Hi everyone. Here we go again with another post from my North American Owl Big Year. The excitement is growing higher and I'm starting to lose some patience. I guess that would be a form of anxiety. Owling is the funnest form of birding for me, and it's not something I can just take off and do whenever I want. There are more owls lurking right around the corner for this big year, and I'm starting to run out of Arizona birds very quickly. I wouldn't call all of these Arizona Owls easy, which leads me to want to land them for this year as soon as possible. Relaxing room can make a big difference. My buddy Josh Wallestad is calling my Big Year TOBY, which stands for Tommy's Owl Big Year. Cool huh?
As I chase these magnificent and mysterious birds around North America this year, I can't help but notice how diverse this family of birds is. While owls are found on every continent in the world except Antarctica, every continent has it's owl diversity, and North America is a perfect example. With North America having 19 different owl species that breed (I'm not including four accidental flights to Texas and far Alaskan islands), each owl sounds different, lives in it's own domain different than others, and a lot of them are completely different from others in their appearance. Size differences are also huge. In January this year, I found myself in the heart of the far north looking at North America's largest owl, the Great Gray Owl. Since Great Gray, I've seen other Owls that are close in size to it, as well as medium-sized to large owls, medium-sized owls, smaller owls, very small owls, and then a tiny owl that I got my eyes on last night. The Elf Owl was my recent adventure, and the 5.5" predator is the smallest owl in the world. Seeing Elf Owls always means we are looking at an extreme bird! Almost two months after seeing North America's largest, I found myself looking for North America's smallest, and of course, the world's smallest. Between the Great Gray and Elf Owl, we are talking about a 22-23 inch difference between the two! Because of the Elf Owl's size, it can hide very easily.
Last night on March 31st, I headed over to one of my favorite desert owling spots, the well-known Coon Bluff Recreation Site on the Lower Salt River Recreation Area. Birders come here annually in numbers to see and hear Western Screech-Owl, Great Horned Owl, Common Poorwill, Lesser Nighthawk, and my main target of the night and this post, the tiny Elf Owl. Elf Owls, who are highly migratory, arrive in Arizona in March, some earlier than others. As Maricopa County is a more northerly part of the Elf Owl's range, northern populations in Arizona arrive later than southern populations. As March came to a close, I knew it would be a perfect time to check for this bird. After waiting for dark, it didn't take me long to hear barking notes from Elf Owls. During the night, the barking notes were all that I was able to hear. These notes are given sporadically, and not often enough to make locating an Elf Owl easy. I had a challenge in front of me as the Elf Owls haven't started singing yet, or didn't sing on this night for whatever reason. As I walked in the general direction as to where I was hearing my target bird, I was able to find a few of them.
Without the puppy-sounding racket these birds usually make, I did have a challenge in front of me. Perhaps the Elf Owls aren't singing right now because they haven't decided to set up a territory yet, or perhaps they just wanted to make things a little interesting and challenging for me. Elf Owls are common, but they can be sneaky and challenging to see at times too..
Several times, I found birds by not following their calls and by scanning with my flashlight as I walked through the desert. Most of them acted quite shy as I would try to get closer.
As I walked through the desert at Coon Bluff, I was making several large flocks of White-crowned Sparrows anxious who couldn't officially get to sleep for the night. At one point, I had a unconcealed look at one of the sparrows as it came out of the dense bush that it's flock was roosting in. While walking, I caught sight of a sparrow landing in a mesquite tree and it was nervously followed around by others in it's flock. As I could barely make out the hyper sparrow flock in darkness, it led me to discover an Elf Owl sitting quietly in the same mesquite. And this Elf Owl was cooperative!
Almost all of the Elf Owl's diet is made up of insects. I've always wanted to encounter an Elf eating it's prey and be able to capture it on camera. Sometimes I'll see photographs of Elf Owls with a scorpion for it's catch, how awesome of a sight and photograph would that be to obtain?!
Elf Owls are cavity nesters. At the Salt River, most of these nests would be in saguaro cactus holes in old Gila Woodpecker and Gilded Flicker holes. I still have yet to see an Elf Owl peek it's head out of a cavity, and it's something that many other folks have seen take place. Perhaps this year I'll get to see an Elf Owl in it's saguaro cactus home before it emerges for the rest of the night.
The Elf Owl is a fun bird, and it is now the 14th Owl species of the year I have gotten for my Big Year. I am down to five more owls, and four of them are going to be on the challenging side of things (some of them very challenging). A safe guess for Elf Owl numbers at Coon Bluff in the distance I covered was at least five birds. The nightbirds surrounding the Elf Owls at Coon Bluff were numerous also. I also had a flyover Barn Owl calling, five Western Screech-Owls, two Great Horned Owls, three Common Poorwills, a Lesser Nighthawk, and an "Owl Species" flyby that may have been a Long-eared Owl. Out of these birds, the Western Sceech-Owl was the most cooperative. A pair was seen together, and they were both perched close to each other until I took my camera out. How cool would it be to have Western Screech-Owls side-by-side for a photograph? I guess one will do..
Elf Owls will see me again in the coming months, because Elf Owls are awesome. What's next for the Owl Big Year (TOBY) as I have five more to get?
Two dark-eyed forest owls that can be found throughout much of Arizona, that's what's next. Where will I look for them? Stay tuned to find out in the coming weeks or maybe even month...
I also have some serious thinking to do about when I'm going to attempt Eastern Screech-Owl. Stay tuned to find that out too...