Thursday, April 28, 2011

Owls, Tiny and Merely Small

Last night, Dave Jasper and I joined Gerry, Peter, and their friends from the West Midland and West Sussex bird clubs in Britain, in search of two of the special owls of Cave Creek Canyon––the Whiskered Screech Owl (a denizen of Mexico's oak-pine forests, which barely reaches the US) and the Elf Owl (imagine a lilliputian owl the size of a sparrow!).

The sycamores around the Portal post office are a traditional territory of Elf Owls, with generations of owls at that site having entertained and amazed generations of birders. This year we have a quandary. Last winter's storms broke off the branch which sheltered the most recently-used nest cavity. We have not known, until now, which cavity the Elf Owls would choose next for their chick-rearing.

As we approach the area at dusk, the Elf Owls are already vocalizing, and Dave and I home in on their calls. An owl drops from a high cavity in a nearby sycamore, and we can see the female's tiny visage at the new nest entrance. The male quickly returns to give her prey, most likely an insect he has caught.

An Elf Owl with Katydid Prey (Watercolor by Narca)

This new nest isn't quite as close and in-your-face as last year's, but it's easily visible from a public area, and thankfully not on the back side of the trunk. (These owls are quite used to seeing people, and not in the least fazed by their celebrity. The proof is in the owlets that fledge each year.) So, in Portal, the season's nightly Elf Owl show begins!

We continue up into Cave Creek Canyon to look for the Whiskered Screech Owls. Their habitat overlaps a bit with that of Western Screech Owls. The Whiskereds are usually higher in the canyon. When we arrive at a stopping point, we hear the Whiskereds as soon as we step out of the van. This territory, too, is familiar: it has also been used by generations of owls. I've never seen this nest, but Dave knows the nest site from his years of helping Helen Snyder to comb the canyon for owl nests––research that established Cave Creek Canyon as the place with the highest known density of nesting raptors in North America, about five times the density of the Snake River Birds of Prey Area in Idaho.

Soon Dave's flashlight (AKA torch to the Brits) catches the gleam of eyeshine from the calling Whiskered Screech Owl, and the group enjoys a lingering look at the lovely little owl, his beak clearly greenish-yellow instead of having the blackish cast of a Western Screech Owl's bill.

Whiskered Screech Owl at a Day Roost
(Watercolor by Narca)

The magic continues with an unproductive stop for Common Poor-wills, but with a magnificent field of stars overhead, here under some of the darkest skies in North America.

Sycamores in the deep of night (Photo by Narca)

I am also impressed anew upon seeing Dave's skills, acquired through years of guiding all the kids at Camp Chiricahua, applied so effectively to adults. (Hey––I fell into line! And so did the owls!)


  1. What a great night! Both of these owls would be new to us. Any chance they will still be in the area in September or do they move on after nesting?

  2. Hi Alan, They become very hard to detect when the nesting season is over and they are no longer calling. The Elf Owls that nest in southern Arizona migrate south into Mexico. They are usually in this area from about mid March till mid September, but sightings in the fall are extremely rare. (Sorry!) The larger Whiskered Screech Owls (with their bigger mass and better protection from cold) aren't known to migrate, although they may move to lower elevations in winter. They are likewise very hard to find when they aren't vocalizing.

  3. Thank you, Narca, for your guiding around Portal and especially your help (as well as Dave's) with the owls. Everyone loves to see owls and our group was no exception.
    My annual visit to Portal is something I always look forward to and I hope to be back again next year.

  4. It was a pleasure meeting you, Peter, and the rest of the gang! Was your later exploration productive?