I always root for the raptor over the cute (but highly disposable) prey in these situations.
This year, most of my birding energy has been put into owls. They are my favorite bird group, and one I find extremely rewarding to find, watch, and photograph. I've been birding for three years, and nothing compares to owls in my experience.
My experience with owls this year began amazingly. My good buddy Caleb Strand was visiting me in Idaho from Arizona, and I noticed a report of a Northern Hawk-Owl only three and a half hours away. Given the fact that this owl was a lifer for both of us, it didn't take much thought to chase the bird. We got him within ten seconds of arrival. Those owls are rather conspicuous.
When we arrived in the frozen wilds of Washington after leaving the warm comforts of home at 4 a.m., we encountered another birder. Said birder was woefully despairing, lamenting, "I have been here since sunrise, and no luck!" Well, always the gentlemen, Caleb and I pointed him toward the bird. It was his ABA #731. When we said we had the bird, he said "Do you know for sure that's a Hawk Owl?" HA! You don't know Caleb and I, Mr. ABA 731. He drove straight from New Mexico for the bird, only to become confounded a mere 50 yards from his target! Glad we were there to help. We did not catch his name, regretfully.
After that, Caleb, Dalton, and I headed to a nearby Northern Saw-whet Owl day roost site. We searched high and low, no luck. On our way out, we ran into a fellow birder, by the name of Khanh Tran. Now, we didn't know it at the time, but Khanh is the best bird guide in the whole Northwest. Also, he is another "owl freak," disparaging nickname courtesy of Chris Rohrer ;). Khanh kindly showed us a second day roost. The Saw-whet was a lifer for Caleb, and his second owl lifer of the day. I'm glad we met Khanh there, it was the beginning of a long and productive friendship.
Snowy Owl was the next owl on the "hit-list." After dipping so badly on Snowy, we needed redemption.
A few days before, we spent 7 hours scoping miles of snowfield. Looking for a white bird on white snow can get a little old. The locals were telling us, "They hang out here! We see them all the time on these barns!"
At the spot. our visibility was maybe 80 yards, so we knew there was no chance of effective scoping. People had been seeing the bird from 1/4 to 1/2 mile away. We realized our hopes were shot, so I started the car to leave. That's when Caleb shouted, no, screamed, "SNOWY OWL!" The bird flew right over our car, and perched on the telephone pole less than fifty feet away. Truly majestic, to say the least. I'll remember that, my first Snowy Owl, forever.
Well, it was 1000 hours, and we prepared to head home. On the way back, we spotted a Barn Owl hunting, our fourth owl of the day.
In late March, I headed with Dalton and my new friend Khanh to look for Great Gray Owl. Khanh is amazing with these birds. We found one quickly and easily. Incredible.
It was about this time I realized it might be possible for me to get all of the United States' owls in a single year. And my buddy, Big T, aka Tommy DeBardeleben, another owl freak, was already killing it with his owl big year. Tommy lives in AZ, so he quickly got all of the Arizona owls, and took a trip to Minnesota for the tougher northern owls like Northern Hawk, Great Gray, and Snowy. He also got a bonus Barred Owl. So, with Tommy's inspiration, I decided to start going hard for my remaining owls. The rules: See the owl and photograph it for it to count.
So far I had seen and photographed:
Northern Hawk Owl
Northern Saw-whet Owl
Great Gray Owl
That means I had these ones left:
Great Horned Owl
I had an Arizona trip planned in late May. I knew I would have to get Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Elf Owl, and Whiskered Screech-Owl to have a chance at reaching my goal. Spotted, Burrowing, Western Screech, Barn, and Flammulated were owls that are possible in the northwest, but easier in Arizona. So I had eight target owls in Arizona, and three weeks to find them. Doable.
Actually, I joined forces with Khanh in Arizona, and hoped to show him some owls to repay what he showed me.
Before Khanh came down, Caleb and I went to look for Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls in Organ Pipe National Monument, right down by Mexico. We ended up hearing one, and Caleb got brief looks. Not good enough, we planned to go back.
We did manage a photo-yearbird Barn Owl that day, however.
Tommy and I planned to show Khanh a bunch of owls along the Salt River in Maricopa County. Since Khanh is hardcore, he met us over there right after his plane arrived. Tommy and I already had the almost 1-dozen owls staked out for him when he arrived. They were calling all over the place. Khanh was impressed.
Two more down.
Western Screech-Owl Elf Owl
Khanh and I headed to Madera Canyon the next day, to target Flammulated Owl and Whiskered Screech Owl, and hopefully get more good looks at Elf Owl.
Whiskered Screech-Owls are easier than Starlings.
Flammulated are tougher. We had good close looks, but the bird didn't stay long.
We also had more Elf Owls, but not as good quality looks as the night before.
Well, after another morning of birding with Khanh, he went on to different bird in southeast Arizona, and I went back to get Caleb and Dalton to continue our adventures where they left off in Idaho/Washington.
Our first night was in Madera, so we went back to look for the Flammulated Owl.
Success! Caleb is great with these small dark-eyed owls.
We also had a Spotted Owl calling, but no photos.
After success in Madera and elsewhere in southeast AZ that included many other amazing birds (for another post), we headed to Miller Canyon to find Spotted Owls.
Pretty easy to find!
We camped at Proctor Road in Madera Canyon the next night, and got more crazy looks at Western Screech-Owls. They really are easier than Starlings.
On our way back from an epic trip, we had to stop and look for Burrowing Owls. Again, success (are you starting to notice a theme here? Thought so. The WOBY train keeps rolling).
That Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl was still in our minds, so we resolved to try again. We arrived before sunrise and had a tough bird with great looks!
Seeing a cactus subspecies perched on a cactus was amazing. to say the least. This one day was such an epic trip, it really deserves its own post. But, that can wait until later!
After that, we chased and got an ABA first record Pine Flycatcher. No big deal,
No more non owls in this post, I promise, though I could go on about that trip. Tufted Flycatcher, Berylline Hummingbird, Plain-capped Starthroat, as well as basically all of Arizona's specialties. Trogons got so old we stopped looking at them. And you know it's a good trip when Sinaloa Wren is too trashy to chase.
After Arizona's 8-for-8 success (like Steph Curry's shooting percentage), my list was looking considerably smaller.
The "big seven" remaining
This is where I started to evaluate my chances.
I was not worried about Great Horned at all. I knew several spots for them, and figured I would come across one eventually.
I was not worried about Short-eared at all, either. I had seen two so far, and knew they are fairly easy in the right place in winter.
Northern Pygmy was starting to become a bit of a photo nemesis. I just couldn't get my lens on one of these tiny little predators. But, I knew I could find one in winter if all else failed.
At this point, Barred was a flat out nemesis. 0-for-7 on that bird, like Russell Westbrook's shooting percentage. I decided to go to Oregon (wetter than Washington and Idaho) for Barred Owl.
Long-eared Owls are elusive, but I knew that I had a good chance to stumble on one or four.
Boreal Owl is the crown jewel of northwest owls, and I had a few last year. With some luck, and perseverance, I knew I had good chances. It just hasn't happened yet ;)
Eastern Screech-Owl would be tough, not in terms of difficulty finding the bird, but in terms of logistics. I had a potential Texas winter trip planned, so I knew that that would be pretty much my only bet for Eastern Screech.
After Arizona, Khanh and I met up again for Long-eared Owls and more Great Gray Owls. "Wait, Walker already has Great Gray Owl pictures in this post. I'm tired of Great Gray Owls." Watch yourself. Those are fighting words. Have you ever seen a Great Gray? They could probably eat you if they wanted.
Anyway, long story short, those birds are EASY for us.
I had to wreck a lady on Facebook who said this owl looked stressed. Please. . . Then I go to her profile, and what do I see? A picture of her holding a Northern Saw-whet Owl for banding. AND THAT DOESN'T CAUSE STRESS? MORE STRESS THAN A QUICK PHOTO? She deleted her comment and blocked me after I totally verbally destroyed her in a professional and non vulgar manner. Big T also helped with Operation Owl Ethics Education. Or OOEE, kind of a fun acronym to say. OOOO-EEEEEE! Like you're having fun riding down a waterslide or something.
This owl can steal your soul if you look at it too long.
After the blinding success of those two owls, I headed to Khanh's home turf of Portland, land of microbrews and better birds than Idaho. I'm too young to drink, so I had to settle for the birds over beer. The birds were cooperative, however, with this Barred Owl wanting a piece of WOBY (Walker's Owl Big Year) Celebrity Status. I don't really blame him at all.
I want to take a minute and really thank Caleb and Khanh and Tommy.
Caleb is my best birding bro, we have had so many crazy trips together, and we always find a crazy rarity or two, as well as cleaning house on our owls! You're the man Caleb, that's all I can say!
Khanh has taught me so much about owls and how to search for them, as well as being a great friend. Khanh is a super awesome and generous guy. He has let us stay in his house, and just been amazing. His magic with Great Grays is unreal. I asked him how many Great Gray Owls he's seen, and he told me he's probably seen 150. To him they're as easy as White-winged Doves in an Arizona summer. We have had some awesome owling trips in six months of friendship! The ABA owls are almost getting stale, might be time for a South American owl trip sometime ;)
And Tommy, well, with Tommy, I actually read his blog as I was just beginning birding about three years ago. Tommy's blog got me hooked on birding, helping me to learn hotspots around me, and especially helped get me interested in owls. I remember seeing a Long-eared Owl picture on his blog and thinking, "Wow. I'll never see one of those!" Well, here I am, with Khanh's and Tommy's help, sitting at 18/19 life owls for the ABA. Tommy and Khanh also each have 18/19. An owl dream team if ever there was one. I'm glad I introduced them to each other, we are all good friends and have some epic adventures planned soon!
In Portland, I also had trashy looks and finally a photo of a Great Horned Owl!
It's ironic that the most widespread owl is the one I have the worst photos of. Sorry for the eyeburn, here's a photo from a couple years ago to make up for it.
My attention turned to Northern Pygmy. In late July, my good buddy and fellow sarcasm master Liam Wolff came up from Georgia. We had some epic adventures, and went to meet up with Khanh. We found Pygmy-Owls, finally! Both Liam and I had photographed Ferruginous Pygmy before Northern Pygmy, ironically. . .
Oh well, this experience was one for the ages. We found four babies all begging for food, and two adults. Mind-boggling!
Northern Pygmy-Owls are awesome. They are so small, but their voices are quite loud. That owl will also take prey larger than itself!
Well, it's August now, and I have three owls left to photograph. Eastern Screech and Short-eared will have to wait until December, adding a little drama to an otherwise fairly straightforward year. 2016 has been good to me so far! I've probably heard or seen over 100 individual owls. Now if only I could find a Boreal Owl. . .
#WKTowltrip, coming soon.