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A big year for owls

BRD-B0211-500I can think of no better way to start off the new year than to walk out the front door in the pre-dawn darkness and hear two different owl species calling.

That is what happened to me on January 1, 2009, at my home in Phoenix. In the distance, I heard the faint bouncing ball-like call of a Western Screech-Owl, a small owl occasionally found in urban areas around the city. From the opposite direction came the low hooting call of a Great Horned Owl, a fairly common resident of our neighborhood. I sometimes hear the pair, but I rarely hear both at the same time, as I did that morning.

With my annual Arizona bird list off to a good start — at least with the owls — I thought it might be fun to try to find all 13 of the state’s owl species in one year. Arizona has more owl species than just about any other state. While it is not uncommon to find as many as seven or eight species on a big day in the spring, getting all 13 in one year would be a significant challenge. Finding them would be an adventure with lots of day- and nighttime treks into many different habitats in many different parts of the state.

I knew some owl species would be harder to find than others. Three in particular — the Ferruginous Pygmy, Long-eared, and Short-eared — would be difficult for varying reasons. The Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl is an endangered species whose numbers continue to decrease due to habitat loss. Populations of Long-eared Owl, a widespread but erratic breeder, and Short-eared Owl, a winter visitor, often fluctuate greatly depending on the abundance of prey. It would take persistence and a little luck to find them all.

In early February, I decided to try for owl No. 3. Northern Saw-whet Owl, a small nocturnal owl, begins calling in the high country in late winter, but populations tend to be sporadic in distribution and sightings are scattered across the state. I opted to search on the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff — the highest mountain in the state and an area where the bird breeds. The snow was deep and the temperature in the low 20s as I slowly drove up Snowbowl Road toward Agassiz Peak. It was a crystal-clear night. In the sky above, I saw Venus rising in the west and Orion overhead, both so bright I thought I could reach out and touch them.

At my third stop, a saw-whet owl was calling off in the distance. I followed the monotonous tooting through the snow, and with the aid of a large flashlight, I was able to see the bird perched on the limb of a 60-foot Douglas fir. Shivering in the cold, I felt fortunate I would not have to search for Snowy Owls. Yes, there is a 1970 Arizona sight record of three Snowy Owls flying through a winter storm. Thankfully, at least for my big-year purposes, the Snowy remains on the state’s hypothetical list.

My fourth and fifth owl species came just two weeks later. In late February, I was birding a large irrigation pond south of Phoenix looking not for owls but for wintering ducks. To my surprise, a Barn Owl burst out of dense tamarisk growing along the water’s edge. For a moment or two, the cold west wind seemed to hold it suspended in the air as it beat its wings before flying up and away. This was an owl I did not expect to find so easily and was glad to check it off early in my quest.

Later that day, near Gila Bend, a small town southwest of the city, I spotted a Burrowing Owl, a small diurnal owl, standing on a canal bank next to a flooded alfalfa field. I often see the species in agricultural areas west of Phoenix. The erect posture and wide-eyed look always remind me of J.R.R. Tolkien’s hobbits.

In mid-April, my friend Sig Stangeland and I drove to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in south-central Arizona in search of the rarest of my target owls, the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl. The monument is one of a handful of sites in the state where the species is hanging on after decades of decline. The property, which is run by the National Park Service, preserves the rugged upper and lower Sonoran desert habitat the bird requires.

The springtime desert landscape was spectacular that morning. Fiery red ocotillo and stately organ pipe cacti were scattered among bright yellow palo verde trees. Around 7 o’clock we heard a pygmy-owl calling from thick vegetation along a rocky wash. Sig and I were ecstatic and also lucky; surveyors in Arizona have located only about 20 Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls each year since 2003. The owl continued to call incessantly for the next 20 minutes. After much effort, we finally found it perched about four feet off the ground in a tall creosote bush.

Eventually, a small army of songbirds led by four or five scolding Black-tailed Gnatcatchers and two or three brave Verdins mobbed it and chased it away. We debated reporting the sighting, knowing we’d get an avalanche of emails from birders requesting the owl’s location. We did, and there certainly was.

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl: Arizona’s rarest owl

South-central Arizona marks the northern edge of the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl’s range. The species also is found in far southern Texas, in eastern and western Mexico, and south through Central and South America.

A century ago, it was common in the Grand Canyon State, too, but livestock grazing, urbanization, and other factors reduced its deciduous riparian habitat. Now, it’s endangered in Arizona. Only about 20 Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls are found in the state each year.

They are known to occur in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, in and around the Altar Valley, and on the Tohono O’odham Nation. The areas are remote, and given the small population, sightings are rare. To find the owl, the better bet is to visit Texas or Mexico.

Spotting a Spotted Owl
The mountains of southeastern Arizona are great places to look for owls, as readers of Birder’s World know. According to the magazine’s recent Readers’ Favorites Survey, six of the 25 favorite spots to watch owls in North America are in the region. (See “Watching owls,” December 2010 issue, page 37.)

One of the most sought-after species is the Spotted Owl, a large, rather tame bird typically found in narrow, shady canyons in isolated ranges like the Chiricahuas, Huachucas, and Santa Ritas. Arizona’s birds are Mexican Spotted Owls, a threatened subspecies that occurs from Utah and Colorado south to western Texas and the Sierra Madre in Mexico.

In early May, I heard reports of a Spotted Owl that was being seen regularly in Miller Canyon in the Huachuca Mountains (the survey’s No. 1 favorite place to watch owls). My wife Eleanor and I decided to look for it one Sunday morning. As we walked upstream along Miller Creek, Red-faced Warblers, Painted Redstarts, and Dusky-capped Flycatchers seemed to be singing from every tree. Suddenly, Eleanor, who was walking about 30 feet behind me, called out: “I have the owl.”

I turned around and was surprised to see it perched on a limb over the trail. It was hidden in the bright green leaves of a bigtooth maple tree, and I had walked right underneath it. We spent the next half hour watching it. From time to time, it would open its dark eyes, flex one of its claws, and carefully preen its beautiful spotted breast feathers. We left owl No. 7 exactly where we found him.

Two weeks later, I drove to Ganado, a small community in the heart of the vast Navajo reservation in the northeastern part of the state. The area is famous for the intricate Ganado Red rugs woven by local Navajo women. As I struggled through a dense Russian olive thicket on the bank of Ganado Wash looking for spring migrants and raptors, I decided to look at a large nest nearby. Common Ravens and a Great Horned Owl had successively occupied it over the previous two years.

When I reached the site, I saw a large bird partially hidden behind tree branches near the nest. I assumed it was the Great Horned Owl, but on second look, it was obviously much slimmer than a Great Horned. It had a narrow face with vertical stripes and two prominent ear tufts. It was owl No. 8, a Long-eared Owl! To add to the thrill, a fluffy newly fledged juvenile — often referred to as a “brancher” — was perched nearby.

The Long-eared occurs across Mexico, the United States, and Canada, but in my state, it’s not reliable anywhere. Nomadic and shy, it’s one of the least known owls of Arizona. Here I was, less than five months into my quest, and I’d found it. Even better, I had only five owls to go.

What a difference four months can make! That is what I was thinking as I returned to the San Francisco Peaks in mid-June. Instead of snow and ice, I found meadows covered with blooming Rocky Mountain iris.

My quarry was the small Flammulated Owl, a neotropical species that inhabits western pine and fir forests from British Columbia to central Mexico in the summer. I had no trouble locating it. In fact, three Flammulated Owls were hooting softly in a one-mile stretch of mountain road about an hour after dark. In three or four months, most of the owls would be gone, making the long flight to their wintering grounds in southern Mexico and Central America.

A week later, I went in search of another high-elevation species, the Northern Pygmy-Owl, after receiving a report that two had been heard on Mt. Ord northeast of Phoenix.

Identifying owls by sound is sometimes not as easy as it might seem, especially at night. Many distant sounds can be mistaken for owl calls, including barking dogs, scraping tree branches, or creaky windmills. One windy spring night high in the Chiricahua Mountains, my friends and I were fooled into thinking we heard a Northern Saw-whet Owl. The call turned out to be the distant backup alarm of a front-end loader.

Thankfully, the Northern Pygmy-Owl on Mt. Ord was most obliging, responding unmistakably to whistled imitations of its call. It was now 10 down and three owls to go.

ArizonaMap650Wow! 13 owls in Arizona in one year!

Author Charles Babbitt heard the first two species of his big year for owls from just outside his front door in Phoenix early in the morning on New Year’s Day, 2009. Finding the other 11 species would require trips to nine other sites scattered around the state. This map shows where and when he found each bird, and it gives information on the owls’ status in Arizona. Numbers indicate the order in which he found the birds.

Two owls in one night
Perhaps no place is more fun to look for owls than Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita range (site No. 2 on the Readers’ Favorites Survey). In fact, on cool summer evenings, it is almost an event. The canyon’s oak woodland is home to a number of cooperative owl species, including Whiskered Screech, Western Screech, Elf, Great Horned, and less commonly, Northern Pygmy, Flammulated, and Spotted. However, looking for owls in Madera Canyon can be tricky; sometimes you are not sure if you are listening to an owl or another birder playing a recording in the darkness. A missed cue on an iPod or tape recorder might have you thinking that a Boreal Owl is somewhere off in the oaks.

In early August, I spent an evening in Madera Canyon around Bog Springs Campground looking for Whiskered Screech and Elf Owls. The Whiskered Screech-Owl is a small, non-migratory, high-elevation bird that is found from southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico south to Nicaragua. The Elf Owl, the world’s smallest owl, breeds in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and northern Mexico and winters in the Sierra Madre region of western Mexico. It has been described as “the most abundant owl in Arizona.”

Above the campground, distant flashes of lightning from a gathering monsoon occasionally illuminated the granite peaks of the Santa Ritas. As darkness deepened, I could hear the song of a Mexican Whip-poor-will as it flew through the night scooping up insects.

A little later, two Western Screech-Owls began a duet, calling back and forth, and shortly after that a Whiskered Screech-Owl chimed in with its Morse-code-like call. The Whiskered eventually flew in and perched in an alligator juniper. It stared at me with its bright yellow eyes. At about 10 p.m., an Elf Owl began calling in the large sycamores along Madera Creek, its yipping call competing with the loud voices of canyon tree frogs.

I now had one more owl to find, but my search for the Short-eared would have to wait until fall. The species, which winters across most of the U.S. and northern Mexico, is rare in Arizona and is recorded only from October to March. I hadn’t seen one in the state since 1985.

Fall came and turned into winter. In spite of repeated attempts, including several searches in agricultural areas southwest of Phoenix, I could not find the bird. In late December I made a final try, this time in the San Rafael Valley south of Patagonia. The valley’s lush grasslands sweep south toward the Mexican border and are famous for such wintering specialties as Sprague’s Pipit, Baird’s Sparrow, and Chestnut-collared and McCown’s Longspurs. They are also one of the more reliable locations for Short-eared Owls.

My search for the owl began at dusk as a full moon — a decade-ending blue moon — rose over the Canelo Hills. Driving slowly along dusty roads, I paid special attention for passing Border Patrol vehicles; at one point, the officers were more than a little curious about what I was doing.

I soon spotted an owl in the road ahead. It was the right size for Short-eared, but it flew off before I could grab my binoculars. A little farther up the road, I found another owl at the side of the road, frozen in the headlights. This time there was no doubt: a streaked, buffy Short-eared Owl. As I watched, it turned and glared at me, its yellow-orange eyes blazing in the lights.

The blue-moon owl was a perfect ending to my yearlong quest. I don’t know how many people have found all the Arizona owl species in one year or have even tried. For me, however, the experience was unforgettable. I visited almost every part of the state, from snow-capped mountains in the north to deserts and grasslands in the south. I will always remember the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl staring at me out of the creosote bush and the Mexican Spotted Owl calmly watching Eleanor and me from its perch in the maple tree. What a year!

More about owls

Underground owl
The latest discoveries about the Burrowing Owl

Great silent hunter
Why late fall and early winter are the best times to listen for the Great Horned Owl

Tiny traveler
Why the best time for recording Northern Saw-whet Owls along the shore of Lake Superior is spring, not fall

Charles J. Babbitt is a Phoenix lawyer and an avid birdwatcher. He is a past president of the Maricopa Audubon Society and a member of the Arizona Bird Committee. He wrote about the six warblers that breed primarily in Arizona in our June 2012 issue and about Pinyon Jay and Clark’s Nutcracker in our June 2014 issue. Originally Published

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