Sunday, August 21, 2016

Fighting the Boreal Owl: From Blues and Few to Clues and A Skiew

In every game, job, stage of life, contest, relationship, goal, or in this case, a type of birding big year, there's a big fight to surpass in order for the goal to be achieved.  If the biggest goal is achieved earlier on into the contest, than the rest of the goal isn't as hard throughout it's duration.  But if more of the undemanding is conquered first, than it leaves room for the most strenuous task to be set in it's proper heights to climb up to for a final showdown.  The most strenuous task is of course lined up by other strenuous tasks.  These tasks are vital to have and pass before getting to the final and toughest test.  I'm talking about T.O.B.Y.-Tommy's Owl Big Year.  As I've been trying to see every owl in North America this year that breeds in North America and calls North America home, I've had many challenges along the way.  Some of the tougher owls I have conquered have been Great Gray Owl, Snowy Owl, Northern Hawk-Owl, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, and Flammulated Owl.  The first three are owls of the north and they would require me to bird in extremely cool climates in order to see and photograph them.  With an epic Josh Wallestad showing me around Minnesota, those three made their way onto my life list and onto T.O.B.Y.  Truth be told, I didn't decide to attempt T.O.B.Y. until after that Minnesota trip where I lifered on four owls in January.  Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl is an endangered species that is hard to come by in Arizona, and Flammulated Owls are often tough to obtain visuals of, let alone get photographs.  And we can't forget the 20 hour trek to Minnesota in April with Josh to get Eastern Screech-Owl, and the long drive out to North Dakota to owl with Sandy for Short-eared Owls.  Although these two owls generally aren't as tough as the others on a North America scale, they were certainly challenging for me and came with thrilling rewards.  With 19 Owls in North America and me having 18 of them on my list with help from amazing people and with my own personal owling skills, I had the final one, probably the toughest one in North America, falling into the final scene in order to complete T.O.B.Y.  As I've said before, T.O.B.Y.'s primary objective is to SEE and PHOTOGRAPH all of North America's 19 Owls in one calendar year.  With T.O.B.Y. seeming like it was so close to being complete, it really wasn't so close.  My final owl I have needed, the Boreal Owl, seemed to have other ideas...


Boreal Owl is an epic owl, and along with the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, is probably the toughest owl to land in North America.  In high elevation forests that mainly consist of spruce-fir habitat in Alaska, Canada, and scattered locations and mountain ranges in the western United States, this owl makes it's home.  Boreal Owl habitat mainly consists of dense forests made up of spruce and fir that are interspersed with meadows and grassy openings.  The problem with Boreal Owls is that they are vocal for a very short time span of the year in spring.  While hearing one and tracking one down during this time frame probably wouldn't be so difficult, the challenge is that the habitat is very tough to access due to high snow being on the ground.  Unless a pass is plowed, the habitat of the Boreal Owl goes largely un-owled during spring.  Most folks are happy and are settled with getting out of a vehicle in the brutal cold simply to hear a male Boreal Owl singing so they can tick it off of the life list and move on.  Once the snow melts in these elevations in late-May to mid-June and the forest becomes easier to access, the owls are then generally silent, well into breeding, and won't call often.  Boreal Owls are in the same genus, Aegolius, as the more common Northern Saw-whet Owl.  Boreals are a little bigger than Saw-whets, are chubby and have a big head and big eyes like Saw-whets, and make cool sounds like Saw-whets.  While Northern Saw-whet Owls are often described by birders as "cute", the Boreal Owl doesn't quite fit that description.  With a black and "broken" border around the Boreal's face that continue above and below the bird's eye, this owl really has an angry and fierce look to it.  With coloration of black, gray, white, and brown capped off with bright yellow eyes, the adult Boreal Owl almost reminds me of a small wolf.  It is one of North America's astounding owls in my opinion.  Boreal Owl young look almost entirely different from adults, which is another trait that is also shared by the Northern Saw-whet Owl and is a feature of the Aegolius genus.  The song of the Boreal Owl is amazingly beautiful and peaceful but it also sounds rather haunting.  Because Boreal Owls are elusive, are largely resident in mountains that birders can't access most of the year, and love the wilderness, this is probably North America's least known owl in regards to life history.  Every birder in North America wants to see this mysterious little owl, and I sure have wanted to!  Not only have I wanted to see it, but I've wanted to study them and learn more about them too.  To get the Boreal Owl for T.O.B.Y. would result in a carefully planned trip and a tremendous amount of the thing they call luck.


When I made the decision to attempt my Owl Big Year, I came up with some strategies.  All of the strategies seemed to make sense except the Boreal Owl search itself.  That was one that I was no doubt going to plan, but nothing seemed to say that I would have a great chance at the bird.  Regardless of the Boreal Owl being one who loves to give observers a big challenge, I was determined to get myself into their habitats and country for attempts.  Once I announced T.O.B.Y., I immediately had my buddy, Walker Noe, begging me to come to Washington and Idaho to try for the bird.  My buddy Khanh Tran, a legendary birder in the Northwest, knew Walker at the time before I got to meet Khanh.  Walker told me that my chances of Boreal Owl were good in the fall with Khanh in Washington, as well as at several high elevation passes in Idaho in September.  At first, I wasn't sold on going to Washington and Idaho to try for Boreal Owls despite the fact that Walker was constantly asking me to take my Boreal Owl attempts there.  Walker boldly said, "Tommy, if you come to get Boreal Owl with Khanh and I, I will be clutch and will come through for you to get that bird".  The tone Walker expressed in his statement was more serious than a presidential address, but I wasn't crazy about going there at first.  Perhaps I was blind in most ways.  My reason was that Boreal Owls live in the San Juan Mountains in Colorado, which is actually about an eight hour drive for me from Phoenix.  At the end of May, I made plans with my buddies Kurt Radamaker and Mark Ochs to try for the Boreal Owl in Colorado, with plans being set in place during April.  My plan was to try and get the Boreal Owl out of the way in May.  If May didn't work, then I would discuss a trip possibility with Walker and Khanh for the fall.  If I would go in fall and miss Boreal Owl in Washington or Idaho, I would then think about another trip to Colorado in fall.  With another chance of Colorado possibly not producing a Boreal Owl, than I could only hope that Minnesota would pull in an invasion of the owls in December.  Every four years in Minnesota there is a Boreal Owl invasion that takes place, and this upcoming winter is supposed to be good for such.  Although I did have four options set in place, searching for this owl was still very intimidating.

From the Sibley Guide to Birds, Second Edition

On May 28th through May 30th, Kurt Radamaker, Mark Ochs, and I made plans to set out to Telluride, Colorado to owl in the San Juan Mountains.  When May arrived, Walker came out to Arizona for a three week trip.  Walker and I got together a few times during that time span when he was in Arizona in May, and one of those times turned out to be very important in regards to T.O.B.Y.  Khanh flew from his Portland, Oregon home to try for some of the Arizona owls.  He wanted to see Elf Owls badly along with other owls.  Luckily for me, I got to owl with both Khanh and Walker on a May night.  Elf Owls and Western Screech-Owls were numerous that night, and Khanh got to see plenty of his target Elf Owl.  I must have gotten Khanh great looks at three different and cooperative Elf Owls.  The energy that Walker and Khanh both possessed was contagious when it came to owling and the three of us made a good team.  That night, Khanh and Walker both explained to me that if I would miss Boreal Owl in Colorado's San Juan Mountains, they'd love to have me on a trip to Washington.  And it's something I did not forget!  By that time, I realized I potentially had a huge problem as Mark, Kurt,and I were about to head into Colorado.  There was still plenty of snow on the ground and it wasn't seeming to go anywhere too fast, according to forest service rangers.  It was very annoying and aggravating.  This would mean that our Boreal Owl searches would be very challenging and that habitat would be harder to access.  The ranger said on the phone, "The snow will start to melt when we have consistent days of temperatures in the 70's.  Once it melts it melts, but that usually doesn't happen until anywhere from late May through mid June".  Right then and there, I had a sentiment that I had made a bad choice in my timing of planning this trip, which was on Memorial Day Weekend.  Despite everything that was going on my mind, I had Kurt Radamaker and Mark Ochs to bird and hang out with for the three days, and the company would be worth the trip.  With Kurt being one of the best birders I know and with Mark being the most hilarious person I know on this earth, the trip was bound to be a memorable one.

My First Boreal Owl Trip

On May 28th, I drove to Kurt's house to meet him and Mark very early, about 5 A.M.  From there in Cave Creek, we made the trek to Telluride, Colorado, which was to be a base camp for two nights and parts of three days.  Everyone knew about the snow possibility, although it seemed to go right over Mark's head.  As the town of Telluride itself is only 8,500' in elevation, we would need to access habitats for owl searching that were over 10,000' and hopefully above 11,000'.  Luckily, Telluride has a load of good Boreal Owl habitat south of town and in those San Juan Mountains.  I did extensive research before the trip to find potential places we could go for our search, and there were ten of those such locations in all.  One of them is called Alta Lakes.  Alta Lakes consists of three small pond-sized lakes in a breathtaking landscape at 11,500'.  I was hoping we would be able to owl there, and I also know there have been Boreal Owls there in the past.  One survey in 2015 detected 4 birds, and in 2012, when I was staying in the area for a family vacation, a few Colorado County birders discovered a Boreal Owl by the Lakes on a day roost.  As the road to the lakes runs for about four miles, I figured our chances there would be one of the best.  While birders in Colorado focus their Boreal Owl efforts in the northern parts of the state at known hotspots such as Cameron Pass and Grand Mesa, the San Juan Mountains are said to have more Boreal Owl habitat than anywhere else in Colorado, and thus, more Boreal Owls.  And the sad thing is, the San Juan Mountains couldn't be more under-birded!  Mark, Kurt, and I didn't have much to go by.  And then we did.  All we had to do was put our Burger King crowns on in public to get fired up, the Phoenician Kingbird way!


After enjoying Black-billed Magpies and a handful of herps at Tec Nos Pos at the northeastern corner of Arizona (which neighbors Four Corners National Monument), we headed into Colorado.  At this point, Mark started to tell his stories, his hilarious ones.  While I was suffocating from laughing, Kurt constantly had a shocked look on his face.  At times he would laugh at Mark too, but other times I think he wondered if something was wrong with Mark.  All I can remember was that Mark and I were both crying laughing for about an hour at what Mark was saying.  Most of it was hysterical and raw material, so much of what Mark is known for.  It's a good thing Mark was along, because when we got to the San Juans, I could immediately see the dreaded white...snow.  Right then and there, I knew that the trip would be a challenge.  I was quite mad at myself.


As we drove into the San Juans further and got close to Telluride, I began to see the areas I had mapping out for our searches.  I was hopeful that some of the areas would be accessible.   We shot by them but when we reached the Alta Lakes turnoff, we excitedly began to drive down the road.  It wasn't even a few minutes before we encountered testy snow and ice.  From the get go, our best potential spot was thrown in the trash.  For me, I would be willing to hike the entire road rather than drive it, but Mark and Kurt weren't into the hiking.  For me, I had nine other locations to figure out by nightfall.  Despite the misfortune, the San Juans were absolutely gorgeous and breathtaking.  One for sure fact about Boreal Owl searching is that one is always in extreme scenic areas when looking for the owl.  Before the night, the three of us enjoyed the lodge we were staying in, a Golden State Warriors basketball game while eating dinner, and this American Dipper in a river behind the lodge.



Once night fell, we fell, and the Boreal Owl searching really fell.  I hated snow that weekend, and I really hated snow melt.  Both were taking place.  Out of the many spots I had mapped out to try for the owls, we constantly had the sound of a loud river, but it wasn't a freaking river.  It was from the snow melt.  Water was literally flowing everywhere, and we had a hard time hearing anything.  At some places it wasn't bad, and we got out and walked into spruce-fir forest.  Mark is a man who mainly wears a t-shirt, short shorts, and loafer shoes as his default attire.  Because the San Juans were very cold and we were walking in snow, I actually saw Mark wear a coat, jeans, and BOOTS.  Mark actually didn't walk through snow in loafers, it was something I never thought I would see.  Even more so, I wasn't feeling we had a chance of a Boreal Owl on the first night with the rate we were going on.  To make things worse, Kurt wasn't feeling well once we got up there and we didn't want to overdue things.  We were all tired and exhausted from the drive, and after owling for about three hours, we decided to head back.  I was able to play tapes for Boreal Owls at a few spots without anything replying back except for an annoying squirrel.  But the San Juans were beautiful.



After getting a good sleep on the first night, the three of us were much more energized for the second day.  We explored some spots near Telluride by day, and ate lunch at an epic pizza place right in the heart of town.  During the weekend, the annual Telluride Film Festival was taking place.  As we talked with one of the participants, we joked with him that he should film a movie on us and our Boreal Owl search.


At about noon, we drove south of Telluride again to day scout some of the areas we couldn't visit in the previous night.  What stood out was a fairly level road we could walk down through good Boreal Owl habitat that consisted of thick spruce-fir habitat that had some open areas mixed in with the habitat.  On the way back, Mark, Kurt, and I got into a conversation about Mexican vagrants to Arizona, and we asked Kurt what he thought would be the next ABA record that was discovered in Arizona.  He simply said, "Pine Flycatcher".  While we were going to rest up for a few hours before a longer second night of Boreal Owling, Kurt hung by the room, Mark hung at the hot tub, and I took a hike down the river.  When I got back, Kurt was listening to his messages and he told us, "Guys, Dave Stesjkal found a Pine Flycatcher in southeastern Arizona".  I was shocked.  I know that Kurt is a birding genius, but the fact that we discussed this only a few hours earlier made me wonder if he was some sort of physic.  While we were up in Telluride, this amazing discovery was found in a first North American record of a Pine Flycatcher.  Once the news got about, I could tell that Boreal Owls weren't on Kurt and Mark's mind anymore, especially Mark's.  Mark has seen his fare share of the owl, while Kurt has only seen one once years ago.  When Kurt saw his, it was peeking it's head out of a nest box.  Kurt wanted more of the Boreal.  While eating, I knew that they were going to want and chase the Pine Flycatcher.  As it was May 29th, we had the entire following day on Memorial Day, May 30th.  Mark said, "let's chase it".  When the question got around to me, I agreed that we chase it.  Mark wanted to quickly leave, and Kurt was uncertain about when he wanted to leave.  While Kurt still wanted to look for Boreal Owls, he suggested that we owl for a few hours, get some sleep, and head out early in the morning for a 12 hour drive to the Pine Flycatcher spot in southeastern Arizona to arrive at the flycatcher spot at about 4 P.M..  Mark suggested leaving right after the Boreal Owl search and heading straight for Arizona while voluntarily saying he'd drive and stay up the entire night.  I got up and went to the bathroom.  I'm not kidding, I started saying some choice words at the Pine Flycatcher when I was off to myself.  I didn't want anything, not even an ABA first, to interrupt my Boreal Owl search.  While the trip wasn't all about me and with me weighing the odds that we probably wouldn't get the owl due to habitat access, I made a tough decision about what I would say to Kurt and Mark.  When I got back I said, "Guys, how about we give the Boreal Owl an hour or so by walking down that level road.  And after that, we can head for Arizona".  They seemed to light up when I said that.  Although I think I made the right choice, inwardly, I was furious.  Once it got dark, we walked through the habitat for an hour.  I played my tape over and over, hoping for a response.  It was awesome to be attempting a Boreal Owl to say the least.  As the hour ended, there wasn't a responsive Boreal Owl in the area.  It made me hunger for more as we left, and it wasn't meant to be on this trip.  But 12 hours later, at least I was looking at an ABA first Pine Flycatcher with some of Arizona's best birders...



Deciding Where to Go for My Second Boreal Owl Trip

T.O.B.Y. really started out as a quick Big Year.  Before May even started, I had 17 owls with Boreal Owl and Short-eared Owl being the remaining two.  While I landed Short-eared Owls in North Dakota in June with Sandy, I had the Boreal Owl remaining for quite some time as my last owl needed for T.O.B.Y.  I really did come quite close to completing my big year before the year was even halfway over.  If everything came right away, what is the fun in that?

As news got out about me dipping on Boreal Owl in May near Telluride to my friends, I immediately had Walker and Khanh asking me to take T.O.B.Y. to Washington and Idaho.  Their persistence was awesome, and after awhile, they had me more and more interested in going.  As the snow in Colorado has left, I was making the decision to get the epic Boreal Owl on my own in Colorado, or to have two awesome owlers in Walker and Khanh by my side in Washington.  I began to have phone conversations with Khanh.  Khanh has found Boreal Owls many times in Washington and usually finds them when he goes.  As he talked to me about them, I could really sense he knew exactly what he was talking about and that he was very knowledgeable about a species that most birders don't really know that much about.  Khanh's knowledge and constant energy impressed me, and I then began to favor trying for the Boreal Owl in Washington over Colorado.  Walker informed me of all of the success folks have had in Idaho.  My decision was now between Washington/Idaho and the San Juans, Colorado.  Colorado quickly became secondary.  Why?  Because I have birded the Rocky Mountains before!  I have never seen or been to the Pacific Northwest where Washington is.  And so my decision was easy.  I chose to attempt Boreal Owls with my two buddies Walker and Khanh in a new place and with a new cast of overall birds.

My Second Boreal Owl Trip

Once I had it in my mind to owl with Walker and Khanh, the three of us got in contact with each other regularly to talk about where and when we would owl.  It took awhile for us to get a trip figured out, but we eventually decided on August 12th through August 15th.  That would mean that we would have three nights of Boreal Owling.  No snow.  Full determination.  No boundaries.  Nothing but hardcore Boreal Owling!  Some of the best experiences with Boreal Owls may fall into place in the late summer to early fall time frame other than the typical and more well known spring singing males.  Before my trip, Walker got to see a young Boreal Owl visually in Washington at Salmo Pass.  Although seeing a young Boreal Owl would be cool and would complete T.O.B.Y.'s primary task, I was really wanting and I was really dreaming about seeing and photographing an adult Boreal Owl.  

On August 12, 2016, I woke up early in the morning in Glendale and my Dad kindly dropped me off at the airport.  I then flew into Khanh's home in Portland, Oregon, where he and Walker picked me up from the Portland airport at about 2 P.M.  From there, the three of us anxiously headed into Washington to Boreal Owl the areas that encompass the Mount Adams and Mount Rainier Wilderness, as well as the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.  There were the nights for looking for the owls, but there was the daylight hours for sight seeing at places within the Wilderness and Forest areas.  Other than Boreal Owls, this trip also put me in range for other lifers such as Sooty and Spruce Grouse, White-tailed Ptarmigan, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, Harlequin Duck, and more.  And there are also Northern Spotted Owls in the area.  Honestly, despite the fact that these birds are awesome, they were all only bubblegum compared to the Boreal Owl.  As we got into these Cascade Mountains, the scenery was breathtaking and one I will never forget.  Boreal Owl searching equals the fact the one will always be in mind-blowing scenery.  Here's some examples.  We were in Boreal Owl country!











As night approached, the excitement inside of me was growing and growing that first night.  The moon was bright and was close to full, and the weather was calm.  I was also nervous too.  Prior to my trip, Khanh was scouting his traditional Boreal Owl locations several times without any luck.  It concerned all of us, but I was hoping that they were just off nights.  With Boreal Owls, one may have luck one night and the following night may be the exact opposite.  As it got dark outside, we started to owl, and we started to owl hard.  Khanh has amazing techniques for finding these birds, most of which I will not share on this blog.  I was amazed at his knowledge.  He told Walker and I exactly where to stand and what to do under certain circumstances.  I was impressed with his tactics and I was enjoying learning about this owl from someone who has seen them so many times.  We worked our way through the dense boreal forest of spruce and fir.  At times, we would come across meadows and small lakes.  The owls will sometimes use these open areas that are at the edge of conifer stands for hunting.  As we slowly checked the prime habitats for the owls, the time flew by.  Walker was practically dead at one point.  While I was energized for the first four hours of the search, my tiredness caught up to me.  After working a 15.5 hour shift at work on August 11th and four hours of sleep before my trip on the 12th (now Friday the 13th), I needed to sleep.  I tried to stay awake and be energized for more, but the search became more and more tiring.  At one point, Walker thought he heard the call of a begging baby owl in the distance.  We stood there listening with our ears cupped and although we heard something interesting, it was too distant as well as inconsistent.  The first night for Boreal Owl searching went down as a bust.  Thankfully, we had two nights of searching left, and Khanh's mastermind had many more ideas of places to go, including one particular spot in the Cascades that he thought looked prime.  On the way home we talked more about finding Boreal Owls, including finding them by hearing their vocalizations.  While their primary song is rarely heard at this time of year, the most common call heard is a loud, "Skiew" call that is given by the adult Boreal Owl.  This call is one most birders hear outside of the known song, and the "skiew" is given when the owl is alarmed and starts to fly away.  Many birders don't understand that the owl is ready to retreat when it gives that call and I often read that they look and look and look for it after they hear the skiew nearby but are never able to find the owl although it is so close.  The adults also give this monkey-like "eeearrrooo" call which is strange and quite cool.  And then there's the babies, who sound like a loud mouse constantly crying out in pain while they are begging for food.  I was very nervous after missing the birds on the first night in some of Khanh's best areas.  "Where in the heck are the Boreal Owls", I asked myself.  All I could do was hope for the next night to be successful...


We climbed tall mountains and walked through some thick forested terrain during our day hours of birding.  The Washington scenery in the Cascade Mountains is something I want to experience again.  Spending time with Walker and Khanh was epic and was one of the funnest times I've had in awhile.  Both of these buddies of mine are hilarious and there wasn't a dull second of the trip where we weren't having fun.  We had fun anywhere from restaurants to the hotel to driving for hours.  Some of Walker's comments and actions are as random as can be, and definitely funny.  One second we were talking about food, and then the next second Walker would say, "Tommy, that sucks we didn't see the Boreal Owls last night".  Then he'd crack a joke about something else.  Walker's random sense of humor rocks.  I've never heard someone use the "F" word as much as Khanh.  It was just a basic word to him, and he actually used it in a gentle tone at times when talking to people.  For example, a traffic back up took place.  Five cars were passing us slowly.  Khanh was waving them on past us behind our window and saying to them in a calm and friendly-sounding voice, "C'mon fu**ers.  You can do it fu**ers.  Let's go fu**ers".  Until I met Khanh, I didn't think one could use that word and make it sound friendly and "nice".  I'm pretty sure Walker and I almost died from laughing from that and many other things he said throughout the trip.  Khanh said fu** so much that that word didn't really seem to have any sort of meaning after awhile.


Here's a few fun videos of the scenery of Washington.  My two buddies are in these videos too.



The second night then came back around.  The three of us were anxious and we were ready to go back into battling the Boreal Owls once again.  Khanh took Walker and I to another spot he had in mind, one that he had never owled before.  One thing was for sure that this spot was gorgeous whether it would produce any Boreal Owls or not.  We hiked down into a conifer-filled-valley while trying to hear an owl on the way down.  Once down in the valley we had thick spruce-fir forest with pockets of open meadows interspersed with it.  As it officially got dark, we sat by a lake and listened for a few minutes.  The quietness was louder than the quietness itself.  We seemed to be sitting there motionless.  The entire night ahead of us had a huge mystery question in front of it.  I wanted a Boreal Owl more badly than I ever had at this point, and honestly, I loved the suspicion of the trip.  If these owls came easily, what fun would that be?


As we calmly sat there, Walker jumped up in a panic mode, "I hear one guys!  I HEAR ONE!!!".  Khanh and I listened closely, and we couldn't hear anything.  Walker practically screamed again, "GUYS, again!  I hear it again!  It's calling from up there!!!".  Khanh zoned into it this time, but for some reason, I, a guy who loves birding by ear, couldn't hear it at first.  A few minutes later, I could finally and clearly hear it.  It was a young Boreal Owl calling or in better word, begging.  And it was begging loudly.  It has calling on the other side of the lake, and unfortunately, well above the lake.  The young owl was on a steep slope, and before we knew it, we were climbing up the slope above the valley we were in to try and get closer.  The ground was damp and the three of us were slipping and falling constantly.  A Boreal Owl was worth it, as we all know!  Although we fell and falling is annoying, the vegetation was soft and was easy to fall into.  As we got closer to the owl as we climbed, we realized the bird had a sibling with it.  More trouble then happened as the owls flew away from our direction and further along the ridge.  In between us and the owls now was a giant and wide slide of large rocks that dropped from the summit of the ridge all the way down into the valley.  We started to walk across the rocks towards the calling owls before I said that I thought it was a bad idea.  The rocks were loose and one injury would screw up our entire trip and remaining two nights of owl searching.  As we still had a long ways to climb down the mountain, the Boreal Owls moved down into the FLAT and easy to walk valley!  It was frustrating that we still had to carefully climb back down the steep ravine for a good distance.  I found it easier to just slide down the ravine on my butt.  I got to the bottom first, and as I listened and waited for Walker and Khanh, I could tell that the owls were in a place where we could track them down.  Regardless, the Boreal Owl was officially on my life list!


As soon as Walker and Khanh found their way back down the ridge to join me at the valley's ground level, we quickly worked our way over to the sound of the young Boreal Owls.  The sound was getting closer and closer and I felt like we were going to be underneath them at any second.  T.O.B.Y. was that close to having it's primary goal being complete.  I could sense victory, and I could sense looks and photographs of a Boreal Owl.  We then entered a grove of trees that the young bird was calling from.  It was loud and it was right above our heads.  We started scanning the trees with our lights and couldn't find the bird at first even though it was somewhere right above our heads.  Khanh said on the spot, "they can really blend in well, look extra carefully".  Walker than freaked out again and exclaimed, "RIGHT HERE TOMMY!  RIGHT HERE!".  I looked into Walker's light shine and right there above us was the juvenile Boreal Owl looking down on us with big curious eyes.  It tilted it's head back-and-fourth, and it became the T.O.B.Y. completer and the official T.O.B.Y. Boreal Owl.  And appropriately, we decided to name it Toby.


The chocolate color of the young Boreal really blended in with the tree bark.  Walker and Khanh both started congratulating me in between while we were taking pictures of my life Boreal Owl.  "You did it Tommy!  Congrats man!"  Walker said.  Walker then immediately added, "Tommy I told you I would be clutch for you with this Owl.  I TOLD YOU SO!!"  And Walker was right.  He heard the Boreal Owl calling way off in the distance when Khanh and I couldn't even hear it at first.  Walker detected the bird first and we gave him the nickname, Bionic Walker.  And then Walker followed that up with spying the Boreal Owl first visually.  The young owl continued to call and beg, sit above us, and look down on us often in curiosity.  It was simply amazing, and it was close to 11:00 P.M. at night on the 13th.  T.O.B.Y. was now complete, and we still had a lot more of the night left and an entire extra night to Boreal Owl further.  The young owl looked around quickly as if it was alert to something and it flew off.  We could all tell that it didn't fly off very far.  The three of us quickly checked how our pictures were turning out, and we were satisfied with the results.


As Khanh and Walker looked at their pictures longer than I did, I got a few steps ahead of them as the young Boreal Owl continued to call.  Walking in the direction it flew, I came upon a small and open meadow, which was at the edge of the next stand of fir trees we were going to walk into.  I happened to look in front me and there about five feet up and perched on a branch was an astounding sight...


It was an adult Boreal Owl, and it was sitting there quietly and staring at me with it's bright yellow eyes!  I couldn't believe what I was seeing, and I was literally at a loss for words.  I tried to take a picture immediately, but I couldn't concentrate because of how worked up I was.  To top it all off, I had my settings on mutual rather than automatic.  Reaching down for a button switch in that situation can feel like a huge task.  Words couldn't even come out of my mouth right, "guys, I...I...look...I have....right here....an...I have....an adult".  Khanh caught up to me and I asked him to shine my light on the bird, "Khanh!  Shine the light for me!  It's an adult!!".  As he did that, I started to quickly get my camera in position to snap pictures.  Walker was walking on up quickly.  Right after I snapped two quick photographs, the young Boreal Owl begged nearby and the adult flew off.  We saw that the adult had a vole in it's talons to feed the young.  It wasn't too concerned about us, but we wished it would have stayed just a few more seconds.  I couldn't help but say madly in the moment while throwing my fists, "DARNIT!  GOSH!".   Walker calmed me down, and seconds later, I said, "Guys, that explosion had nothing to do with you, I just wanted to have a longer look with better views and pictures".  Walker and Khanh understood, and the pictures actually came out pretty decent of the adult Boreal Owl considering how much I was shaking the camera out of excitement.  It's almost as if the adult Boreal Owl was teasing me and making me hungry for more.  Cool looking owl huh?!


Minutes later, I found myself being extremely grateful for the look I had at the adult Boreal, which was one that was truly representative of their elusive and wilderness nature.  Walker then chimed in, "Hey Tommy, is this the best moment of T.O.B.Y.?  Is Boreal Owl your favorite Owl now?  I think it's my favorite owl!!".  I told Walker I needed some time to think about the T.O.B.Y. rankings rather than just minutes after the fact, but then it was of course, funny listening to Walker being Walker.  By this point, Khanh realized he had lost his expensive flashlight while we were climbing and falling on the steep ridge.  He was saying a lot of the "f" word at this point.  I had realized that I had lost something too, my binoculars.  While both items that were lost between the two of us aren't cheap, they were faded out after a few seconds of frustration by the excitement of the Boreal Owls.  After the adult vanished, we were then treated to more and up close views of the first juvenile we saw as well as it's older sibling.  Here is a series of photographs that I was able to obtain of the young Boreals.












The young Boreals commonly begged throughout the night.  Walker, Khanh, and I stayed with them for a long time, hoping that the adult would come back in to feed them.  After waiting and watching for about two hours, the adult finally did come in with more food for one of the young.  Unfortunately, it left us with a brief view of itself and it once again left our sight.  Despite scanning nearby trees where Khanh suspected that it could've flown into, we couldn't find it any further for the second night of action.  There were a few times where we heard the Boreal Owl briefly sing as well as give it's "monkey call".  By the time we were finished, it was already close to 2:30 A.M. meaning that we spent 5.5 hours owling.  The drive back to our hotel would mean another hour added to the time table, and the three of us wouldn't get any sleep until after 4 A.M.  But seeing Boreal Owls is of course, 100% worth the effort!  I can't say how lucky I was to have spied the adult when I did.  And thanks to Bionic Walker, we detected the Boreal Owls.  Gosh, what an incredible memory.  And what a fun team the three of us made!


Night three was to be just as intense as the second night.  After a day of sleep and some hiking, Khanh, Walker, and I decided to repeat our routine from night two and go back to the same spot just as it was getting dark out.  As Walker and I were chit-chatting about Boreal Owls by the parking area, Khanh was ready to get onto the search, exclaiming to us, "Are you ready bit**es?!!".  Walker and I sure were, and our leader was more ready than ever.  As we climbed down into the forested valley, we started to hear the young Boreal Owls begging in the same area once again.  They were active to start the night off, and would switch perches often.  As we were following them, we even heard the adult give a few bursts of it's awesome song.  While I wanted to take off running towards the adult, the bird stopped singing just as fast as it started singing.  We then found the babies and were in hope that the adult would come into the area.  The babies were as cooperative as ever.  They fought with each other.  They looked at us curiously.  One of them caught a beetle on it's own.  They also could have cared less about us.  They let me take a selfie with them!  As I mentioned before, young Boreal Owls look similar to young Northern Saw-whet Owls.  Boreal Owls have a much more sooty chocolate brown coloration to their frontside, while Saw-whets have a contrasting dark brown breast and a very light brown-buffy stomach.  Boreal Owls also have a light bill, while Saw-whet Owls have a dark bill.






Some creatures are made to stay up all night, others are not. 


After an hour, we decided to sit down and listen for action from the adult.  Not long into our watch, I spied the silhouette of a Boreal Owl fly in.   I immediately alerted Khanh and Walker, and we all started to search any nearby trees.  We couldn't find the bird.  While the young Boreals flew with very weak and jittery wing beats, an adult Boreal will have a lot of finesse to it's flight.  The silhouette flew by again, and Khanh pointed out some of that fine finesse to it's flight.  I could clearly see it, as well as a light-colored bird.  While Khanh thought he saw the tree the adult Boreal landed in, we still failed to find it visually there or in any other trees.  As we continued walking, we found our original juvenile Boreal Owl once again nearby, and we then found an older and more mature looking juvenile.  I actually thought this one was an adult at a first glance and I got all excited.  If you look closely, the mature white feathers are starting to replace this bird's chocolate sooty color on the front.  Although this bird wasn't an adult, it was cool to see it resemble the adult more so than the other birds did.  It gave us a count of three young Boreal Owls, along with the adult.



The three of us had another seat well after midnight to sit, talk, and hope for any owl vocalizations from the adult.  We tried a few imitations of the call to a weak degree, knowing that the adult could care less about anything other than hunting.  We would have to encounter it again by luck if we were to see it.  The focus of the search briefly went on hold as we got into some awesome conversation.  Earlier in the trip, Khanh explained to Walker and I how curious Boreal Owls can be.  He told us that sometimes they will fly into humans talking and will give their loud "skiew" call when they decide to fly away.  Most of the time, the birders won't even know the owl is there until it sounds it's alarm off.  At this point and once the "skiew" is given, the owl has already decided to leave.  During our conversation, we were shocked to be interrupted by the adult Boreal Owl, as he exclaimed "skiew".  He had flown into investigate us out of his own curiosity, and we didn't even know it!  By the time the skiew was given, we rapidly shined our lights up in the trees.  At this point, it was too late.  The Boreal Owl had already started circling us, and it quickly gave a second "skiew".  While I was looking in front of me for a perched bird, that second skiew came from my left side.  I couldn't find the owl with my light as I followed the calls rapidly.  And once again, we couldn't locate the adult.  After seeing the babies a time or two more and waiting more for the adult without further success, we decided to stop owling after another five hour+ and long night.



It is rather hard to explain perfectly, but our nights of Boreal Owls were both simple as well as complicated.  While many emotions and effort went into every search, we were after one goal, to see and photograph Boreal Owls as well as learn more about them.  In my books, I will say that I learned a lot from our three nights of "fighting" this bird...

My trip to Washington has more stories, photographs, and memories.  I will cover more of them on future posts.  For now, I will center this post entirely on T.O.B.Y.  At the beginning of this Owl Big Year, I made this columned checklist to have a quick glance at my progress over the course of the year whenever I wanted to.  After seeing, photographing, and hearing Boreal Owl over the course of this trip, I was pumped to fill in the final slot on this paper that I have been checking off of all year.  And hey, I still have the remainder of the year to hear a Great Gray, Northern Hawk, and Snowy Owl ;)


Thanks to Khanh and Walker for the birds and everything else on this trip, they put me in position to close this dream of mine out.  I've been impressed with Khanh's knowledge about this bird ever since I met him, and I was even more impressed to see that knowledge live in the field.  Thank you Khanh for all of the information and Boreal Owling skills you have taught me.  Thank you Walker for introducing me to this possibility of a Washington trip, being Mr. Clutch, and detecting Toby the Boreal Owl.


So, you all might be wondering, is T.O.B.Y. done?  Well, it's primary goal is complete, but I am far from saying that it is done.  After all, I wouldn't rule out some things.  One is that I have 12 out of 13 owls this year in Arizona.  The only one I'm missing in my home state is Short-eared Owl for this year.  Josh suggested I do a run in Minnesota this winter for more northern owls, and also, to try and see a Red-morph Eastern Screech-Owl.  That is something that sounds like a blast.  And then there's this guy.  The adult Boreal Owl who gave me a brief but still an epic look.



I want to look for more Boreal Owls this year.  I want to go back to Telluride and find some in that San Juan Mountain Range.  There is no doubt they are up there, and the San Juans are underbirded.  I dig the idea of having my own Boreal Owl spots.


As I close, I will say that more T.O.B.Y. posts will be coming to this Blog.  We will have more owling expeditions.  There will be a recap post from the year to highlight each owl and how I got each owl, as well as highlight every person who helped me find owls.  And also, I think it would be fun to write a book about it...

4 comments:

  1. Tommy, this is amazing. Your dedication to owlcraft is unwavering. Khahn and Walker are two people I would love to bird with someday. What characters! I sincerely hope you can hear those 3 remaining owls. Knowing you, I doubt you will give up.

    (0,0)
    /..../
    ^ ^

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Josh! It's been an amazing ride. Hopefully you can bird with Khanh and Walker, they are awesome! I doubt I'll hear those remaining owls. I think I'd practically have to pinch a Snowy Owl to get it to say something. They are rarely heard!

      (0,0)
      /.../
      ^ ^

      Delete
  2. It. Is. Finished! Tommy, when you first told me of your goal to see and photograph all the Owls in 2016, I was honestly quite skeptical it could be done. But then, one by one, you tenaciously started to check them off in rapid succession, and you changed my mind. You turned the impossible into the probable and the probable into the accomplished.

    Congratulations on the Boreal Owl lifer! I'm glad you pursued this bird. It was fun to see your pictures and read your accounts of the final Owl. Speaking of which, congratulations on a job well done completing TOBY. It has been a great pleasure to follow along both from afar and in the field with you--definitely one of the most fun things I have done. Not only was it fun, but it was also inspirational--even beyond the world of birding. TOBY is proof that if you set high goals, you can achieve them through hard work and perseverance. I'm sure you've gotten people to think about what high goals they might set for themselves.

    Now we will all wait to see what comes next. So about that next trip to Minnesota...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Josh! It's been a crazy road to accomplish and conquer TOBYS primary goal. Thanks to you, it has been made possible. I thought at times it was unreasonable at first but I'm glad I went for it and it has been the funnest thing I have done in my birding "career".

      I don't know what's next, but I want to have another fun goal with it's set of challenges.

      I wan't to come back to Minnesota again to experience and photograph more of the Northern owls as well as a Red Screech! I'd love to see a nearly white Snowy Owl too...

      Delete