Or, amigos, should we temporarily rename this place “Owl Potrero”?!
There have been many wonderful owldventures over the years on the old homestead here just above the San Pedro, but the one happening now is writ in red letters.
For me, at least, it began in the wee hours of 11 June, when an odd, even slightly creepy, whistle repeated over … and over … and over … nagged its way into my groggy noggin, at first as dream, then as sound that I knew wasn’t going to allow falling asleep again. It wasn’t anything I’d heard before in more than sixty years of listening to birds and I couldn’t really know just what was out there calling endlessly not far from the window, though owl seemed to be the best guess. What it sounded like was a hybrid between a Northern Beardless Tyrannulet and a Killdeer; who knows what such a thing would look like? And it wasn’t about to let anyone go back to snoozing, both from the mystery of it all to the way it just wouldn’t stop. An hour later at 3 am on went the BBC News … at 3:30 on went the coffee pot and by the time I could get a cup I couldn’t resist the non-stop calling any longer. The big flashlight grabbed, and, the night having been one of the first hot ones at this apparent opening of Monsoon, I stumbled outside dressed in not a whole lot else beyond hastily slipped-into zoris. Simply too sleep-unsteady was I (one must wake more adventure-ready when one is younger?) to bother with anything so snake-, biting ant- and stickers-resistant as denim pants and buckaroo boots. Owls and chats and nightjars, none of whom are easily offended, are the only neighbors likely to see me anyway. Coyotes? They would just laugh.
Well, it sure had seemed from inside the Cowboy Caravan that the squeaky, piping voice was coming from a mesquite only just beyond the horse round pen and cattle squeeze, but dang, the closer I got to that tree the farther the bird’s voice drew away from me in my unprotective non-outfit of boxers and flip-flops. (This is not the first time–it is the Sonoran Summer, after all …) “Dressed” like that I’d have to start crossing the minefield of ant-nests and disintegrating dried, prickly tumbleweeds, piles of dead mesquite branches and burroweed mounds hiding who-knew-what venomous critters, to follow the calls I hoped would lead me to a bird far enough out on the branches to be visible in the beam of the flashlight. Finally giving up on catching sight of anything, I instead turned and picked my way back through relatively open ground towards the 5th wheel and the loft and the coffee and the BBC. I could hear two other owls calling, one from the Horse Corral area trees by Pat’s house, the other from well beyond in the bosque of Mesquite Pasture not far from the riverbed. As much as that increased my curiosity there was no way I’d venture in any of those directions in just unmentionables and open floppy sandals so I thought, tomorrow night undoubtedly they’ll all be chattering away out there again, and I’ll be more ready to explore.
The three unknown birds in earshot kept calling, however, right through to their raising the dawn, and I couldn’t but go out again to try to solve the mystery of this owlish hoo-dunnit. Another unknown was whether Lisa could appear about then to get one of her really early starts on irrigation, so better put on the bathrobe and trade the zoris for my own irrigator boots, which would save her the scandal of seeing someone “dressed” the way I had been earlier, and it would save me run-ins with splinters and bites and fangs. But back again among the large and dense mesquites any owl would love and the branches well-lit by the flashlight, I still couldn’t pick out bright eyes or body-forms of the callers even with the birds so tantalizingly right before me. Finally, I gave up again and went back in dejection to that bed and that coffee, and watched the dawn glow itself into sun on the peaks, after all three of those birds tucked in themselves for the day and had at last stopped their whistling.
Lying there with coffee in hand, I mentally went through all the night birds that could be here in Southern Arizona, always returning to owls, and recalled that not far back Tom Talbott had reported coming upon a communal roost of Long-eared Owls on their riverine property a few miles from here–an exciting enough event in its own right! Might any of those have gone on to nest in this part of Cascabel, then? Laptop fired up I called on the astonishing world-wide bird-sound website Xeno-Canto, brought up the pages for Long-eared Owl and there on the map were flagged a few choices of recordings from Arizona and New Mexico. Hovering the cursor over made several choices within them pop up and to one of these–“begging call”–I gave a listen. What I heard there was the perfect image (or rather, audiage?) of what had been coming from the trees here; the recording was of juveniles of this species, made not very far away in New Mexico.
The idea that these were likely Long-eared Owls was exciting and stirred me to consider not just waiting til tonight to go out and track down the caller(s) who’d likely be out there begging their parents again for attention, but to slip during daylight later in the morning quietly as could be into the old mesquite trees between El Potrero and Fred’s house. Signs of a roost could be looked for, and if I were extremely lucky, actually find one of the owls asleep there in stretched up position like just another tree branch right next to a trunk in a deep patch of shade and leaves, as is their mode of camouflage.
Maybe outwardly I was almost silent, but inwardly I heard the words of a song of a now ancient childhood, with the teacher who tried to stir a love of nature in us students in her first-grade class in the Quaker village of Fallsington where I started grade school in the 1950s. Even the words on the page of the music book floated in front of me–
The Long-eared Owl
is a curious fellow–
he has ears like a cat,
and his eyes are yellow!
He lives on mice
and grasshoppers too,
Mid-morning, the air already at 98F, but the bosque was startlingly cool in its near-dark shade, the trunks rising and twisting and soaring up and then out from the floor of the grove where there was nearly no understory of shrubbery. I reached the last tree, no amount of peering around the trunks having turned up a bird, but then there was suddenly a shape and a wingspan and a swoop right in front of me, of an owl I didn’t recognize, who dropped in its swinging glide almost to the ground at my feet, curved out and levelled just above ground and sailed effortlessly, silently, away across the open Filaree Pasture, allowing almost leisurely views of it before it arced up in a steep climb and vanished into the wall of mesquite branches on the far side of the grass. I immediately regretted this unexpected flushing of that bird across a wide-open pasture and a wide-arching sky that is usually decorated with kingbirds hawking for insects and other passerines that love love love to harass and divebomb such a bird of prey they know is vulnerable out in the open and in the light of day. But it had to be more than 100F at this moment and the owl’s would-be tormentors were shaded up and drowsy, just like poor Owl had itself been. Beautiful, elegant: yes, a Long-eared Owl it quickly showed itself to be, only the second I’d ever seen in my life and chances are will be the last, and may I guess the first recorded on El Potrero? Both Fred and Josh, though, mentioned they’d been hearing those calls for a long time, knew they were different but they had no idea what was making them. This had apparently been going on in the nights since this family of at least three owlets must have hatched in that dense mesquital near their houses a couple of months ago, but the birds have been out of my hearing range until now. “Oh my God, they just don’t stop!” Josh told me.
Not a single actual hoot has come to my ear, which has surprised because every field guide and diagnostic bird source tell how differently adults of these owls will sound from their young, the mature birds giving out as they do a deep, resonant hoo … hoo …hoo … hoo … hoo, of monotonous pitch, endlessly repeated. What we are hearing is always pegged to juveniles and fledglings, especially ones begging for more fresh kangaroo rat! Are the parents afraid of giving away their presence to the terrible Great Horns, who wouldn’t hesitate to make of them and their babies a snack? Or is there another thing unsuspected at play here? Maybe the owls of this Pimerian desert simply don’t hoot. I’ve now read Amadeo Rea’s fascinating treatment of the Long-eared Owl in his book that stirs one to wonder and dream, Wings in the Desert: A Folk Ornithology of the Northern Pimans. Rea’s Akimel O’odham friends intimated to him, “It kind of just whistles–whistle sound,” and, “whistles rather than hoots,” or “Just makes a little sound.” It was also said some of the O’odham “sing” with those owls, and I wondered, should I hoot when I go out there again in the dark, or whistle?
Besides being an important event for us right here and for the San Pedro at large, the appearance of any Long-eared Owl is of note wherever one be encountered from the Yukon down to Tehuantepec: it is a bird of the most private personal affairs, and one so seldomly happened upon. The literature leaves us knowing there is much yet to know about the species, and meanwhile biologists worry over its apparent decline. Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona declares it “Casual to rare and irregular summer resident of oak woodland, desert scrub, and dense mesquite bosques,” and if that isn’t tantalizing enough, Sibley simply says, “Rare,” and that refers to its entire North American range. Meanwhile over at Cornell, a somewhat different view: “Long-eared Owls are fairly common, but their numbers fluctuate from year to year and their population trends are difficult to determine because of their secretive nature and tendency to move nomadically. Populations may be on the decline.” National Geographic’s bird guide declares it uncommon. The authorities are certainly keeping an eye on it, or trying to, as much as such elusive creatures allow observation. National Audubon online has posted, “Status not well known; local numbers rise and fall, but some surveys and migration counts suggest that overall population in North America is declining.” The Arizona Breeding Bird Atlas has to say: “The species is generally considered a sparse and irregular year-round resident of Arizona […], but their annual nomadic wanderings makes true residency status difficult to determine. […] Though most of the atlas Long-eared Owl records occurred in northern Arizona, historical and atlas data strongly suggest that this habitat generalist can potentially be found anywhere in the state. These owls are found nowhere regularly in Arizona and typically nest in an area for only one (occasionally two) years, then vanish as prey populations fall […] Many intriguing questions remain regarding this nomadic owl.” In the time since I started hearing and seeing these most remarkable birds at El Potrero, Charlie Thomas has told me about an owl he has been seeing himself at their place this Summer, that must surely be another Long-eared Owl and likely one of those that will have fanned out far and wide over the neighborhood from Tom Talbott’s communal roost. And to add to the fascination, I’ve just been told that a mystery bird whose picture was taken by John Delberta at Mason Pastures last Summer, has been determined one of these owls. Yes, “many intriguing questions remain”!
We must enjoy this surprise of the Long-eared Owl while we may, for it’s likely to be many a year before it will happen again–that is, if it ever does.