Special features

Kenn Kaufman sets owl-finding record in southeastern Arizona

Where and how Kenn Kaufman and two other southern Arizona birders found 11 species of owl in one day
By Kenn Kaufman | Published: 3/1/1988

It had never been done before. No one in the recorded annals of birding had ever seen or heard more than nine species of owls in one day in North America. But we thought we could top that score.

In southern Arizona, where we live, owling has greater potential rewards than anywhere else in North America. Thirteen kinds of owls are found here, more or less regularly. And with our friend, Rick Bowers, we had calculated that we could set a record by seeing 11 of those species in one day.

Bowers is the most successful owler we know. He grew up near the Huachuca Mountains, a magnet for birders visiting Arizona, and while still in his early teens he was helping visitors find hummingbirds, trogons, Painted Redstarts … and owls. Before he turned 20, he had led hundreds of birders on owling trips up the wild canyons of the Huachucas. These days he travels more widely as a leader of birding tours, but Rick always seems to know where the Arizona night birds are.

We approached the owling record from two different perspectives. Kenn had done a number of “Big Days” in Arizona, racing around the state to run up a big bird list in one 24-hour day, but these bizarre efforts never had allowed time to concentrate on owls. Kate was doing serious research on bird and mammal populations, and had rarely even considered doing anything so frivolous as trying to break a bird-listing record. These differences in backgrounds led to some good-natured ribbing between Rick and Kenn, “The Crazies,” and Kate, “The Voice of Reason,” when the Big Owl Day was in the planning stages. But finally Kate agreed to come along to serve as a counterbalance to insanity — and to enjoy the owls. We set our sights on May 12, 1987.

The big morning arrived, and just before the first hint of light, the three of us walked out into the desert at Catalina State Park, just north of Tucson. Great Horned Owls were calling in the distance. Few owls are as adaptable as these. In our travels, we had seen Great Horned Owls in stunted spruce forest in Alaska, in southern swampland, and perched on Mayan ruins in Yucatan… here they were, perfectly at home in the Arizona desert. But we would look for Great Horns later. For now, our aim was to see Western Screech-Owls and Elf Owls, both of which were calling nearby.

Most owls call a lot just before daylight when their night’s hunting is completed. This pre-dawn vocal burst may serve as a last reassuring contact between members of a pair, or as a warning to neighboring owl pairs not to trespass, or both. But they tend to be relatively unwary at this time. We were able to walk right up to a Western Screech-Owl that was giving its double trill from a mesquite thicket. The bird seemed unconcerned by our flashlight beams, and even continued to call. It was patterned entirely in shades of gray, like all screech-owls in Arizona, quite different from the brown and rufous tones worn by some Eastern Screech-Owls.

The tiny Elf Owl — the smallest in the world — feeds almost entirely on insects; so it reaches Arizona only in summer, when insects are easy to find. The bird occupies many lowland habitats where it finds woodpecker holes in which to nest. Our favorite habitat for spotting the Elf Owl is a stand of big saguaro cactus. There is something captivating about the contrast of the giant cactus and the tiny owl.

Rick knew where an Elf Owl had its nest in a nearby saguaro. We could hear the bird calling — ¬small yelping sounds like a hungry puppy — but we feared the bird might have already gone to roost for the day. After all, daylight was approaching fast. But Kate’s bird census work had trained her to pinpoint the direction and distance of bird calls. “Wait a minute,” she said. “The call is coming from that mesquite, just to the right of the saguaro.” Sure enough, our spotlight found the Elf Owl there, and we watched it call and look about for a minute before it flew to the hole in the cactus where it would spend the day.

It was getting lighter, and the sun would be rising any minute. We left Catalina State Park and went looking for a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl. This little owl was fairly common in southern Arizona a century ago, but it has declined seriously, and now we are lucky to find more than one or two per season. Some of the recent stakeouts have been in open residential neighborhoods in northwest Tucson — in areas that are practically unbirdable because of screaming children, barking dogs, and our general desire to stay out of people’s yards. But Rick had located one in an area that was not too congested.

In fact, he had located it so well that we were able to walk right up to the ironwood tree where it was perched. The owl glared down at us, its yellow eyes giving it an incredibly fierce look, while it twitched its tail back and forth expressively. Pygmy-owls feed mainly on small birds, so they are active by day. But here in the desert they hunt mostly in the early morning and late evening, when the songbirds are most conspicuous. This Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl was probably nesting in a cavity in a giant saguaro nearby. It would not go to the nest while we were so close, so we left to pursue other owls.

It seems that we see Great Horned Owls most often when we’re not looking for them. They are too big to hide easily, and they often perch in the open at dawn and dusk. But finding them when we are looking for them can be trickier. To ensure our success with them today, we stopped to look at a nest in a huge cottonwood tree in the grasslands. With a telescope we could see the young Great Horns in the nest from several hundred yards away. Satisfied that we had seen the birds without disturbing them, we went on to look for a Barn Owl.

Barns are not the most common buildings in southern Arizona, and most of the Barn Owls we had located were roosting in other situations. Today we would stop for a Barn Owl that roosted under a bridge. We approached quietly, expecting to see it on its perch, but the bird flushed ahead of us. Flapping away silently like a giant pallid moth, the Barn Owl sought the shelter of some tall cottonwoods just downstream from the bridge.

Continuing to watch for Burrowing Owls, we drove on through the grasslands to Sierra Vista and then into the big Army post at Fort Huachuca, arriving in late morning. The U.S. Army has done a commendable job of caring for this land. As a result, the section of the Huachuca Mountains within the Fort boundary offers some of the best birding in Arizona. We took the winding road up to the top of Garden Canyon, watching the hillside vegetation change from mesquites to scrub oaks and then to pines at the higher elevations. Here at the top of the canyon we expected to find a Northern Pygmy-Owl.

When birding we frequently imitate the piping whistles of the Northern Pygmy-Owl. This call is a sure lure for small songbirds, which often come slipping in to investigate, chattering in excitement. Northern Pygmy-Owls, like the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls in the desert, prey on small birds. The songbirds react to the call by “mobbing,” coming to pinpoint the enemy’s location and perhaps to harass it into departing.

So the pygmy-owl whistle, easily imitated, often draws an excited crowd of warblers, Bridled Titmice, and other birds. And sometimes the owl itself will come in to the call. Pygmy-owls are active by day, and we have whistled them in even at noon (which was reassuring, since it was almost noon now). But they often fail to respond. Their territories are evidently quite large, and even if you are whistling from the center of a pygmy-owl’s home turf, the bird could be hunting over the next ridge and out of earshot.

Perhaps they were all out of earshot today. We whistled patiently around locations in upper Garden Canyon, calling in Hepatic Tanagers, Greater Pewees, even a flashy Elegant Trogon — but no owls. Finally, after more than an hour and a half, we heard one calling in the distance. It called only briefly, then stopped, and we could not find it. We had to leave. We could try for other pygmy-owls later in the Chiricahuas, but for now we had to look for other things, including the Spotted Owls in Scheelite Canyon.

It had been seven or eight years earlier that someone hiking up Scheelite, a tributary to Garden Canyon, had discovered a pair of Spotted Owls roosting by day in a shady draw. Many Arizona birders had made the steep hike to see the owls, but no one had made the hike with as much interest as Smitty, a retired military man living in Sierra Vista. Smitty had, in a sense, adopted the Spotted Owls, and he had hiked up Scheelite Canyon to look at them many hundreds of times since. Often he took visiting birders. It was a chance to show off his charges, look at them some more, and make sure they were not unduly disturbed. By now most everyone considered these to be Smitty’s owls, and not even the most callous birder would bother these birds and risk incurring the wrath of Smitty.

After a brisk half-mile climb up the canyon, we knew we were approaching the owls’ usual roosting area, so we trod lightly and spoke softly. The Spotted Owls were perched directly above the trail, however, and we were within a few feet of them before we knew it. But the owls were not disturbed. They half-opened their eyes to look down with a haughty lack of concern, fluffed their feathers a bit, then closed their eyes again. Unlike the pygmy-owls, these birds were strictly nocturnal. The Spotted Owls would not stir or begin to voice their resonant hoots until Scheelite Canyon was deep in evening shadows. So we sat for a while, admiring the intricate patterns of their plumage, then we slipped away quietly down the trail. It was now after two o’clock, and we still had some distance to cover before dark.

We left Fort Huachuca, pausing briefly in Sierra Vista (the Voice of Reason demanded a stop for ice cream), then drove east across the San Pedro River, across high creosote-bush flats, and down into the Sulphur Springs Valley. This wide valley is a well-known site for raptors, especially in winter, when big birds of prey like Golden Eagles and Ferruginous Hawks soar over the grasslands. But today we were looking for a smaller bird of prey, the gnome-like Burrowing Owl.

We found the owl right where it was supposed to be — three of them, in fact — two perched on fenceposts and one sitting on a mound next to a burrow in the adjacent field. Burrowing Owls often live in small groups, taking advantage of spare holes in the colonies of ground squirrels or prairie dogs. Although it is not unusual to see them out in the open like this by day, they are more active by night. Only at night is one likely to hear their double-noted hoot and odd descending chuckles. As we approached one of the owls on a fencepost, it bobbed up and down on its long legs a few times, then flew out over the field, hovered for a moment, and landed next to another burrow.

The population of this species has declined as the open country has been plowed under or built upon, destroying the big prairie dog towns. We looked at these birds with a proper appreciation for this fact, then left them in peace, driving on toward the Chiricahua Mountains.

The sun was low in the western sky, playing hide-and-seek with dark thunderheads, as we headed up the Turkey Creek drainage. It had rained on this side of the Chiricahuas. The road was muddy in places, and raindrops still glistened on pine needles in the damp air. But it was not raining when we arrived at the upper end of the road, where, Bowers said, “the good Northern Pygmy-Owl” would be.

It was a good Pygmy-Owl, all right. We could tell as soon as we started whistling imitations: All the local songbirds swarmed in immediately. Mexican Chickadees, Red-faced Warblers, Olive Warblers and others piled into the pines overhead, fussing and scolding. They would not be so agitated by the owl noise, we figured, unless they’d had recent encounters with the real thing. Sure enough, within moments the real thing sounded off just downhill from us. Our little mob of songbirds took off in the direction of the genuine owl, and we followed them.

Fifty feet up in a ponderosa pine, with small birds fussing all around it (but not tooclose), the Northern Pygmy-Owl called in defense of its territory. Its body bounced in time with its rhythmic “poot-poot” call. Evidently it took a lot of effort for this owl to produce these notes, which are loud enough to be audible sometimes from a quarter of a mile away.

There were no diurnal owls left to seek, but with the last hour of light we went to look for a special nocturnal owl on a possible day roost. One evening a couple of weeks earlier, up in Pinery Canyon, Bowers had chanced upon a Flammulated Owl perched on a branch where it had clearly roosted for the day. Going back several days later, he was startled to find it on the same perch. Now we wondered: Would the owl be there a third time?

It seemed like a long drive from West Turkey Creek up Pinery Canyon, with the sun setting behind us. Then we had to climb a steep trail to the spot. Bowers was out in front, anxiously scanning ahead for the place where the owl had been. Then he relaxed with a big smile. “It’s there!” he said. “It’s on the exact same perch.” We scrambled up the hillside to a point from which we could study the bird at eye level.

Light was fading. For the Flammulated Owl, the day was about to begin. But it would not be fully active for another 15 or 20 minutes, so we had time to admire it. This little owl, a smaller relative to screech-owls, is another insect-eater that leaves Arizona for warmer climates in winter. Even when it is here, it is hard to see. It is protectively colored: soft grays and browns with a muted pattern, the same as tree bark, and it often perches against a tree trunk as this one was doing. Its soft voice has a ventriloquial quality. Trying to pinpoint a “Flam” at night, even when it is calling consistently, can be a long and frustrating experience.

As we watched, the Flammulated Owl slowly opened its brown eyes (this is the only dark-eyed small owl found north of the border), fluffed its feathers, looked around, and began to call. The voice sounded even softer than usual, a mellow, low-pitched “boot” or sometimes “bu-boot.” With each call, it would crane its neck forward a bit and puff out its throat feathers. Sometimes it paused and closed its eyes again, as if it might go back to sleep. We felt that it was a rare privilege to watch this tiny bird of the night slowly waking up, preparing for its night of activity.

In the lingering twilight, we drove back down to a lower stretch of Pinery Canyon, where the oaks were thicker — a perfect spot for Whiskered Screech-Owls. We walked down the road in silence, waiting for them to call. A Whip-poor-will started up in the woods. Far down the valley, we could hear the sad tones of a Common Poorwill. A bat flew by, patrolling the road, and on its next pass we could hear crunching sounds that suggested it had caught some large insect and was devouring it in flight. Then Kate heard a Whiskered Screech-Owl in the distance, and after a moment we all heard it.

Darkness was setting in. Within minutes there were Whiskered Screech-Owls calling in all directions. The Whiskered is surprisingly similar to the Western Screech-Owl, and they can be found side by side in the lower stretches of the canyons here, but in general the Whiskered occurs at slightly higher elevations. It is often abundant a little above 5,000 feet, the elevation where we were now.

Kenn whistled his imitation of the Whiskered, a Morse-code sequence of long and short whistles, and one of the birds swooped across the road, inches above our heads, to land in a large oak. Moments later, another bird followed it. Evidently both members of the pair were out to defend the territory. We studied one and then the other in the spotlight, small gray owls with glaring yellow eyes, then left them hooting defiantly as we walked away.

Back up Pinery Canyon we drove, toward the spruce-fir forest that cloaks the higher elevations of the Chiricahuas. Here in the cool coniferous forests, one may find southern outposts of many northern birds, including our final target species, the Northern Saw-whet Owl. The Saw-whet is another small owl, but it feeds largely upon rodents, and thus is able to survive winters as far north as Canada. In southern Arizona it is limited to the higher mountains, and in some years is not even found. But Bowers had located two territorial birds.

Near the Pinery Campground, we climbed out of the car and listened… to silence. We tried a tape of the Northern Saw-whet, and listened again. Still nothing. Suddenly the high-pitched, monotone piping of the Saw-whet started not far away. We circled the dense fir that seemed to be at the source of the call, trying to find the owl in our spotlight beams. Abruptly the piping note stopped, and when it began again, it was a hundred yards away. Again we moved toward the voice, and again it stopped, to be resumed from a distant grove. We repeated this exercise two more times, then there was a long silence. “It’s okay,” said Bowers. “The bird up at Barfoot Park was more responsive last week, anyway.” So we drove on toward what we hoped would be our last stop of the day.

But it was cold at Barfoot Park. A breeze was coming up. Nothing seemed likely to call there, especially not Saw-whet Owls. We whistled imitations and played tapes, but one distant call was the only response. Finally, reluctantly, we gave up.

Leaving Barfoot and beginning our gradual descent on the long, winding dirt road, we were elated — sort of. Kenn tried to rationalize, “Well, we really did get 11 owl species for the day. And we saw 10 of them. That’s not quite as good as seeing all 11, of course…”

…Of course, our route back toward Tucson took us through Pinery Canyon again. And of course, without exchanging a word, we stopped to give it one more try.

Almost immediately the Saw-whet answered our tape. It was up a steep hillside above the road — a hillside that seemed especially steep now, after our long day. Clambering up the slope, we tried to gauge the distance to the owl, but it continued to sound as if it were just one more tree away. Finally, a hundred yards up the incline, we realized that the owl was in the dense juniper above our heads. But where? Searching frantically with the flashlight, trying to maneuver into position without either scaring the bird away or falling down the hillside, we suddenly had an unobstructed view of the Saw-whet.

Having led us on quite a chase earlier, the bird now seemed content to sit and call in the flashlight beam. Its song never varied: a steady piping with a slight raspy quality, which earlier generations had likened to the strokes of a whetstone sharpening a saw. But to us, as we admired the round-headed little owl, it was a beautiful sound. We were looking at our eleventh owl species for the day, firmly establishing a new record.

Late that night, driving west on the interstate and wishing Tucson weren’t so far from Pinery Canyon, we had the chance to reflect on the day. Rick opened one eye and looked at his watch. “12,” he said. Then he opened both eyes and sat up straight. “Hey! Maybe we could get 12 owls in a day! Usually we’ve got Long-eared Owls nesting somewhere…”

“Right!” said Kenn. “If the Saw-whets are back next year, and the Ferruginous, we could work in the Long-eared and… who knows?”

The Voice of Reason chimed in. “You guys are The Crazies! Aren’t you satisfied with the day we’ve just had?” Of course they weren’t listening. “Okay… when do we go?”

Kenn Kaufman is the author of the Kaufman Guide to Birds of North America and other books about birds. Kate Stenberg does research on the study and management of the wild animals that live within urban environments.