Sunday, July 12, 2015

Spotting Spotties

On July 10th, I contacted Tommy DeBardeleben to try to plan another trip out to Coon Bluff for night owling.  He suggested a camping trip up to the high and hazardous elevations of Slate Creek Divide, a Maricopa lister's dream.  I wanted Spotted Owl, and I hoped to get one in the nice habitat of Slate Creek.  I missed the family in Miller Canyon due to running out of time down there, and time to find them was ticking before my move up to Idaho, out of their range.  The trip's goal was a Spotted Owl, but the purpose was any and all bird species we could get our eyes on.

Let me preface this post with a caution:

This species is federally threatened.  It is illegal to use playback or harass the owl in any way, including getting too close and remaining in the area for too long.

Also, Slate Creek is a very hazardous area.  On my trip up there, I encountered rattlesnakes, poison ivy, steep hills, slippery rocks, and even a bear.  The birds in Miller Canyon are both more used to people and more easily accessible.  For those seeking a Spotted Owl sighting, Miller Canyon is the much better place to go.  The owls at Slate Creek are very hard to locate and access, and require a great deal of luck.

Don't ask me where the locations of these owls are, I will not tell you.

Tommy and I left the Phoenix area at around 6, hoping to reach our camping spot before dark.  We stopped along the way for some food, and reached Slate Creek right at dark.  We worked our way up the hill in the truck, and there in the middle of the road was a Common Poorwill!  I wasn't quick enough for photos, but it gave good looks.  Further up, we stopped to hike and listen for some Flammulated Owls, a much desired county bird for me.  Well, no luck.

At the top, we made our makeshift camp at a parking, and decided to hike down an undisclosed dark drainage on the Gila side to look and listen for Spotted Owls.  After about an hour, we called it a night and went to "sleep."  At about 12:30, Mr. Tommy D., who wasn't able to sleep, heard a Spotty.  His shuffling around woke me up, and I was ecstatic to hear my lifer Spotted Owl, albeit in Gila County.  We immediately opted to hike down and try to locate the now duetting pair.

We looked and looked, and the loud calls were driving us nuts!  We couldn't get any eyes on the birds.  They were in the back of a large Douglas fir tree, too thick to see through.

After what seemed like a few minutes, but was actually an hour, Tommy located one of the owls!  It was awesome to take such a great bird off of a heard only list, even though it was only on briefly.


Then, a second SPOW flew right in for EPIC looks!!  It continued calling right in front of our shocked faces, and bobbed its head curiously.  It was not bothered by us AT ALL!  It was really thrilling to see such a unique and hard to find bird in its element at night.

Can you believe it??  No flash, just high ISO.

What a great way to get my lifer.  Superlatives abounded in my mind, "Awesome!  Epic!  Cool!  Wow!"  I was ever-so-slightly disappointed that it wasn't on the Maricopa side, but oh well.  If one complains about Spotties, one will get a slap in the face from their birding partner.

We headed back to the car to go to bed a second time.  We had also heard a Great Horned Owl, bringing our nocturnal count to 3.  Our plan the next day was to hike 3.5 miles through a couple of drainages, but we knew that after this late night prowl, we would most likely be too exhausted were we to attempt that.  So we decided to shoot for a truncated hike in the morning.  By the time we were finished observing the SPOWs, it was 2:30.  We arose at 5, and heard plenty of songbirds during dawn chorus, including Hermit Thrushes and Dusky-capped Flycatchers, the latter of which was a county first for me.

We moved to the Maricopa side, and just looked for Spotted Owls.  Slate Creek definitely holds the perfect breeding habitat for Spotted Owls, with its Douglas fir forests and shady drainages.  Tommy and I both wanted to find fledglings in Maricopa, but we were actually more than content with the superb sighting the night before.

We heard Red-breasted Nuthatches, Virginia's Warblers, and Mexican Jays, all county birds for me.  We scanned and scanned, and after a couple hours, in the most dangerous part of the drainage, in an area laden with poison ivy, slippery rocks, and rattlesnakes, Tommy got eyes on a fledgling Spotted Owl.  I raised my binocs and spotted what I thought was his bird he called out.  Well, it wasn't.  I had an adult, and he had a fledgling nearby.  We knew there should be at least another fledgling, and we successfully located a third (Maricoper) Mexican Spotted Owl.  These birds were quite far enough from the other pair to assume that the adult female was a separate female than the one we had the night before.

Spot the Spotted Owl!!  They are sure good at camouflage.

Got it!!!

I don't think this young fella had ever seen a human before, he was so curious!  We maintained a distance of at least 60 feet at all times, these photos are pretty cropped.

Here's the mama and the other fledgling:

After my recent string of birding luck, I was truly fortunate to have this awesome experience in my own home county!

It was hard to leave, but we kept going down the drainage.  We birded some more, but our minds were on those owls.  After hiking some more and finding nothing too noteworthy, we turned around and headed back up.

We were really excited to revisit these guys.  Unexpectedly, our whole trip really turned into one long Spotted Owl highlight!

This guy was giving us a real show with his stretching and acrobatics!  Again, we maintained an even farther distance on this viewing.


And of course, the customary selfies.  You can see the respectable distance we maintained:



What a great experience, getting these incredible birds in my home county!  It was so unbelievable, and now the Spotted Owl is my favorite bird!

Thanks to Mr. Tommy D. for being a great birding partner!

Once more, for good measure:


  1. Great post Walker! You did a great job of summarizing this trip and all of our Spotted Owl observations. Congrats again on getting them as a lifer the way you did. The birds really gave you a show both day and night, and that is something to always remember. A classic way to get a lifebird! And good thing we managed to escape all of the rattlesnakes, ivy, rocks, and that mean looking bear ;)

    1. Thanks Tommy! Thanks for showing me the spots and pointing out that day roost! I'll definitely remember that night/day! And that bear was nasty ;)

  2. What great owling you had! And you are learning from one of the best when you go out with Tommy.

    I'm glad you started up a blog, but I gotta tell ya, I'm never going to get any work done now that I'm following another great AZ birder! Your pictures are very impressive, by the way.

    1. Thanks for stopping by Josh! Yes, having Tommy is almost like cheating. It was a great time.

      And you are too kind, I'm glad to be able to share my passion with others.


  3. That place is great! Glad you both found these owls. I had my first Pima sighting in Tucson of all places this past year near a wash! Owls are incredible birds. Thanks for keeping their locations secret. I don't know what it is about people and owls but I've watched many cross lines that endangered the bird for a photo....not cool. As for the evening with active thank you:) I barely see them in the day. Great spot for lots of awesome birds! Congrats!