Owl’s about that then?

24 06 2012

Western Screech Owl – Kelly Whitney

It seems like I just couldn’t get away from owls in California. One evening whilst just going on an aimless evening stroll around the neighborhood we stumbled upon a group of people staring intently up into a group of trees. Sure enough they had found not just an owl but a little family of recently fledged owls of the Western Screech variety.  Whilst the parents busied themselves fetching an almost constant stream of food the little ones sat around on branches chirruping and tooting their little hearts out, whilst every now and then clumsily flapping their way from one perch to another. At one point one of the little guys seemed to bounce off of a stationary car on it’s way to the next perch but was seemingly no worse for wear.

While we were waiting a local birder showed up and took a few shots of the owls (see the above evidence) and she also put up a post on her own blog with lots of other cute pictures of both the babies and the parents. You can check out more of her excellent pictures on the Rogue Woman blog (hit the link here). We also ran into a couple of other local birders and shared a fun half an hour chatting and enjoying the owls. A fun and unexpected end to an evening stroll.

That evening we’d also run into Nancy Strang who had somehow recognized Catherine and I through our ebird posts. Thanks to that maybe, and also some contact with Lance Benner via email about our Northern Pygmy Owl at Chilao, we ended up finding ourselves being invited to spend an evening owling in the San Gabriels with the two of them as Lance did some scouting for a Pasadena Audubon owl trip.

Allen’s Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

We started the evening at the base of the Los Angeles Crest Highway. Just to prove that the world of birding is a small one, we ended up car-pooling with Dick Norton, the brother of renowned Connecticut and Rhode Island birder Fred Norton. Catherine and I had both birded independently with Fred in years past , so it was cool to run into his brother out here.

We started off the evening checking the Chilao camp ground looking for the Pygmy Owl that we had found the week before, but it being a weekend the campground was buzzing with human activity and there was no sign of the owl, not a great start to the evening. The Black-chinned Sparrows a small consolation for some I guess, but Catherine and I had already had good looks at them the week before.

As with all the stops (it was a scouting mission after all) we cut our losses quickly and headed onwards to see if we could be more successful somewhere else. Another stop further along the highway found us stopping to connect with our first calling Common Poorwills and excitingly our first Flammulated Owl, which was calling softly somewhere from a steep slope at a roadside pulloff. The voice of the Flam is surprisingly low for a teeny tiny owl (listen here) and it like many nocturnal birds is a great ventriloquist.

Happy hearing our first Flams we moved on quickly in order to try to connect with a rare Mexican Whip-poor-will that has shows up fairly regularly in the San Gabriels. The idea was to try and hear the bird at a time it had been heard vocalizing on previous nights. We arrived and had soon tuned our ears into the calling Whip. Although down a steep slope and possibly some distance away we managed to hear it pretty well between wind gusts, and Lance even managed to record the bird on his shotgun microphone (listen to the evenings recording here).

Two heard only lifers on the evening – definitely nothing to sniff at! We weren’t done there though. Another stop provided us with great looks at a Common Poorwill. I picked up the bird lifting up over the ridge line and flying across the road and its little call note was immediately identified by Lance. Some great flashlight co-ordination from the group soon had us getting extensive and rewarding looks at this neat goatsucker!

California Quail – Luke Tiller

Other stops gave us more time to appreciate the first Flammulated Owl and hear a second and maybe a third as they duetted – although we never quite could find the birds as they sang a few hundred yards up a rather dangerous looking slope from us. We had discussed hiking up slope to try and visually locate the owls, but it all looked somewhat precarious and I think everyone was happy to settle for just enjoying hearing these neat little birds.

A final stop also produced a rather unexpected Northern Saw-whet Owl that although at some times was probably only singing a few yards from us was never actually visible to anyone in the group.  The bird had apparently been around in the area since April but hadn’t been located for a couple of months so its reappearance was some thing of a surprise. A couple of people also heard a Great Horned Owl at the same spot, which would have rounded out the evening nicely, but I personally missed hearing it.

A great evening out for Catherine and myself with Nancy, Lance, Dick, John Garret and Darren Dowell. Thanks to Lance for inviting us to join him. I’d recommend joining Lance on his tour with Pasadena Audubon Society but it sounds like he has about 20 people already on his standby list. Still worth joining the club if you are in the area, nice people and skilled tour leaders if this evening was anything to go by (club field trips here).

Los Angeles, I’m yours.

10 06 2012

San Gabriel Mountains – Chilao

After a long and productive season over at Braddock Bay I decided to take a couple of weeks off and head for Sunny California. Considering my aversion to shorts possibly an interesting choice for June, but when you get the opportunity to go pick up some life birds and have the offer of room and board in the L.A region a little sun isn’t going to get in the way.

Of course most people don’t really associate L.A County as a birding hotspot, but beyond the fake punks on Melrose and the fake boobs of Hollywood there are some areas of incredible natural beauty (there was a nice article about birding recently that was doing the rounds on L.A birding and includes the spot that is nestled just two minutes walk from my current residence: Eaton Canyon). My favorite spots so far have been up in the San Gabriel Mountains. Although the sun is somewhat relentless the temperatures are actually quite pleasantly bearable and get even better if you hang on into the evenings for owls and other goodies.

Steller’s Jay – Luke Tiller

The mountain stops we explored range from 4-7000 feet above sea level and this means a slew of cool montagne specialties including Steller’s Jays, White-headed Woodpeckers and Mountain Quail. Talking to most of my friends it seems that there is currently some discussion as to whether Mountain Quail really exist or are the figment of west coast birders imagination. I can now, however, happily confirm thanks to the sharp eyes of my host Catherine Hamilton that they do exist, but only like you to see their backside as they disappear up a valley escarpment, a better view desired at some point before I head east.

Seeing as they have always been my favorite group of birds, it has been fun to discover that there are plenty of sparrows to keep me entertained up in the mountains. These include potential splits, interesting subspecies conundrums and just the totally cool looking. Favorites so far have included ‘Thick-billed’ Fox Sparrows, birds that exhibit features consistent with both coastal and interior type Sage Sparrows, Green-tailed Towhee and best of all a little pocket of breeding Black-chinned’s. Future trips beyond the mountains promise Belding’s and Large-billed Savannah Sparrows as well as Abert’s Towhees as possible Emberizine highlights.

Black-chinned Sparrow

Friday night was nocturnal bird night up in the San Gabriel Mountains. After stopping off to enjoy some of the previously encountered species Catherine and I hung around until dusk to pick up a lazily tooting but rather uncooperative Northern Pygmy Owl at Chilao Camp Ground. Further stops further up the mountains produced good numbers of Common Poorwills (listen here) but not much else. As we were about to hightail it out of there (after a brief stop at Mt. Wilson Observatory to marvel at the lights of L.A) we hit pay dirt with at least two very cooperative Western-Screech Owls that both sang (voice here) and put in a couple of appearances and a couple of extremely rare Spotted Owls that sang gloriously from the valley below us (like a confused Barred Owl). I have loved mountain owling after my first experience of it in Colorado looking for Boreal Owl. There is something kind of magical about that whole mountains at night thing!

Anyway after a rather poor success rate early in the evening we had done rather nicely over all. Still, there are reports of Mexican Whip-poor-will and Flammulated Owl to follow up on I guess we are just going to have to go back again – it’s a tough life 😉

White-headed Woodpecker