Owl Prowl Spring 2013 - Field Trip Report

By Mary and Nick Freeman

OwlProwlSpring-2013 Sunset-angeles-crest-hwy-photo-by-Mary-Freeman

Sunset in the high country on the Angeles Crest Highway, Photo by Mary Freeman

OwlProwlSpring-2013 Western-Screech-Owl-photo-by-Alex-Navarro

Western Screech Owl, Photo by Alex Navarro

On May 18, 2013, Nick and I led the first Owl Prowl of 2013 on the Angeles Crest Highway (“the Crest”) for Los Angeles Audubon. 10 very enthusiastic birders joined us, eager to experience owls in the Angeles National Forest. Nick and I have enjoyed numerous owl encounters this season and this night was looking good with clear skies! We stopped numerous times going up into the high country of the Crest in search of the Mexican Whip-poor-will, hoping to document their return to our local mountains for a fourth year. What we had not anticipated were the gusty WINDS! Unfortunately, wind makes it nearly impossible to the hear owl calls. The high country was getting knocked around by the winds, so this night’s search for Flammulated Owl —typically above 6,000 feet in elevation— was not to be. So we drove down the Crest and made a few stops in appropriate habitat where the winds were not as powerful. We were able to get a quick look at a Western Screech Owl. Then we made one more stop where Nick and I had encountered Northern Saw-whet Owl earlier this year. Sure enough we found one! It responded with its alarm call, which is a long, piercing, mournful “eEEEEeee!” scream. It remained very hidden in live oaks, as they often do. There was a half moon overhead but we never saw the owl, though it flew across the road more than once. We concluded our first Owl Prowl a little after midnight. The participants were quite happy experiencing the owls this night even if it was just listening to their call. Too bad the winds swept away any further opportunities this night.

On June 1, Nick and I led a second Owl Prowl. This was an overflow trip arranged for those who were on the wait list from the May trip. This night was completely different than the first outing. It was unseasonably warm, remaining in the mid to low 70s the whole night and no winds were encountered! What a great night to head out owling on the Crest. But there was a fire burning just north of these mountains —the Powerhouse Fire— that was raging out of control. The mountains along the Crest were covered in a smoky haze, although the smoke did not interfere with the owl prowl. We made a few stops for Northern Pygmy-Owl but to no avail. We heard, but didn’t see, a Clark’s Nutcrackers on a ridge at sunset.

Beyond Buckhorn Campground, Nick exclaimed, “There’s a Bobcat crossing the road!” We stopped and looked through our binoculars. Announcing the find on our FRS radios we managed to get everyone on the cat. It then walked over the shoulder of the road. We pulled over and got out of our cars, hoping to watch the cat disappear into the forest. We managed to find it before it scampered away. He didn’t seem put-off by our presence. We stood watching as it circled around us and crossed the road again behind us, and back down the side of the saddle from which it came! One of the participants had his camera ready and shot some excellent photos of the Bobcat. What a wonderful way to start the evening!

OwlProwlSpring-2013 Bobcat1 photo-byAlex-Navarro

OwlProwlSpring-2013 bobcat2 photo-by-Alex-Navarro

Bobcat, Photo by Alex Navarro

OwlProwlSpring-2013 Flam-owl Photo-by-Alex-Navarro

Flammulated Owl, Photo by Alex Navarro

By this time of the year, sunset seems to invite mosquitos. As we began putting on long sleeves and repellant to protect ourselves against the biting mosquitos, we looked downhill and watched a Cassin’s Finch singing its heart out to the mountains. We were able to view it through our spotting scope and review some ID pointers for this challenging group of finches.

So on to the high country beyond Islip Saddle. We proceeded up to the Mexican Whip-poor-will site, checking to see if it had returned to the Crest. Walking the darkening road in the cool serenity of the mountain night with a hint of ceonothus blossoms in the air, made for a very relaxing and pleasant evening. The temperature was steady at around 73 degrees, and the lack of wind made for excellent conditions to listen for squeaks, screams, toots, the sound of an owl’s talons as it lands on a branch, or the call of a nightjar. Western Tanager, Western Wood-Pewee, Western Bluebird, and American Robin were all giving their final serenades of the day. Amongst all this song, Common Poorwills were calling on the wing against the sharp and steep slopes. Occasional cars reminded us that it was almost summer, and the road to Wrightwood was open. We continued listening for the Mexican Whip-poor-will, once again without detection. With a touch of twilight in the sky, we began the search for Flammulated Owl. A perfect setting: no wind, scattered trees and high elevation. In all the years we’ve studied owls on the Angeles Crest, we’ve not found Flams below 6,000 feet. After just a couple minutes of playing a recording —BOOP! A Flammulated Owl response! Rarely have we found one so fast! I got all the participants behind me. This owl is so small it easily blends into the bark of a tree. Then Nick and I triangulated its call. Sweet! The little gnome was out in the open on a branch in plain sight, below eye-level, looking down the slope at it! We watched it for almost 30 minutes; but he seemed more interested in conversing with a fellow Flam, perhaps a competing male. We managed to get long looks as photos were taken of this tiny owl. Wow! For half the group, it was their first ever Flammulated Owl. I told them, “You will be hard-pressed to get better views than we got tonight!” Perfect!

With a Flam in our pockets —but minus the Mexican Whip— we continued down the Crest in search of the Northern Saw-whet Owl. Well, even though we successfully scouted one a couple of nights before, this owl decided not to show this night! No matter how or where we tried, the Saw-whets just decided to take the night off.

Down the road we continued; we tried one more spot where Nick and I have previously seen both Saw-whet and Western Screech-Owls. It was well past midnight but the hearty band of owlers stuck it out hoping for another owl encounter. I tried getting a Western Screech-Owl into view —success! I found two and managed to get one into full view. Again, more photos were taken of this very handsome owl! Twice the owl came into view. By then it was close to 1 a.m. I had told the group that I aimed to get them back down the hill by midnight, but with owls yet to see, and conditions so perfect, nobody was eager to head off the hill. After seeing the Screech-Owl we all decided to call it a night, and got off the hill half an hour later. It was quite the night! Our group was very fortunate to have experienced good views of some impressive owls (and a Bobcat!) on the Crest.

OwlProwlSpring-2013 Listening-intently-Mexican-Whip-poor-willl-photo-by-Mary-Freeman

Listening intently for the Mexican Whip-poor-will's call. Photo by Mary Freeman


Published Western Tanager Vol. 79 No. 6 July/August 2013