Going Back In Time a Bit

Moon above San Jacinto
Moon above San Jacinto

Here’s a throwback Thursday to last week. Before our grand back country road trip we did a short evening scout up to San Jacinto. The goal was to find some owls. Burt and I had never gone owling. Owling is night birding. Generally owls are nocturnal. I never saw many owls most of my life. I can only recall one sighting with certainty at Stone Mountain in North Carolina when I was probably 20 years old. Then I took up bird hunting. While crawling through scrubby coulees and checking out abandoned farmsteads looking for pheasants and grouse it was not unusual to flush a resting owl. One such adventure was on faithful reader Melissa’s family farm in Oregon. I flushed 5 owls from one tree while looking for a pheasant. I never even saw a pheasant that day but the dramatic flight of owls from four feet over my head will always be with me.

Burt and I have this new goal to better understand the natural history of this area. Portal has shown us we have a natural affinity for the people that love the natural world. And, of course, we love the natural world. We haven’t found too many people with similar interests so we are taking the classic advice given to single people looking for compatible partners. Do what you love and you will meet people that love the same things you do. We didn’t meet anybody out looking for owls but we did garner some unusual looks from people when we told them we went owling. So far no luck on finding birding friends that actually go birding here in Baja. We did manage to find an owl. This being the main goal the night was obviously a success. It was also a gorgeous evening. a sliver of a moon smiled down on us from above the palm trees. The water in the arroyo gleamed. Pitaya and cardon cacti made magical and mythical shapes on the skyline.

I, not being a very experienced birder, only know two ways to find an owl. One is you accidentally cross paths. You either see or hear the owl and there you are. Hearing an owl is a good way to find it. Usually they are much closer than the sound. I learned this when I went out one evening with Rose Ann and Richard, a pair of world renowned birders I have no business tagging along with. During our dark walk we heard an owl. I thought there was no chance of finding it. The hoot hoot hoot sounded as though it were coming from far away. In fact the bird was in a tree on a limb 10′ over our heads. Rose Ann told me they throw their voices and she took her flashlight and shined it right on the bird. I learned that lesson quick.  The second technique is to go to a likely owl habitat and play an owl call. Owls are territorial and also it’s the season for love. A recorded owl call can bring an owl to you.

Last week we stopped at three locations to listen for owls. We tried the arroyo with its palm and mango trees and water, a jungly ravine full of thorn forest, and a more open dessert plateau with large cacti. When we heard none (but saw some nighthawks and passing doves) I’d run through the 6 calls on my iPhone for southern Baja owls. One time, well after dark and headed homeward, we were sitting in the car amid giant cacti and torote trees and I had my phone out the window playing the wispy call of an elf owl. Through the open window I thought I caught the faint sound of a response. Burt agreed. We exited the vehicle and walked a bit towards where we thought the sound originated. Trouble was we had different opinions. Burt went behind the car and I went in front. This was a sign that the owl was nearby. So we stopped, stood still, and played the recording. There was definitely a response. We stood there and quietly leaned this way and that trying to get a location. The call sounded like it had a regional accent. The bird grew annoyed and flew to us. It flew right between our heads. Three times. Funny thing is even though we saw the bird all we saw was a very fast shadow flying between our heads. It was a colorless form with very quiet wing beats.  The elf owl is one of the smallest owls in the world. It’s smaller than a house finch. In the dark all we could see was dark movement. We tried to follow the elf owl to it’s roost but failed to locate it with our flashlights. Ah well. Tecolote enano (Spanish) or elf owl (English) or Micrathene whinteyi (scientific).  Add that to the list. Verbal ID is all you need to claim the spotting.

You can see and hear an elf owl in this Elf Owl. You can read more HERE. I learned through this adventure and blog research that elf owls are highly migratory and the owls of southern Arizona travel to Mexico every year to enjoy the warm winter and abundant insects. Elf owls are almost entirely into eating insects. So they migrate. But. Big, BUT. The species here on the southern end of Baja is a non-migratory sub-species. It is Micrathene whitneyi sanfordi.  While I was pondering the migration of such a wee owl it brought to mind my first elf owl interaction. The hopeless romantic in me was pondering the chances of this being the owl I met two years ago when it was tossed from the nest. A hapless baby tossed out of its nest and rescued by other naturalists. The night it was rescued I was allowed to feed the fluff ball a grasshopper I had caught and gutted myself. Baby owls prefer the insides of things. There I was feeding grasshoper brains to a tiny flying carnivore. I never would of thunk. Those birds were successfully raised by their parents and they fledged despite the fall from home. Anyway, no, the bird that bombed our heads was not a bird from Portal. The second link above shows how isolation of the Baja population. That’s why they have an accent. Animals are just like humans. They develop regional accents. If you Google Micrathene whitneyi sanfordi you can find a recording by Richard Webster. That’s the guy I mentioned above that first took me owling.

So if you are interested in the natural world and here in Southern Baja, let’s get together and gook out.

Arroyo at San Jacinto
Arroyo at San Jacinto
Juvenile Elf Owl. It successfully fledged.
Juvenile Elf Owl from Portal, AZ. 2014. It successfully fledged.
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The View

Pescadero Heights view
Pescadero Heights view

That there is the view from here. Some super cloud appreciation. Super is my Spanish adjective of the week. Super this, super that. Super sounds super in Spanish. Tonight Burt are taking a big step in our journey to be more familiar with the native flora and fauna. We are going to go owling after dark. Our plan is to pick up a pizza to go and head into the hills to some oasis. When we find some nice secluded trees we’ll play our owl calls. My iBird-Pro is already sorted to the owls of Baja. We’ll play some calls and hope somebody responds.

Tomorrow is our gig at Mi Pueblito. Saturday Portal friends Barry and Laura arrive. Stay tuned for more.

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Audubon Christmas Bird Count

Peg Abbot looking for birds. She can find them despite the conditions.
Peg Abbot looking for birds. She can find them despite the conditions.

My feet are finally warming up. Today was the 116th Annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count. This is the longest running citizen science project in the world. We joined our friend and professional guide, Peg Abbott, for a day of finding and counting birds high up in the Chiricahuas. As you can see from the pictures, the weather was suboptimal. The morning temperature was sub-freezing. I think it never got above 44 degrees F. Most of the day we were shrouded in damp fog. There was no wind. A wind might have made it intolerable and the birding would have been much less successful. It was gorgeous but tough work.

This past spring we went out with Peg on a warm sunny day in the Peloncillo Mountains. We had Pat along as our scribe. Where were you Pat? I had to do the note taking today. Accounting for the types and numbers of species is hard work. The birds all have abbreviated names to make bookkeeping easy. The first two letters of the (usually) two names. AM RO is American Robin, BA EA is bald Eagle. You get the idea. After 6 hours and over 5 miles of hiking in a variety of terrains we managed to see 30 species. There were over 300 individual birds. A few times I was confused by the bird code names. I embarrassed myself when I had to ask Peg what a CO RA was. It was a bird I found. The Common Raven. Oops.

Last Spring the MO DO was our most common bird. Morning Dove. This winter the most common bird was a DE JU. Dark Eyed Junco. Nearly 100. Except that the DE JU is split into the OR JU, the PS JU, SC JU and the RB JU. And I guess, the plain old dark-eyed Junco. That’s the Oregon Junco, the Pink-sided Junco, the Slate-colored Junco and the Red-backed Junco. Then there’s the Yellow-eyed Junco. My notes are quite a mess on this Junco issue. We saw nearly 80 that we could only identify as DE JU but we saw a smattering of all the rest, except the Slate-colored JU. The other very common bird was the NO FL, the Northern Flicker. Some 30 of these were in a flock just outside of Paradise.

Our route took us through several layers of the Chiricahua micro-climes. In each we found multi-species flocks. Peg could hear the birds and woo them in with a swishing sound she makes. Burt and I were auxiliary spotters and counters. The day was a great success but we missed seeing the Turkey and Montezuma Quail both of which we have seen anytime we weren’t actually looking for them.

This census is a big event all across the country. More than 50 people were counting in the Chiricahuas today. My friends Ed and Rosemary were counting in Death Valley. Tomorrow more people will head into the Peloncillos in neighboring New Mexico. We head back to the regular grind. Big thanks to Peg who makes the day so fun and educational.

Burt in a brief moment of sunshine.
Burt in a brief moment of sunshine.
Peg leading us to the Pygmy Nuthatches.
Peg leading us to the Pygmy Nuthatches.
Near Onion Saddle. We popped out of the fog for a few minutes.
Near Onion Saddle. We popped out of the fog for a few minutes.
Our birding range.
Our birding range.
My notes. Picture blurry but you get the idea.
My notes. Picture blurry but you get the idea.
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