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Sunday, June 10, 2012

Nerdy Birdy: The Small Owl's of the San Gabriel Mountains Field Trip

I always want to try to go look for owls, the only problem is that there is a ton of issues with safety. First of all I feel confident going hiking alone in the daytime, sure there are cougars and bobcats, but during the day I feel relatively safe. Unfortunately you really have to go owling at night, and I do not feel safe at all going out alone at night. So my first problem is trying to find a sidekick who will stumble around the dark forest with me looking for a needle in a haystack. The second issue is that owling is an art form that I have yet to learn. You think finding a specific bird and photographing in the daytime is difficult, try finding one at night, in the pitch black woods. Not exactly what I would call easy. So when I saw a field trip lead by a husband and wife team I jumped on it. Sadly everyone else in teh birding community did as well and I got wait listed. They have to limit the group because owls are sensitive to noise. I was so bummed out. That is I was bummed until a week later when they created ANOTHER date to accommodate some of the overflow people. I was so super excited to get in!

Our group arrived at the meeting place at the bottom of the San Gabriel Mountains at 6PM. We had our initial briefing which was about staying quiet, how to walk while making the least amount of noise, and to make sure to watch the leader because talking was discouraged. All in all we were going to drive up the Angeles Crest Hwy and hopefully look for the Northern Pygmy Owl, the Flammulated Owl, the Western Screech Owl and the Saw-Whet.

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OUR SMALL GROUP LISTENED TO THE BREIFING

I originally offered to carpool people in my car but when the leader found out I was new to owling she offered the one and only spot in the leader’s car. It was a fantastic opportunity and I was super excited. During the hour and a half or so we were driving in the car her and her husband shared so much about owls and birding in general.

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DRIVING UP THE SAN GABRIEL MOUNTAINS

We stopped a billion times along the road. Hiking in the backcountry is dangerous and the leaders know these mountains well. Most of the spots we stopped were spots they knew certain owls liked. Our first stop was at the top of a deep valley. Spotted Owls can be found by hiking the hour and a half down but the leader wanted us to get familiar with the process not actually see the Spotted Owl. To find an owl you go to a habitat that you will think they like and you play owl calls on a speaker. After a few minutes of playing the calls you stop, don’t make a sound, and listen for the return calls. We heard maybe two separate Spotted Owls call back to us.

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STANDING ON THE SLOPE LISTENING FOR THE SPOTTED OWL CALLING BACK

We owled from 7ish to about midnight and what I learned most is that owling is a lesson in PATIENCE. Patience unfortunately is not one of my many strong points and there were times I got pretty frustrated. The sun started going down getting to the official owling hour.

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About every 10 minutes we would pull over our caravans of cars, we would pile out (me with a ton of camera gear) and we would wait in the dark while the calls were played hoping to hear an owl off in the distance. Many times we were lined up directly beside the road. Early on we found two Great Horned Owls off in the distance. They were too far to photograph and not our target birds but it was fun to hear them hooting in the distance.

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OUR GROUP ON THE SIDE OF THE ROAD ILLUMINATED BY A DRIVE-BY CAR

As the night wore on it got colder. People started layering on their cold weather gear and we kept searching. At one point we found a Saw-whet owl. I was SOOO SUPER EXCITED. We crept closer and closer and he kept hooting back. At one point however he stopped calling and no matter how hard we looked no one could find him. Of course by this time it was pitch black and since owls fly so silently he could have easily left without us even knowing. Then again the leader said that owls will just sit there silently and watch you from only a few feet away.

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THE LEADERS KNIT OWL OWLING HAT WAS SO ADORABLE

Stop after stop and we still hadn’t seen any owls. Our leader let us know that this wasn’t uncommon. Owls are finicky, a place that produced an owl the day before may be empty the following day. It was really a gamble to see any at all, all you can do is hope and get lucky. The night was long and still we didn’t have any sightings any of our target owls. Our last stop was a little hike down a blocked off road. Last week they had came here and gotten exceptional views of a Flammulated owl. The leader played the recordings and we silently waited.

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PLAYING THE RECORDINGS HOPING TO GET THE OWLS TO COME OUT

Again we got to hear the bird but in the end we were unable to locate it. He taunted us calling over and over again. Finally we had to call it a night, it was a Sunday night after all and many had to work the next day. I was bummed out that we didn’t get to see any owls but I had learned a ton of stuff about how to find them now on my own. I decided to chalk it up to a learning experience spent with fun nerdy birdy people on a beautiful Cali starlit night.

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THE NIGHT STARS

We started driving out of the mountains and another groups car flagged us down. They had been driving when a small owl darted in front of their car. They pulled over and found a Western Screech Owl. FINALLY we found one. I was so excited and I quickly grabbed a few hurried shots of this super tiny bird. I was terrified he would fly away.

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WESTERN SCREECH OWL SUCH A TINY LITTLE GUY

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WESTERN SCREECH OWL

I was terrified he would fly away before I got any shots but he ended up staying put in some nearby trees and we were able to follow him for about five minutes. I managed to get a few really good photos. My 500mm lens coupled with our new 5D Mark III body, which does amazing in low light conditions, allowed me to get the best night shots I have ever been able to take.

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WESTERN SCREECH OWL

What a fantastic way to end. Sure the night was long and stressful but we ended with this one super cute little bird. This is the first time I have ever seen the Western Screech Owl, it’s a new bird to cross off my Nerdy Birdy List. Hurrah for owling... I think I am in LOVE!!!

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WESTERN SCREECH OWL

2 comments:

Jennifer Arens said...

Your spirit of adventure is astounding ! Owls are so so cool

paul peggy zeus said...

Cool! I'm so glad you found some Night Owls to go out with you! LOVE these little owls.

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