobby of birding what it is!

As my number has now grown to 17 North American Owls for TOBY, I have only two more birds to go to reach my goal of all 19 owls seen and photographed this year.  I'm only kidding when I say "only" two more to go.  Short-eared Owl and Boreal Owl probably won't be so easy.  In the meantime, it's gonna be at least a month and some change before I go for any of these two remaining owls.  I have some fun exploring to do in Maricopa County's high elevations coming up soon, and I'd really like to see some more Flams.  Stay tuned for more.


  1. Congratulations Tommy! That owl is indeed a little one. Your journey sounds so amazing and rewarding - I wish you much success on the last two!

    On a side note, it was a sincere pleasure meeting you today and thank you again for my lifer owl :)

    1. Thanks Rocki! It's been an amazing journey so far and I hope to finish it well. You are welcome for the lifer owl! I'm glad the Burrowing Owls were cooperative for us today.

  2. Dude, sick post! I'm honored to have been able to show you and Mr. Dominic those awesome birds and we had a blast! Congrats again on TOBY's 17, only 2 left! Until next time man!

    1. Thanks Caleb! Your the man! It was a great time and I think we have officially figured Flams out. No more of them outwitting you and I :)

  3. Congrats once again on taking another major step toward achieving your goal, Tommy! You certainly had a great guide at a beautiful place with a thrilling night life.

    A whole month to wait?! What are us TOBY groupies gonna do?!?!

    1. Thanks Josh! It certainly felt like another major step at first and then Caleb made things seem all easy! Now I know how to find Flams a lot better than I ever have...

      I have no idea what we are going to do?!?!!!?? Perhaps I will find more Flams, Spotties, Elves, and Saw-whets?