Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Story of TOBY-Tommy's Owl Big Year

The Story of Toby
By Tommy John DeBardeleben, 2016


Chapter 1:  The Great Owls of the Far North
Chapter 2:  Entertaining a Crazy Idea
Chapter 3:  The Decision
Chapter 4:  Growing Whiskers For the Owl Big Year
Chapter 5:  Back to the Desert to Search For a Rare Owl
Chapter 6:  Tiny But A Huge Deal
Chapter 7:  Spotted and Dotted with Owls and Another Huge Decision
Chapter 8:  Screeching Into Minnesota and Back
Chapter 9:  The Tiny Owl of the High Pines
Chapter 10:  Four Incredible Owls in A Night and A Morning
Chapter 11:  The Boreal Owl
Chapter 12:  Fun With The Locals
Chapter 13:  TOBY Goes To North Dakota
Chapter 14:  Preparation For That Last One
Chapter 15:  The Boreal Owl-Part Two
Chapter 16:  In The Company of Northern Spotted Owls
Chapter 17:  The Boreal Owl-Part Three
Chapter 18:  Still More Owls To See..


Prior to 2016, I had only been on a plane several times in my life.  The last time I'm thinking of was when I was a little kid and before I had reached any double-digits age wise.  2016's birding led me to some crazy goals.  I took four trips out of state during the year that required me to travel via airplane, all because of birding reasons.  I will admit that before my first flight, I had always been scared of flying.  There's no for sure facts or explanation of why I was afraid of flying, I just was.  Fear is never a good excuse to keep us from what we want to do in life, and luckily, I didn't let that fear take over the ambition I had inside of me to travel.  While I'm not a man who is made of money, I do spend most of my money on experiences and I make sure those experiences are ones that will last.  They do say this tactic results in averages of more fulfilled and happier people, and I'd have to agree.  During every year in my birding career, I usually come up with a major goal along with several "side goals".  The major goal usually involves something that I am very passionate about and I have to come up with detailed plans, money put aside, patience, stamina, and strategy.  2016's major goal was something I didn't think I'd be attempting, and that was to see and photograph every species of owl that breed in North America.  The goal was named T.O.B.Y.:  Tommy's Owl Big Year.

North America is home to 19 species of breeding owls.  These owls are a diverse family, and come in all different looks, shapes, sizes, and plenty of other things.  A worldwide scale of owls results in over two hundred species, and these birds who are incredible hunters, inhabit every part of the world except Antarctica.  Owls have intrigued man kind for centuries.  They can be described as magnificent and beautiful to ghostly and haunting.  Because of the nocturnal habits that most owls favor, a lot remains in question about these mysterious birds.  Finding them requires a lot of experience, strategy, and patience, as well as a good flashlight.  Perhaps that is why I like owls so much, is because of the challenges that most of them represent.  Out of the 19 owls in North America, I wouldn't call any two species the same as far as finding them is described.  Every species brings something different to the table, and these owls range from extremely easy to find to very difficult to find.  The Big Year is overplayed in North America now.  It seems as if the record becomes more attainable year after year.  Four birders broke the 2013 Big Year record that is highly talked about, and some of them even smashed that 2013 Big Year record that is highly talked about.  While I don't have the desire as well as the money to attempt a North American Birding Big Year, I decided that an Owl Big Year for North America's Owls was something that would be both adventurous and something that I could afford.  Focusing my attention for a Big Year on one awesome family of birds was something awesome for me to do that hardly anyone else has done.  Although Tommy's Owl Big Year came on a much smaller scale than other big years, it had small pieces of what every Big Year is like on a grand scheme of things.

Photo by Gordon Karre

Why Owls?  In 2015, owling became my favorite form of birding.  I love challenges, and owls became that challenge to find in my birding life.  The field became my hangout for many nights from deserts to forests where I studied, looked for, listened to, and photographed these mysterious avian predators.  I learned a lot each night when in the field, and some owls gave me more trips to find them with success than others did.  Before I knew it, I had seen and photographed all thirteen of Arizona's Owls.  When this adventure came about, I wanted it to go beyond Arizona.  But Arizona was the place to start, and many of 2015's memories led to an unforgettable quest I would seek out in 2016.  Here are a few of those 2015 highlights..

The Story of T.O.B.Y.

When 2016 began, I left home chasing rarities around my home county, Maricopa.  I was entertaining the idea of another Maricopa County Big Year, something I did in the years of 2010 and 2011.  Bird chases of 2015's leftovers filled the first week of 2016 before I realized I didn't want to attempt a Maricopa County Big Year at that time.  I had no idea what my main goal was for the year.  With a trip coming up to Minnesota at the end of January, several northern owls:  Great Gray, Northern Hawk, and Snowy; were all on my mind.  I was hoping for those three owls to the highest point possible.  At that point and time, they were three of my most wanted birds in North America.  The focus was to get them, and within the first month of 2016 I wasn't thinking that I would be going all out in an extreme adventure to see and photograph every breeding owl in North America.  During the first part of January while I was Maricopa County listing, I was walking around Veterans Oasis Park in Chandler with my friend Melissa, and I spied this Great Horned Owl sitting in a willow.  I didn't think much of it at the time, but it would be the very first owl of many owls in a life changing ride....

Chapter 1:  The Great Owls of the Far North

For years, my top two birds that I had wanted to see for my life list had been Great Gray Owl and Northern Hawk Owl.  The Great Gray Owl was especially the one that I felt this strong about.  I always dreamed about seeing one, and planning a trip to make that dream become a reality needed to come into place eventually.  And it did.  As I've gotten into birding over the years and have met many amazing people I'm glad to call my friends, one of the greatest friends I've made is Josh Wallestad, my buddy from Kandiyohi, Minnesota.  Josh and I started reading each others blogs and then started birding together when he came to Arizona for family vacations.  My other great friend, Gordon Karre, also met Josh over blogging and the three of us birded together throughout Arizona to help Josh find some of the most coveted birds he had wanted for his life list.  Sometimes Josh's son Evan would join us.  A few of those birds were Elegant Trogon, Painted Redstart, Rufous-capped Warbler, and several different owls.   Josh went owling with me several times on his trips to Arizona, and he experienced first hand how much I enjoy this family of birds.  Knowing how much Gordon and I would enjoy seeing some of Minnesota's birds in the frigid cold of January/February, Josh extended an invite out to Gordon and I to take a trip to Minnesota in the winter.  It was impossible to say no to something that awesome, and plans were made.

Left to Right:  Josh Wallestad, Gordon Karre, Evan Wallestad, Tommy DeBardeleben

People thought I was crazy to take a trip to such a cold environment-northern Minnesota in the winter.  At that time of year in northern Minnesota, there isn't a speck of brown, black, green, or whatever non-white color to be found anywhere, because it is nothing but snow.  On January 28th, Gordon and I flew out to Minnesota where we would spend the 29th through 31st of January birding all day before flying back home to Arizona on February 1st.  It was to be an action packed trip that would last five days.  As I mentioned at the beginning of the story, flying was something I hadn't done since I was little.  Gordon became my traveling mentor during the preparation for the trip ahead of us, and before we knew it, we were in the air to Minnesota.  I daydreamed a lot about the owls on the way there.  With 19 owl species calling North America home, I knew that I had all of my owls in Arizona and every owl in Arizona to give me 13 species.  The fun and exciting thing about Minnesota was that the remaining 6 owls that I would need for my lifelist could be possibilities on this trip.  Great Gray, Northern Hawk, and Snowy Owls ran through my mind the most, but Boreal, Eastern Screech, and Barred Owls are found in the state too.  Eastern Screech and Barred Owls are common, and Boreal Owl is a ghost of the north like Great Gray Owl, but much rarer, and who may sometimes be found in numbers on harsh winters.  Josh hinted that he had possibilities for Barred Owls too, and Gordon and I were hoping for a trip with four owl lifers.  Right as we got off of the plane at the Minneapolis airport, Josh was there to pick us up.  The awesome thing about Josh was that he didn't waste any time.  He was ready to start birding the second we sat down.  Right at the airport was a Snowy Owl that was wintering there and right by the airport were a pair of Barred Owls at the local Ft. Snelling State Park.  We looked for both and we missed both, but it was awesome to be attempting two different owl species in the early minutes of the trip ahead of us.  It was right before dark before we looked for the owls, and we had a 3.5 hour drive ahead of us to the northeastern part of Minnesota.  Josh's parents Rick and Sandi Wallestad, kindly offered up their home for us to stay in as a base camp for the length of our trip.  As we drove further north into Minnesota, all I could see was snow.  It was below 10 degrees when we arrived at the Wallestad's house in Angora, a small town in Minnesota.  Josh had a nice warm coat for me to use, as well as some boots for me to use that he borrowed from one of his friends.  Aside from that, I came very prepared to endure the cold.  I went to Cabela's before the trip and purchased the thickest socks imaginable, $50 elkskin gloves that provide superior warmth, and a thick ninja winter hat.  These items would come in handy throughout the trip.

Gordon, Josh, and I were all anxious about the day ahead of us on the 29th, and after eating dinner at a McDonald's and visiting for a long time on the road and at the house, we were then planning out our strategy for the first day of the trip.  I was nervous too about missing Great Gray Owl because I wanted to see it more than anything else on the trip, but Josh worked relentlessly on finding out locations for birds and I could tell that he was going to be an awesome guide from the beginning of the trip to the end of the trip.  Josh's knowledge of the area made me believe we were going to get all of our targets.  Before settling down, Gordon gave me an owl hat as the gift of the year to fire me up for the owls.  I looked great in the new hat, Gordon sure knew what he was doing when he purchased the cap.  And Josh said, "Ok guys, tomorrow we will get up early and head for Sax-Sim Bog.  The first thing we will be looking for are a few Great Gray Owls that have been sighted recently".  I had a hard time getting to sleep..

Sax-Sim Bog is a birder's holy grail for winter birding.  It's a great place to see northern species such as Common Redpoll, Boreal Chickadee, Black-backed Woodpecker, Great Gray Owl, and much more.  On January 29th, Josh, Gordon and I woke up, ate breakfast, and drove south from Angora to Sax-Sim Bog.  It was freezing of course, snow was everywhere of course, and we were in immediate pursuit of the Great Gray Owl once we arrived, of course.  The weather was overcast, cloudy, and somewhat gloomy feeling-perfect Great Gray weather.

A Common Raven was our first bird for Minnesota to start the trip off.  Once it got light out, Josh started to drive slowly down a road where a Great Gray Owl had been seen.  We made one pass without any luck and Josh decided to try the pass again.  It was great to be in the tamarack bog habitat that the Great Gray Owl thrives in, and I was already getting a live feel for the bird.  Sometimes some things are just meant to be.  As we were driving, I looked over Josh's shoulder and on his side of the window to see that coveted shape on a spruce tree.  I yelled it out loud.

It was a Great Gray Owl alright, and Josh had to tell me to be quiet so I wouldn't scare the owl away.  Both birders and non-birders admire the sight of this incredible bird.  According to the book, "America's 100 Most Wanted Birds", The Great Gray Owl is often known as and called "Phantom, Gray Ghost, Spirit, Bird of Mystery", and I think that name suits this remarkable bird perfectly.  For me, I commonly think of the bird as a symbol of great far north.  And it really is!  As I looked through my binoculars, the Great Gray Owl locked eyes with us, and the sight of it was something that is difficult to describe in words.

The Great Gray would take quick looks at us, and he then started listening and watching for prey.  Great Gray Owls are spectacular hunters.  They listen for prey moving underneath the surface of the snow, mainly rodents.  They will then dive into the snow and come up with what seems to be a miraculous catch.  This owl would move his head in short directions, and would pause and pay careful attention to the ground below between every head movement.

The Great Gray Owl is a very elusive bird that can be very hard to find.  People can drive through Sax-Zim Bog for hours and miss this bird despite looking in the right habitat and right times of day.  It can really be about being in the right place at the right time with this bird.  Josh picked a spot that isn't traveled as much on by other birders, and we only had one other birder join us during the time that we watched our owl.  Despite the fact that the Great Gray Owl is elusive, it can be very fearless of people once it is found.  By looking at this bird, I don't think it has a fear of anything.

For obvious reasons, the Great Gray Owl is a highly wanted bird in North America, it's not just me.  For some factoids on this bird, it prefers dense boreal forests and muskeg bogs within it's range, and black spruce bogs where we were in Minnesota.  The range for this bird is found in Alaska, stretches throughout Canada, and smaller scattered populations are found in northern states such as Minnesota, Wisconsin, Washington, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and northern California.  When rodent populations crash in harsh winters in the far north, invasions take place in the northern states, especially Minnesota.  Lengthwise, the Great Gray Owl is the largest owl in North America.  At 27'' in length, the second largest owl in length is the Snowy Owl at 23'' and the third is the Great Horned Owl at 22''.  Weight wise, the Great Gray Owl is much lighter and it's bulk is really about it's fluff.  Out of these three owls I mentioned, it is the lightest, weighing in at 2.4 pounds (Sibley).  The Great Horned Owl weighs in at 3.1 ponds and the fat Snowy Owl weighs in at 4 pounds. 

Before the owl flew back away from the road and into thick timber and completely out of sight, we left the spot after spending 45 minutes with this incredible bird.  It didn't seem like 45 minutes, and to be honest, it seems like a blur to me.  Spending time with this bird was surreal.  Josh came through and gave Gordon and me both our life Great Gray.  After about ten minutes of observing this owl, Josh asked if we wanted to leave and look for any more Great Grays while the time was still prime for them.  Gordon and I gave a quick no, as we were content with this one Great Gray.

Here's a photograph that Josh snapped of Gordon and me photographing the Great Gray Owl in Sax-Zim Bog.  If you look, you can see that I am not wearing any gloves in the frigid temperature.  And neither is Gordon.  When something this exciting is in front of you, it's hard to notice anything else.

Gordon snapped this photo of Josh and me.  Boy oh boy do I look crazy...

The 45 minutes spent with my first Great Gray Owl was something that will never be forgotten.

After a day's worth of birding in Sax-Zim Bog with a handful of life birds for Gordon and me including that awesome owl, we were all three officially Great Gray Groupies.  Melissa Wallestad, Josh's wife, snapped this photograph!  Josh's family came up to the cabin to join us too and would hang out with us every night of the trip after we got done birding.

January 30th was a completely different story than the previous day and it covered completely different habitats and birding grounds.  Our main target was Snowy Owl in the cities of Duluth, Minnesota and Superior, Wisconsin.  It was determined to be a day of some Superior birding around Duluth.  While we drove through stands of conifers, trees, and thick bogs on our first day, our second day of the trip was to fill it up with Snowy Owl searching along with some other epic avian targets in industrial and city habitats.

I don't know how many times when Josh was telling me stories on this day that I thought to myself, "You have got to be kidding me".  When Josh told me about where the Snowy Owls were being seen and what they were being seen perched on, that's when I kept thinking, "You have got to be kidding me".  When we went on the bridge that crosses from Duluth into Superior, Josh said, "The Snowy Owl will perch on top of this bridge at times".  When we drove past the airport and it's adjacent open fieldy areas, Josh said, "The Snowy Owl will perch on the buildings around here, in the field on the ground, or on any mound or pile of sticks". When we drove through town, Josh said, "The Snowy Owl will perch on any of these buildings, it has been seen throughout this stretch".  When we drove up to the store Menards, Josh said, "The Snowy Owl often perches on the store sign, in the parking lot, on the trucks, or anywhere in this area in general".  When we didn't find any Snowy Owls during our early morning search, Josh said, "It's pretty hard to find them in morning, evening is much better".  Snowy Owl searching was crazy.  And there was more than one in the area that we drove through.  Yes I knew it is a bird of open areas, but I was surprised how they can get used to being in human dominated environments.  Rodents are abound in areas like this, who can blame the Snowy Owls for wanting to be around this?  After all, these areas are open, and Josh said that Snowy Owls are not picky.  As we drove around in the morning without finding any Snowy Owls, it only helped us better prepare ourselves for the search in the evening.  Plus, Josh got Gordon and me a handful of lifers between the morning Snowy Owl search and the evening Snowy Owl search, which included this stunning Gyrfalcon.

Once the evening came about, the three of us drove and searched around the industrial Superior in fields, shopping lots, trash piles, light posts, and more.  There were many Snowy Owls found in this area, some of which were reliably seen time and time again by birders.  Most of the Snowy Owls in this area don't go undetected due to a researcher who captures them and marks them with a wing tag that has a number on it as well as rubbing black shoe polish over the head of the owl in order to study them further.  While the wing tag isn't the biggest deal on earth, I wasn't fond when I heard about the shoe polish on the head.  Either way, a Snowy Owl is a Snowy Owl.  Thanks to Minnesota birding legend Peder Svingen, who we talked to earlier in the day, he pointed us out to a location that he found to be very productive for a few Snowy Owls.  After what seemed to be hours of searching, we drove up to a FedEx building.  And I spied a whitish blob on top of a light post.  It was a Snowy Owl!

This Snowy Owl was an immature bird, as it has dark barring throughout it's body.  As you can see, it has a tag on it as well as a "black cap".

Getting the Snowy Owl late in the day as we did felt very rewarding after missing it in the morning.  Snowy Owls can be found in many places in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and other states in the winter.  They breed in the tundra of far northern climates in North America.  These owls are fierce predators and eat a variety of prey.  Although smaller than the Great Gray Owl lengthwise, the Snowy Owl is North America's bulkiest and heaviest owl, weighing in at four pounds.  After this Snowy Owl became my second owl lifer in two days, Josh, Gordon, and I were alerted to another and more white Snowy Owl just down the street on top of a pole.  We went to go see it, and it was a beautiful sight, despite the black polish on the bird.  While watching this bird, a noisy train passed by us to give the sighting an extra Superior feel.

I was amazed at the winter homes these Snowy Owls stay at.  Here is a neat picture that Josh snapped.  If you look closely, it has me, Gordon, and the Snowy Owl all in it.

After seeing the whiter Snowy Owl, we went back and had one more look at our first.  The first moved from the FedEx building over to a sign by a truck parking area.

After it SNOWed, we headed back to our base camp in Angora where we had dinner with Melissa, Evan, and Marin Wallestad.  We went to bed extra early, because we had a crazy day and drive ahead of us...

Roseau County in extreme northwest Minnesota was a 3.5 hour drive northwest of our base in Angora.  The county itself was just barely shy of the United States and Canadian border.  It was where our last major target of the trip was though, the Northern Hawk Owl.  While Northern Hawk Owls show up in Minnesota in good numbers during certain years as other owls do, this year was not an exception.  Sax-Sim Bog has had good Hawk Owl years with one being sighted earlier before we went, but it wasn't seen more than once.  However, three Hawk Owls were reported in this northwestern and uncovered part of Minnesota, and that was where we were headed.  As the three of us wanted to start early, we departed our Angora base at 4 A.M. on January 31st and traveled on our way to Roseau County.  Once arriving in Roseau, we took this road, Highway 310, towards the Canadian Border.  It was amazing to me that I was this far north..

Roseau County was a warm seven degrees outside.  Mother Nature gave us something mind blowing too.  Hoar frost was on every tree, which was one of the most incredible and beautiful things I have ever seen in my life.

Highway 310 and Sprague Creek Road were what we were exploring, and 310 is said to be one of the best locations to see Great Gray Owl in Minnesota.  As we were hoping to see another Gray, our souls were fixated on Northern Hawk Owl.  Birder Sandy Aubol had seen one earlier along this road before we made our trip.  Josh drove up to the border more than once, which oddly wasn't even being patrolled.  We made several up-and-down runs in search for the owl without any luck.  Josh asked if we wanted to take off and look for two other Hawk Owls that had been reported, or to give this one one last run.  Gordon and I opted to give this particular bird one last run, and good thing we did.  Josh beat me to the punch this time and was the first one of to notice the Northern Hawk Owl calmly perching along the road.

As I had daydreamed about Great Gray Owl and Northern Hawk Owl for years and with the two of them being my two most wanted birds in North America prior to this trip, it was crazy to have both of them under my belt in only three days.  The Northern Hawk Owl was just as phenomenal.  And here Josh, Gordon, and I were, looking at a Hawk Owl almost on the Canadian Border.

What exactly is a Northern Hawk Owl?  It's a question I'm sure comes to mind a bit when folks look at this oddly awesome bird.  It's body reminds me of a mix between a small hawk, a falcon, and a shrike.  Put those together, and paste the head of an owl on top of that.  It behaves like a hawk, and looks shrike-like in flight.  For some factoids on Northern Hawk Owls, they are 15 to 17" in length, making them much smaller than our previous huge Great Gray and Snowy Owl targets.  The Hawk Owl is the about same size as a Spotted Owl, a Long-eared Owl or a Short-eared Owl, or the size of an American Crow.  For this owl, the preferred habitat choice are clearings in boreal coniferous forest or muskeg bogs.  In these clearings, the Northern Hawk Owl is almost always seen perched on the top of a high tree, as mentioned before.  Just like a hawk.  Out of North America's 19 breeding owls, the Northern Hawk Owl is the most diurnal out of all of them.  This is because the sun seldom sets during the summer in the northern half of this owl's range, and the owl is adapted to such conditions.  The prey sources of this owl highly consist of rodents, but it will also take birds that are small to medium-sized.  Range wise, the Northern Hawk Owl lives throughout Alaska and Canada, and is typically scarce further south.  It does breed in some of Minnesota's very northern reaches.  Because the Hawk Owl has more of a varied diet than the other northern owls, invasions don't take place as much in such high numbers with this species.  During our observation, I looked back to see Gordon and Josh enjoying the sighting just as much as I was.

Josh delivered for us again to complete our three major targets of the trip, and each of the three days now had an epic owl of it's own.  This Northern Hawk Owl was extreme, but you know what else was extreme about it?  How it mixed in with that hoar frost scene...

Josh captured Gordon and me enjoying the Hawk Owl quite well!  My buddy Kurt Radamaker said of our observation:  "This is what birding is all about.  When a group of buddies travel to a remote area at the far edge of the country to see an amazing bird and have a blast while doing it".  And that is exactly what Josh, Gordon, and I did.  What a sighting, and what a time...

See the owl up there?

After that excitement, we then drove into the Beltrami Island State Forest south of Roseau to see another Northern Hawk Owl.  I spied it about a quarter mile away at first.  This one let Josh and me wade out to it while Gordon watched it through my scope from the road.  Turns out Josh and I never had to walk through the knee-deep snow for the distance that we did, because this second Hawk Owl flew very close to the road eventually!

We didn't know what Hawk Owl was better at first, the first or the second.  For me, the first was hands down the best when I thought of it.  A Hawk Owl on hoar frost can't be beaten.  You know what's amazing about Hawk Owls?  Josh Wallestad said it all:  "Its so awesome how barren and desolate life seems out here.  It's cold, you don't hear anything, but you look up and there is a Hawk Owl sitting there and it's the only moving thing in sight".

In the Beltrami Island State Forest, Josh, Gordon, and I drove on a dicey road for 3.6 miles.  It was too dicey to turn around because we would for sure get stuck in snow and ice.  This forest was a remote wilderness during the time frame, so I wouldn't call it comfortable.  Gordon looked like he was going to pee his pants he was so scared.  Josh went the simple way.  He just put the van in reverse and drove 3.6 miles backwards and we made it out safely.  I can tell that story for years...

As we started to finally drive home as the day was getting older, I got very tired and dozed off.  I didn't want to sleep, I still wanted to look for things.  Tiredness wins over continuously wanting to see things and continuously wanting to look for things in the long run on these trips.  After all, my mind was at ease.  We had specifically seen what we had come for, and each major owl target was seen on three different full birding excursions that we had taken.  I was starting to think of the remainder of the trip that we had remaining.  We had the following morning around the Wallestad's house for some birding, as well as some birding on the way back to the airport before Gordon and I would have to head back to Phoenix.  I really really really wanted to see another Great Gray Owl.  As I mentioned earlier in this chapter, we looked for a pair of Barred Owls that frequented Fort Snelling State Park, which is right by the airport.  That was one of our stops on the way back, and I was really excited at the potential of adding a fourth owl to my life list on this trip.  And on that fourth and final day, to add that bird would give me a new owl per day on the trip.  I thought the idea was awesome, and I was grateful for everything on the trip.  So I dozed off, because, we had won!

When I woke back up I was half awake.  We were on Highway 11 , which cruises right along the Canadian border, which the Minnesota line and Canadian line are in the middle of the Rainy River.  We could have parked, walked down to the river, and thrown a rock into Canada.  I was continuing to doze off and look at my iPod.  Every once-in-awhile, I would look out my window at the scenery.  As I was about to doze off again, Josh shouted out, "Great Gray maybe!!".  Josh slammed on the breaks and pointed out to us an owl that he had seen fly out of the surrounding forest and into a tree that was along the road.  Right when I saw it, it didn't strike me as a Great Gray..

I was the first person to raise my binoculars to look at the Owl.  "Guys, it's a BARRED OWL!!!"  The overbearing excitement was already back and it came out of the blue.  Josh had spied an incredible bird, and it was Gordon's and my fourth owl lifer of the trip.  And it couldn't have come at a better time.  We were looking at our first Barred Owl, and it was one that Josh had discovered.  There's something awesome about finding your own things on trips.  I knew that we had the Fort Snelling Barred Owls to go after on the following day, but this was much better.  The Fort Snelling Barreds were bubblegum compared to this Josh-discovered Barred!

This Barred Owl had emerged from the forest with just enough light left in the day for us to capture photographs.  It seemed to be very active, and most importantly, it sat there for a good two minutes to give the three of us outstanding views.  

Barred Owls are large owls that live in a variety of climates and habitats.  Their classic hooting that birders often refer to as, "Who-cooks-for-you?  Who-cooks-for-you?", often echoes in swampy forests where they inhabit.  This owl's North American range covers almost all of eastern North America, much of Canada, and it is expanding it's range more into the northwestern United States.  Barred Owls are about 21" in length and they especially prefer wet woods and swampy forests as their primary habitat choice.  They are skilled hunters and will take prey that includes rodents, birds, frogs, and crayfish.  Something awesome about this bird are the big black eyes that they have.  The Spotted Owl is very closely related to the Barred Owl.  As Spotted Owl is 17" in length and the Barred is as I mentioned 21" in length, there is quite a size difference between the two.  Interestingly, the two species will sometimes interbreed where their ranges meet in the northwest.  It isn't good news for Spotted Owls, as they have a much smaller North American range than the Barred Owl does.  The Spotted Owl isn't an aggressive bird, but vise versa, the Barred Owl is a very aggressive bird.  Both of these birds belong to the owl genus Strix, which is also shared with them by that magnificent Great Gray Owl.  Seeing a Barred Owl unexpected like this really gave this sighting a high ranking for the trip.

At the start of the trip, the Barred Owl was overshadowed by the three northern owls.  In the long run, this is a much more common owl.  But I will say, seeing this for the first time was right up there with the other owls.  In the surprising way that we encountered this Barred Owl is another thing that makes the hobby of birding a great thing.  What a way to get my lifer, along a highway!  The Owl eventually flew deeper into the woods and probably into Canada.  Josh Wallestad=the birding guide of the year!

On our way home, I spied this Great Horned Owl on a treetop as it was getting dark, giving us 5 owl species for the trip.  

The three full days of birding had gone by very fast.  Time sure flies when your having fun, and the trip was the best birding trip that I have ever been on in my life to date.  The night concluded with us going to a nice local restaurant.  We picked up Melissa and the four of us ate a nice dinner.  It was my first ever time of eating Walleye, and that meal was a perfect way to celebrate being in Minnesota and having a great first-time Minnesota birding trip.  With hours and hours and miles and miles of driving on the third day, the trip to northwestern Minnesota was worth the time and drive.  It was amazing to get off the beaten path where most birders wouldn't have wanted to drive to to see their first Northern Hawk Owls.  With Hawk Owls being scarce in the United States over the winter, Gordon, Josh, and I probably had the most out of anyone in the U.S. for the winter-two!

February 1st was spent birding around Angora and working our way back to the Minneapolis airport.  Josh's son Evan joined us.  Gordon and I found Josh and Evan a key Black-backed Woodpecker near the Angora home which was exciting, and the rest of the trip was about looking for more owls that were Northern Saw-whet, Long-eared, Barred, and Snowy Owls.  The first two would be in remote locations and the latter two would be the ones we tried for on the first night.  Sadly, we missed the Saw-whet Owl but we got the other three.  Long-eared Owl added an owl tick to the trip to give us six owls in Minnesota.  More on Long-eared Owls later.  The Snowy Owl was at the Airport and left us craving more of him, and the Barred Owl was at Fort Snelling State Park.

All great things have to come to an end, just like the epic trip to Minnesota.  What a trip it was for adding new life birds and overall fun.  The time with Josh and Gordon was a blast, and Josh was the best birding guide that I've ever had.

Chapter 2:  Entertaining A Crazy Idea

After Minnesota, I often found myself thinking about owls and owling.  I made plans to go owling a lot.  One trip took me all the way south to southeastern Arizona where I was about a mile away from the Mexican border.  I was looking for Short-eared Owls in Santa Cruz County's San Rafael Grasslands.  There wasn't a Short-eared Owl in sight, but I found it funny that just weeks earlier I was north enough to drive up to the Canadian Border and this time I was south enough know.  San Rafael though, what a place..

The Short-eared Owl was one at the time that I had only seen once in my entire life, also from the San Rafael Grasslands.  I wanted better looks at one and certainly better photographs than a blurry and ugly photo grab off of an old video camera still.  This had left a void inside that I wanted to fill.  I almost felt like Short-eared Owl was still a life bird even though I already had it once.  After Minnesota, I had 17 out of the 19 North American Owls on my life list.  I found myself thinking about wanting to go see them as well.  The two remaining owls I had left were the common Eastern Screech-Owl and the rare and elusive Boreal Owl of the north.  I especially wanted the Boreal Owl, and after getting Great Gray Owl and Northern Hawk Owl in Minnesota, it had become my most wanted bird.  While I had fun with thinking about these owls, I began to go out owling a lot more and enjoy the ones I had near me or further afield.  A thought even crossed my mind:  "I should try to see and photograph every owl in North America this year".  I began to think about it more and more and more.  I kept asking myself, "Could I possibly do that?".....

On Wednesday night, February 24th, I found myself at home talking to my brother Tyler and asking his opinion on what I should do with a Northern Saw-whet Owl search I found myself wanting to attempt nocturnally in Prescott, Arizona.  My choices were to drive up that night or wake up horribly early and go the next morning.  I decided on going early in the morning, where I would not only target Saw-whet Owl but other owls too.  Something else I wanted to do was to get myself fired up for this year's upcoming owl season, especially those searches that would be on the nocturnal side of things.  When I purchased my new camera, I hadn't taken it out at night to practice night shots at all.  I figured that to do such, I should start off simple by finding the most cooperative owl in the world of nocturnal birding.  I went out to Maricopa County's Lower Salt River Recreation Area to do such, and to look for my target.  If you go to this owl's home, he'll invite you in almost every time...

This owl is a Western Screech-Owl.  The Western Screech-Owl is a smaller owl that inhabits western North America and is found throughout the state of Arizona in a variety of different habitats.  It is a very common owl and it's array of habitats include low and high deserts, suburban areas, riparian corridors, and juniper and oak woodlands.  The Western Screech-Owl is a very fierce and skilled predator, as it feeds on a selection of small mammals, birds, reptiles, insects, and more.  Because it is primarily nocturnal, this owl is very difficult to locate in the daylight.  On the other hand, it is usually very cooperative for birders at night.  

Western Screech-Owls are often tame, and that was the case on this night.  I would practically walk right up to them, and some of these birds weren't too far above eye level.  These owls are a little strange too.  While sitting there, they sometimes appear motionless with the exception of the width of how open their eyes are, which changes pretty quickly.  The Western Screech-Owl itself a versatile appearance in many ways.  It can look slim, and it can look fat.  It can look mean, and it can look friendly.  It can look like a round-headed owl one second, and then it will show it's ear tufts the next second.  A neat but bizarre bird, and one that is sure fun to observe in the field.

The song of the Western Screech-Owl is serenading.  This owl will call often throughout the night, which makes it's location easier to locate.  The sound sounds similar to a bouncing ball, and it is usually a very noticeable sound if the owl is within good range.

This outing was thought of at first to be a practice shoot for upcoming owling trips when I thought of how I am going to photograph birds at night in the upcoming year.  Even though that was the initial goal, I found myself enjoying the Western Screech-Owls a lot, and it turned out to be much more than just a practice run.  It's always neat to hear these owls vocalizing and duet ting back-and-fourth, but these owls were extra cooperative on this night.

After I was going to leave the Salt River at about 9, the Screech-Owl in the photos forced me to stay for another 45 minutes.  I got home close to 11 P.M., and feel asleep shortly before midnight.  My alarm was set to 2 A.M., and after getting two hours of sleep, I was then off to Prescott to search for Northern Saw-whet Owls on February 25th, leaving at 3.  Arriving in Prescott at 5 A.M, I spent the next hour and change looking for Saw-whet Owls along a creek in midst of oak and ponderosa pine forest where I had had multiple Saw-whets before.  What I thought would be a sure bet, turned into a shear regret.  The birds were silent.  What the heck?  After seeing that others had them at the location easily a few weeks ago and the fact I was here on December 31st and had four of them reply back to me constantly throughout the evening made me think these birds would go off again.  But perhaps the evening and night is better for them.  And perhaps by the time their shift is almost over in the latter hours of darkness, maybe they are done calling?  Who knows, I would try and go back soon.  At night.  That's what birding is all about, you have hits and misses.  I did have two Great Horned Owls calling in Prescott, as well as my ninth Western Screech-Owl in that same period of darkness (I had eight at Coon Bluff).

While birding around Prescott until noon after the miss, I missed my second owl target in the area, which was a Barn Owl.  Oh well, I'll try again in the Phoenix area.  I did get my first ever Yavapai County Eastern Phoebe, and I also searched for a Red-shouldered Hawk there that didn't show up for me at Willow Lake.  Many birds were around though, as both Willow and Watson Lakes are awesome.

My last stop of the day targeted my fourth hopeful owl of the prowl.  This owl is one of my favorites to pursue because it is extremely tough to see and if I can catch sight of an individual perched before it decides to take off, I consider it a huge accomplishment.  These owls are the masters of camouflage, and they can make you feel just plain stupid when they take off at close range from a branch tangle you are already looking at.  This particular owl is in this picture.   Can you make any of it out?  I will say, if you look hard enough, you can see the birds breast, bill, side of head, and talons. 

The picture above showed this owl right as it was about to take off.  Unfortunately,  I spied the owl once I walked past it, and it knows whether I am looking at it or not.  When I caught sight of it, I played it cool for a few minutes before it decided to leave.  If only I had spied it sooner.  Here's another view from a different pose.  For this moment, I would almost say this is easy to spy compared to other tangles of crap that this owl likes to hide in.  If this is generous, wow...

I took a few steps to get at a slightly better angle.  As you can see now, it's a Long-eared Owl.  And man, can they blend in or what!  They aren't a small owl by any means either, they just know what they are doing and they do it well..

Long-eared Owls do not like people, including me.  They are very sensitive to human disturbance.  When I look for one and find one, I limit myself to how many times I follow it once it flushes.  In this circumstance, it is different.  I know of a day roost for Long-eared Owls in Arizona that I will keep undisclosed (undisclosed means don't ask me where I see these birds at).  They like a dense tangle of trees, and there are plenty of Long-eared Owls in this tangle.  I try to see them perched first, but because they spook easily and hide better than Waldo, that is usually not the case.  Once they fly, they are obvious and as soon as they land in another tree they are usually back inside of another dense tangle or at the opposite side of a tree.  They flush in almost a single file line, and once the many owls flush, they land in many other different trees. 

Most of the Long-eared Owls flush into similar tangles of branches within trees compared to the tree that they were roosting in.  Some of them will land in more open areas than others on occasion.  I love it when they do this! 

They are almost always in thick shady areas.  Even with this one being perched relatively in the open, it would still be overlooked by most without a careful scan with binoculars.

As I walked through the grove of trees, the Long-eared Owls would continue to flush, but not all of them.  Because I knew in general where some of them were, it wasn't completely hard as long as I scrutinized every branch, leaf, and tangle.  And finally, there was a cooperative one.  For the next thirty minutes, I walked a total of 30 feet in an attempt to view this guy better.

Long-eared Owls are rather widespread throughout much of North America.  The Long-eared Owl isn't common like Great Horned is, but is present in smaller numbers and of course it is very hard to locate quite often.  Long-eared Owls can be found in a variety of different habitats throughout their range.  In Arizona, they may breed in lowland deserts all the way up to coniferous forests where food sources can chase such breeding preferences during any given year.  Typically, they like to nest and roost in stands of dense trees that have openings nearby.  Most birders find Long-eared Owls at winter roost sites where owls may join together with numbers from anywhere to a few birds up to double digits.

The Long-eared Owl isn't heard as often as some of the owls at night, but the male's call is rather low and isn't the easiest to detect.  The female gives a harsh nasal hoot, which may be easier to hear than the call of the male.  These owls nest in abandoned nests that have been made by other large birds.  Long-eared Owls feed on small mammals and birds.  I once walked down a desert wash and saw a few Long-eared Owls throughout the wash.  When it started to get dark out, I started to see them beginning to fly and dive around at the ground at what looked to be prey.  They would then sit on a low perch and repeat the sequence.  But this time on February 25th, 2016, they wanted to sit in a grove of thick trees.

The crazy owl prowl on February 24th and 25th lasted about 20 hours.  It resulted in two out of my four owl targets being seen.  It made me hungry for more...

Chapter 3:  The Decision

After the big owl prowl, I was sick of thinking about doing a North American Owl Big Year.  I made the decision to do and attempt a North American Owl Big Year.  The primary goal for each species was to SEE and PHOTOGRAPH every owl.  That's right, I had to get a photograph of each bird in order for it to count as an Owl Big Year tick.  Heard only birds are awesome too, and that would become a secondary objective.  On March 6th (about a week after I had made up my mind to attempt the Owl Big Year but hadn't gone public with it), I wrote to announce:  

"A North American Owl Big Year?  What?  Yes, that is my birding goal this year.  I want to see and photograph every owl in North America this year.  It's going to be a tough task, and I don't even know yet if I'll be able to make an attempt at all 19 species, but as of right now, that is what I'm shooting for.  Owls are my favorite family of birds, which makes this goal a lot of fun.  Secondary goals include what owls I can also hear, which two species this year (Northern Pygmy-Owl and Whiskered Screech-Owl) I have only heard and not seen.  I don't see it being a problem with me eventually locking eyes with those two species and getting some cool photographs of them to go along with the sighting.  But the main goal is to see and photograph every owl.  And of course, on these trips I get to do a lot of birding besides the owling birding.  Right now I am hustling and am trying hard to get some of those harder owls here in Arizona out of the way".

It was funny because I had seen several Burrowing Owls during the year but hadn't photographed any yet despite having seen so many of them (they are very common).  Even though I had seen them visually, I still couldn't count them on my North American Owl Big Year until I got a photograph.

On March 2nd, I set out to look for the endangered and rare Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl.  Caleb Strand and I joined forces and set out to explore the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in pursuit of the small Pygmy-Owl.  This species is very common in Mexico, but is yet rare and endangered in it's limited United States range in southern Arizona and southern Texas.  These owls used to range as far north as central and northern Maricopa County in Arizona, but the last confirmed record in Maricopa County was from the Salt River in 1971.  With a lot of Maricopa County's very southern reaches being on Indian Land that is inaccessible, it wouldn't surprise me if the owl is in one of those areas.  I had only seen one Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl in my life prior to 2016, and that was at the Organ Pipe Monument in May of 2014.  It was an awesome day.  By looking at the scenic pictures above, you can see that Organ Pipe is a very scenic place.  The desert there is lush and full of vegetation.  If the owls are missing-in-action, then the scenery is a positive plus to fall back on.  Caleb and I tried and tried and searched and searched several different areas on the Monument for this bird.  Long story short, we didn't succeed, but it wasn't for a lack of effort by any means.  Organ Pipe isn't all that far of a drive for me and I knew that I would be trying again.  After all, it really wasn't the peak time for the owls to start calling even though it was still a good time to hear them calling.  It would have been nice to get them as early as possible so I wouldn't have had to go back again, but hey, it's a neat spot I should bird more of.  Most importantly, Caleb and I had a great time birding together and enjoying the Monument.

Caleb and I agreed that the day shouldn't be owlless, and we decided to search for Burrowing Owls on the way home in the Buckeye area.  The Burrowing Owl was the first owl I saw for 2016 on January 1st, but I saw it by Tres Rios while quickly driving through the area, I never enjoyed it or photographed it.  Technically, enjoying a Burrowing Owl and getting a picture of it would make it a Big Year Bird.  And by Caleb's house, that is exactly what we did.  This Burrowing Owl frequented a nearby canal and it allowed Caleb and I to get up close and personal.

We never even had to leave my truck for the Burrowing Owl to become my eighth species for the Big Year.  Caleb snapped this picture of me with the cooperative owl in the background.

After I dropped Caleb off at home, I found a pair of Burrowing Owls along a canal.  This was a great experience, and the male was really loving his female.

He did his best to make her look as pretty as possible over and over and over again...

The Burrowing Owl is unique among North American Owls.  It is often active by day and can commonly been seen perched along roads, with birds being seen on posts, signs, canal edges, telephone pole wires, and more.  They are adapted to living near humans and utilize the burrows that have been dug out by mammals including squirrels and prairie dogs.  It is the easiest owl to see in Arizona.

Burrowing Owls are found throughout much of western North America and are scarce in eastern North America.  They are found in open areas such as agricultural areas, grasslands and prairies, airports, and more.  Burrowing Owls hunt small rodents at night and they are actually more active at night despite being so visible and often active during the day.

The Burrowing Owl is declining over much it's range due to habitat loss.  Many consider squirrels and prairie dogs as pests and they use poison control programs to wipe them out.  Without those mammals, the owls will have many problems finding homes.  As a result, people have made Burrowing Owl homes for these owls in places and it has helped the population of these ground-dwelling birds significantly.

When March 3rd, Thursday, came about, I had more owling that I wanted to do and I had several options.  The day at Organ Pipe wore me out and I wasn't sure about getting up super early to go birding at Mount Ord to search for high elevation Maricopa County birds with Northern Pygmy-Owls in mind or to relax during the day and go somewhere at night.  I didn't set an alarm clock so I could let my body have a natural amount of rest and by the time I woke up, it was later than when I would have wanted to get up if I was to go to Mount Ord.  After I got up, I decided I wanted to make another attempt at the Northern Saw-whet Owls in Prescott.  Because I missed them the previous week in Prescott and because of the fact I knew that I was in a great time frame to hear them singing away at night, I had a strong feeling to go back.  Because I did have a long wait ahead of me before I would start my trip to Prescott, I decided to search for Barn Owls at a Phoenix location.  Last week in Prescott, I looked for a Barn Owl that has been seen underneath a bridge at times, without luck.  It was all about revenge on missing Prescott owls!  I wanted to see if the Phoenix bridge would treat me any better.  Sure enough it did, and I got to see two Barn Owls at the location, my 9th owl of the Big Year.  The first Barn Owl I saw is usually at this location whenever I see it and it is usually pretty reliable.  The reason I say usually is because I tried for it in January without any luck.

The first time I ever saw a Barn Owl came very unexpectedly when I was playing a game of basketball with my buddies in Glendale, Arizona.  As we were seeing who could reach 21 quicker than another, we heard a loud chilling screeching sound coming from overhead.  We caught sight of a largish white bird flying overhead.  I knew right away that it was a Barn Owl.  My friends started laughing at what happened, and when I told them what it was, they were quite shocked.  "In the middle of the city!?", they asked.  I told them that they would be surprised.  True to the basketball experience with this bird, Barn Owls are seen in man-made areas very often.  They roost and nest under bridges, barns, and various buildings.  In Arizona they prefer open areas close to statewide with such structures nearby, as well as riparian areas and lowland deserts as their other most frequently used habitat choice.  Groves of trees are good places to look in suburban areas, as well as under bridges and in willow and cottonwood riparian zones.

The Barn Owl is strictly nocturnal in it's activities, but there are times where it may be observed under bridges and if one is lucky to find one at it's daytime roost in a riparian area.  Barn Owls are very distinctive in their appearance, having a heart-shaped face and almost appearing "monkey-like" at times.  They are the one owl in their genus that could be found in North America, and they don't belong to the Strigidae complex (True Owls) but are in the Barn Owl family (Tytonidae).  Barn Owls mainly feed on rodents but will also take birds.

On average, most people would walk under this bridge and wouldn't notice that it had a Barn Owl roosting underneath it!

As the afternoon came about, it was time to head up to Prescott to search for Northern Saw-whet Owls.  Something cool about my owl obsession is that it took me to far away places in 2016 and pushed me to new limits.  We all remember the Minnesota trip where I owl lifered four times.  I wasn't thinking North American Owl Big Year during that trip, but it gave me the strong desire to attempt it!  Other limits the year had broken had been my willingness to take longer trips alone.  The jaunt down to southeastern Arizona's San Rafael Grasslands to strike out on Short-eared Owls was one example.  I had never liked going far beyond Maricopa County for trips on my own.  After asking four friends about Short-eared Owling and after none of them could go, it proved to be good for me to do something like that alone.  I didn't find a Short-eared Owl, but it only left me looking forward to my next attempt.  Another limit I broke had been my willingness to bird alone in the dark.  A lot of that fear has been overcome, and with owling, many of those outings have to be owled at alone in the dark in order to be successful.  I'm not very scared of desert owling at night, but forest owling at night is pretty creepy.  With adrenaline rushing, I missed Saw-whet Owls the previous week in the Prescott forest in the dark.  And on the night of March 3rd, I was ready to try it again!  I left Phoenix at 3:30 P.M. and got to Prescott around 5:30 P.M. with plans of looking for Northern Saw-whet Owls at two creeks in the area.  In 2015 on December 31st, Susan Fishburn and I had an astonishing 4-5 Saw-whets in a close area of each other at one of these creeks.  I went back very early in the morning of the previous week only to strike out on them.  After wondering if it was because it was in the latter hours of darkness that they weren't calling, I felt better about my evening and first-hours-of-dark chances.  I met up with Prescott birder Felipe Guerrero for awhile at Banning Creek, and he gave me some tips on finding Saw-whets here as well as the second creek I was going to stop at.  Felipe heard a Saw-whet before I arrived in the area, and there was still a lot of light left in the day!  Felipe also told me some surprising facts about Northern Saw-whet Owls in Prescott: they are more numerous than people would ever think! 

After Felipe left I was alone in the darkness for the next hour-and-a-half, trying for Saw-whet Owls.  Things started to get to me as I was getting skunked...again.  I even had a close encounter with a Javelina walking by at about 30 feet away from me.  As I searched through the pine, oak, and juniper forest along the creek, I was starting to lose hope.  I went back to where Felipe had heard his Saw-whet Owl and decided to stand there for a good twenty minutes.  At last, the small owl finally called lazily for about twenty seconds before going quiet.  I felt like my hopes were shot and I decided to go to the next creek that Felipe was telling me about.  To be honest, I was bummed, and I was starting to think that I would have to make more trips to get Saw-whet Owls for this Owl Big Year...

Every stop brings something different..right?  When I got to this next creek, I leaned out my truck and I could hear a Northern Saw-whet Owl constantly giving it's rapid "toot" song!  I quickly grabbed my stuff and started to make my way up the creek, which was also lined by ponderosa pine, oak, and juniper.  As I made my way up to where the owl was calling, I could constantly hear this one going off.  At times this owl can sound very loud and it's voice really carries.  What seemed to be closer to my vehicle was actually pretty far.  As the owl would get louder, the terrain would get steeper.  Before I knew it, I was running up a ravine.  Luckily, the owl was starting to get close.  Felipe told me that despite Saw-whet Owls are almost always tame-acting, they do get spooked very easily by flashlights.  As I got to within feet of where the owl was calling in front of me, it all of a sudden stopped calling with the more that I scanned with my light.  I said to myself, "crap".  I looked down and the creek was well below me and the highway was too.  I was out of breath and was hoping the bird would continue calling.  Luckily, a minute later, it started to constantly go off again.  As I tracked it down, I had my first look at a Northern Saw-whet Owl in 2016, at about 9 P.M.!

When the Saw-whet Owl left the second time, he flew lower into the ravine and started calling again immediately.  As I approached the calling bird, I scanned almost every limb of the trees it was calling from with my light and I couldn't find it.  I then noticed a hole at the side of the tree.  And in that hole was the bird!  Wow, just wow...

The owl sat there for a few minutes before moving on to a different perch.  It was perhaps the coolest site I've had of this species.  Northern Saw-whet Owls are known to vocalize for hours upon hours during breeding season, and that was exactly the rate this bird was going for.  Unlike a lot of other Arizona owls, Saw-whets will start breeding in February and March and will go almost silent throughout the rest of the year a lot of times.  Because of this, many miss out on seeing this bird most years.  After Saw-whet left the hole, I followed it around to more and more of it's perches.  At one point, I whistled an imitation of the Owl, and it came right in and up close to me out of curiosity.  

One of the calls this small owl gives sounds similar to a saw being whetted or sharpened, which is where this bird gets it's name:  Northern Saw-whet Owl.  This owl ranges throughout the year in western North America, breeds in southern Canada, and then winters throughout eastern North America as well as the species also being resident in states near the Great Lakes.  In Arizona, Northern Saw-whet Owls are usually difficult to find.  This is because this owl breeds earlier in the year than most, and it often starts breeding in high elevation forests in March and April.  Snow is still on the ground in a lot of these places, and wimpy birders aren't (myself included).  Northern Saw-whet Owls are thought of as being more scarce in Arizona, but because there aren't many folks looking for birds when they are more frequently calling, they are probably more numerous than we may realize.  Northern Saw-whet Owls give the impression of a cute and fuzzy owl, but despite that impression, they are very skilled and fierce hunters.  Birds, small mammals, insects, and more are at risk when this owl is around.  My friends commented that this Saw-whet Owl in Prescott destroyed that "cute" impression that the species beholds.  This bird had a angry look to it and was all about business!

At times, the Saw would sing higher in pine trees.  Perhaps it makes his voice carry much further.  An endless and high pitched: toot, toot, toot, toot, toot, toot, toot, toot, toot, toot, toot (repeat X 100)

The final time I got close to Mr. Saw before he consistently moved up into tall pine trees to broadcast call away really showed this species fearlessness and bravery.  Perhaps it saw me as another animal in the forest, like a deer?  As this Saw-whet's mate passed over his head, he followed her for a short distance.  I could see his mate fly in to greet him, and she then went to another nearby perch.  But he then landed below my eye level in a small pine tree.  I walked right up to him, and looked him in the eye for about a minute from less than five feet away.  Wow, what a sight it was.  

After awhile, I found myself back down at the creek and enjoying the sound of the Saw-whet Owl as the male continued to vocalize non-stop.  At one point, I think he went on for thirty minutes straight.  I left after an hour-and-a-half's worth of sheer fun.  I love Saw-whet Owls, they are one of my favorites.  When I was a little kid in science class in fourth grade, we did a unit on owls in science class.  We dissected pellets and split up into groups, where each group had a different owl that they had to research.  Whatever owl each group had, the group would then get up in front of the class and talk about that owl.  My group got the Northern Saw-whet Owl and this bird always intrigued me from that day on.  Perhaps that is why I get stoked whenever I have a chance to see this bird, there are some deep roots going way back!  A huge thanks went out to Felipe Guerrero for his help on finding  Prescott locations.  The Northern Saw-whet Owl was my 10th owl of my North American Owl Big Year.

On March 5th, Dominic Sherony wanted to be a part of the excitement on my owl searches.  The two of us teamed up and decided to head up to Mount Ord at the northeastern tip of Maricopa County.  We were excited to search for the high elevation bird life within the County as well as search for another owl, the  Northern Pygmy-Owl.  Northern Pygmy-Owls are very small, chubby, and fierce owls and are very well-named.  Because their preferred habitat is forest dominated by pines, Mount Ord is an excellent place to look.  Dominic and I hiked down Forest Road 1688 and listened for the small owl.  We went to a territory that I knew about and after thirty minutes worth of searching and listening at the spot, we finally heard our target calling.  Unfortunately, it was calling above us from a very steep ravine.  This area had a mix of burned trees, thorny scrub bushes everywhere, oaks, and pines.  Live forest with burned forest is something the Northern Pygmy-Owl often likes.  After we hustled to get up to the spot, the bird stopped calling.  Dominic and I were both out of breath as we stopped and as the owl stopped.  I felt as if my chest was going to explode from running uphill.  As we waited some time in frustration before it started calling again, we thought we were going to strike out.  Luckily, when it called the second time, it called long enough for me to get a pinpoint on where it was this time around.  Several Olive Warblers came to the scene.  After scanning some oak and pine trees, I saw a little blob sitting in a pine, and it was our owl!  Can you make out the chubby bird?

Here is a zoomed up version of the above photo.

As Dominic was down the ridge, he came running back up when I told him I had the bird.  We had to climb over rocks and logs and bushwhack through thorny plants which did cut me up in places.  But Pygmy-Owls are worth it.  Dominic and I both enjoyed the bird as it sat there high in a pine tree.  Every once-in-awhile, it would look down on us.

The Northern Pygmy-Owl inhabits western forests in North America that consist of mixed-conifer and oak.  They often like broken patches within these forests.  The Northern Pygmy-Owl is a diurnal raptor, meaning that it is active during the daytime.  Although it isn't much larger than a sparrow, this owl is a very fierce predator.  One would think that because of the Northern Pygmy-Owl's small size and daytime habits, that it would be very vulnerable to being prey by a larger raptor.  Careful design has given this owl protection from other predators, and it is something I find amazing every time I look at this bird.  False eye spots on the back of it's head make bigger predators think it is already watching them!  The Northern Pygmy-Owl is fearless, and it will often take prey much larger than itself.  Small mammals, small to medium-sized birds, reptiles, and insects are all at risk when this owl is present.  Northern Pygmy-Owls are usually fearless of people too.  There have been times where I've been birding only to look up and see this little owl feet above my head.

It was great to have Dominic along to enjoy the fun of getting my year's 11th owl!

I had a long ways to go for the Big Year, but hey, the Northern Saw-whet Owl was my halfway mark and the Northern Pygmy-Owl put me over the halfway mark at 11.  

The Owls I had at this point were (for this Big Year, species had to be both seen and photographed to count):

Barn Owl
Long-eared Owl
Great Horned Owl
Snowy Owl
Barred Owl
Great Gray Owl
Northern Saw-whet Owl
Burrowing Owl
Western Screech-Owl
Northern Pygmy-Owl
Northern Hawk Owl

Owls I had heard only:

Whiskered Screech-Owl

Owls that I had remaining to be seen and photographed:

Short-eared Owl
Spotted Owl
Boreal Owl
Flammulated Owl
Whiskered Screech-Owl
Eastern Screech-Owl
Elf Owl
Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl

A Strategy I came up with and wrote about:
"For the remainder of this 2016 goal, the obvious goal is the get to see and photograph eight more birds.  Three of those owls:  Spotted, Elf, and Whiskered Screech-Owls will most likely be easy to get.  If Flammulated Owls are tried for enough, they should be seen and photographed also.  The Short-eared Owl will require several winter trips to San Rafael Grasslands this upcoming winter while the endangered Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl will needed to be searched for carefully at Organ Pipe.  That leaves me with Eastern Screech-Owl and Boreal Owl, which will require trips out of Arizona..."

Chapter 4:  Growing Whiskers for the Owl Big Year

My next owling expedition took me back to southeastern Arizona on the night of March 9th, 2016, where I would camp out at Bog Springs Campground in Madera Canyon and would stay half of the next day on March 10th exploring the Old Baldy Trail within the Santa Rita Mountains.  I was after a small owl that favors oak woodlands, and that owl has a restricted United States range that consists of southeastern Arizona and extreme southwestern New Mexico.  That bird is the Whiskered Screech-Owl, which is mainly a Mexican bird.  Because of it's limited range in the United States, the Whiskered Screech-Owl is highly sought after by birders visiting southeastern Arizona.  With that introduction out of the way, here is a picture from Bog Springs Campground.  I've gone camping many times in my life alone.  Every time I have gone camping alone I have either slept in my truck or in my truck bed.  This time, I finally set up a tent and stayed in a campground.  And that aspect of it turned out to be very fun. 

Madera Canyon is a beautiful place.  Birds were all over the grounds including Bridled Titmouse, Hutton's Vireo, Magnificent Hummingbird, Painted Redstart, Mexican Jay, Arizona Woodpecker, Yellow-eyed Junco, and more.  I enjoyed the beautiful Madera Canyon for two hours before it got dark out.  And most of Madera Canyon has great Whiskered Screech-Owl habitat...oak forests.

Once it was starting to get dark out, I heard a few Great Horned Owls calling back to each other, and a Northern "Mountain" Pygmy-Owl burst into a quick series of toot notes.  Once it got completely dark, the Whiskered Screech-Owls started to call.  In the world of North American Owls, this species is one of the neatest as far as vocalizations go.  The sound of the Whiskered Screech-Owl sounds like morse code, especially when a pair of these owls are dueting.  As I walked around in the woods by myself, I soon started to hear that awesome sound.  I took out my recorder, give this a listen...

Because Screech-Owls are cooperative for viewing in general, I quickly found a Whiskered Screech-Owl visually, who then cooperated for photographs.  Right then, it became my 12th owl for my North American Owl Big Year!  

This is a neat owl.  Visually, the Whiskered Screech-Owl may look very similar to a Western Screech-Owl, but there are several visual factors that help separate the two.  One is that the Whiskered Screech-Owl has short and thick dark streaks well spread throughout it's front side that gives the species more of a heavy barred and "spotted look".  Another factor is the bill color on the bird.  While Western Screech-Owl has a dark blackish-bill, Whiskered Screech-Owl has a light gray to yellowish bill.  My favorite identification factor is that Whiskered Screech-Owl has much smaller talons than the Western Screech-Owl does.  The Western has huge feet, and the Whiskered Screech-Owl has noticeably small feet.  When Whiskered sits on a branch, it almost reminds me of how a Rough-legged Hawk utilizes branches.

With these factors mentioned, Screech Owl visuals aren't that hard to separate after all.  Also, if the two species happened to hang out together, the Western would probably look a lot bigger.  The Western Screech-Owl is 8.5 inches in length and the Whiskered Screech-Owl is 7.25 inches in length.  Want to see a quick comparison?  Here is a Whiskered:

And here is a Western:

In the two pictures above, look at the bill color, the streaking, and the sizes of the feet.  And of course, the two species sound entirely different while vocalizing.  The Whiskered Screech-Owl has a very small range in North America.  They are only found in southeastern Arizona and extreme southwestern New Mexico.  Although they overlap with Western Screech-Owls in places, Whiskered Screech-Owls are usually found in oak woodlands at higher elevations than Westerns typically are.  This owl feeds on insects more so, and doesn't have as varied of a diet as it's Western cousin. 

The more I spent Whiskered Screech-Owling over the next four hours, the funner things got.   I owled the Madera Canyon Amphitheater area, the Madera Canyon Picnic Area and road near the picnic area, the entrance road to Bog Springs Campground, and finally, Bog Springs Campground itself.  The night was filled with these small owls, as I tallied 15 Whiskered Screech-Owls in total over these four locations.  And those who have birded Madera know that these locations are very very close to each other.  There are many Whiskered Screech-Owls in the Santa Ritas!  This is a bird I have only seen twice prior to this night, so it was more fun combined with all of the previous encounters I have ever had with this species.  Here is a series of photographs I took of many different Whiskered Screech-Owls that I tracked down during the night.  

As I made my way into my tent and got some sleep, I woke up at times during the night.  Those times of waking up weren't without further morse-code and tooting calls of the Whiskered Screech-Owl near my camp.  What a cool little owl, and what a fun night.  

Over the years, I haven't had much on the caffeine way of things.  But wow, it sure wakes you up.  Perhaps it would've saved me from being a grouch on many birding trips with friends (sorry guys).  But I had found a new addiction..Dr. Pepper.  I had forgotten how much I loved this stuff.  Long story short, it kept me awake on these crazy owling trips.  Thank you Dr. Pepper.  I had 12 owls down at this point, and 7 more to go..

Chapter 5:  Back to the Desert to Search For A Rare Owl

As my North American Owl Big Year had gotten off to a great start, there was still a lot of work to do to complete the goal I had set for myself for my birding year of 2016.  The remaining owl count was seven species that I needed to see and photograph to complete my Big Year.  I was hoping to get four of those seven owls in the next month, which were Elf, Spotted, Flammulated, and Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl.  The latter, the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, is primarily a Mexican owl that has a very small range in the United States in Texas and Arizona.  While this small owl is common in Mexico, it is very rare and declining in North America, where it is an endangered species.  Unlike it's forest dwelling cousin in the Northern Pygmy-Owl, the Ferruginous favors the opposite habitat such as densely vegetated desert settings dominated by paloverde and mesquite trees, and habitats that have many saguaro cactus lining their habitat.   As I had already missed this owl once before on this Owl Big Year, I was wanting to make a second attempt at landing it.  And I was ready!

March 28th, 2016.  Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was the destination for searching for the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, once again.  This Monument is a neat place, and one I like to visit, owl or not.  With me having two out-of-state owling trips planned for the upcoming summer and with me needing more for Arizona by the end of April to set my pace to being comfortable for the Big Year, the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl was one that I had been wanting to get and one that I certainly didn't want to put off.  Besides, I had seen only one of these birds in my entire life and I really wanted to see one for only the second time in my life.  With sketchy wind conditions over the day I would be looking, I had a risk to take in trying for this bird on the 28th, but it was a risk I was willing to take.  I invited Tyler Loomis to join me on the search.  Tyler quickly said he was interested in coming, and the two of us joined forces to search for the small owl in the paloverde, mesquite, and saguaro lined canyons at Organ Pipe.  If we were indeed successful, the owl would be a huge addition to my Owl Big Year and it would very importantly be a life bird for Tyler.  I met Tyler at a Phoenix Park and Ride at 3:45 A.M. and we arrived at Organ Pipe just before 6 A.M.  We encountered some wind on the way, and we could tell that it was already somewhat windy upon our arrival at a canyon within the Monument and that the wind would continue to increase.  But nevertheless, we were at Organ Pipe and there were Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls around without a doubt.  Could we find one?

We began our search and started to walk up and down along the edge of the canyon that we decided to look for the owls at.  As owls have been seen and heard at this location over the years, Tyler and I thought an effective plan would be to walk back-and-fourth along the canyon top.  As we walked back-and-fourth listening for any action vocally from any owls, an hour quickly passed without any luck.  When we arrived on the Monument, it was barely light out and we felt like our best chances were soon going to be behind us as the morning continued on past the first hour of light.

As 7:10 A.M. rolled in, a Red-tailed Hawk got our attention when it soared over a cliff.  As we were waiting for the Hawk to show up again to make sure it was a Red-tailed Hawk, we heard a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl calling!  We could tell that it is was close, and that it was coming from the direction we had just passed.  In a few saguaro cactus along the trail were some holes in the cactus that looked perfect for the owls.  An impression I got made me think that the owl was calling from a cactus hole, where they reside in for their home.  As I was checking the cavities within the saguaros, Tyler called back to me, "Right here!".  I thought at first that Tyler was hearing the owl calling, but when I looked over, he said, "It's sitting in this paloverde".  From where I was, I looked and saw a chunky bird sitting almost trail side and in that paloverde tree.  I couldn't believe my eyes, and Tyler had spied the target bird and my 13th owl species of the year!

As we watched the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, it simply stared back at us.  I was pumped up that we were actually looking at this bird.  Wow!  The short burst of call notes that this owl spoke proved to be vital.  As we started to watch this Pygmy-Owl and continued to watch it move about throughout the morning, it wouldn't vocalize again.  Tyler was renamed as Mr. Clutch Tyler.

What makes a Pygmy-Owl?  For starters, these small owls have false "eye spots" on the back of their head.  This tells larger predators that these owls can see them, thus, the larger predators will quickly abort any ideas of predation on the small owls.  The Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl differs from the Northern Pygmy-Owl both vocally and with some marks visually.  While Northerns have a spotted head, Ferruginous has a streaked head.  Northern has a black tail, and the Ferruginous has a rusty "reddish" colored tail along with a rusty coloration overall throughout it's body.  "Ferruginous" means rusty.  So we can name this owl, "Rusty".

Ferruginous was out and was active, and started to move around often.  While it didn't seem too concerned about Tyler and I, the two of us enjoyed it from a respectable distance.  For a bird that Tyler had never seen and a bird that I have only seen once, we made sure to make a good observation out of it.  But for a small brown bird sitting and hunting almost motionless at times, spying it without hearing it calling first can come with a huge challenge.  Can you spy the owl?

It's right here!  Tyler and I felt pretty darn good about ourselves...

Something interesting about this observation when it started was that Tyler and I had the Owl right along the trail we were hiking and it wasn't in the nearby canyon.  The first time I ever saw this species was in one of the dense canyons.  After awhile, this 2016 owl flew into the canyon where mobbing songbirds and hummingbirds gave away it's presence.  The owl was found again as we made our way down and we continued to enjoy the bird at a respectable distance.  Gosh, these owls can sure blend in well with their surroundings!

Before declining rapidly in it's former range in Arizona that ranged as far north as Phoenix, the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl was once very common.  Now, birders hope to hear a bird calling and really hope to catch a glimpse of one, if lucky.  Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls are intense predators, and will often take prey larger then themselves, just like their Northern Pygmy-Owl cousins.

They have false black "eye spots" on the back of their head too.

I was grateful to Tyler for spying my 13th Owl of my Owl Big Year.  Tyler came in and found his own life bird before I could beat him to it!

How would I repay Tyler back?  By spying something dangerous he was really really about to step on as we headed out..........

Chapter 6:  Tiny But A Huge Deal

Josh Wallestad is not only my great buddy, but he is a clever man.  He came up with a name for my North American Owl Big Year.  He named it TOBY, which stands for Tommy's Owl Big Year.  Freaking cool huh?!?!?!?!

As I chased these magnificent and mysterious birds around North America this year, I couldn't help but notice how diverse this family of birds is.  While owls are found on every continent in the world except Antarctica, every owl-populated 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 2016, I found myself in the heart of the far north looking at North America's largest owl, the Great Gray Owl.  After Great Gray, I had 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 March 31st, 2016.  The Elf Owl was that 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.

On that night of March 31st and craving my 14th Owl of TOBY, 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 chapter, 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 were 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 hadn't started singing yet, or didn't sing on the 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 weren't singing on this night was because they hadn'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 an 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 sometime 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 became the 14th Owl species of the year I had gotten for my Big Year.  I was down to five more owls, and four of them were 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 night birds 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. 

Chapter 7:  Spotted and Dotted with Owls and another Huge Decision

For the upcoming summer, I had made plans to go on two out of state trips.  One was to Colorado at the end of May to attempt Boreal Owls with Kurt Radamaker and Mark Ochs, and the other one was to be a week long vacation to Minnesota in June to bird with Josh Wallestad and hang out with his family.  On the Minnesota trip, the trip's most important target was to be Eastern Screech-Owl with maybe even a possibility of Short-eared Owl in neighboring Wisconsin or North Dakota.  I bought my plane tickets for the week long June outing and the trip plans were set in place.  Josh then did some research on Eastern Screech-Owls and found out that they can be very hard to find in the summer months.  Concern was worrying Josh about this attempt for Eastern Screech-Owl that was two months away.  I told Josh that whatever happens, happens.  Josh seemed to have other ideas though, and he did have other ideas.  He had the idea of me flying out to Minnesota in the next few weeks for less than a day to try for one of the local Eastern Screech-Owls in Minneapolis.  The idea sounded great to me.  As we talked about potential ideas, the airfare prices would rise and fall while we entertained the idea.  It was hard for us to work out a time when both of our schedules would line up with each other in order for me to attempt this less-than-a-day chase for an Eastern Screech-Owl.  I had April 13th off of work but had to work a night shift on April 12th.  In order for me to be able to fly to Minnesota I would need to work a day shift at work on April 12th in order to fly out to Minnesota in the evening to owl and bird for half of the day there on the 13th before flying back to Phoenix on the afternoon of the same day on the 13th.  For this to work, I'd have to switch shifts with my co-worker Sean.  I asked Sean if he could switch, and right away he said yes.  My boss Jennifer approved the switch so I had half of the problem out of the way.  The second problem was that I couldn't afford much in way of plane tickets.  Every time a killer price would be up online, Josh would tell me about it and I would only get home to have the prices switched again.  Josh came up with the idea, and he said that he was going to pay for half of the plane ticket.  The ticket would range from three hundred dollars online all the way down to $120.  And the $120 was the one I could afford, but it was also very elusive.  Things were looking bleak for this trip to work, but Josh and I made sure to keep an eye on the prices closely throughout each day...

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 was I about this Owl Big Year of mine?  Well, I choose to take a three plus hour trip one way to attempt to see a Spotted Owl rather than the same distance of a drive to attempt to see my first ever Rose-throated Becard.   Was I crazy?  Probably, but in the long run, the Spotted Owl is cooler than a Becard.  I had several trips coming up when I would be in Spotted Owl country aside from this day (which included a trip where they are at in Maricopa County).  It wasn't an owl I was going to miss, but as this Big Year went on, finding owls as early as I could in the year was a great pursuit.  One of my favorite rock singers of all time, Lacey Sturm, was coming into town later that night on the 7th, and it made my day become 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.  Miller Canyon lies in the Huachuca Mountain range in southeastern Arizona with the town of Sierra Vista being a next door neighbor.  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 have been 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 had begun...

As one pulls up to Miller Canyon, Tom Beatty Sr.'s property is by the entrance to 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?

As I got closer to the Owl spot, I was hoping to have two Spotted Owl adults sitting together, a sequence I had yet to see.  Right before my trip, birding friend 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 there 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!

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 inhabits cool and dense coniferous forests in it's range in western North America.  There are three subspecies of Spotted Owl in North America:  with the Northern Spotted Owl and the Mexican Spotted Owl being two of them. and the California subspecies being the other.  The Northern subspecies is endangered and the Mexican subspecies is threatened.  In the Pacific Northwest, the Northern Spotted Owl prefers old-growth forests that rarely have sun shining through them because of their density.  These forests have towering conifers such as Douglas fir and redwood.  Because of logging, the Northern Spotted Owl has limited habitat and is protected as an endangered species.  In the interior southwest, the Mexican Spotted Owl is found in coniferous and oak forests.  These habitat sequences come especially where there are shady canyons with pine, Douglas fir, oak, and maple.  North-facing forested stands of conifers also harbor this owl.  Thick, lush, and shady drainages with such trees are also great places to find Spotted Owls.  If these habitats have cliffs along the conifers, the Spotted Owls will often use the cliffs for nesting.  Finding Spotted Owls in Arizona takes luck, but if one is spotted, they usually act very tame and will allow close approach.  Because this bird is threatened, it is best to limit being close to it and to observe it from a distance that is respectable.  Mexican Spotted Owls are federally threatened, so it is illegal to use playback on them and to harass them by spending too much time in close proximity to the bird or by using flash photography.

Spotted Owls are only active by night. The male gives four barking notes as it's main song, "Whwooo, hoo-HOO, WhhHOO".  Females will give a piercing contact call to call to it's mate and fledglings and have a weaker version of the male's song.  Spotted Owls mainly feed on small mammals but will also feed on birds.

The Spotted Owl was epic, and I knew I was going to see this owl a couple more times during the 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 were scads of abundant Painted Redstarts.  A pair of Northern Goshawks had 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...

When I left Miller Canyon, I was planning to go to Ramsey Canyon for awhile.  When I got phone signal, it was about 11 A.M. and I realized Josh texted me.  It was a very serious text:  "Tommy, get to a computer now!!!  The tickets are back to their killer price!!!!!".  Right then and there, I decided to book it home from a 3.5 hour drive from the Sierra Vista area back to my home in Glendale.  When I got back home, I rushed to my computer and saw that the plane ticket I wanted to buy was still at it's low price.  I was extremely lucky!  I bought it immediately for $127, and with Josh paying for half of it, I would be going to Minnesota in five days for $63.50.  With that deal I would fly across the country and would attempt my 16th owl of the year and my 18th owl lifer overall for North America, the Eastern Screech-Owl.  I couldn't believe that I was going to attempt such a short trip to Minnesota, an out-and-back in only 21 hours worth of time!  And remember that concert I mentioned?  Lacey Sturm?  Well, I celebrated my Spotted Owl and crazy plane ticket purchase with something else awesome.  Not only did I get to see a great rock show that night, but I got to meet Lacey Sturm, one of my favorite singers of all time.  Owls and rockstars, not a bad day at all...

Chapter 8:  Screeching Into Minnesota And Back

On April 8th it was my Mom's birthday.  My family and I celebrated my Mom's life during that night.  At the dinner table at Claim Jumper restaurant, my family asked how my Big Year was going and what my plans were for the week.  I said, "Well, on Tuesday night I'm flying out to Minnesota for about 20 hours and I'll get back into Phoenix on Wednesday afternoon.  I'm going after an Eastern Screech-Owl, it's one of the only owls I have yet to see in North America".  They all had looks of shock on their faces.  My Dad laughed and said, "Are you serious".  I simply said, "Yep".  And they all thought it was awesome after awhile...

Since this was a crazy pursuit and since I was likely the first birder in North America to ever cross country chase an Eastern Screech-Owl in less than 24 hours all together, let's refresh our memories of why this trip even came about.  Eastern Screech-Owls become hard to find over some of their range in June.  Even though this is a common owl, they don't vocalize much in the summer months in certain areas.  June in Minnesota is a perfect example.  I had made plans to take a Minnesota vacation this summer to bird with Josh Wallestad.  For the summer trip, Eastern Screech-Owl had been my biggest target.  Josh and I wouldn't have any hesitations to go and look for them in the late hours at night.  But then, Josh discovered a problem.  He found out Eastern Screech-Owls become tough in June and don't vocalize very much at all.  I had heard this before, but I ignored it and didn't worry about it too much.  As Josh did research, we realized that what we thought would be easy may be a steep climb up a mountain.  With Eastern Screech-Owls being much easier right now then they are in summer, Josh had a clever idea.  He suggested that I fly into Minneapolis for a day or less and we can look for Eastern Screech-Owls then.  I liked his idea.  After fighting through a plethora of plane ticket deals and looking for the best price possible, I decided to go for it...

The idea of Josh's seemed crazy only for the first few seconds when I read his suggestion, but then on the fourth second into reading his suggestion, I was sold.  It took a mere four seconds for me to obsess over the idea.  As Josh was spot on awesome with his itinerary and guiding on my first birding trip to Minnesota, I had no doubt he would put me into another winning position for this birding trip.  Trip options that came to mind was for me to fly into Minneapolis late by leaving Phoenix in the evening, crashing at the Minneapolis airport for a few hours, owling with Josh for 8 hours, and then Josh dropping me off at the airport for my flight back.  From plane flight to plane flight, we were looking at a mere 21 hour trip.  Was it crazy?  Yes.  Was it awesome?  Yes.  Would it be worth it?  You better believe it!  Josh and I were already standing on the hill of righteousness. 

The next step was to buy plane tickets.  Prior to this post, I have never bought my own plane tickets or flown to and fro solo somewhere before.  This year isn't just about the birding for me, it's about trying many new things in life.  Doing a trip like this would certainly fall into that category.  When Josh noticed the Screech-Owl problem in June, he didn't like it.  He wanted me to see a Screech-Owl, and he said he'd split the plane ticket cost with me if I did this day trip.  To Josh, he also wanted to get this bird out of the way for TOBY so it wouldn't be a stress in June.  Josh and I started to look through ticket options and we were hoping to find one that worked with both of our complicated schedules.  As we looked at days in early April, it seemed as if nothing wanted to work for us.  We then found something that really worked for the both of us, and that was a trip for me to fly out to Minnesota on April 12th at night, bird the morning of April 13th, and then I would fly out of Minnesota early afternoon to get back in Phoenix before 4 P.M.  In total, that trip would be about 21 hours.  For that to work out, my co-worker Sean was kind enough to switch shifts with me so I could get out of work on Tuesday the 12th at 2 P.M, and my boss Jennifer was awesome to let us switch shifts.  Josh was able to get the 13th off of work if need be.  For awhile, the problem was that when the ticket prices looked good, I'd only go home to purchase these tickets to have the prices shoot right back up again to a hundred bucks more.  It was discouraging.  Could Josh and I see Eastern Screech-Owls in June if we really tried hard?  Probably so.  When Josh presented me with this idea, I couldn't get it out of my mind to go to Minnesota for less than a day.  If something gets on my mind, the only therapy to cure it is to go out and live it.  The plane prices were getting in my way, and I wanted something cheap.  It was discouraging.  Josh was frustrated with them too, and he was constantly monitoring ticket prices just like I was.   For awhile, things didn't look like they were going to work out for April 12th and 13th.  The constant changing prices for tickets were annoying, and I wasn't gonna buy anything over $200, and there was this one deal of $127 that had me drooling.   Here's a sample of a conversation we had while talking about the freaking tickets.

If you look on the picture, you'll see that Josh saw a good plane price on April 6th.  I had already left for work that morning before I had a chance to get on my computer and look at the tickets.  Minutes before I got home, the tickets would jump back up to $247, which was pricey.  Josh had been looking at them a lot and said they went up right at 2:30 P.M.  On April 7th, I went to Miller Canyon early to get the Spotted Owl for TOBY (see previous chapter) and I then got a text from Josh saying the prices went back down again and that they likely wouldn't go down until 2:30 like they did the previous day, "Get your owl and then get back to a computer!!!!!".  I was three-plus hours from home, but I decided to come home an hour early.  Luckily, the prices were the same when I got home and I booked my flight with American Airlines.  Good grief!  Just like that, Josh and I had four days of preparation for the trip ahead of us.  Plenty of people, including my family, thought I was crazy to go for this owl for less than a day.  Josh already had several locations up his sleeve where he knew Eastern Screech-Owls were, and these locations were all thirty minutes or less away from the airport. 

When April 12th came around, I took the stuff I needed with me to work and left for the airport right after I got off of work.  As I was flying with American Airlines, my flight was to board at 6:18 P.M.  The flight then left at 6:48 P.M., and I was on my way to Minnesota for a half-day!

The flight to Minneapolis/St. Paul lasted for just over three hours.  I arrived in Minnesota at about midnight their time, and at 2:45 A.M., Josh was to pick me up at the airport.  During the 2.5 hours that I had to kill at the airport, I found a two chairs to "nap" in and put together for a bed during the early A.M. hours.  Sometimes I walked around the airport.  For the first time in my life, I saw the Best Buy vending machine.

It seemed like a longer wait than 2.7 hours, but once 2:45 struck, there was Josh to pick me up.  We officially had our search underway!  We got to our first destination after 40 minutes of driving, which is called the Chimney Rock State Natural Area.  Chimney Rock, at about 76 acres, is a fairly small spot.  But, it has Eastern Screech-Owls and it is a location that is open all day and night.  Josh researched that multiple Eastern Screech-Owls had been seen and heard at this spot, and I was pumped for the search.  One can climb a trail over the rock that looks like a chimney and further uphill through a forested habitat.  We arrived at Chimney Rock at roughly 3:30 A.M., and the second I opened the door to the car, I realized there was a big problem.  Wind!  Gusty wind at that.  Josh and I were confused because the forecast said otherwise.  We decided to make the best out of it and give it a shot.  Josh pulled out his phone and looked at the weather for the area.  Despite the windy conditions we were in, the forecast said 8 MPH winds, which is nothing.  The wind speeds must have been 20-25 mph.  The two of us walked through the woods and still tried to hear any owls vocalizing for the next hour as well as try to randomly find one visually.  No luck.  A bird we kicked up surprised me at first, and it turned out to be a Slate-colored Dark-eyed Junco.  How bizarre was that..

And then the weather not only remained to be windy, but it started to rain and then rain pretty hard.  Wow!  The start of our expedition wasn't off to a good start birding wise, but at the same time, I was having a blast that we were out in the wind and the rain being hardcore birders that we both are and trying.  All for that Eastern Screech-Owl.  The more the rain came down, Josh and I decided to go back to the van.  We still had a good six hours ahead of us to check two more potential Eastern Screech-Owl spots, and talking birding and life in general was fun. 

Josh then drove to a place called Beards Plaisance in Minneapolis, where there is a park that a gray-morph Eastern Screech-Owl had been frequenting.  The area is beautiful, and Lake Harriet borders the section that we would be birding.  Because the owl favored an old hole in a tree in the park, many birders have had the chance to see this owl and it had become quite famous.  I was hoping to be the next birder to see the owl.  At 5:40 A.M., we arrived at the park when it was still dark out.  As the light was a good twenty minutes away, Josh and I were glad that we would have a chance to find it around dawn.  Surprisingly, the wind was not a factor in this location after blowing so much during our previous stop.  Josh and I checked the hole.  Nada.  We checked the bird's favorite pine tree and a few other pine trees nearby.  Nada.  I wasn't too worried because the owl was probably still out-and-about as it was still dark out.  We carefully scanned many trees over the next twenty minutes without any luck.  Further uphill from where Josh and I were searching, I heard a few American Robins giving that harsh call of theirs when they are mobbing a predator.  I had a feeling they were on the owl.  As I made my my up the hill to check the pine tree where the Robins were doing this from, I saw a medium-sized bird flying in my direction.  For a split second I thought it was one of the Robins, but then an actual Robin started chasing it.  I realized it was the Eastern Screech-Owl!  The Owl flew below eye level and about two feet away from me as it flew past me and into the pine tree it is most often seen in besides the hole.  Before it landed I yelled, "Josh!!!  I've got it!!!!".  Josh made his way up to where I was, and there was the Eastern Screech-Owl.  Just sitting there for us!

Both Josh and I knew how awesome this was without having to say it in words for several minutes.  We knew that everyone else was seeing it in a hole, and we had it actively flying around and sitting out in the open for us!  The Owl was vocalizing a lot while we were watching him.  It wasn't giving the "whinny" call that the species is known for the most commonly, but it was giving it's trill song.  The trill song is very cool, and I enjoyed listening to the owl at the same time we were watching it.

The "this is so awesome's" started to fly out of our mouths.  I couldn't believe that I was looking at an Eastern Screech-Owl.  Not only was it my 16th Owl for TOBY, but is was a life bird and my 18th North American Owl out of 19 species that occur in North America regularly.  As light was starting to come in, the flashlights started to lose their purpose more and more.  At one point, the owl flew out of the pines and landed in a bare tree.  This sequence was probably the best view that Josh and I had of the bird.

Eastern Screech-Owls are variable in their appearance, as they have three different color morphs and many "in-betweens".  The gray-morph is the most common, but brown (intermediate) and red morphs occupy the same areas also.  Someday, I would really love to see a Red Eastern Screech-Owl.  Gray Eastern Screech-Owls can look nearly identical to Western Screech-Owls.  The Eastern can be separated visually by it's gray-greenish bill, where as the Western has a black bill.  Eastern-Screech Owls are slightly browner on average than Western Screech-Owls on gray morph birds, and to me, the eyes of the Eastern Screech seem to be a lighter yellow.  Vocal wise, the two are very different from one another for the most part.  Following Screech-Owls around in the dark is always something fun, and most Screech-Owls love to be cooperative.  This Screech-Owl seemed territorial and pretty fearless.  At one point, Josh and I were standing and watching the owl two feet apart from each other and when the owl left his perch, he flew between both of us at shoulder level!  When he perched on the same bare tree that his hole is in, we were almost sure he would probably fly into the hole to spend the remainder of his day.

He actually didn't even go into his hole while we were there.  He went back to the pine tree and spent the remainder of the time we had observing him right there in the pine tree.  The Eastern Screech-Owl vocalized often, but as the morning got lighter and lighter, he eventually went completely silent.  The Screech-Owl also had an amazing view of Lake Harriet and the surrounding environment.

Josh and I had every reason to celebrate, as the Eastern Screech-Owl officially gave us a show and was now a part of TOBY.  I had my life bird come in a way that a classic life bird should come.  This Eastern Screech-Owl was also at a convenient enough perch that Josh was able to snap a selfie of me with it!

Here's an epic celebration picture that Josh also took with his camera.  Not only were we in celebration of 16 owls for my Big Year, but Josh was also holding up the six on his hand because I had seen six owls in Minnesota first during the year, five of which were lifers, thanks to Josh!

Funny thing was, when I recorded the Eastern Screech-Owl vocalizing, we didn't realize until later that there was a second one counter-calling with it in the background!  We probably would have had two birds visually had we had noticed.  After we watched the owl for over an hour, we spent three more hours birding from 8 to 11 A.M.  I opted into looking for Barred Owls.  We decided to go to the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge to a section of the Refuge that is called Bass Ponds.  Many birds were abound, including my lifer American Tree Sparrow.  There were also two Barred Owls there.  One of them was at a known spot and the other was one that I discovered myself.  Barred Owls are cool!

Josh and I grabbed food at the Swedish Ikea before Josh dropped me off at the airport at noon.  The generosity from Josh during this pursuit of TOBY was epic to me.  My plane took off 2.5 hours later, and I made it back into Phoenix at 3:30 P.M.  I was gone from Phoenix a grand total of 20.8 hours, and it was all for seeing a common Eastern Screech-Owl.  This made TOBY an official Big Year.  It was a chase, and a hardcore chase at that....a day in the life of Neil Hayward in 2013...

Chapter 9:  The Tiny Owl of the High Pines

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 conifer trees make this owl a tough challenge.  My good buddy Dominic Sherony had never seen a Flammulated Owl in his life, and had always dreamed about seeing one and photographing one.  Dominic and I had tried for three years in a row prior to this 2016 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 had remained to be the only Flam I had ever seen well.  And as it became my 17th potential owl for TOBY, I wanted to have that second ever look more than any words could say.  As April rolled around and as Dominic was 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 seeing it can be a huge challenge.  But in 2016, I had knowledge of a location that is very promising, thanks to my good buddy, Caleb Strand.  In 2015, 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.  And during that year, Caleb hit the jackpot with Flammulated Owls in the 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 for the Flammulated Owl attempt in 2016, 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, and 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 pine, it 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 in the trees very often.  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.  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 was certainly a challenge to see them because they 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", Dominic, Caleb, and I said.

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 understood 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!

Landing the Flam for my 17th Owl of TOBY was an amazing thing to accomplish.  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.  Getting to see Dominic land this bird with everything he's wanted out of it was as good as it gets.

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.

As my number had grown to 17 North American Owls for TOBY, I was down to only two more birds to go to reach my goal of all 19 owls seen and photographed in 2016.  I'm only kidding when I say "only" two were remaining.  I knew that Short-eared Owl and Boreal Owl probably wouldn't be so easy and would require strategy and the thing they call luck....

Chapter 10:  Four Incredible Owls in A Night and A Morning

Once I landed Flammulated Owl as my 17th owl for TOBY, there would be a gap in the year that would be a month before I would try for any new owls.  Despite the wait, it didn't come without more experiences with some of Arizona's awesome high elevation owls.  I was in talks with my friends Gordon Karre and Joshua Smith about going camping at Slate Creek Divide in the Mazatzal Mountains April 28th and 29th.  These mountains are in Maricopa and Gila Counties.  We decided to go where we would look for notable high elevation birds within Maricopa County, with some of them being owls.  Here is a picture of the three of us standing outside of our tents.

We birded the evening and night of April 28th and over half of the day on the 29th.  Good birds were found, especially owls.

As it officially got dark on the 28th, we got all of our owling stuff together, hopped in Josh's truck, and started to head back east from the trail head we camped by to seek out owling locations. 

County birding at 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 chapter near the tops of ponderosa pine trees, 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 once again 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.  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.  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 the owl.

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!  I imitated it's call while shining my light in the direction it's call was calling from.  Seconds later, the Saw-whet Owl emerged from the dark and hovered for a few seconds twenty feet in front of my light.  After hovering, it went to a perch nearby for a short time.  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.

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.

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, a Northern Pygmy-Owl that we heard 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 looking at the size of the conifer cones on this tree in comparison to the owl, it shows the owl's small size!

Josh and I spent about twenty minutes in observation of the Pygmy-Owl before leaving it to continue on with it's day and with our day.  We still had another owl and more birds to look for.

With an inconsistent light rain falling down on us, we decided to start hiking down the dense drainages that go down into Maricopa County.  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 there, the forest has to be in good condition.  Amazingly, with two horrible 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.

These four owl species were all seen in a span of about 10-12 hours, two at night and two in the morning.  My biggest highlight of the trip was the Flammulated Owl, but the Northern Saw-whet Owl, Northern Pygmy-Owl, and Spotted Owl were fantastic also!

Chapter 11:  The Boreal Owl

When I lifered on Eastern Screech-Owl in Minnesota in April, it left the Boreal Owl as the only owl left in North America that I needed to see overall to complete my overall North American Owl life list.  I had made plans in the June to go to Minnesota for vacation with Josh Wallestad.  During that vacation we were going to try for Short-eared Owls.  I did not want to wait for winter in Arizona to try for Short-eareds.  With me needing Short-eared Owl and Boreal Owls as my last two for TOBY, I was hungry to have TOBY completed by the end of my Minnesota trip in June, because I had a Boreal Owl trip lined up for the end of May in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.

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.

From the Sibley Guide to Birds

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 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. 

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.

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 part 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, but 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.  But I had offficially attempted every owl in North America this year during this point.  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...

Chapter 12:  Fun With The Locals

I have many friends in the birding community I am a part of.  It's fun to hang out with them, and because I look for owls a lot, there are often times I take buddies out owling.  As TOBY reached a point where I missed Boreal Owl after my first trip and attempt and the gap of time between Flammulated Owl as being TOBY's 17th owl and me trying for Boreal and upcoming Short-eared Owls, I did have some awesome encounters with local owls both common and rare.  I made several trips to show owls to friends outside of regular birding trips.  

These Great Horned Owls nested at my home patch this year and they were right outside of the Glendale Recharge Ponds.  Seeing the mother standing over her fledglings was epic.

The Great Horned Owl is North America's most common, most widespread, and most often-seen owl.  This owl is a very interesting character and will live in some of the most human inhabited places.  Although this owl can adapt to many things, it is a hardy bird of the wilderness also.  It's range covers almost all of North America, where it is the most widespread owl on our continent.  Because this owl is so well adapted, it can be found in almost any habitat throughout it's range.

Because of it's large size, the Great Horned Owl can be found quite often during the day.  Look in riparian forests in the lowlands, under bridges, on sheltered rocks, and in forests.  Mobbing birds can aid significantly in finding this owl commonly during the middle of the day.  The Great Horned Owl is a fierce and powerful predator.  Although it can be discovered on it's day roost quite often, this owl is mainly nocturnal.  It feeds on a variety of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians.  This owl is not to be messed with in the food chain.  It has taken large hawks and other owls as prey.  Cats in urban settings aren't safe from this bird, and cats that have been considered as large have been taken and killed.  Interestingly, the skunk is an animal that most predators avoid completely.  However, the Great Horned Owl is the skunk's worst enemy.

Sometimes angle can be everything.  It seems from this original angle that the owl was simply using this tree as a day roost.  But with a detour to the other side of the tree, one would discover the real reason why the owl was sitting in this rather exposed perch for the day.

Birders often refer to the Great Horned Owl as a "Winged Tiger", and it really does remind me of such at times too. 

I've also went out to the Salt River more a few times to enjoy up close looks at both Elf Owl and Western Screech-Owl.  A few times I heard Barn Owls calling at night and I also came close to getting my first nocturnal shot off of a Barn Owl flying overhead.  As most know, photographing an owl in the dark that is fairly high isn't going to happen very often.  My times out there came with the fun of helping my friends Melissa, Gordon, Walker, Khanh, and Tyler find these owls.  Here's a few photos of the Elf Owls out at the Salt River during those times.  Gosh, it is tiny.  Gosh, it is freaking cool!

I also went with some friends to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument again, where a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl put on a show for us!

Before I knew it, my summer vacation was coming up, which meant a trip to go look for Short-eared Owls somewhere....

Chapter 13:  TOBY Goes to North Dakota

From June 8th through June 15th, I would be in Minnesota for a vacation with my buddy Josh Wallestad and his wife Melissa and two kids, Evan and Marin.  The Wallestads kindly hosted me at their home in Kandiyohi, Minnesota.  Every day had major birding involved, but there were many other fun things about the vacation too.  The vacation held 26 life birds, but the biggest target for me was Short-eared Owl for TOBY.  Prior to this trip, my one and only Short-eared Owl came from southeastern Arizona's San Rafael Grasslands in February of 2013.  Josh's brilliant mind about owl landing ideas came into play at another critical time.. 

Before the trip started, we had made plans to target Short-eared Owl at some grasslands in Wisconsin where they are reliable most years.  Because Short-eared Owl would be my 18th addition to my Owl Big Year, it became my most hopeful bird for the trip.  As the migration season went through and as the Short-eared Owls were in hopes of breeding, the fact is, the vole population was down.  When the vole population goes down, the owls won't breed.  And when owls don't breed, they leave.  So Josh and I had another idea...North Dakota.  In the Grand Forks area of North Dakota, Short-eared Owls had been plentiful in 2016 after being absent the previous two years.  Josh went a few months earlier and saw a few of them where he had some epic sightings.  And luckily, an awesome birder named Sandy Aubol lives in East Grand Forks, Minnesota (which is just west of Grand Forks, North Dakota), and she showed Josh the Short-eared Owls.  Sandy birds grassland/prairie habitats weekly that are just northwest of Grand Forks, and she had been having plenty of Short-eared Owls to go along with it.  With me having one distant look at a Short-eared Owl for life and a crappy photograph to go along with it as well as wanting to lock up my 18th owl for TOBY, you better believe that I was eager to get out there!  A close up sighting would be equivalent to my first Short-eared Owl that was my life bird.  In case you don't know what I mean by that, seeing a Short-eared Owl on any outing would feel like I was seeing my lifer.

Josh asked Sandy Aubol if she would be interested in showing me Short-eared Owls for my Big Year, and she gladly said yes!  Josh and his wife Melissa kindly loaned me one of their vehicles for a four hour drive from Kandiyohi, Minnesota to Grand Forks, North Dakota/East Grand Forks, Minnesota.  This was after Enterprise told me I couldn't rent a car from them because I needed a major credit card, not just a debit card.  They never mentioned this over the phone.  Interestingly, Josh and I came up with this idea just days before I would leave for the vacation about me renting a vehicle and driving to Grand Forks myself.  When Enterprise told me that I couldn't rent a vehicle, I was feeling hopeless.  And then Josh kicked in, "Tommy, you can just take our van".  On June 10th, 2016, I drove up to Grand Forks and East Grand Forks on a four hour route one way from Kandiyohi, Minnesota to meet Sandy, and we almost immediately went for the Short-eared Owls after looking at my first Red-headed Woodpecker.  From the start, I could tell Sandy knew what she was doing and I knew in my gut that she was going to put me in position to score on a Short-eared Owl.  She is a very kind and generous lady, and is the best person I could've asked to bird with for this trip.  I had a blast with her from start to finish.  Sandy took me through many marsh, grassland, and prairie habitats and showed me an assortment of birds as we were owl hunting.  I've always liked to bird in prairie and grassland habitat, it's quite peaceful.  The area we birded is called the Red River Valley, where prairie, grassland, and marsh birds thrive.

As Sandy and I drove, she explained to me about where she was seeing the owls and what times she was seeing them.  My eyes were peeled.  At times, Sandy was seeing them as late as 9 in the morning when she ventured out as well as early as 5 in the evening.  A few times, Northern Harriers got me to anxiously raise my binoculars before any Short-eared Owls were noticed by us.  The grasslands were filled with songs of other birds to keep things interesting while we were looking for the owls.

After driving around and having fun for about two hours, Sandy and I saw a blob way out in the marsh/prairie that looked owl like.  Sandy decided to get a scope on it.

As Sandy started to set up her scope, I saw another distant owl-like creature, but this one was in the air.  This one was for sure a Short-eared Owl, and it looked like a giant moth flying around and hunting over the grass.  The other bird kicked up to present Sandy and I with two Short-eared Owls.  Just like that, I had my 18th Owl and second ever looks at a Short-eared Owl.  Although they were pretty distant, it was awesome watching them.  Sandy and I watched these two Short-eared Owls cruise over an area for about thirty minutes.  At times they would venture closer, and then they would quickly change directions.

It turned out that the night was only getting started.  Sandy is awesome, and Sandy is cool.  I was amazed with her knowledge.  Sandy asked me if I wanted to continue watching the two Short-eared Owls we were already on, or if I wanted to go look for more as she spied two more birds in the distance.  I told her to do what she thought would be best, and she choose the later.  One road and a left turn later, Sandy exclaimed quietly but anxiously, "Tommy...look!..."

I was blown away.  Simply blown away.  God is great, and it was by pure generosity that this look and this outing was possible.  One of the four owls was roadside and was sitting with it's wings stretched out.  Sandy pulled over to her left so I could start shooting some pictures out my window. 

Who knows why this Short-eared Owl had it's wings stretched out.  Perhaps because of the humidity?  Maybe it was cooling off?  Who knows.  All I do know was that is was incredible.  Just incredible.

I was shooting pictures quickly, and I couldn't hold the camera still most of the time.  As many of my pictures of this short sequence with this owl turned out a little blurry, this one didn't.  I've wanted to have a close up encounter with a Short-eared Owl badly since 2013 when I first saw one, and it felt great to get that chance again.

The owl flew after it got a good look at Sandy and me.  But the good news is, it didn't go far!   It dove into some grass before popping back up again and flying back to the road reasonably close to us.  An annoying Red-winged Blackbird decided to annoy the owl, Sandy, and me.  This may have altered the owl's flight path.  In these pictures, you can see how awesome of a flyer the Short-eared Owl is and how quickly it can change directions.

Short-eared Owls give birders a different approach to owling than other owls do.  What makes them different is that they are a crepuscular owl, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk and maybe a little after dawn and maybe a little before dusk.  Short-eared Owls like open fields, grasslands, and marshes and are found in similar habitats that are favored by Northern Harriers.  A rule birders often use is, "Where Northern Harriers hunt during the day, Short-eared Owls will hunt also when it gets dark".  And it is quite true!  Rodents make up most of this owl's diet, which it cruises over fields for quite differently than any other North American Owls will behave like and hunt.  People often describe the Short-eared Owl's flight pattern as one that resemble's a great big butterfly.  It's choppy flight pattern is quite distinctive from a distance.  In North America, Short-eared Owls breed throughout Alaska and Canada as well as in the northwestern parts of the Lower 48 with a few scattered populations elsewhere.  

Sandy and I owled for over five hours, and the success we had was awesome.  Sandy was a great guide.

Short-eared Owls are very unpredictable on their flight whereabouts.  They can be coming your way one second, and then turn around the next second.  This is to surprise and catch any unsuspecting rodents that it is patrolling the grounds for.  We even heard one of the owls vocalize once as it was harassing a Red-tailed Hawk in the area.  After Sandy and I got a great fix with the owls, we enjoyed many other birds in the area.  As it was really starting to get dark out at 9:30 P.M., we were near one more area where Sandy knew an Owl was hanging around.  I guess we had one more in us....

Sandy was very generous and kind to show me this spot and to bird with me all evening, I had a blast owling with her.  I was thrilled and thankful to Sandy, where she was a major contributor to TOBY as she got me my 18th Owl for my Big Year!  Wanna hear a crazy story, again and more detailed?  I made a reservation to rent a vehicle with Enterprise in Willmar, MN, and they didn't tell me I would need a major credit card for an out of state rental, even though I asked them more than once what I would need to rent a car.  So they told me to scram, because my debit card was all I had.  But Josh stepped in and loaned me his van right on the spot.  Josh is the reason TOBY has even been possible this year, and when I struck out on what I thought was a sure deal in place, Josh was the hero again.  Great Gray, Snowy, Northern Hawk, Barred, and Eastern Screech-Owls were all made possible this year for me by Josh.  And this time, Josh hooked me up with Sandy for Short-eared Owling and got me on the road to get there.  

For TOBY, there was one more owl to go.  This one would be bound to make me climb mountains, make me walk through the land of bears, make me drive for hours, make me fly on another plane, make me extremely angry, or make me extremely satisfied.  Some major thought and planning was to come for my final owl I needed to get this year to round out TOBY and to see and photograph all of North America's Owls this year.

Chapter 14:  Preparation For That Last One

This chapter is shorter reading than the rest, but it will show a video I made of TOBY'S progress before the last owl I would need to complete my goal.  This was a video I spent a lot of time on making.  I wanted to share with others in a more entertaining way than text and in four minutes what I had done in my Owl Big Year.

From a blog post I published on July 29th, 2016:

"The next T.O.B.Y. search will take place in two weeks.  That's right, two weeks from now!  I'm stoked and pumped up, and I hope I can land my target.  And since this is a T.O.B.Y. search, that means that I am looking for my final owl that can potentially be not only the final owl that I need for my North American owl big year, but is also the final owl I need for my North American list of regularly occurring owls.   I'm not going to share my attempt information of where I'm going quite yet.  I will say that that owl is the Boreal Owl (chills down my spine).  For the meantime, I've made a video preview that gives a shorter recap of T.O.B.Y. thus far and it shows in order the 18 owls that have gotten me to this point so far.  Check out this music video recap and enjoy it.  The song is called "Feel Invincible" and the band who performs and wrote the song is called Skillet.  Hopefully this will help all of you get pumped up for me as well as I make an attempt to COMPLETE T.O.B.Y.  If I fail on this upcoming trip, well you all know I don't give up easily....."

Chapter 15:  The Boreal Owl-Part Two

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 had been trying to see every owl in North America in 2016 that breed in North America and call North America home, I've had many challenges along the way.  Some of the tougher owls I conquered were Great Gray Owl, Snowy Owl, Northern Hawk-Owl, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, and Flammulated Owl.  The first three were 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 due to my placement on the globe 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 was 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...

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 had 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 had 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.

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 words, 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 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 get frustrated in the moment. 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's a few 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 front side, 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 it was a more light-colored bird on it's front side.  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 himself, as he exclaimed "skiew".  He had flown into investigate us out of his own curiosity, and we didn't even know he was there right by us!  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...

At the beginning of TOBY, I made a 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, the only heard birds I didn't hear were Great Gray, Northern Hawk, and Snowy Owls!

Thanks to Khanh and Walker for the birds and everything else on the 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.  Thanks went out to Walker for introducing me to this possibility of a Washington trip, being Mr. Clutch, and detecting Toby the Boreal Owl.

Chapter 16:  In the Company of Northern Spotted Owls

While Washington had two words that consumed me: B-o-r-e-a-l  O-w-l, there was still much more of Washington to see.  I found myself out looking solo and alone one morning for another owl, the Spotted Owl.  While many of my writings in the past have dealt with Mexican Spotted Owls in Arizona, this search was for the Northern Spotted Owl.  The Northern Spotted Owl is a different subspecies from our Mexican Spotted Owls in Arizona, and the Spotted Owl in California is the other subspecies of the species.  While the Mexican Spotted Owl is threatened under the Endangered Species Act, the California is not, and the Northern Spotted Owl is listed as endangered.  For decades, the Northern Spotted Owl has been a controversial species in the Pacific Northwest because of it's sensitivity to habitat loss.  This bird has put many loggers in the logging industry out of their jobs, and thus, many folks hate the Northern Spotted Owl.  The Northern Spotted Owl was even on the front of the TIME magazine in 1990 over the issue and was one of a few birds to ever have such publicity.  Over 30,000 people in the logging industry lost their jobs, and the anger and hype was intense.  The Spotted Owl was in serious trouble.  It's habitat is fragile.  The bird can't thrive without it.  The aggressive Barred Owls are on the move and are hybridizing with the Northern Spotted and are driving them out.  While Barred Owls and Sparred Owls (Barred and Spotted Owl hybrid) aren't good for this environment, the Spotted Owl is becoming more and more vulnerable.  I had always wanted to see a Northern Spotted Owl in their range and habitat, and while I was in Washington, I had a chance for myself!  The fact that this was the controversial subspecies also made me want to see them.  In the Cascade Mountains during the day when I wasn't looking for Boreal Owls, I was hoping to see a Northern Spotted Owl.  This bird loves immense conifers.  And these conifers, which are especially dominated by giant Douglas fir, are 150-200 years old.  The real thing I should call it is an old growth forest.  In Washington, the logging of old-growth forests and Barred Owl range expansions have reduced the Spotted Owl population to unhealthy conditions.  This owl may be in some real trouble once again.  While I walked through the old-growth forests of the Cascades, these conifers impressed me.  Not a shade of sunlight could enter through them, which is what the Spotted Owl favors.  These trees provide canopy levels which suit up for the perfect habitat environment for these owls.  Regardless, a Northern Spotted Owl cannot survive without these huge trees. 

I got lucky and got to see two Northern Spotties: a juvenile and it's mother.

An adult Northern Spotted Owl is a lot darker than an adult Mexican Spotted Owl.  At times, this female Northern would blend right in with the tree bark of the surrounding Douglas firs as she moved around and watched over her young one.

These majestic owls really made me grateful that I was able to see them.  The fun in seeing the Northern Spotted Owl almost felt like it's own separate species tick on T.O.B.Y. 

Chapter 17:  The Boreal Owl-Part Three

In September, I packed my bags up once again and headed for...

Just kidding!  I hope for one of 2017's main goals is that I will be able to spend more time with an adult Boreal Owl...

Chapter 18:  Still More Owls to See...

TOBY was my primary birding objective for 2016.  I was amazed that I was able to fulfill the goals that I set for myself in the North American Owl Big Year.  Once I got home from Washington and Oregon, I decided to finish out 2016 working on another Big Year, and that was my third Maricopa County Big Year in eight years.  While I started off 2016 doing such, I had owls distract me to take me on one of the greatest adventures I have ever lived in my life.  Owls are my favorite family of birds and many more trips will be made in the future to enjoy them.  I still need a long experience with an adult Boreal Owl, I want to see more Snowy Owls and get closer photographs of them, I want a red-morph Eastern Screech-Owl.  Another big desire is to see more Great Gray Owls, which is my favorite owl out of the 19.  As for now, this selection of pictures was taken of some of the owls I encountered while working on my Maricopa County Big Year.

The Owl Year has one more good story.  Remember how Josh Wallestad helped me find five owl lifers this year?  Well, it was time for me to return the favor.  In October, Josh came down to Arizona with his family, and Gordon Karre and I helped him find new target birds for his life list.  Josh's most wanted bird of the trip was the Whiskered Screech-Owl.  Gordon and I took Josh to that amazing Madera Canyon place and I went to work.  By the end of the night, we had helped Josh and his dad Rick get their life Whiskered Screech-Owls.  It was Josh's 16th owl for North America, and he is getting very close himself to having all 19 species.  For all that Josh did for me this year, it was awesome to have the last major owling trip be one to help him out.  One of the Whiskered Screech-Owls was very cooperative for all of us.

Here's a picture Josh snapped of me after we saw the Whiskered Screech-Owls in Madera Canyon.

This pursuit ended successfully, but one of the greatest things about the adventure of TOBY was that it really helped me grow as a man.  All 19 owls were seen and photographed yes, but they were honestly just a part of TOBY.  The adventure and all of the stories that go along with it combine to create an epic growth in a person.  I'm glad I lived out a dream I had.  Life is too short to not live out our dreams...

^ ^ 


I wasn't the only one to do a North American Owl Big Year.  My great buddy Walker Noe did one too, and he accomplished the same goal as I did, to see and photograph every owl in North America.  Walker called his Big Year none other than WOBY.

TOBY statistics and numbers:

For my Owl Big Year, I owled in six different states:  Arizona, Colorado, Washington, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Dakota.

Barn Owl:  14 detected, all in Arizona

Flammulated Owl:  5 detected, Arizona

Western Screech-Owl:  About 25-30 detected, Arizona

Eastern Screech-Owl:  2 detected, Minnesota

Whiskered Screech-Owl:  15 detected, Arizona

Great Horned Owl:  About 40 detected, Arizona and Minnesota

Snowy Owl:  3 detected, Minnesota and Wisconsin

Northern Hawk Owl:  2 detected, Minnesota

Northern Pygmy-Owl:  6 detected, Arizona

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl:  2 detected, Arizona

Elf Owl:  12-15 dectected, Arizona

Burrowing Owl:  About 150 detected, Arizona

Spotted Owl:  8 detected, Arizona and Washington

Barred Owl:  6 detected, Minnesota

Great Gray Owl:  1 detected, Minnesota

Long-eared Owl:  31 detected, Minnesota and Arizona

Short-eared Owl:  5 detected, North Dakota

Boreal Owl:  4 detected, Washington

Northern Saw-whet Owl:  5 detected, Arizona

My Top 10 Owls of TOBY

10.  Flammulated Owl at Slate Creek Divide and Northern Saw-whet Owl in Prescott.  These two owls are leading off this countdown, but both of them need a slot because they were mind blowing!

9.  Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl in Arizona.  Thanks to Tyler Loomis and Caleb Strand, I had killer looks at this owl twice.  The rarest and most hard to find owl in North America.

8.  Northern Spotted Owl in Washington.  This subspecies of Spotted Owl is classic and is so epic that it almost felt like getting an official life bird when I got to see two of them.

7.  Barred Owl in Northern Minnesota.  The one Josh spied close to dusk while traveling down the highway.  A common owl but not the sequence we were expecting to see one in!

6.  Snowy Owls in Superior, Wisconsin.  The great white owl of the north was one I had always wanted to see.

5.  Eastern Screech-Owl in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  This owl really gave a Big Year feel to Toby.  I took a 20 hour trip to go see it!

4.  Short-eared Owls in North Dakota.  One of the coolest owls, and only my second ever observation.  The first time I ever had good looks at them.

3.  Northern Hawk Owl in Roseau County.  You can't beat this epic bird perched up on hoar frost!

2.  Great Gray Owl in Sax-Sim Bog.  It's my favorite owl, and it's almost tied for first...

1.  The adult Boreal Owl in Washington.  It was epic even though it was brief.  Although Great Gray is my favorite owl, this owl was the last owl I needed and it provided the biggest also gave me a brief look and has left me wanting more...

My favorite owl:  Great Gray Owl

My favorite meal of TOBY:  Melissa Wallestad's steak dinner

Funniest moments of TOBY:  Caleb Strand, Josh Smith, and I yelling at the sky after midnight at Slate Creek.  Khanh's foul language, the crazy ideas that Josh Wallestad and I came up with that were serious also, Walker dabbing, the look on Gordon's face of sheer fear when Josh drove 3.6 miles in reverse.

The craziest moment of TOBY:  Driving 3.6 miles in reverse on a remote road, one of Josh Wallestad's greatest accomplishments.

Most scenic owl sighting:  Northern Hawk Owl on hoarfrost trees.

Ugliest owl sighting:  Barn Owl under Phoenix bridge.

Scariest moment of the year:  Besides plane turbulence, the javelina walking through the Prescott woodlands while I was by myself with Saw-whet Owls.  Until the javelina appeared and walked right by me without knowing I was there, I didn't know what was coming my way at first.  Walker and I also heard a lady screaming non-stop in a very creepy way...

Luckiest sighting of the year:  the adult Boreal Owl in Washington and the Flammulated Owl at Slate Creek Divide.  The thing they call dumb luck.

Place I owled at the most:  Coon Bluff Recreation Site

Most tiring Owl:  Boreal Owl

Easiest Owl to Find:  Western Screech-Owl and Burrowing Owls

Hardest Owl to Find:  Boreal Owl and Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl

Most exciting owl to watch:  Great Gray Owl (if only he had dove in the snow more than once)

My least favorite Owl:  Barn Owl, I like Strigs way better.

Most annoying Owl:  Boreal Owl

My top 3 Favorite Owls:  Great Gray, Northern Hawk, Boreal

Best flight:  The first one with Delta Airlines

Best Airport:  Freaking Portland man.  I even met a rock band at that one.  Called Alo (Animal Liberation Orchestra). 

Worst place I slept:  The Minnesota airport on two chairs folded together

Best place I slept:  Bog Springs Campground in Madera Canyon.  Whiskered Screech-Owls singing all night.

Smartest person of TOBY:  Josh Wallestad

Dumbest person of TOBY:  Tommy DeBardeleben

Best animals seen other than Owls:  Porcupine and Mountain Goat.  BAaaaAA!

Most dangerous terrain while owling:  The slopes Walker, Khanh and I were climbing when we first heard Boreal Owls

Person I wish I would have talked to on a TOBY trip:  A lovely woman who worked at the MN Airport.  We only said hi to each other.

Most famous person I saw when on a TOBY trip:  I think I might have seen Michael Jordan.

Most owl-like person of TOBY:  This one guy named Bobby.  I don't know if that was his real name, but he struck me as a Bobby.

Best people to strike out with on TOBY reward:  Kurt Radamaker and Mark Ochs

Easiest Owl for me to imitate sound wise:  Northern Saw-whet Owl

Easiest Owl for me to imitate behavioral wise:  All of them

Best smell of TOBY:  The conifers and fresh air of the Cascades

Worst smell of TOBY:  The stinky attitudes of those who act like Owl Police

Most pointless owl chase:  Spotted Owl in Miller Canyon.  I saw many more Spotted Owls, and I knew I would.  

Best listener for my TOBY travels:  My best friend and cousin T.J. Knupp

The number one place I want to Owl that I haven't yet:  Alaska.  My three favorites abide there!

What's the next best thing about Owling:  When the birds decide to wink at me.

A note on my owl photography:  At night, when I photograph owls, I do not use a flash.  To be honest, I hate flash photography and I don't think it brings out a natural look in photos.  I do have a powerful flashlight, and at that, I do not put the flashlight directly on owls for any long period of time.  I may do it for a few seconds and I then take it right off.  The best results I have are by shining the light up in the owls direction and placing the light near the owl, but not right on the owl.  When I do this, I turn my ISO up on my camera and snap away.  With this result, the pictures look more "night-like and owl-like" in my opinion.  When lights aren't directly shining on the owl source, it seems as if the owls themselves become more candid and less aware the birder is standing right there.  Constant shining on the subject is not a good idea, and it should be limited.  Give it a few seconds of brightness at most between intervals of having direct light placed away from the owl subject.  


There were many kind people who helped me complete TOBY.  I had a lot of help to complete the task...

Walker Noe:  My buddy Walker is Mr. Clutch of TOBY and he helped out in his biggest way by detecting the year's final owl I needed, the Boreal Owl.  I still can't believe how well this guy can hear.  Khanh and I gave him the nickname, "Bionic Walker".  Walker begged me to bring TOBY to the Pacific Northwest, and I'm sure glad he did!  Walker did a lot for me during my trip to Washington as he and Khanh kindly picked me up and drove me around the Pacific Northwest.

Khanh Tran:  My buddy Khanh is the owl whisperer of the Pacific Northwest.  I learned a lot of incredible information about owls from this talented and generous man, especially about Boreal Owls.  Because of Khanh, I feel like I have a decent knowledge about finding one of North America's toughest owls.  Khanh may be the most passionate owler I've met.  During the trip to Washington, Khanh didn't stop once from trying to get me the best looks at Boreal Owls that I could possibly get.

Gordon Karre:  My buddy Gordon was with me throughout a lot of TOBY and although we saw a lot of neat owls, Gordon played a different role.  He was my traveling mentor!  I hadn't flown on a plane prior to 2016 since I was a little kid and I was anxious about doing so.  Gordon walked me through it and made me realize traveling is more simple than it seemed.  I took three more flights as we all know, and because of my traveling mentor, I learned to love flying!

Sandy Aubol:  My buddy Sandy is incredible in her birding skills and has a vast knowledge about birds in the Grand Forks region of North Dakota and East Grand Forks region of Minnesota.  Sandy is a very kind woman, and after I traveled from Minnesota for four hours to Grand Forks, North Dakota, Sandy was there to meet me and drive me around to show me Short-eared Owls, which she knew a lot about!  I learned a lot about these owls and other birds from Sandy, who was an epic guide.

Caleb Strand:  My buddy Caleb is one of Arizona's youngest but most talented birders.  He takes on many similar interests as I do, such as birding in underbirded areas and seeking out species that are tougher to find, like owls.  Thanks to Caleb, he showed me one of Arizona's best locations for Flammulated Owls.  Caleb and I teamed up and learned how to find Flams perched in pines with some regularity!

Mark Ochs and Kurt Radamaker:  My two buddies Mark and Kurt didn't come with any owls during TOBY.  The three of us went to Colorado seeking Boreal Owls only to find we went at a bad time of year.  It was my fault really!  But when a Pine Flycatcher showed up in Arizona, we quickly left Colorado to see it.  Even though Boreal Owls were a strikeout on the trip I went on with these guys, the fact is, both of them are hilarious and great to be around.  The perfect people to be around when there's a strikeout!  

Dominic Sherony:  Dominic teamed up with me for two owls, Northern Pygmy-Owl and Flammulated Owl.  This guy is from New York and stays in Arizona for three months annually and is a buddy of mine.  He helped out a lot during the pursuit of these two species.  

Tyler Loomis:  My buddy Tyler has found some great birds in Arizona this year, and one of them was a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl that we were looking for.  If it weren't for Tyler, I may have had to make many more trips to see this tough species.  

Felipe Guerrero:  My buddy Felipe is from Prescott and was a huge help in my pursuit of Northern Saw-whet Owls.  He helped me find several creeks where they frequent, and his tips led me to the best views and enjoyment I have had of the species.  

Jeff Grotte:  Even though I haven't met Jeff in person, he's definitely a buddy!  Jeff is an epic owler in Minnesota and a great photographer too.  He helped Josh, Gordon, and I find a good share of owls on the trips we went on.  

Jennifer Moreland and Sean Lawson:  Jennifer is my boss at work and Sean is my co-worker at work.  Jennifer was huge in TOBY because of all the requests that she granted to me when I needed time off, and it was very kind of her to give it to me.  Sean switched a shift with me at the last second so I could fly to Minnesota for 20 hours to see an Eastern Screech-Owl, another generous act.  Great buddies there.

Tom and Catherine DeBardeleben:  My parents.  They are the reason I've had an interest in the outdoors and nature my whole life.  They also contributed to TOBY in a very kind way.  Thanks Mom and Dad.

The Wallestad Family:  My great friends the Wallestads were amazing to me.  Melissa, Evan, and Marin Wallestad were huge in TOBY for lending Josh to me during the searches for the great northern owls of Minnesota.  This family welcomed me to their home during the summer, something I'll always appreciate and be thankful for.  Rick and Sandi Wallestad, Josh's parents, lent us an epic home to stay in during the big Minnesota trip in winter.  This family is wonderful and has done a lot for me.

Josh Wallestad:  I can't say enough about my buddy Josh.  Josh is the reason TOBY was a success, and the MVP of my Big Year goes to Josh.  This guy got five owl lifers for me in one year, picked me up from the airport three times and drove me around Minnesota and Wisconsin to help me complete the dream of seeing and photographing each and every owl.  Not only did he drive me around, but he also put hours of planning into these trips.  Like I said, I can't say enough about how awesome Josh was during TOBY.  MVP!!!! MVP!!!!! MVP!!!!!!!

I would also like to thank the following people for owling with me during TOBY or by helping me in one way or another:  T.J. Knupp, Tyler DeBardeleben, Tracy Drury, Gretchen and Larry Ritter, Joshua Smith, Bob, Allen and Amanda Huselid,  Steve Gardner, Tom Beatty Jr. and Sr., Carol Hippenmeyer, Troy Corman, Ryan O'Donnell, Tom Lewis, Susan Fishburn, Melissa Okimoto, Garrett Wee, Joel Pearson, Clinton Nienhaus, Jason Mandich, Peder Svingen, Kim Risen, James McKay, and all 19 Owls themselves...

-All photographs and text by Tommy DeBardeleben unless otherwise noted.


  1. An excellent recap of a remarkable year of owling. Glad I got to take part in it in a small way. It was definitely a major accomplishment. Thanks for the memories and the best to you on your next adventure!

  2. How does one adequately comment on a work as great as this? As I read through these adventures collated in one post, I found myself in awe that all of this really took place--and I had even seen some of it first-hand. Reliving these adventures, especially the northern owls trip, was just as thrilling as the days that it happened. Actually, it may be more thrilling now because we know how the story ends. You did a really nice job in your writing, Tommy. Your enthusiasm for owling really shines through and is highly contagious--through your words I felt like I was right there with you on your treks in Washington, North Dakota, Colorado, and Arizona.

    You were too kind to me in this post. I was nothing more than a TOBY grunt. You were the one with the impossible dream that you turned into reality. With a limited budget and a full time job, you went after the most elusive family of birds and did what few have ever done--see all species of Owls WELL in a single year. Moreover, your year transcended owling: you taught us all to dream big and chase our dreams. Congratulations on this momentous accomplishment, Tommy. It was truly an honor to be a part of this and one of the best things I have done. Thank you for bringing me on the ride and thank you for at times even putting your trust in me from some of the planning to the driving, especially 3.6 miles of it. :)

    May I suggest that you make this post a permanent feature in one of the sidebars of your blog?