Monday, September 21, 2015

Madagascar 2015

I visited Madagascar in 2004 and saw all the owls, except for Madagascar red owl. At the time, the bird was a mythical creature that had been seen by very few. I spoke to several great guides about this bird and none had seen it.

Years later my friend Shaun went to Madagascar and gloated that the Red owl was easy-that it was radio tagged at a Peregrine Fund Reserve. I checked out Shaun’s claim, and true enough there were a couple of radio tagged birds at Bemanvika in northern Madagascar: Over the last year I received a lot of help from Russell Thorstrom from the Peregrine Fund.

Given the scarcity of information about public transportation and the distances involved I choose to hire a 4wd in Antananarivo (Tana) and share it with a couple of other birders-Rob Ulph and Dave Ward. This may not have been the best way, as our 4wd (a Nissan Patrol) didn't make it all the way to Bemanvika. In retrospect hiring a 2wd car in Tana and driving to Bealanana, then leaving the car at a hotel and chartering a motor cycle for the last 40km would have been cheaper and easier.

Sep 3rd. I have a 6am departure from Portland, so left home the night before and took the last light-rail out to the airport. It’s a cool slightly autumnal night. I check in, clear security and sleep soundly at the gate.

Sep 4th. I catch a flight to Atlanta on Delta, then change to an Air France flight bound for Paris. It's an uneventful flight. Probably because I slept well at the airport, I barely sleep on the plane.

Sep 5th. Charles de Gaulle is an orderly sort of place. I find my gate and have only an hour to kill before boarding my Air France flight to Tana. The flight is on time. It’s great to disembark onto the runway on a cool night, like two nights ago in Portland, except for the smell of wood smoke. It's just a twenty minute walk to La Manoir Rouge-my hotel. I decide to walk through Ivato, which as soon as I hit the deserted unlit road I regret. Dogs bark, other dogs retort, and on and on. I ask the way, and a helpful guy walks with me. We find the gate is locked and the buzzer broken. I scale a tall wall, and delicately cross the iron-spiked guard rail. It takes a while to find the night clerk-he's very confused how I got in over the wall.

It's great to be in a room and have my own bed.

I am awake before my alarm goes off. After eating I meet up with Rob and Dave. Minutes later we meet Donet, our driver from Aventour.

We drive to a nearby market and buy rice and vegetables-there are no stores at Bemanvika, and we were instructed to be self-sufficient.

It’s a long fairly fast drive to Antsohihy. We see a Madagascan Harrier in the grassy hills north of Tana, which is a new bird for me. 

Just as it starts to get dark we get a flat. The tires on the Nissan are really bald, and a 1" rock has punctured the tire. It takes a little while to get orientated to where all the necessary tools are. We don't make it into town until 830pm. Donet tries to get the tire fixed, but the repair shop has closed for the night. We end up staying at a pretty fancy hotel and eat well. 

Sep 7th. I sleep fitfully and wake early. I am worried about the owl. I have never spent close to this much money on seeing one bird! We spend most of the morning waiting around for the tire to get fixed. It's a hot dusty sort of place, so after taking a walk with Dave, I cool off in the hotel's pool. 

It was pretty much destroyed by the rock, so now there is a big wad of a patch and rubber cement holding the whole thing together-to be honest it does not look like it will hold. 

The 100km drive to Bealanana takes about 3 hours up a long winding potholed road. At the entrance to town we find a Peregrine Fund sign indicating the way to Bemanvika. We arrive to find a dusty market town surrounded by mountains. We find a crap restaurant and are served hard to eat bits of zebu heart and chicken pelvis. 

Initially Donet does not want to take the Nissan to the reserve, but after a call from his boss he decides to go ahead. We meet Maurice, a tall thin tech from the Peregrine Fund. He speaks very little English or French, and will guide us along the reportedly terrible 40km track to the reserve. 

The first part of the drive is along a pretty good dirt road. The things get worse. The road's dry, but deeply rutted, chaotic and challenging for Donet. 

Then we get to a 50 yard stretch of mud, where a broken irrigation ditch has flooded the track. The hulking 5000lb Nissan, with its bald tires rapidly gets stuck. Upstream we divert the path of the irrigation ditch, then dig out a lot of the wet mud, then fill the substantial hole with dry dirt, wood, rocks and palm fronds. Donet gets back in the Nissan, revs the engine and makes a run for it. Amazingly he gets most of the way through. We all push, and after lots of tire spinning the massive car pulls itself out of the hole and up the hill.
Donet seems pretty much broken at this point, and at every challenging point stops frets and usually gets stuck. After a couple more miles we come to another flooded stretch. It’s about 2’6” at the deepest point and 70 yards long. “That’s it, no further” declares Donet, “the water will get into the motor”. He’s probably right, and I don’t try and talk him into crossing. I check the odometer and it’s 22km to the camp. We have just 90 minutes before it gets dark. I talk to Dave, who agrees to try and get to camp on foot tonight. He’s clearly not thrilled at the idea of such a long walk. Rob, who is in better shape, but probably less motivated, decides to stay with the driver. Donet tries to tell us it’s dangerous to walk at night. I change the course of the conversation by offering our guide $30 to walk us to camp tonight. It’s a month’s wages for a farmer here, so there is no debate. The first hour is rough-we climb about 1500’, past a steady stream of farmers returning home after a day in the fields. “Salama”, “Salama”, we exchange greetings-evidence of the Arab influence here. Soon the sunsets, buzzards cry from the hills. Other unknown creatures call. Dave talks about quitting, I think the big hill is killing him, but in the end he perseveres. After the big climb, we level out and enter a vast rolling grassland.
It’s a beautiful night, with no moon. A billion stars, brighter than ever before entertain me. It’s achingly beautiful. Rainforest scops owls sing to us from the scraps of forest that have survived in the steeper gullies.
We reach Bemanevika, the village next to the reserve much sooner than I anticipated. Maurice is a fast walker-several times along the way he asked in broken English “what is wrong”. I don’t think he could understand why grown men could walk so slowly. Just past the village we cross a shallow rocky river and enter camp. We are warmly greeted by a crew of Malagasy techs from the peregrine fund.  We drink tea and eat Ramen noodles and wet rice. Ah, it’s so good to be here. We are offered a couple of mattresses in an open wooden building.
I am too excited to sleep-I know the owl is nearby. Dave wants to talk, so we stay up for ages talking about this and that. Native rats runs through the cabin, fearlessly climbing over us.
Sep 8th. Around midnight I drift off to sleep. I wake at five and great the dawn. I am excited and nervous to go look for the red owl. The techs tell us they have two radio tagged birds that they can usually track down in the remnants of dense forest. I can’t wait to get out into the forest but first it’s mugs of steaming hot tea, plates of wet rice, and something made with dozens of tiny salted fish, pungent and a challenge to stomach at this hour.

We leave with five techs and march across the grassy plain onto a ridge. From there we see a beautiful dark blue crater lake ringed with dense forest. 

I follow the lead tech’s heals, staying close in case he flushes the owl as we descend into the forest towards the lake. We cross a creek and reach a wet bottom-land by the shore. And there it is. An exquisite red owl, roosting low in a small palm. What a gorgeous creature. Small, for a barn owl, but with a big horn colored bill and long talons. A real rat-eater. I watch the owl for a long time, soaking it in. At long last. I have been thinking about this bird for many years!
It has a beautiful buffy pink heart-shaped face. Black eyed, that when near closed angle sharply towards the big horn-colored bill. The breast is also buffy-pink, sparsely spotted with fine black spots. Above it’s a wonderful orange-pink, like the red earth of Madagascar. Its crown is decorated with very fine black spots and so are the wing coverts. The primaries are barred. The tail is unmarked. Nails are long-about 20mm and dark gray. Feet are whitish gray and unfeathered.
Everything is going to be OK. What a wonderful, wonderful owl.
Dave wants to see other birds. We check out Madagascar Pochard and Meller’s ducks on the lake. Then we hike over to another crater, this one filled with a marsh. We rapidly find Madagascar snipe, gray emutail, Madagascar Harrier, and then start looking for slender billed flufftail-a very elusive little rail. I am not that motivated, and soon give up to bask in the intense sun, dry my wet feet and think about the owl. The techs are really determined, and after a couple of hours they track down the flufftail. We encircle it in a patch of wet grass, and eventually get a great view as it emerges at the top of the grass and flies for cover.
Much to our relief we find Rob at the camp when we arrive. He explains that he and Donet found a room in a village to sleep in. This morning Donet had a tractor pull the big Nissan through the water hole. After a couple of rough kilometers they came to a long stretch of mud. Rob encouraged Donet not to try, and at first it seemed they were in agreement. Then Donet decided to attempt a crossing. In the midst of the mire the front of the Nissan plunged into a hole, leaving a back tire helplessly spinning helplessly in the air. 
Rob was lucky enough to run into a Peregrine Fund tech who brought him to camp on a dirt bike. Donet was last seen trying to track down the tractor to pull the Nissan out.
Fully satisfied we walk back across the grassland to camp. A rooster was killed to celebrate, and we enjoy a chicken lunch. Rob spends the afternoon chasing down the birds I saw this morning. I am exhausted and sleep.
Dinner is great, beans and onions with rice, served with sweet tea. After dinner I plan on owling, but it’s breezy. I venture out, but am defeated by the wind and don’t see or hear any of my targets: barn owl, Madagascar long-eared owl and rainforest scops owl.
Back at the cabin it’s a big rat party. We are tormented by them running up and down the floor, fighting and falling from the rafters. I try and burry my face under my bag, but invariably wake claustrophobic and overheated. I wake with a rat licking my face. Rabies, rat herpes, Hanta virus?

Sep 9th At 230am my alarm goes off, it’s raining and I decide to stay in bed. I toss and turn the rest of the night, tormented by rats. Dave wakes me to point out a distant calling rainforest scops owl. Lazily I ignore it. (This is a bird I saw well back in 2004).
Breakfast is fries, omelet and wet rice. I head out with Maurice to look for the other radio tagged red owl. Rob and Dave have other plans.
Maurice is in fine form, and lopes across the grassy plain at great speed. After the rats and torment of last night, it’s wonderful to be out in the sun, striding. We climb up to a grassy ride overlooking another crater lake, then descend past a tiny hut made of clay and branches, cross a small rocky creek and enter the forest. It’s the dry season, and the forest is near silent. Shortly Maurice brings out the radio antennae, which beeps weakly. We home in on a big fig tree, that’s surrounded by lovely red owl feathers. 

Despite much scrutinizing we fail to find the owl. We follow the beeps to four more big trees, but find nothing.
At the last and biggest tree Maurice volunteers to climb it in search of the owl. With considerable skill and fearlessness he climbs the big tree that leans, hanging by an arm he checks the holes on the overhanging side of the tree. My heart is in my throat, fearful that he will fall. We don’t share a common language, so I watch in mute helplessness. After a long ten minutes Maurice returns to the safety of the earth. We laze around under the tree for a while, then Maurice casually points out the owl, staring from a hole in the trunk! It’s a lovely bonus to see this bird, especially after the extra effort Maurice had braved. I soak up the experience in peace-sometimes it’s nice to be with people you can’t talk to.
It’s another brisk walk across windswept grasslands to camp. 

I enjoy endless cups of tea to hydrate as there is no portable water at camp. Dave and Rob return and we eat lunch together. Dave and Rob hitch a ride on dirt bikes back to Donet and the Nissan. There are only two bikes, so I volunteer to walk the 22km. I walk with Maurice. It’s a warm windy afternoon. The suns’ intense at this elevation and my arms burn.
After an hour we come across the bike that Dave was on. My excitement, that I am getting a ride, turns to disappointment when I realize that the throttle has broken. After another hot dehydrating hour we catch up with Dave. We talk birds for most of the rest of the way, until Rob’s rider shows up and picks up Dave. He even returns for me and gives me a ride for the last 2km.
Donet is in fine form. The Nissan has been pulled out of the mud hole and has been washed. The drive back is pretty rough, twice we tear off skid plates from the bottom of the Nissan as it grinds over rocks. Along the last leg we get another flat. Experienced now, we change it in ten minutes.
We end up at the same shit restaurant we ate at two days ago. It’s run by children. Only the Three Horse beer is worth consuming. We sleep above the restaurant with the mosquitos and big spiders. Content sleep comes easily.
Sep 10th I waken at 2am with a raging thirst. Hot and flushed, my mouth tastes terrible. Dehydrated by the long hike and strong lager. I sterilize tap water, impatiently waiting for the iodine to take effect. Twenty minutes passes very slowly. It’s worth the wait, even after treated, the water tastes delicious, and feels wonderful.
At 445am Donet starts up the Nissan and revs the motor hard. Outside it’s cool, a beautiful and starry sky, vivid and lovely. The generator is off, so the whole town is completely dark. A low moon hangs above the town, Venus keeps it brilliant company.
A few minutes down the road, Donet treats us to hot coffee and little fried, unsweetened rice cakes. Delicious. Zebu herders pass by, and rice farmers are already in their fields. An ancient Peugeot   504 rumbles by, held together by wire and string. Cat eyed. Stacked with luggage. Packed with people. The original bush taxi.

It’s a long winding drive out the mountains to the hot grassy plains below. At Antsohihy we pick up another tire, left at a hotel by Aventour. Down the road we get another flat, and try the “new” spare. It’s a steel-rimmed wheel, and the lugs don’t quite fit. Donet gets pretty upset about all this, and we end up swapping it for a heavily damaged spare, with bits of wire fraying perilously where there was once tread.

At the next town, Boriziny we stop for lunch. Donet works on getting the tire repaired. The restaurant is big, and sort of grand from afar. Inside small black flies cover everything. The food’s prepared in a fire pit out back on an earthen floor and there is no running water. We eat chicken in orange oil and rice. It’s surprisingly good. A cold Coke helps.

After a long wait Donet returns, a lot happier with a repaired spare tire. We reach Ankarafantsika National Park by late afternoon. I had visited the park in 2004. It seems busier today, with more facilities. I want to see a Torotoroko scops owl-an endemic dry forest scops owl that I saw on my last visit. But my big goal is to find the endemic subspecies of barn owl, that most cosmopolitan owl. Periodically island forms are reclassified as separate species, and for this reason I want to see the Madagascan race.

I ask the guides about Barn owls-they seem confused, it’s probably the last species that birders ask to see. (Typically birders will ask about the endemic dry forest birds of the park). Thery tell me the barn owl is occasionally seen around the camp ground, but it’s hard.

Dave and I spend the evening walking the lake side in search of Jacanas. We don’t find any, but do find a big crocodile. Later we enjoy a sign explaining that “crocodiles bite”. On the return back to our bungalow we hear Torotoroko scops singing spontaneously. They are not particularly tape responsive, but despite this we track one down. It’s a small, but not tiny scops, gray-brown, like bark with a black streaked breast. It has bright yellow eyes and small ear tufts. It’s hoarse four note call is quite different from the sweet ringing call of the rainforest scops that lives to the east.

Dinner is really good. After that I sleep-it’s great to be comfortable and well fed.
Sep 11th. My alarm beeps at 230am. I walk over to the camp ground and tape for barn owls. I wait around for a while, but nothing happens. I am not that enthralled by the site-there is no open country-which is the habitat favored by barn owls. Still I walk east along the main road through the park. Evert ¼ mile I stop and tape for barn owls.

Given the hour, the road’s amazingly busy. Also unexpected are the mouse lemurs, my head torch catches their brilliant eyes. Some trees have half a dozen spread through the canopy. To avoid traffic, I hike a side trail into the dry forest in search for the owl. Under a big tree, a long-winged owl flies in. I spotlight it-beautiful! Tyto owls are just the best. It’s a very pale bird. I am thrilled, I had not expected to find one tonight. Triumphantly I walk back along the road to the bungalow.

I sleep wonderfully until ten. I don’t really have any agenda for the day. (Dave and Rob are off looking for birds with a guide). I enjoy a slow breakfast and a lot of coffee. I finish “Mountains beyond mountains”, and really enjoy it.

Dinner is memorable for the celebratory beers. After which I sleep well.

Sep 12th. I wake at dawn. Again I have no agenda. I enjoy breakfast, read and listen to Sixto Rodriguez. Donet lets me know his boss wants more money, due to the damage done to the Nissan. This really bothers me, although I should be cool about it. I tell him I will talk with Rob and Dave.

After lunch we leave the park, and leave for Maevatanana, en route for Tana. It’s a straightforward drive. We arrive to a bustling town on market day. Clogged with taxi brouses and shoppers.

We stay at a decaying, hotel, which once has aspirations to be grand. I take a walk around town, in search of an internet cafĂ©. I find none. Still it’s a wonderful evening and it’s great to walk among all the people.

Back at the hotel I eat a fried fish for dinner. A cat gets the head and tail, to the chagrin of the waitress who whisks it out the restaurant.

Donets boss calls me and asks for 60 euro for the Nissan’s damage. I am relived he is asking for a small amount. None of us feel obliged to pay-especially that the vehicle had such shite tires.
We enjoy a few beers and go to bed early.
Sep 13th. We get up early at eat breakfast. It just four hours to Tana. It’s a sort of quiet ride, none of us really talk much. The scenery is beautiful, big bare mountains. But depressing too. Devoid of trees, barren and unproductive.

Ivato is busy, in total contrast to my late night arrival a week ago and stolen into a hotel. We say “goodbye” to Donet. At the Manoir Rouge we eat a pretty good lunch. Rob and Dave spend the afternoon organizing a car for the rest of the trip. It’s a long negotiation-Rob’s a lawyer and Dave’s cheap. Eventually a driver arrives and we say our goodbyes.
It’s great to be able to email Tui.

Sep 14th. I catch a very early flight-around 1am for Paris. The whole day goes well and I reach Portland before sundown.

It’s been a strange trip. I have never traveled so far, and spent so much. Red owl was one of my most wanted owls to see. It’s strange to have seen it so easily, to have had it handed on a plate.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Mexico Owling 2015

February  27th A momentous day. After nearly 11 years of working as a social worker at United Cerebral Palsy I had gotten a new job working for Multnomah County. This was my last day of work. I had negotiated a week between jobs and quickly came up with a plan to go owling in Mexico. Beside the season, and proximity; going to Mexico is a strategic choice. With the drug war in Mexico it's a real risk that things may deteriorate. I had decided to go now in case Mexico plunges deeper into the drug war.

My plan is to chase down the four new owls: Cape pygmy-owl , Tamaulipas pygmy-owl, Guatemalan pygmy-owl and Balsas screech-owl. I had missed Guatemalan pygmy despite several days of searching in 2013. Back in 2000 I had missed both Balsas screech and Tamaulipas pygmy on a birding trip to central Mexico. Additionally I would like to see Elf owl, the Western screech (Baja race), vermiculated screech and Eastern screech (NE Mexican race).

My trip begins with getting to Baja. After saying goodbye to Tui and the boys I fly out to Seattle. There I sleep on crappy airport chairs awaiting my early morning flight to San Jose del Cabo.

February 28th After a pretty reasonable night at the airport I catch my 7am flight. I suffer a caffeine headache, but otherwise everything is OK. The car rental guys asks if he can substitute a SUV for a minivan, I ask around and end up with a tomato red Tacoma 4WD. I make my way to San Antonio de la Sierra; basically a dirt road that goes into the Sierra de la Laguna from the North. Starting at KM11 I tape for the Cape pygmy owls. Every 1/4km I stop the truck and try for the owls. The terrain is hilly oak forest and thorn scrub/desert. By KM23 I am at a big wash and its getting late. I park the truck and head out on foot towards the mountains, taking a right 0.5km after the wash. The sun sets and I debate turning around. Instead I press on and ten minutes later I get a response! The bird is really aggressive and quickly flies in. I get great views as it called from just above me in a thorn tree. It is very similar to the Northern Pygmy owls in Oregon, but was perhaps a bit paler. The crown is spotted whitish. It's bill and feet are really large. Four whitish tail-bars are visible from below. The slow double tooting song is the obvious identifying characteristic. (The bird is 0.5 km past a rough creek crossing). On the walk back to the truck I hear three other pygmies calling after dark and find a pair of elf owls. I get brilliant views of the elf owl, my first since 1998. What a crazy little owl.

I had only eaten a couple of OXXO, (Mexican 7 eleven), hot dogs all day, and by now I was starving. I drove back to the highway and head North East to San Antonio. The town was pretty dark and quiet, but I find a priest talking to a lady who was selling huge hamburgers. I eat two and would have asked for two more, except it seemed immodest, doubly so with the Padre to witness my gluttony.

I return to the safety of the mountains for the night. Back along the dirt road, I stop and tape for Western screech owl. No luck, so I try a little further up the road by some dense thorn forest. I get a response right away. I get good views of the owls. The Baja race is quite different from the Oregon birds, being smaller, brown and much less crisply marked. I continue on, past where I had had the first pygmy and come to a locked gate. I park the truck and fall asleep on the bench seat.

March 1st. The day breaks late and I don't start 'till 7am. I stash my backpack under an oak, away from the truck. I  plan to hike up to the Sierra de Victoria to look for Cape pygmy high in the pine forests.

Its a long steep hike up the road. Made steeper by not having breakfast. A couple of kilometers above the gate I tape out another Cape pygmy and get great views again. This bird is warmer colored than yesterday's, apparently there are no red morphs, but female birds are generally redder. At a col, I take a jeep track to the right that leads to the peak. The track is quite steep, and ends at a lesser peak, where a ruined lookout had been built into a huge granite boulder. The variegation is oak scrub, so I failed to get into the higher altitude pine forest. Still the view is beautiful. I walk quickly back to the truck, eager to eat.

I drive to El Tiunfo, an ideal little Mexican village. There I demolish a couple of burgers and a Coke. Then I drive North through uninspiring flat desert scrub. I find a place to email at the edge of La Paz, across from the Walmart and the Sex Shop. Then buy supplies at the grocery store and return to the sanctuary of the mountains. I pick up a hitch hiker along the road, a well dressed older rancher who had been visiting kin.

I return to the big wash at KM 23. There I wash my clothes. I was doing this when I look up and see a couple of young dudes checking out the truck. I yell "hola", and they look surprised. They come over to chat, then head off up the wash. I can't tell if they were planning on breaking in, or just curious about the red truck in their wash. I decide to carry my backpack and set out to explore the forest along the side of the big wash. I don't find any pygmy-owls. By now it's dark, and I drive about 6km back towards the highway. Here there is a smaller wash with better prospects for camping unobserved. Then I walk back along the road for a few miles taping for Western screech owls in the open oak woods. Three times I hear elf owls calling in response to my screech owl tape. The first elf that calls is easy to tape in and I get good views of a pair in an oak tree in a pasture. I don't see any screech owls, but it hardly matters. Its a gorgeous night with a three quarters moon illuminating the white granite road. Above, in the hills, a fox screams.

Again I am too tired to set up the tent and sleep soundly in the truck.

March 3rd. I am so tired that I sleep until the sun is in the sky. It's a lovely blue morning. There is dew on the grass and cow bells ring. I spend the morning catching up on stuff. I eat a real breakfast and study the information I have on the Balsas screech owl-tonight's target. I figure out the route then pack.

On the way back to town I drive right over a big rattler without hitting it. Perhaps it's a warning because I get totally ripped off at the gas station next to the airport.

San Jose del Cabo airport was full of party people escaping the winter. I can't wait to leave them all behind and get on my flight to Guadalajara.

Guadalajara is hot and busy. I pick up my VW rental and fight my way through traffic. At a light a legion of desperate window-washers descended on the waiting cars with filthy wash rags and buckets of gray water. They climb up on hoods of big chromed trucks, wash, then retreat in unison before the lights cycle green.

Eventually I break free from the traffic and head West towards Colima on highway 54. My destination is the microwave towers (microondas) on a small hill outside of Colima. I had tried this location for Balsas screech owl back in 2000, arriving well after midnight on a windy, owl-less night. This time I was determined to reprieve myself. The perfect expressway crosses a vast dry lake bed. The sun set, silhouetting the majestic of me Volcan de Navado. I drive fast and make good time, reaching the gate for the microondas by 9pm. The guard agrees to watch the VW while I look for owls.

I impatiently gear up then set out into the warm night. At the beginning of the trail, I tape and instantly a big screech flew into a leafless thorn tree. I get a nice view of a lovely Balsas screech perching next to me. It is a little bigger than a Western screech. Both below and above it is less crisply marked. Above it is grayish-brown. It's a brown eyed owl. I hear its gruff three note song and a second bird bird nearby. I continue up the ridge trail though dry thorn forest. A kilometer away I hear another, but this one was in a deep gully, no doubt infested with terrible snakes, so I pursue it no further.

I pay the gate man and drive off into the night. The Balsas screech was so easy I feel like a thief. I have all night to make my flight, so decide to take to free (libre) road back to Guadalajara. It will help me recoup the pesos I lost at the gas station this morning and will be fun. The road begins with lots of beautiful curves and wild country. While descending into a gorge I try to pass a semi between switchbacks. Confronted by headlights mid pass, I slam on the brakes. The semi shot past to the right. Forcing the car into first, I lurch right as a blaze of light and horns pass. Floods of adrenalin!

March 4th. The rest of the drive to Guadalajara was uneventful. I arrive around 1am at Fox car rental. The agent looks confused that I am returning the car after so little time with so many new kilometers. I sleep on the crappy plastic airport chairs. Above me guys arc-welds a new ceiling, but it wasn't going to keep me from sleep.

At 530 I get up and left the terminal to go to OXXO for a hot dog. I get put on an earlier connector to Mexico City. It was an uneventful flight across brown dry land.

Mexico City's Aeropuerto Benito Juarez was busy as usual. After a bit of confusion I figure out my flight to Tuxtla. There I pick up another VW rental. I was planning on driving along 90 via San Cristobal to Comitan and on to Laguna de Montebello. Instead I end up following the lowland route though cane fields to Comitan. The heavy cane trucks had destroyed the road, so everyone has to swerve chaotically to dodge the worst potholes. I follow a van that drives quick and knows the potholes well, making good time.  The horn didn't work on the VW, making passing the swerving traffic risky. Eventually I stop for a plate of excellent tacos with fiery salsa.

Laguna de Montebello is cool and blustery. The wind isn't going to help my efforts to find Guatemalan pygmy-owls. It was a touristy place without tourists, and registers as the kind of place my car might get broken into. With that in mind I spend the last two hours of daylight driving short distances, and then getting out and taping/listening for pygmies. I get no response. I am starting to feel like this was a big ugly repeat of 2013 when I had spent two or three days not seeing this owl around San Cristobal. Even the recording I am using is the same.

Once it was dark I find stalls serving food. I order carne asada. The cook reheats a stiff piece of meat, which smell like old feet. It was difficult getting it down, but I had an audience and I put on a good performance of a man enjoying his meal. I find a lakeside cabana. It's populated by big brown spiders. At least I have a safe place to leave the car while I owl.

I spend an hour trying for bearded and whiskered screech owls. I am not certain either occur here, but it would be fun to lay eyes on either. Alas it is not to be. It was still windy so I give up and get some sleep.

March 4th I get up at 5am and resume my search for bearded and whiskered screech owls. It was a lovely night, no wind and a big moon. However I get no responses. Perhaps Laguna de Montebello is too low to support these mountain owls.

At first light I resume my quest for Guatemalan pygmy-owl. I start at the end of the sealed road and work my way back to the gated entrance, then south, off the road and onto a series of trails through the forest. I take a brief break for breakfast-which was much better than dinner; chorizo, avocado and black beans on a bed of soft cheese. Then venture out to a rickety lookout tower above a dry cenote. Everything looks good-beautiful pine oak forest and lots of birds. Just no pygmies. Ah this bird is killing me!

By noon, I decide to cut my losses and head up to San Cristobal. A couple of birders had recently found the owl high on Cerro Huitapec, a mountain that overlooks town. I find a cabana on the lower slope of Cerro Huitapec and ditch my bag. After asking around I finally figure out the dirt road that leads up to the microodas. The peak was clothed in beautiful evergreen oaks, while lower down were drier pine woods and small farms. It looks great. Still I get no a whisper of a pygmy owl.

After a spectacular dusty sunset and then a big moon rises I switch tracks and search for whiskered and bearded screech owls for an hour. The conditions are perfect, but it wasn't meant to be. Tired and a bit defeated I drive back to San Cristobal. I find a store and buy provisions for tomorrow. Next door is a fantastic taqueria. A big coke in a glass bottled and slow cooked meat bathed in fiery salsa-better!

Back at the cabana I pack. I go to bed early, but feel nervous at the prospect of missing the pygmy owl and the huge drive I have planned for tomorrow night.

March 5th What a night. Every hour I woke between manic dreams. I dreamed of my sons, and awaken feeling guilty about the risks I am taking tonight.

Although I thought I had left plenty of time to get to the Chanal Rd, with traffic and topes (speed-bumps) I don't make it out there until just before sunrise. This site has several recent reports of the pygmy owl. I am a bit disappointed when I arrive. The habitat is very fragmented and there is a lot of traffic on the road. People are everywhere, which makes me a bit nervous. (The indigenous people who live here have a reputation for harassing birders and chasing them off their ancestral lands. This is part of a bigger rebellion that continues to simmer between the army and the people here). I try three sites, but get no response. I decide to go back to KM2 on the Ocosingo road. (A classic birding site, but also the one with the worst rap for conflict). Sure enough I get five minutes of owling in, when a couple of local guys move me on. Strangely one of them has a tablet (I-pad). I am more used to getting moved on by guys carrying farming tools.

I decide to try Las Grutas-some tourist caves down the road. I can park safely there and explore the adjacent hillsides for pygmy owls. This is my last chance. I pay to park and pull in to the parking area. The whole site is fenced. Heading for better forest I hop the fence and walk through the forest. After a couple of minutes I notice that I have walked into the extensive military barracks that parallels Las Grutas. Luckily I retreat without being noticed. I escape the fence at the other side of Las Grutas-not sure if this is part of the army base so I keep my eyes pealed for soldiers. I end up ascending into some lovely pine-oak forest that leads into the mountains. The trees are festooned with epiphytes and orchids. It's a beautiful day but the owls are not singing. By noon I return to the car and eat lunch under the powerful sun. It's a relief to be out of time, to be defeated. I will be back, with a better plan soon.

I return to the cabana, stopping off to email Tui. I shower and wash my clothes then hit the road for Tuxtla. It's a long twisty drive on the libre road. Tuxtla is hot and amazingly windy. Returning the car to National is annoying. Every mark is discussed at length and I am changed for returning the car about a gallon short on gas. I plan for the night's drive as I wait for my flight.

I sleep a little on the flight to Guadalajara. The same clerk at Fox car rental greets me. It takes just a couple of minutes 'till I hit the road. My big adventure. My Mexican Cannonball Run! After a wrong turn I get orientated and hit the ring road, then the cuota (toll) road that crosses the backbone of the country all the way to Luis Potosi. Traffic is light and I can go as fast as I dare. There are a lot of Federales catching speeders so I settle on 120kph. Just before midnight I pass a delicate barn owl. I love owls. What a  perfect omen.

March 6th I pulled into San Luis Potosi just after midnight. It's an orderly sort of place and soon I figure out my route across town. I miss a cuota to Rio Verde, so end up on the libre road. Its a misty wet road through the mountains and down far, far below to Rio Verde. The road is quiet and I drive the little VW with vigor. I try not to think of bandits working this lonely road. I stop to piss and it's freezing out.

At each OXXO I stop for a coffee or coke, sometimes both. By 2am I am still feeling good. After Rio Verde I take the cuota down to Cuidad Valles. I roll in to town at 4am. The place is deserted. I feel paranoid. I am in Tamaulipas, a state with a horrific reputation. Some repugnant roadside crimes have happened here. Doors locked and keep the car in gear at the red lights. Look left, mirror, right, repeat.

I head north out of the city on 85 towards Ciudad Mante. The road is deserted. Nothing for five minutes, then ten then fifteen. I am praying for traffic. To not be so alone. I think I see a shadow far down the blacktop. I press harder on the gas. From the left a rabbit bolts out and hits the tire. Thud. I flinch and press down harder on the gas. I pass Cuidad Mante and burning cane fields.  I see my turnoff for Gomez Farias. It's over. I escape the highway and retreat into the sanctuary of the mountains. Above Gomez Farias the road becomes a cobbled track that climbs a bold limestone escarpment. I find three vermiculated screech owls before dawn.

I park at the mirador and feel pretty victorious at having made it here. It's 6am. I got my gear together and wait for dawn. At first light I start taping for Tamaulipas pygmy owl. A bat falcon flies in to check me out.

It's beautiful country ;tall hills, separated by white cliffs from the vast gulf plain far below. Despite the cold, the forests are subtropical. Birds are everywhere. After Chiapas I am feeling really good about this place. I walk for 5km, taping and listening as I go. Then I hear a very distant response. I debate walking through the thicket of vines towards the pygmy owl, when I suddenly hear it right next to me! It's surrounded by scolding small birds. A beautiful bird. I just love the "least" pygmy owl group. It's a bizarrely colored bird-the upper-parts are almost mauve-chocolate color. The crown is delicately flecked with white. It's very short tailed and stout. The bill and eyes are yellow. It's song is a very slow paced series of notes, mostly single, but some are paired. It also delivered a trilling series of notes. I am elated. What a relief. What a  brilliant little owl.

It's a slow bumpy ride back into town. I find a nice hotel. It's closed, but I ask around and am let in. By now it's late morning.  I should be exhausted but instead fall into a fitful sleep with manic dreams. I get up around noon in search of a meal. I scour the town, but all I find to eat is a guy with a hand cart selling boiled corn bathed in mayo, margarine and chili. Back at the hotel I speak to the owner who knows a lot about birds. He explains both mottled and ferruginous pygmy owls  dwell in the hotel's gardens. He also let me use the phone at the front desk to call Tui. She didn't answer, but I leave a message.

By now I am truly exhausted and I fall into a deep sleep.

March 7th I awaken at midnight. In this small town everything has been closed for hours. I start owling in the hotel garden and almost immediately get a mottled owl to respond. It moves around and ends up in a gully below me. It stops calling and I decide to look for a more cooperative bird.

I drive to the entrance of town and work my way down for a couple of kilometers, taping for Eastern screech owl. No luck. then I return and on the walk up tape in a mottled owl. I flush the bird, and end up with good views of it perched low in a tree. A lovely dark-eyed creature.

I drive to the top end of town and work the cobbled road for the next three kilometers, taping for Eastern screech again. And again I get no response. By now it's 430am and I am tired so I return to the hotel for sleep. At 7am I awaken and try for ferruginous pygmy owl in the hotel's garden. Below the hotel I get a response. Fortunately there is a great trail that leads to the forested valley below. There I find the ferruginous pygmy owl below the canopy. It's great to compare it with yesterday's Tamaulipas pygmy owl.

The only place open at this hour is a small tienda where I buy yogurt and cookies. I hit the road with the intention of stopping at El Naranjo. This is a site that I visited back in 2000. The cane trucks and heavily armed convoys of Federales make for a slow journey to El Naranjo. There I stop for tacos. The cook tells me his sorry story of how he fled the law across the boarder and in doing so abandoned his wife and children.

Above El Naranjo the habitat is similar to Gomez Farias with subtropical oak forests. I carefully pull off the highway and hide the car down a gated track. It does not take long to draw out another lovely Tamaulipas pygmy owl. It's midday and I am still tired. I sleep in the car for a few hours then spend the balance of the afternoon reading and studying the map. At dusk I set off again in search of Eastern screech owl but come up short.

By now I am ready to go home. I drive up to Ciudad Maiz, where I eat excellent tacos. Past town I see roadside foxes and a coyote and demolish an unfortunate road way possum. Mostly it's a fast easy drive to San Luis Potosi. I arrive there about midnight. I pull into the first motel. It's kind of weird. You pay from your car to a guy at a window, then pull into a garage, close the garage door, then enter a side door into a concrete room. It's a sketchy whore fucking sort of joint that gives me a bad feeling. I drift off to sleep while I ponder the likelihood of being robbed.

March 8th I get up at an ungodly hour and search for a working ATM. It takes three tries before I get money. For breakfast I hit a taco stand and eat with the late night friendly drunks. I notice that all the drunks are driving. Then I hit the road for Guadalajara. It's a fast beautiful drive with the dawn sun rising in the rear view mirror. I drop off the car and make my flights home. All the way home I plot how I will find my Guatemalan pygmy owl.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

2015 Owling


I live in Portland Oregon with my wife Tui, two sons Charlie and George, and dog Ziggy. This entry details my owling exploits for 2015 around Portland and further afield in the Pacific Northwest.

1.3.15 I followed up on a report of a short-eared owl on the Yamhill Christmas count. Paul Sullivan gave directions to the south end of McMinville Airport, where the owl had been seen around dusk for a couple of weeks.

We arrived at 330, but had to wait until 445 on a dark chilly afternoon. The owl came out and quartered the airfield. What a wonderful bird! This bird was much darker than the one I saw at Broughton Beach last month.

1.24.15 I decided to explore Washington and Yamhill counties. My first stop around 2am, was Tualatin Hills for Barred owl. I found a scrawny coyote in the parking lot, but no owls.

Next stop was Tualatin National Wildlife Refuge for screech owl which I failed to find. I heard a lot of geese and at least two tail-slapping beavers, I also heard a singing Great-horned owl.

On the advice of Paul Sullivan and ebird, I headed for Gopher Valley Road near Sheridan. Passing through McMinville I found a roadside barn owl on the south side of town.

Near Dear Creek county park I heard a saw-whet and great-horned owl. A few miles further up Gopher Valley Road I found a lovely singing screech owl and got great views. I tried further up the valley for pygmy owl, but to no avail.

Later that day the whole family walked along the east side of Oaks Bottom. It was an amazingly warm afternoon. The screech owl was roosting in the usual Ash tree.

1.25.15 Andy Frank let me know the great-horned had returned to Vanport Wetlands. George and I arrived under a heavy late afternoon fog. We found the nest, but no bird was visible. After wandering around to kill time we eventually heard a male bird singing deep in the misty cottonwoods. The bird on the nest responded by stretching its wing and raising it's head.

1.26.15 I had an extra 20 minutes before I needed to start work so I ventured to Reed Canyon in search of barred owls. After a couple of minutes I found one, perched quite low in a conifer. Lovely bird! (In the last six trips to Reed, this was my first successful one).

1.31.15 I returned to Tualatin Hills nature preserve in search of barred owl, but struck out. I then drove to Jackson's Bottom and quickly found a lovely screech owl.

The next stop was High Heavenly drive. Paul Sullivan had recommended this area for Barred owl and I did hear a a distant Barred.

I then ventured to McGuire reservoir. I had about an hour before dawn and spent it searching for saw whets, but failed to find any. I did hear a gang of coyotes singing beautifully. After dawn, I looked for pygmy owls for 90 minutes, but failed to turn up any. Nonetheless it was a beautiful frosty clear morning.

2.6.15 Rhett and I met in Tryon in search of saw whet owls. Rhett had heard on early in the evening. Despite this we were unsuccessful in our attempts to solicit one.

While walking past the barred owl nest site we flushed a barred owl out from a low perch in a cedar. Although we were unable to relocate that bird, we did find a second bird perched midway up in a conifer facing the nest cavity.

2.8.15 Ziggy, George and I walked around Oaks Bottom in search of screech owls. At the usual ash tree we found a roosting screech owl-only it's belly and thighs were visible.

2.15.15 While visiting Tui's family in Federal Way, I took the afternoon off and visited Eide Road on Camano Island. For weeks the internet had been ablaze with reports of a pair of roosting long-eared owls, plus several short-eared owls. Most of the conversation had been focus on photographers and birders getting to close to the owls.

It was a fabulous day, warm and sunny. T-shirt weather. After reading about crowds mobbing the owls, I was a bit surprised to find just a couple of visitors. No one had seen the owls today. Once I had figured out where the owls had been sighted, I started working the bushes in a progressively wider circle in search of long eareds. I soon racked up 5 or 6 wonderful short-eareds. Some hiding in tall grass, others perched on trees or driftwood.

A quarter of an hour after sunset I decided to return to the original roost site and watch for long-eareds emerging from their hiding places to hunt. I spotted a spot of white-wash under a thicket. Amazingly a lovely long-eared was perched very low in the thicket. Soon the bird started to stir. It stretched it's wings, preened and yawned.  Like a cat. I was amazed at how orange it's under-wings were. Just a lovely owl.

2.16.15 On route back from Federal Way we stopped at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. A pair of great-horned owlets had been reported on the birding list-serve Tweeters. It was a warm day and the reserve was packed with visitors. On twin barns loop trail we were shown a dark adult birds, and nearby two large owlets.

2.21.15 The whole family went to check on the barred owl nest site at Tryon. It took a while and we had pretty much given up, but as we left I found a barred owl high in a Doug fir.

3.15.15 During a warm and wet weekend I took Charlie out to Oaks Bottom and found a screech owl roosting in the usual broken ash tree.

Later the same day George and I braved the strong winds and went to Tryon. We found a barred owl standing guard close to the nest site.

3.21.15 The whole family walked to the overlook above Oak's bottom. I could see the roosting screech owl in the usual ash tree.

3.22.15 I ventured out to Hood River County very early this morning. E-bird suggested that Post Canyon Road may have barred and saw-whet owls but I turned up neither there. Next I tried Elder Rd (from Old Dalles Dr). I had up to three saw whets-one for sure-it gave a classic song, I also heard a load explosive chattering alarm in response to a tape and at a third location just a single note. Additionally I heard two distant great-horned owls. After a cloudy sunrise I taped out a pygmy owl. This was the only owl I actually saw.

It rained for most of the rest of the day. Around diner time George, Ziggy and I went to Tryon. We found a lovely barred owl roosting in a cedar overlooking the nest site.

3.26.15 The whole family walked out to Oak's overlook. I could see the screech owl roosting in his usual hole in the ash tree.

3.2915 I got up at 1245 and with some difficulty made it out of the house. I drove down to Benton county in search of spotted owls. As soon as I got out of the car I heard a singing saw-whet. Soon I was able to track it down and get a nice view. Amazing there were five saw-whets singing in the area. I also heard a distant barn owl and three screech owls sang softly among the saw-whets.

Eventually I heard a pair of spotted owls. They sang very infrequently and I struggled to pin point the location. Alas they went unseen.

At a second location I heard a another spotted, briefly in steep terrain. Again the bird did not call consistently and I wasn't able to find it.

On the way back to the car a pygmy owl responded with one toot to a tape.

April 4th I ventured out to Kinzel Lake. I called Zig Zag Ranger Station yesterday and was told the road was open. I decided to take Tui's RAV4. This turned out to be a good thing as there was 8" of fresh snow. 

It was an exciting drive out to the lake, with some mud holes and slick hills. Once there the foot trails were impossible for me to find. I called for owls by the lake, then returned, stopping at promising patches of forest. A small bird flew across in front of the car, possibly a saw-whet, but I could not be certain. There was a full moon and it was such an amazing night I had to write about it despite the dearth of owls. 

April 11th On a squally cool morning the whole family ventured out to Tryon. After sheltering from a deluge under a Doug fir we found a barred owl near the nest site. Despite being wet it looked just perfect.

April 12th After George was in bed I drove out to Camas Prairie east of Mount Hood. I hear a pair of singing barred owls there. Nearby I hear a distant great-horned owl.

I then checked out an area near Little Crater Lake where I heard a saw-whet owl singing persistently.

April 17th. (George's first birthday). I went out to the Hood River-Wasco border, east of Mount Hood in search of spotted owls. I drove as far as I dared, until I reached a lot of old deep snow that was alternatively frozen, then soft. I parked the Toyota and set off up the hill. It was an amazing warm night. I hiked up through the snow in search of spotted owls but heard nothing. On the way back I taped for saw-whet, but got no response.

Back on highway 44 i heard a group of at least three great-horned owls. Eventually I was able to spotlight one in flight.

April 18th. We took Tui's family and the kids out to Tryon to look for barred owls. Near the nest I found a bird roosting low in a cedar. We all got to enjoy the owl. Below in the gully I could hear the tell-tale sounds of scolding robins and stellar's jays. I made my way down and found a gorgeous barred owl roosting in a maple. When the light is this good, barred owls are just perfect.

April 22nd. Charlie and I went to visit my friend Andy who had a nesting screech owl in his yard in Northwest Portland. I got to see owl fly a couple of times and perch in the nest tree.

April 25th. George, Ziggy and I went to the Tryon barred owl nest site. As soon as we arrived we saw a group of people watching a barred owl in a maple. Soon we got to watch it hunt. A couple of times if flew to the ground, then hopped around between the bushes. I am not sure if it was hunting for invertebrates? Either way we got fantastic views of the owl. (I din't see the owlet, but was shown photos of an owlet taken of the nest site earlier this morning).
The nest tree was devoid of white-wash or pellets. I think that barred owls avoid soiling the nest tree-perhaps to reduce detection by predators?

April 26th. Charlie and I drove out a wonderful patch of old growth in to the coast range . Along the way we drove through some pretty fucked up desolate clear cuts. It was a stark contrast between the madness of the climactic ancient forest and the barren logged hills.
Far up the hillside we heard a spotted owl call, then another responded. Both birds were far away and it wasn't practical to chase after them with a four year old in tow. Still it was brilliant to hear them. My first spotted owl for Polk County.

April 29th. I met Rhett at the overlook above Oaks Bottom. Wasting no time we hiked down the steep bluff through tall wet grass the the screech owl ash tree. Near the tree Rhett found a lovely roosting screech owl. We had great views of the owl for about 45 minutes, then we took off to check out other roost sites. We returned just before dusk to find the owl had gone. We didn't have to wait long before we found the owl flying around. I eventually landed near a broken tree-we will have to return in the day to confirm if there is a good nesting cavity in that tree.

May 1st. The whole family went to a cabin near Prineville. I had planned on owling the next night, but Charlie had been rambunctious at bed time and I had yelled at him. I felt guilty and wanted to apologize, but didn't want to wake him. Unable to sleep I set of up McCay Creek trail. Near the summit I heard a saw-whet. I was close to homing in on it, when a great-horned started singing. Immediately the saw-whet was silenced. At Stein's Pillar trail head I tried for flammulated, but got no response. I did manage a lovely view of a saw whet in some small ponderosas.

Later that day we all went to check out a barn that Chuck Gates had kindly told me about. It took knocking on a few doors, but eventually we got to the right place. We found 3 barn owls at the back of the barn. Charlie got to see them quite well and he was pretty excited to see them. The entrance was littered with dead voles-perhaps its a good year for voles?

Back at the cabin we went for an evening walk. I tried taping for pygmy and pretty soon located a super distant owl at the top of a spruce. It stuck around and we eventually got fairly good views.

May 9th. The whole family was in Federal Way visiting Tui's folks. Ziggy and i got up at 230am and I drove to Othello in search of burrowing owls. As I past Lake Easton I began to smell the most disgusting smell. I pulled into the next rest area to discover Ziggy, a senior dog, and partner in crime had shit in the hatch of the civic. I was able to ditch the crapped-upon blanket and wipe up the car. After a cold mile of driving along the freeway with the widows down the car smelled tolerably.

Just west of Othello the smell returned with a vengeance. Only worse. I pulled over and it looked like Ziggy had been mud wrestling all over the back seat. I was at a loss with how to deal with it, so I drove on to Othello feeling nauseous, by probably not as sick as Ziggy evidently was.

I was following Mary Hrudkaj's directions. A couple of hundred yards from the site I saw this:

Can you see the burrowing owl perched on the bales of straw? I ended up getting really great views by using the car as a blind.

Now for the dog diarrhea clean up. I drove up to a coral.

I bathed Ziggy in an open irrigation channel. Then tore up my shirt and used it to mop up jello-like lumps of wet dog shite. Apart from the smell the drive home was uneventful.

May 17th. My sister, Fiona, was in town for a week and we decided to explore the Deschutes and John Day rivers. At Cottonwood Canyon State Park we found a female barn owl and at least two chicks nesting in a cliff side hole.

May 18th. I took my sister to Tryon State Park to see barred owls. We had to wait 'till dusk until one, then two adults vocalized. Then three juveniles started hissing. We were able to watch the juveniles fly clumsily between maples at dusk. 

May 22nd-23rd. I took my sister, Fiona and Charlie out to the Ochocos. We camped at Steen's Pillar trailhead. It was a surprisingly damp and misty evening. Just before it got dark I heard a flammulated owl singing. Despite my best efforts I could not see him-the trees by the small creek where he was singing were giant ponderosas. In the area I also heard what I am pretty sure were juvenile saw whet owls begging. 

It was a cold damp night, made worse by the constant song of the flammulated-taunting me to go out again and try and find him.

The next morning we hiked Steen's Pillar trail, then checked out the painted hills before returning to forest road 2610. We camped by a beautiful meadow. I had hopes of finding a great gray owl, but didn't. Once it got dark Fiona stayed with Charlie, freeing me up to pursue flammulated owls. I didn't find any flammulated owls, but heard a  spontaneous singing saw whet owl. I was able to get amazing views of this bold little owl descend down the branches of spruce in series of short flights-almost like a person would descend a flight of stairs. 

May 24th. The whole family walked around Oaks Bottom. At the south end a scolding robin gave up a roosting screech owl.

Near the regular site just south of the mausoleum I found a second screech owl. I suspect that the two birds are not a pair because they were about 500m apart. 

May 30th. The whole family stayed at a cabin south of Trout Lake, Washington. At dusk I ventured above Pine Side Sno Park and heard a flammulated owl 1/2 mile above the park and saw one 2 1/2 miles above the park. The bird I saw was perched on a snag, and I got good views of this tricky mountain owl. 

June 5th-7th. Charlie, Ziggy and I headed south east along highway 26 after work on a Friday. We made it as far as La Pine State Park, where we camped. It was a beautiful, but cold night.

We woke early, cooked a bacon and coffee-based breakfast, then headed south towards Klamath Lake. We ended up along Keno Access road where I had heard several recent reports of a family of great-gray owls. As soon as we pulled in I saw a birder's truck. An even better sign were the incessant begging calls of the young owls. It took just a minute to find the two young owls, perched quite high in a spruce. 

We spent most of the day either hiding out from the hot sun and playing in the creek, or making forays into the forest in search of an adult. (The owlets are great, but the adult is such a fabulous bird and well worth the effort). By evening time we had expanded our search and eventually lucked into an adult). We accidentally flushed the owl, but it landed amazingly close by on a stump. It was just gorgeous. Charlie and I named it cloud owl.

Our next location was the Gold Hill area. We were a  little disappointed to find little old growth and even less opportunities for camping. We settled on a clear-cut where the good people of Jackson County shoot old TVs. No owls, but it was a lovely night. 

The morning was marred by a plague of ticks. Ziggy had over 25 and Charlie had 5! It was a hot drive back to Portland. 

June 14th A week ago I had heard about a spotted owl family in Douglas County. I contacted Janice Reid, a biologist who worked for 30 years on spotted owls. All week I could hardly wait to get out into the forest and look for spotted owls. 
I got up early Sunday morning and drove down to Douglas county to met Janice at a gated road. We met up with the property owner and drove in to some unpromising-looking secondary forest. We took a short hike up a shady laurel-filled canyon. Within a couple hundred yards of the nest a female owl came to check us out.  I think feeding the owls mice has caused them to associate humans with food. Janice quickly found a juvenile which she had banded last week. We had to offer up a couple of white lab mice to locate the second unbanded juvenile. Janice proficiently caught the young owl and banded it. While doing so the female struck her twice, drawing a little blood. We offered up a third mouse in an effort to distract the owl. Watching the big chocolate owl take the mice was amazing. 

Most of the time, about 2 hours, the owl just watched us. It was unbelievable to have such a difficult owl be as obvious as snow. Ah just gorgeous. 

June 21st. The whole family walked around Oak's Bottom. I failed to find any roosting screech at the usual sites, but on the return a scolding robin alerted me to a potential owl. The owl was deep in a wet willow thicket and it took a while to creep through the tangle. I was rewarded for my efforts by a lovely brown screech owl. 

June 27-28th. The whole family went to Federal Way to celebrate Tui's mom's 80th. We stayed at a cabin on Five Mile Lake. Early on the morning of the 27th Tui was woken by a family of noisy barred owls. She woke me and I got to go out in the warm night and hear the end of their performance. 

The next day I got up at 1am and drove to Sunrise on Mt Rainier. I passed three roadside barn owls on Muckleshoot reservation, all perched on utility wires. 

At Sunrise I walked about and listened for the tell-tale calls of begging juvenile boreal owls. I heard none and after 90 minutes it was dawn. 

My luck soon changed and I heard a pygmy owl. Later while searching for roosting boreal owls I flushed a long-eared owl!

July 4th. I returned to Sunrise at Mt Rainier in search of juvenile boreal owls. I spent a couple of hours listing for begging calls, but heard only some wild thing bark far below. All too soon the sky lightened:
Next I worked through the denser stands of firs for roosting boreal owls. I found a downy feather, two small pellets and some whitewash. No boreal though.

July 12. George, Ziggy and I went to Oaks and found a roosting western screech in the usual area. We were able to show it to a couple of appreciative hikers. 

July 18th. The family went to Silver Falls and stayed at a cabin. I got up at 230am and took a drive down to the valley. On the way back to the park I found a great-horned owl by the roadside just north of the park entrance. 

July 27th. Charlie and I went to the south end of Oak's Bottom at dusk. This was the first time I had taken him night owling since he started talking. We taped in a pair of screech owls at dusk and were able to enjoy them flying in silhouette below the canopy of a big maple. Charlie was easily able to track the owls. It was a wonderful little trip.

Aug 2nd. I awoke at 1am and set off to do some owling in the Willamette Valley. My first stop was Willamette Mission State Park. The entrance was gated so I had to walk in. This turned out to be a good thing as I heard a couple of distant barn owls out across the hop fields under a big moon. By the first parking lot I heard a pair of screech owls singing and caught a glimpse of one in flight. 

My next stop was Baskett Slough. I hiked the trail that lead into oak covered grassy hills. I heard a couple of young barred owls begging. I also heard the bark of a screech owl. Back at Livermore road I had a fly-by barn owl. In the old metal barn I found a second barn owl. A distant great-horned called. 

My final stop was McGuire Reservoir near McMinville. Near the dam I found a screech owl flying in front of the car. It was already light, but the little owl sang spontaneously from a patch of alders. In the same area I got a vocal response from a distant pygmy owl.

Aug 7th. I awoke at 130am and set off to Clatsop County. I stopped at Sunset rest area and tried for screech owls there but came up short. Next I tried Fishhawk Falls Hwy for barred owl-again with no results. 

At Jewell State Wildlife Viewing Area I heard a group of coyotes and saw lots of elk. I also heard a screech owl.

Along Beneke Creek road I heard two barred owls by the creek. Higher up I heard three great-horned owls calling well into daylight. I also heard a pair of pygmy owls.

Aug 16th. I awoke at 1am and drove to Brownsmead on the Columbia. It was a beautiful night, complete with shooting stars. I heard a barn owl call from the pastures. The marine air smelled wonderful. 

I then tried for barred owl at a couple of spots near Clatskanie, but failed to find anything. At one point I heard a "woosh" close to my face, but saw nothing. Heading North past Mist I stopped repeatedly for barred owl. At the ninth stop I heard a distant pair, then had a close encounter with a territorial bird. In the opposite direction another pair called. 

By now it was dawn. It was cool and misty in the clear-cuts. I ventured about a half mile down Apiary Road and heard a distant pygmy owl.

Aug 22nd. The family stayed at Beverly Beach State Park. I set my alarm for 3am and woke in a daze and left everyone sleeping in the yurt. I checked the marshy grasslands around Newport Bay, but found none. At Siletz I heard a barn owl in farmland, but was unable to see it. 

I tried for barred and screech owls along the road but found neither. At dawn I heard a pygmy owl in the foothills above the mouth of the Siletz. 

Aug 23rd. George, Ziggy and I took a walk to Oaks Bottom. We found no screech owls, but on the way back we found a great barred owl right by the trail.
Two years ago I saw a barred owl in the same area at the same time of year.

Sep 19th I visited Mt Rainier in search of boreal owls. I arrived early just before dusk:
It was a beautiful evening. In the parking lot I came across a beautiful cascade red fox. Along the trails I heard a chorus of coyotes. I don't find any boreal owls, though I do hear a single soft contact note that piques my attention. Unfortunately I don't hear it again to get a bead on the bird.

Oct 2-3rd. John Fitchen and I made a trip out to the Blue Mountains north of Tollgate. As we drove east along the interstate the wind picked up. We grew increasingly worried that the trip would be a bust. (Owling in the wind can be hopeless). However by the time we reached Tollgate the weather was pretty calm. We worked Skyline for 9 hours and didn't detect any boreals. Tired we retreated from the mountains at dawn. Our drive back wasn't so bad. We saw a lovely, and surprisingly dark great-horned owl near Athena. Revived by espresso in Pendleton the rest of the drive went well-i.e. I wasn't falling asleep at the wheal. At the eastern end of the Columbia Gorge we saw 6 big horn sheep. 

Oct 24th. My Dad, Charlie and I were staying at a yurt in Nehalem State Par. Just after dark i went to the airfield. I played a recording of great-horned owl through Jawbone speaker-this has way more bass and volume than the little Imaingo I usually use. Immediately I got a distant response way to the east. The owl never came in. 

Oct 31st. The whole family walked out to Reed Canyon on a mild cloudy Saturday. (Earlier in the week Rhett had jet me know a barred owl had been relocated in the Canyon). On the way up we saw nothing interesting. But on the return we heard a murder of crows. Now as obvious as snow an unhappy looking barred owl flinched as the crows launched their attacks. 

Nov 1st. The whole family went to Tualatin Hills Nature Park. I have tried there a few times for barred owl. On the way out of the park, we found a lovely gray barred owl, low in a maple tree, bathed in sun light. This was my first for Washington County. 

Nov 7th. I got up at 2am and drove down to Linn County. Just south east of Stayton, along Kingston-Lyons Drive I started owling next to small woodlots. At my first woodlot I heard a bran owl calling. It was a slightly shorter note than the usual territorial scream. 

Next I tried a small copse of oaks for screech owl. Surprisingly a barred owl responded with a subdued call-I am not sure of the significance of this call-it was a multi note call, like the territorial song, but lacking in emphasis.

At the next site-mixed creek side forest, I taped for screech owl again. In some oaks a nearby screech replied with two barks. In the distance a great horned sang, and a minute later a barn owl screeched. I tried a stand of Doug firs for saw-whet, and immediately got a saw whet's slightly double note call in response. 

I decided to return home via Marion county. In the foothills of the cascades I heard a saw whets loud whining screech-a call which reminds me slightly of the begging call of a young Strix, but less rough sounding. A little before dawn I heard a slightly pumping deep muffled hooting of a great-gray owl! 

An epic night!
 Later that morning, George, Ziggy and I hiked from our house through Reed Canyon in search of barred owls. We drew a blank on the way through the canyon, but on the return I found a whitewash-splattered tree at the west end of the canyon. I lovely barred owl peered down at us. It stood on one leg, the other dangled below the perch-something I have never observed before. Perhaps it is hurt?

Nov 11th. George, Charlie and I walked up Reed Canyon, we found a lovely barred owl roosting in the same young Doug fir that we found it in on the 7th.

Nov 14th-15th. I left home around 830pm, just after the boys went to bed. My first stop was the area just south west of Hood River. Along Riordan Hill Dr I had a saw whet respond with two short alarm calls in response to a barred owl recording.

On Post Canyon Dr I had a barred owl fly in silently into a Doug Fir. This was a new county owl for me. 

My next stop was to work to area above Mossier for saw-whet owl. I started up Huskey Road. My first couple of stoops were thick with wood smoke from household fires. The hill sides are a patch work of small oaks and conifers. I took Wilson Road back to Mossier and heard a saw-whet alarm call a couple of times in response to a saw-whet tape. Another new county owl.

Nov 21st. George Ziggy and I went to Reed Canyon. It was a bright, cold morning and I had a rare hangover. I found the barred owl in the usual small conifer at the West end of the canyon.

Nov 22nd. I got up at 215am and drove to Lincoln County. I stopped at Rose Lodge to read the map. I heard footsteps running and then a tap on the passenger window. My heart skipped a beat, but it ended up being OK, a young guy told me his car had been stolen and he needed a ride to Salem. I told him I would help him out in a couple of hours. 

I then owled the road out to Three Rocks. Early on I heard a saw-whet sing in response to my tape. I was surprised to have it sing in the fall, especially on a cold frosty night. Despite my best efforts I was unable to find great-horned, barred or screech owls. Sill it was beautiful to smell the wet forest and hear the waves break. 

I wrestled whether to pick up the stranded guy, his story seemed off. If my car had been stolen I would have called the police or phoned a friend. I eventually decided to help the guy out, and stopped in the predawn gloaming at Rose Lodge. I was kind of relieved that he wasn't there. A few miles down frosty Highway 18 I found the guy hitch-hiking. He seemed really happy to have been picked up. He introduced himself as Jesus, and told me a story that didn't jive about the car, where he was from and where he was going. I was beginning to regret picking him up, when I saw him reach into his pant leg. He brought out a nylon dog leash, that he wrapped around his knuckles. I honestly don't know what he was doing, Jesus was a slight guy and I don't think he could have overpowered me with a dog leash. Still it made for an uneasy ride. I let Jesus know I had two boys, ie. that I would be missed. We got to Salem, and Jesus got out by the bridge, thanking me sincerely for the help.

Nov 28th. I followed up on a report by Paul Sullivan of a short-eared owl at Scappose Bottoms. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon and I brought Charlie with me. I had to wait for about a half hour, before the owls started to emerge from the wet grass. In all 4 or 5 owls came out. Two circled very high above the field and then dispersed to places unknown. One of the remaining females squabbled with a northern harrier. At times the bigger raptor would harass the owl, yet at others the owl would chase the harrier.  

Nov 29th. Ziggy and I walked to Oak's Bottom. I found a roosting screech owl in one of the regular ash trees. This is the first roosting screech at Oaks for me in months. 

Dec 7th. It was a warm rainy night. Ziggy and I were out walking in Westmoreland Park after dark. I  saw a silhouetted owl flew into a bare oak tree. I got up close enough to see it illuminated by a street light-a lovely hunting barred owl!

Dec 12. George, Ziggy and I took a rainy walk to Reed Canyon. As soon was we arrived I could hear crows. It took us just a minute to find a roosting barred owl low in the usual conifer. 

Dec 13th. Tui, Charlie, George and I took a walk in Reed Canyon today. The beautiful barred owl was roosting in the same fir today. Charlie was pretty excited because he found him by looking for the white-wash, then looking up. We got to watch him scratching his neck with huge cat-like legs! 

Dec 19th. I went out birding with John. Our first stop was Reed Canyon where we quickly found the resident barred owl at it's usual roost tree.

Later that afternoon Charlie and I took a walk around the east side of Oaks Bottom and I found the screech owl in the usual crack in an old ash tree.

Dec 21st. I was walking Ziggy around Westmoreland Park before dawn. It was miserable out, cold and rainy. I saw a barred owl hunting from the same tree that I had seen it in about two week agos. Their was a nearby street light that the owl may have been using to illuminate wet mice below.