The Flammulated Owl Encounter of June 2, 2012

By Mary Freeman

On June 2, 2012, Nick Freeman and I led our first owl banding trip for Los Angeles Audubon Society.  I hold a sub-permit for banding of small owls, with an emphasis on the Northern Saw-whet Owl.  Nick and I chose an area near Buckhorn Campground to set up our nets.  Knowing how we’d stay up late, heading back into Glendale tired after a night of banding, we thought it would be best to camp at Buckhorn.  Friday night, as we were setting up camp, we bumped into a hard-core hiker / birder who had come all the way from Chicago to hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail.  Her name was Karen, but the other hikers call her "Birdie".  After talking, she was all excited about doing some owl recon; what were the chances?  We had dinner at Newcomb’s Ranch Restaurant and headed out scouting the Angeles Crest for owls.  We found three vocalizing Flammulated Owls with a single sighting of a Northern Saw-whet Owl.  At 1:30am in the morning, we exchanged our contact information as she was making an early morning departure for Canada!

Saturday afternoon, Nick and I set up our nets at a selected site where we had previously encountered Saw-whet Owls.  I had obtained a key from the forestry service to enter this area.  Well, good ol' San Gabriels, they are sharp and steep.  We spent hours figuring out where to place the nets so the near-full moon wouldn't make the nets as obvious, and where it wasn't so STEEP!  We gave up and placed a single net.  That evening, as the 12 participants got ready for the night of banding, Nick and I unfurled the net at 8:45 p.m. We planned hourly net checks with a planned shut-down at 11:45 p.m.

We played the audiolure for two hours for the Northern Saw-whet Owl, but none showed up!  We switched over to Flammulated Owl.  Knowing participants had to drive down the mountain late at night, and as some were heading out, Nick and I closed up shop at 11:30 p.m.  As Nick and I furled our net to clear out, I turned off the audiolure.  But moments after, Nick and I heard a Flammulated Owl’s raspy “boop, boop, boop”.  Based on recent owl survey experiences we’ve had in the southern Sierra, the raspy quality of the owl’s call had me thinking it was very close.

The remaining night-owl participants had followed us to the last net check.  I asked to borrow someone’s binoculars to search the trees for the calling forest gnome. Then, 20 feet in front of us and just 15 feet up in a fir, I FOUND IT!  I wanted to return the binoculars but the strap became entangled in my spot light’s strap, so all I could do was to get my friend to view the owl through the bins as they hung from my neck!  The owl quietly remained perched, looking around at each of us.


Flammulated Owl, Photo credit to Mary Freeman

Nick took a chance and returned to our vehicle to grab my camera, when he returned, the gnome was still on its branch.  We were able to take photographs of this beautiful owl.  Its colors blended in with the color of the tree’s bark.  One participant was moved to tears by the experience.  For two of the participants this was their first birding fieldtrip!  After we photographed and photographed the owl, we actually walked away from it, and finished clearing out with help from our friends.  By 12:30 a.m. - ecstatic over the encounter - we said our good-nights.  The owls may have evaded our net, but the participants that stuck it out ‘till the end were rewarded with a once in a lifetime experience!

Published Western Tanager Volume 78, Number 6 July/August 2012