Prowls for Owls

Last week, seven of us took a free afternoon to walk to town. It was an hour down and two hours up. So we didn’t actually have much time in town. It was enough to spot a few birds and buy a few cool drinks. While we were outside one shop, children came out to show us their newest pet.

Turns out it was a baby owl! They communicated to us that it had fallen out a tree far, far away. We instantly cooed and ooohed. Everyone wanted to hold the baby owl and pose with it. Someone has a photo of me with it, don’t recall who – perhaps Charlotte or Jordan has it. The interesting thing about the community vibe is that we’re all freely asking people to take photos of various spectacles, including scientific documentation with their own cameras…. I can’t imagine how hundreds of people are going to redistribute the photos at the end of all this.

Some of the party wanted to take the owl with us on our return up the mountain, but I vetoed that idea. I didn’t want to explain to children we were about to deprive them of their pet. Also, I was pretty certain Opwall would have a policy regarding bringing back orphaned wildlife. Nevertheless it was cute.

We believe the owlet to be a Mottled Owl, which is one of the two common types here, the other being the Crested Owl. At least those are the two we’ve identified on our Owl Prowls.

We found out later that during Opwall’s first year in Honduras, the locals were very eager to bring unusual specimens to the camp to show the scientists. But that’s not what Opwall is about.

While in Base Camp this week, (hence access to internet) Kate and I were assigned to complete each transect (4) once and to complete opportunistic surveys at will. We split on the first day because we had eight students and 3 new staff with us. Then she did the remaining two transects on her own and I did the teaching with demo netting. (We have 2-3 very worn nets, but no banding equipment). It’s still enough to show students birds up close and teach them how to work with nets.

The first excursion for the new birders (Andrew, Daniel, and Monte) was owling. 5 of us and 1 pre-med tag-along sitting on a ridge in silence straining to hear hoots and whoos. (We heard 2 mottled owls on our second ridge and then called it a night because they were jet lagged). Much more exciting than the previous week where 7 birders went out and heard no owls. This time we used ipods for playing calls and strategically visited ridges for better acoustics.

Kate, Daniel, and I went out the next time with another bird enthusiast, Chip, but poor weather conditions prevented us from staying out long or hearing owls.

The following night, Kate and I had our best luck. We had two owls, of two species both unknown at the first point. At the second point, we could still hear one from the first point, picked up two more of the same species as well as recording 1 Mottled and 1 Crested Owl in the distance as well. Total of 6 owls across four species. Best owling ever. Especially since it doesn’t require wearing two winter coats just to feel numb.

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Note: While in the field I will have no access to most social media, including facebook, twitter, and google+.

Sunrise Stakeout

Arizona Birding Series: #2

Dreams do come true.  When researching my impending (now long since passed!) trip to Arizona, I was determined to see a Burrowing Owl.  Such indelible birds were not to be missed!

Research through the annals of ebird revealed that Burrowing Owls were to be found on Lisa Frank Avenue, right in Tucson, a mile from our hotel!  Clearly this was meant to be.  I was out the door by 7am the first morning, alone, as my sister reneged on her agreement to accompany me. (You did!)

The streets leading to the stakeout where a mixture of desert scrub and industrial complex beneath a rising sun. I wasn’t sure entirely what to expect or how hard finding Burrowing Owls would be.  So I headed at out at the earliest opportunity to maximize my chances of spotting an owl.

King of the Fence. Burrowing Owl Stakeout, Tucson, Arizona. Photo taken on June 14, 2014.

King of the Fence. Burrowing Owl Stakeout, Tucson, Arizona. Photo taken on June 14, 2014.

Lo and behold, there was a Burrowing Owl on a fence post. Right outside the Lisa Frank Building*  Not at all where one expects to find an owl. I might have easily walked past as blinded by the building as I was.  The fence was much closer to the road than the building.  Had I longer arms I might have touched the owl. (If I could have, I would have hugged it! Reached that is, if I could have reached. All owls want to be hugged. It’s a fact.)

Hike and Seek. Burrowing Owl Stakeout, Tucson, Arizona. Photo taken on June 14, 2014.

Hide and Seek. Burrowing Owl Stakeout, Tucson, Arizona. Photo taken on June 14, 2014.

I walked to the far side of the street to sit and watch in amazement. (I might have texted a fellow birder or two back east to share my amazing fortune!)  Then I noticed there were more owls.  And they made sounds!  It was almost too much to bear.

Ruffled Feathers. Burrowing Owl Stakeout, Tucson, Arizona. Photo taken on June 14, 2014.

Ruffled Feathers. Burrowing Owl Stakeout, Tucson, Arizona. Photo taken on June 14, 2014.

There were times they appeared to stare at me, and other times they appeared utterly disinterested.  The above owl seemed more concerned with letting the wind blow through its feathers than the whirl of my camera hard at work.

Pounce? Burrowing Owl Stakeout, Tucson, Arizona. Photo taken on June 14, 2014.

Pounce? Burrowing Owl Stakeout, Tucson, Arizona. Photo taken on June 14, 2014.

They appeared very amicable birds, interacting and moving amongst each other.  They’d sit together, then rearrange themselves.  Sometimes darting across the street to chat with a neighbor, other times ducking into the burrow.

Burrowing Owl surveys the landscape at it's burrow. Burrowing Owl Stakeout, Tucson, Arizona. Photo taken on June 14, 2014.

Burrowing Owl surveys the landscape at it’s burrow. Burrowing Owl Stakeout, Tucson, Arizona. Photo taken on June 14, 2014.

I sat there for half an hour or so, rapturing in owls.  A few people stopped to speak to me about it – the owls here are a locally-known phenomenon.   I guess they get a good number of birders.

Staring Contest. Burrowing Owl Stakeout, Tucson, Arizona. Photo taken on June 14, 2014.

Staring Contest. Burrowing Owl Stakeout, Tucson, Arizona. Photo taken on June 14, 2014.

There were at least 6 owls.  I stayed as long as I could and then hurried back for family engagements.

*Lisa Frank Avenue and Building, of course, the headquarters for the company responsible for the purple and pastel unicorn and fantasy themed binders and trapper-keepers on the market in the 90s aimed at pre-teen girls.