Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Fantastic Four Coniferous Forest Owls of Slate Creek Divide

Recently I have been in talks with my friends Gordon Karre and Joshua Smith about taking them up to Slate Creek Divide for some hardcore night birding as well as the usual day birding.  On this most recent Thursday and Friday, April 28th and 29th, 2016, it worked out for Gordon, Josh, and I, to go on a camping trip to Slate Creek Divide at the same time.  The three of us teamed up and made a good birding team by the time the trip was all said and done.  For those of you who don't know about Slate Creek Divide, it is a Maricopa County birder's paradise for high elevation birds, both common and rare.  As Mount Ord is a well traveled high elevation Maricopa County area, the adjacent Slate Creek Divide is not.  Slate Creek is a much more remote wilderness area, and a rugged dirt road that goes for about ten miles up into the area ends at the Mount Peeley Trailhead, which is part of the Arizona Trail.  This is where Gordon, Josh, and I all met up, at the end of the trailhead.  Here we would set up camp.  As this area doesn't see a whole lot of camping activity, it all-of-a-sudden looked like Tent City.  I think it looked freakin' awesome.

Here's each dude in front of his home for the night, and what a cold night it did turn out to be!  As you can see from this photograph, we are cool people.  

Gordon and I have explored Maricopa County's high elevations a lot and we have seen most of what's to be expected in these elevations in the County.  Yeah, there still is room for more and that is a good thing!  For Josh, he's only been to Mount Ord once prior to this Slate Creek trip for his Maricopa County high elevation birding.  Because of this factor, there wasn't a dull moment at all during this trip for a very eager Joshua Smith.  Josh had a lot of targets for both his life and Maricopa County list.  Two birds that he really wanted to see were Spotted Owl and Painted Redstart.

Josh and I carpooled in Josh's high clearance vehicle for the slow route up the rugged road to Slate Creek's higher elevations, where we met up with Gordon.  We arrived at 6:30 and without much time before it was about to get completely dark outside.  With high winds and rain earlier in the day that hit Gordon before he made the trek up to Slate Creek, the weather appeared to die off.  After setting up camp, we heard a Northern Pgymy-Owl calling down a steep ravine.  It was too dark to chase it and the terrain made things difficult to attempt chasing it.  Slate Creek is an area with a lot of steep ravines and slopes.  In my opinion, it adds to the area's beauty..

As it officially got dark, we got all of our owling stuff together, hopped in Josh's truck, and started to head back east from the trailhead to seek out owling locations.  The owls were our main focus of the trip as were a few other birds.  And of course by now, you all know the owls were dominating my brain over all the other birds.  Things got interesting quickly when I spied a Common Poorwill sitting on the road after starting our drive.

After watching the Poorwill sit there for a few minutes, the bird flew a short distance up a slope and sat there peacefully.  It allowed us to get some killer views and some good photos.

With me not having shots to brag about with this species in the past and with me being the thrill-seeker that I am, I couldn't help but climb the mountain to get level with the Common Poorwill.  Wow, what a cool bird this is, and wow, it can sure camouflage!

The three of us then continued east from where we saw the Poorwill and went to Forest Road 201-A to listen and look for Flammulated Owls as well as try for a seemingly longer shot in a Mexican Whip-poor-will.  The small stand of living pine trees who survived the 2012 Sunflower Fire along this road were key in 2014's owling efforts because they did attract a Flammulated Owl.  As we owled along this road in midst of a cold wind that started up, we didn't have any luck.  In fact, it was disappointing as it was said that there wouldn't be much in the way of wind according to the weather forecast.  As the wind started, it appeared to be getting worse, and it made things harder to hear.  It was also very cold out.  At this point, I was willing to owl in both Maricopa and Gila Counties.  After some time, we parked the truck on a ridge and walked up from where we parked and back down into a ravine area from where we parked.  The wind luckily died down after awhile.  Other than the stars, we were now walking in darkness...

County birding at Mount Ord and Slate Creek Divide can be challenging and frustrating because the county lines are close to each other in most spots along the road where most of the folks like to bird.  Once in the higher elevations at Slate Creek, one is in Gila County from the road and north, while birding in Maricopa County requires a hike up a ridge or down a drainage south to get into Maricopa County.  Although the road itself is Gila County, most of the time Maricopa County is within a stone throw away.  As we walked down the road from where we parked, we were at the top of a rather steep ravine that had Douglas fir and oak forest below us and which was obviously Gila County.  We were hoping for anything.  A chattering call we heard coming from the woods briefly reminded me of one of the Spotted Owl's contact calls.  I didn't hear it well enough to be sure.  And then a Flammulated Owl started calling in Gila County!  We were thrilled to hear a Flam calling regardless of what county it was in.  After walking towards the sound and getting to a spot where we were closer to the bird from the road, Josh and I decided to bushwhack down into the ravine to attempt a visual while Gordon decided to stay back on the road and listen.  Josh and I had a few good opportunities to see the Flam as it was calling from lower trees than the taller pines and firs that were around.  We missed our chances those times and the Flam then moved into taller Douglas firs.  Josh and I scanned and scanned and we couldn't turn up a visual.  As Caleb, Dominic, and I figured out how to find these small owls last week near the tops of ponderosa pine trees (see previous post), finding Flammulated Owls in Douglas fir is a different story.  An hour later, Josh and I were still looking.  Time can quickly fly by fast when scanning and scanning for Flams, and we didn't want Gordon to be standing up there all by himself for much longer.  As we called up to Gordon, he seemed to be enjoying himself.  When the time came around for Josh and I to finally head back up and abort our search, something interesting happened..

A Northern Saw-whet Owl called a few times in the distance, and we were happy to hear it.  It caused us to pause and listen for a few minutes.  After the Flammulated Owl had been perched so high in Douglas firs for so long, we then heard one on a shorter Douglas on our way out.  We felt like this was our chance.  It didn't take long to start feeling that sense of hopelessness in seeing this bird in the thick limbs and needle of a Douglas fir as we were scanning and scanning without any luck.  The owl appeared to be calling higher in the tree.  Sometimes this can be deceptive, and they can be higher than they actually sound, or lower than they actually sound.  Ventriloquist is the word for it!  As I worked my way slowly around the fir to get different angles, I still couldn't get a visual of Flam.  I then decided to go right under the trunk of the fir for what seemed to be a harder angle.  When I got to the angle I wanted, I looked up to see the FLAMMULATED OWL right above me!  I couldn't believe it.  In my head I thought the Flam was going to fly right after I got my eyes on it, but it didn't.  It just sat there!

I called Josh over immediately, and Josh got his first ever look at a Flammulated Owl!  This sighting immediately proved how challenging these small owls can be to locate.  Hearing them is no problem, but finding them is another.  It seems as if I'm learning something new about locating these owls every time I owl for them.

Flammulated Owls are closely related to Screech-Owls.  Like Screech-Owls, they have small ear tufts.  With Flams, they don't have their ear tufts raised as much when they are active at night.  Luckily, this guy put on a complete show for us and had his ear tufts raised for most of our observation!  Good grief, what an amazing bird.

With the hardcore effort Josh and I put into getting a look at this bird and to finally be rewarded was awesome.  At times the Flam continued calling right as we were looking at him.  He appeared to not even care about our presence.  Josh soon took a selfie of me with the owl.  See the Flam up there?

Josh and I started to snap dozens upon dozens of photographs of the Flam.  Here's some more..

Josh and I realized that Gordon couldn't miss out on this opportunity even though he wasn't crazy about walking and bushwhacking down the ravine.  When Josh told Gordon about the bird, Gordon said he wasn't going to come down.  A minute later, I called back up to Gordon and talked him into it with my never ending persuasive words.  While Josh kept his eye on Flam, I went up to assist Gordon on his walk down the ravine.  We went as fast as we could through reasonable terrain to get back to Josh, and luckily, Flam was still sitting right there.  Seeing the smile on Gordon's face as he looked up at this bird was epic.  It was a relief for me, I really didn't want Gordon to miss out on this owl.

The viewing fun continued...

During the observation, I also got to get a shot off of the Flams orange-ish scapular bars, which was cool to see for the first time.

Here is a short video I took of the Flam.  As we were watching him, he started to vocalize in front of us!

We then witnessed the Flam move to different branches no more than ten feet apart several times.  I believe he was probably in the hunting mood during this stretch of the night rather than his territorial broadcasting mood.  With us having lights and with moths (the Flam's favorite prey source) being attracted to lights, perhaps the Flam had his own strategy.  

Here Josh got a selfie with the Flam!

The Flam then started to work it's way higher into that Douglas fir before going out of sight.  Here's one more shot from this fantastic sequence, and in my opinion this shot shows the tiny size of the Flam better than the other ones do because the bird is more distant.

As we were about to head back up to the road, we were then interrupted by the Northern Saw-whet Owl that Josh and I heard while looking for the Flam.  The three of us quickly got to the calling Saw-whet and found it!  It was a lifer for Josh and it was Gordon's first ever look at one.  While this was going on with the Saw-whet calling away, the Flammulated Owl and two Great Horned Owls were also calling at the same time.  The ravine had turned into an Owl party.

While the Saw-whet wasn't as cooperative as the Flam, it was still an epic sighting to say the least and seeing these two guys see this bird that they both have basically never seen after getting the Flam the way they did really made things extra exciting.  Gosh, Saw-whets are cool.  This guy really had the "fat-faced" look to him.

As we left the Saw-whet in peace after it appeared nervous a few times, we headed back after spending a lot of time on the forested slope.  And to our surprise on the way out, we heard the Flam calling from another lower perch on a different tree.  We looked up and there he was again in a juniper!

NOTE:  I want to add that none of the three of us used flash photography at any time during our owl observations on this trip.  We use high ISO and flashlights (not beaming in the owl's face) to obtain the shots we get.  

After we got back up to the road, we were grateful enough for what we had.  Things got even better when we heard another Saw-whet Owl calling well west of our first Saw.  When we stopped and listened, we realized this second bird was calling from a ravine up on the tip of Maricopa County!  So Gordon and Josh did get Saw-whet as a Maricopa County bird.  The rest of the time we listened for Spotted Owls without luck.  Josh and I even hiked down the Maricopa County drainage after Gordon went to bed after midnight to see if we could spy one or hear one.  Without any further owl luck, Josh's first ever Painted Redstart sprung up from a hidden ground nest and landed in a tree in front of us.  I never thought I'd see a Painted Redstart in the dark.  And I never thought I would see someone get their lifer Painted Redstart that way.  Congrats Josh!  

Slate Creek Divide is always pleasant to wake up to.  I've camped out here my fair share of times over the last five years!

It started raining some during the night and the rain would come in spurts throughout the earlier stages of the morning.  As it was starting to get light out, the Northern Pygmy-Owl from the previous night was calling away.  Once it was light, Josh and I decided to track the bird down as it was still calling.  After some challenging navigation, Josh and I got to the spot of the owl and Josh quickly spied it.  It was the first time Josh has seen this species after getting his lifer the night before as a heard only!  Can you spy the Owl?

Josh and I got to spend some time enjoying this tiny owl, who is barely bigger than the Flammulated Owl.  I told Josh about how fierce Northern Pygmy-Owls can be, and Josh was quite shocked.  And this owl had the perfect overviews and perches for his hunting.

If you look at the size of the conifer cones on this tree in comparison to the owl, it shows the owl's small size!

We got to see the owl switch perches once as it continued to hunt for prey.  The owl turned it's head around several times to show off it's false "eye spots".

Another cool owl down for our trip!  The only one we now had left was the Spotted Owl...

With an inconsistent light rain falling down on us, we decided to start hiking down the dense drainages that go down into Maricopa County.  As I've said in a lot of my previous posts, the habitat in these drainages are amazing for a variety of forest birds, including Spotted Owls.  The drainages are also a very tough location to get photographs of most songbirds, because the Douglas fir dominated habitat is very thick and shady.

From the start we had some good birds.  Red-breasted Nuthatches were calling, a flock of noisy Mexican Jays flew through the woods, and Painted Redstarts were being seen often.  Many migrant Hammond's Flycatchers were also present.  As we made our way down the drainage, it was raining at times.  Some of it was enough for us to be concerned about our camera welfare.  As we came around a corner, I spied a small bird in a small Douglas fir flitting around, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher I think.  I raised my binoculars to look at that bird and as I did that, I thought I saw a flash of an Owl-like blob sitting nearby.  With that in mind I quickly took my binoculars down, and looked...

It was indeed an owl, and I had spotted a Spotted Owl!

Spying the owl the way I did was pretty funny. As the rain was coming down, the three of us were enjoying looks at this amazing creature with admiration.  Just like the previous three owls that were seen, this one was a big celebrity too.  It was a life bird for Josh and it was Gordon's first for Maricopa County.  We all enjoyed it for a few minutes in the rain while coming down the drainage, and we then enjoyed it for a few minutes in the sunlight coming back up the drainage.

Seeing Spotted Owls in an Arizona forest is a good thing.  Because this bird is a bio-indicator, it means that for a Spotted Owl be here, the forest has to be in good condition.  Amazingly, with all of the fires that Slate Creek Divide has suffered from, this threatened bird has still chosen to call it home and Slate Creek does still have very healthy forests.  Because this bird is threatened, the whereabouts of it's location will not be told.

As we have powerful zoom lenses on our cameras, that enabled us to get photographs of this owl from the drainage without getting closer.  Besides, the owl really didn't care about three grown human beings.  It took one glance at us and never looked at us again.

The three of us got to see all four of Arizona's night conifer owls in one trip, the Fantastic Four Arizona Coniferous Owl Sweep!  The Spotted Owl wasn't the only highlight of our thorough Maricopa County exploration in it's drainage areas and Mt. Peeley trail.  We found many lifers for Josh and a Dusky-capped Flycatcher Maricoper for Gordon.  Other highlights included numerous Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, Acorn and Hairy Woodpeckers, many passage migrant Hammond's (11) and Dusky (3) Flycatchers, 8 Dusky-capped Flycatchers (rare in Maricopa County, but a population breeds at Slate Creek Divide), 2 Plumbeous Vireos, Steller's Jay, several hundred Violet-green Swallows flying over the trailhead in groups at a time, Bridled Titmouse, all three nuthatches, Brown Creepers, Hermit Thrush, Virginia's, Yellow-rumped, Grace's, Black-throated Gray, Townsend's, and Wilson's Warblers; singing Black-chinned Sparrow, Green-tailed Towhee, Hepatic Tanager, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Bullock's Oriole passing through, Scott's Oriole, 5 Cassin's Finches, Pine Siskins, and more.  Because the habitat was very thick, I couldn't photograph any other birds well, but they sure were enjoyable!

My biggest highlight of the trip was the Flammulated Owl, but the Northern Saw-whet Owl, Northern Pygmy-Owl, and Spotted Owl were huge also.  The Fantastic Four of Slate Creek Divide!  Of course, the Common Poorwill was awesome but still right behind the owls.  Josh got a handful of lifers and Maricopers that he wanted to see.  Gordon had his first ever look at a Flam and his first good look at a Saw-whet and got three Maricopers:  Saw-whet Owl, Spotted Owl, and Dusky-capped Flycatcher!  That was a great ending to our successful birding and camping trip.  And with all the climbing and bushwhacking done, none of us got hurt!

On our way down from mountain coniferous forest and into juniper and chaparral lowlands, Josh and I enjoyed his lifer Gray Vireo, and it was my first Gray Vireo this year in Arizona and Maricopa County.

Thanks Josh and Gordon for an amazing trip!


  1. Woah Tommy this is too much!
    Slate Creek is not just great for Maricopa, your work here has established it as THE BEST OWLING SPOT IN THE STATE.

    Could it have been any more perfect??
    Only if/when you crush a Mex. Whip there too : )

    1. Thanks Laurence!

      Slate Creek is bomb, but I wouldn't call it Arizona's best. The species are in small numbers here. For these four species in particular, I think the Bradshaw Mountains in Yavapai County would be the best if I could guess...

      I'm hoping for that Mex. Whip was detected at Slate Creek last year on the Gila County side. At least there's hope!

  2. Awesome trip and an equally awesome follow-up post on the adventure. All your photos are great and your photos of the COPO are outstanding!

    Thanks for a great trip!

    1. Thanks Gordon! The trip was a blast, thank you too.

      I'm looking forward to seeing your blog post and pictures of everything!

  3. Outstanding post, Tommy! I feel as if I may have nothing left to write about on my blog because you were so thorough in all of your descriptions!!! This trip was exceedingly meaningful to me and I enjoyed getting to know you and Gordon just as much as I enjoyed the birds. Thank you for this opportunity.

    1. Thank you Josh! You are welcome. We enjoyed getting to know you and bird with you too! I'm looking forward to seeing your blog.

  4. Thoroughly impressive stuff, Tommy, and delightfully entertaining to those of us waiting impatiently for the next TOBY installment. Could you cram any more awesomeness into one night?! Seriously?

    Flam definitely wins this round, but only in the sense a horse wins a photo finish in the Kentucky Derby. That's awesome how Gordon and Josh got to rack up a bunch of goodies in the process. Well done, man, well done.

    Your nighttime passerine list is growing and is quite impressive.

    1. Thanks Josh! I've gotta do some in the meantime before the next potential addition to TOBY, right?!........

      I guess TOBY ticks can be made for awesome encounters like this too.

      Flam wins for sure, and I'm very glad these guys got to see all these birds too.

      Your Short-eared Owl post is making a lot run through my mind...

  5. Tommy my friend, I thoroughly enjoyed this post and smiled the entire time! I even felt the anticipation of finding the owls :) Congrats to all on the lifers! You're an inspiration Tommy :)

    1. Thanks Rocki! I'm glad you enjoyed this post. It was one of the best trips I have been on to Maricopa County's higher elevations.

  6. Tommy, you surely have a way to stack one awesome adventure on top of another and another...and... Delightful post!

    1. Thank you Babs! I had a great time that night at Slate Creek Divide, and some good company to go along with it!