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.