Sunday, April 10, 2016

Spotted Owl Time

Spotted Owls have given me many breathtaking memories over the years..

My first ever in 2013 at Miller Canyon.

2014 in Miller Canyon, I was on the trail without knowing a Spotted Owl was there above me and when I luckily looked up, I said, "wow".

Same scenario with a juvenile bird at Mount Graham in 2014, I looked up and it was right there..

Tyson at Slate Creek Divide in 2015

Discovering Maricopa County's first ever breeders at Slate Creek in 2015

This Owl is awesome.  These are some of my favorite memories of them, but there are many more that I have and hopefully many more to come.

Spotted Owl and TOBY

With 14 Owls under my belt for TOBY (Tommy's Owl Big Year), I wanted the Spotted Owl to be my 15th.  When April 7th came around, I had several options of trips running through my mind, but as the main goal, I wanted to see a Spotted Owl.  This isn't an Owl to panic about as I have plenty of locations I can find them at, but on the other hand, it is one of my favorite owls and one that has a charm about it that makes me want to see it even more.  How passionate am I about this Owl Big Year of mine?  Well, I choose to take a three plus hour trip one way to see a Spotted Owl rather than the same distance of a drive to see my first ever Rose-throated Becard.   Am I crazy?  Probably, but in the long run, the Spotted Owl is cooler than a Becard.  I have several trips coming up when I will be in Spotted Owl country aside from this day (including a trip where they are at in Maricopa County).  It's not an owl I'm going to miss, but as this Big Year goes on, finding owls as early as I can in the year is a great pursuit.  With one of my favorite rock singers of all time coming into town later that night on the 7th, my day became complicated.  I thought to myself that seeing a Spotted Owl and going to a rock concert when I got home would an epic day.  And it started early.  I woke up at 2:45 A.M. and decided to go for a Spotted Owl in the famous spot for them in Arizona, Miller Canyon.  What is cool about Miller Canyon is that it is the spot to see Spotted Owls in Arizona and is probably the easiest spot to observe them in North American.  Tons of birders come to Miller Canyon every year to enjoy Spotted Owls for the first time in their lives.  What is cool about doing a Big Year is going places that are classic for a species sometimes.  Yeah, I think it would be cool to find my own Spotted Owl elsewhere, but at the same time, going to a classic spot for the owls that also has a plethora of other cool birds in it's domain was fitting.  The drive was long, but my music kept me company, and of course I was looking forward to the concert later that night.  At sunrise, I pulled up to Miller Canyon.  The Spotted Owl quest was now on...

As one pulls up to Miller Canyon, Tom Beatty Sr.'s property is by the upper half of the canyon.  The guest ranch Tom owns has many bird feeders, and one that birders can give a worthy five dollars to enjoy a variety of hummingbirds and other birds.  Tom Sr. and his son, Tom Jr. go up Miller Canyon often up from their ranch and keep tabs on Spotted Owls and other birds.  The worthy five dollars also saves one some hiking too with a shortcut through the Beatty's property to access Upper Miller Canyon quicker.  I didn't hesitate to pay that five dollars, or to ask Tom Jr. for tips on finding the Spotted Owl.  While I know the general area that these Miller Canyon Spotted Owls are always at, sometimes finding them can be a challenge.  Spotted Owls are fearless of man most of the time, but at the same time, they sit still and don't move or vocalize during the day.  They can be on one side of a branch and can remain unseen unless one is at the exact spot that is right to look up and see the owl.  Tom Jr. told me about three perches the Owls use that are about 100 yards apart.  With this information, I quickly made my way up Miller Canyon.  Well, not too quickly.  Who wouldn't enjoy an Arizona Woodpecker?

Or the beauty of Miller Canyon?

As I got closer to the Owl spot, I was hoping to have two Spotted Owl adults sitting together, a sequence I have yet to see.  Recently, Babs Buck and some other birders got to see two Spotted Owls perched together on a branch right over the trail up Miller Canyon!  I was hoping to be as lucky as them.  In March, the Spotted Owl begins courting, and their is a narrow window in which adults will sit together all day.  Tom Jr. told me about that perch, which is literally right over the trail.  It really testifies to this species absence of fear towards humans.  As I got to that perch, there weren't any Spotted Owls there, but I did see the "whitewash" remains on the ground.  I also looked behind a giant rock where another roost was.  Once again, I found the remains, but I was still missing a live bird.  I had one more spot to look where Tom was telling me about.  If the owl wasn't there, I guess that would mean a hardcore Tommy D search.  I was hoping to find the owl, or both of them.   As I walked up the trail, I could see the spot where Tom was talking about, and also a rock pile he told me about where the Owl was seen.  There was the tree, and there was that wanted chubby blob I was hoping for!  Can you see what I'm talking about?

Just like that, I was looking at my 15th Owl species for 2016.  I love the sight of a Spotted Owl!

In similar ways to the perch the Spotted Owl pair was using, this perch was literally right along the trail too.  Getting good looks at this owl was never a challenge once I spied it.

I observed this Mexican Spotted Owl for several minutes on my hike up Miller Canyon and my hike back down Miller Canyon.  A few times, the bird moved it's body to switch positions and a few times, it took a few half-hearted glimpses at me.  What a cool bird, and it was certainly worth making the trip to see it.  I made sure to enjoy it from several different angles.

The Spotted Owl was epic, and I plan to see this epic owl a couple more times this year elsewhere.  Other than Spotty, Miller Canyon had some other cool birds.  Hearing my first-of-year Buff-breasted Flycatcher and Greater Pewees was cool, as was scads of Painted Redstarts.  A pair of Northern Goshawks have been frequenting the Canyon and attacked a lady the day after I was there.  Unfortunately, I didn't get attacked by the Northern Goshawks.  I'd love to take a picture of one coming right at me, screaming, and mad...

But of course, the scenes from Miller Canyon were constantly awesome.

After 3.5 hours in Miller Canyon, I called it a day and...went home.  Thanks to the Spotted Owl, I now have 15 owls on my Big Year.  The Final Four are going to be a hoot.  I would have loved to spend more time in the Huachuca Mountains, but I needed to get home at a decent time for the concert.  This is a little off topic for my birding blog, but the combination of the Spotted Owl and the concert later in the day made it one of the best days I've had this year.  I went to see Lacey Sturm, one of my favorite singers of all time.  Lacey is someone I've always respected as a person and is also someone I've always wanted to meet.  Seeing Lacey perform was good enough, but getting extremely lucky and getting to meet her was even better.

April 7th, 2016 is one I'll never forget.  What an amazing day combined with amazing birds and people.

What's next for TOBY?  A 20 hour trip to attempt at seeing an Eastern Screech-Owl this upcoming Tuesday/Wednesday.  Stay tuned....


  1. Fantastic owl. Full speed ahead Tommy!!!

  2. Great post, Tommy--brought back some great memories from last fall.

    This TOBY thing is ratcheting up the intensity with every new Owl post!

  3. Dude you're like a super hero! You win the day and get the lady at the end of it! ;) You're killing it on your owl big year and I'm sure you'll crush it Tommy, great job!