Arizona 2015: NIGHT Owling at the Coon Bluff Recreation Site on the Salt River

Though the SE AZ adventure took me an inordinate amount of time to write about and you multiple posts to slog through, the reality is that all of these experiences AND the adventure I’m about to lay before you all transpired in less than 48 hours time.  Intense doesn’t even begin to describe it.  Typical stories have rising action reaching a climax and then giving way to falling action.  That’s not what happened–we redefined the plot diagram. Each thrill one-upped its predecessor.  So without further adieu, here is the exciting and jaw-dropping finish to the day that began with an Elegant Trogon lifer.

After a leisurely, sight-seeing drive from Green Valley on April 1st, my family and I made it back to Maricopa around 4:00.  Since Evan, Dad, and I were going owling late that evening with Tommy DeBardeleben, the girls of the group (Melissa, Marin, Mom) decided to make it a girls night and see some princess-something-or-other movie.  Perfect.  Once back at the Maricopa house, the gender-segregated groups went to their respective destinations immediately.

I wanted to get to the Coon Bluff Recreation Site on the Salt River before dark anyhow as I was hoping to pull out a couple more lifers.  Mainly I had a gaping Phoebe-hole in my list–the Black Phoebe, which is best Phoebe of all.  As we waited for Tommy near the Coon Bluff entrance, we soaked up the last rays and views of an incredible day that began in Madera Canyon.

Coon Bluff

Cactus Wrens, despite sounding like a motor that won’t start, have motors that are always running as they could be constantly heard throughout the desert.

Cactus WrenBut no bird dominates the desert habitat near Coon Bluff like the Phainopepla.  Try to not see one if you go to Coon Bluff.

PhainopeplaOnce Tommy arrived, we all went down to the mesquite-bosque near the river to look for some of our pre-dusk targets.

Coon Bluff mesquite bosque

Right away we saw some Vermilion Flycatchers and encountered two Ladder-backed Woodpeckers.  The Ladder-backed was a lifer for Evan.  The Woodpeckers of Arizona were generally an unfriendly lot to us, snubbing photo attempts and giving poor looks in general.

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Once we got next to the Salt River itself, Tommy found us a couple of our Black Phoebe targets.  The tail-bobbing and water’s-edge perching behavior was gratifyingly reminiscent of our lone Phoebe species back East.

Black Phoebe

Shortly after this, Tommy found Evan a Lucy’s Warbler lifer.

Lucy's Warbler

But after that tidy-lifering, it was time to head out to the entrance road and wait for darkness to fall.

Tommy EvannnnnDarkness and owl hoots weren’t the only thing we were waiting for–bird blogger Laurence Butler of the famed Butler’s Birds was set to join us for some nighttime owl escapades.  Whenever a herd of bird nerds gathers, especially of the blogging variety, there is bound to be magic.  Tonight was no exception.  In fact, once we were all together and started walking the road pictured above in the twilight, Laurence got the night off to the right start by spotting a Great Horned Owl atop a Saguaro.

Great Horned Owl Cactus

As we walked along, the nighttime sounds were immediate, omnipresent, and subtle to the untrained owler {me}.  Common Poorwills could be heard, and one gave us our life look as it buzzed our heads.  Western Screech-Owls proved to be a frustrating lot as we would hear one and head in its direction only to have it mock us by suddenly shutting up.  We’d give up and walk away and later hear it back in the same location.  This scene replayed many times with different Western Screech-Owls.

Giving up on WESO, Tommy was now hunting Elf Owls.  It didn’t take him long to hear one of the tiny guys barking.  The hunt was on.  Tommy had the Elf confined to a large mesquite tree.  Flashlights were immediately bathing the tree from all directions.  Then, Tommy called out that he spotted it! As I was heading toward him, Laurence called out that he too had it from the other side with an unobstructed view!  So I headed over to Laurence.  Nice guy that he is, he waited to take his own pictures and held up the light so I could get my life look and photograph of the Elf Owl.  Too bad I was a nighttime-owling novice and blew this gift by not using flash!  I distinctly remember watching the yellow blur of the eyes through the viewfinder as it swiveled its head at the last second.  And then it flushed further into the tree disappearing altogether.

Elf Owl

So now the hunt was on again for the 6 in. owl in the large tree.  I may have thrown away an incredible photographic opportunity, but I somewhat made up for it by making my only contribution to the owl efforts that night as I refound the sparrow-sized Elf buried deep in the branches.

Elf Owl

Elf Owl

This Elf Owl never did give us any more good lucks, though Laurence found and crushed a second bird in a different location.  At least Evan was with him and got good looks at that bird.  With crush in hand, the punctual Laurence departed from us at his preordained time.  This decision was both foolish and sacrificial, for whenever one leaves a birding party prematurely, it all but guarantees that greatness will happen for those who persevere.  And indeed, that is exactly what happened.

Dad and Evan decided to rest back at the van in the parking lot while Tommy and I were going to take one more crack at the owls.  With just the two of us, we could haul and cover a lot of ground quickly.  It turns out that covering lots of ground was not necessary since we once again had a calling Western Screech-Owl.  We set after it immediately.  The sound was subtle and quiet to me, so I was baffled when Tommy said it was really close.  I thought for sure it was a long way off.  However, we heard it in front of us, walked a short distance, and then heard it behind us!  We now had the Screech confined to one tree!  We shined our lights on the tree and in seconds Tommy hollered, “Josh! I got it!”

There, there on a branch in the middle of the tree with nothing blocking our view was the amazing Western Screech-Owl!  It was stunning.

Western Screech-Owl

Western Screech-Owl

Western Screech-Owl

After we each got several nice photographs, it dawned on me that this Owl was very content.  So I left Tommy to go back and get Dad and Evan so they could see this cool bird too.  Though in my excitement and in the darkness, I ran up to the wrong van.  Thankful to not be shot by the camping inhabitants or see the goings-on behind the blanket curtain that hung from the open lift-gate, I collected myself enough to find the correct van.  After startling my dad awake and hopping in, we punched it to get back to Tommy.

I needn’t have hurried because the Screech was exactly as I left him, and Evan and Dad got great looks at their lifer too.  Then, inspired by Tommy, the only birder I’ve heard of taking selfies with birds, hilarity ensued as we each found ourselves posing with the Owl.  Intoxicated with some good owling luck as well the thrill that comes from good, clean fun selfie antics, we could not stop laughing.Josh owl selfieObviously, Tommy is much more experienced at this, and therefore much better at the bird selfies than I.  One thing I have learned from Tommy is the importance of having fun while doing this hobby.  It is clear that I still have much to learn this owl Jedi.

Tommy selfie owl

By this point we had completely lost our minds and were attempting the GREATEST OWL SELFIE OF ALL TIME–both of us posing together directly underneath the bird.  Maybe it was the giggles, maybe it was that we didn’t have a mint, or maybe it was that the owl was just fed up with the freak show because it left just as we were almost in position.  Oh well. It was still the coolest and most hilarious owling I’ve ever experienced.  And I’ve owled a LOT.

Finally it was time to go.  We said our goodbyes to Tommy until we have a frosty reunion Up North next winter.  Then we headed back to my parents’ place in Maricopa for a much-needed night of sleep after an Elegant Trogon lifer at dawn and wild Western-Screech party well after dusk.

Evan sleeping

I long to return to the desert for more nightime owling.  Next time, though, I’ll be prepared with a better flashlight, a well-rehearsed selfie pose, and my leather boots…


It was an unforgettable night with Evan, Dad, Laurence, and Tommy.   We padded the life list with a few more birds which pushed Evan up and over the big 300.  More importantly we had a lot of fun doing it.  Oh, and if you’re feeling sorry for Laurence for missing the big party at the end, don’t.  Our WESO shots gnawed at him enough to get him back out there for a second and very successful photo shoot.

The 2015 Arizona series has eight chapters: 1) Maricopa Birds, 2) Mt. Lemmon, 3) Florida Canyon, 4) Madera Canyon Part 1, 5) Madera Canyon Part 2, 6) Evan’s Big Discovery, 7) Owling at Coon Bluff on the Salt River, and 8) Evan’s Nemesis.

14 thoughts on “Arizona 2015: NIGHT Owling at the Coon Bluff Recreation Site on the Salt River

  1. Phew…That was still painful to see at the end, even though I have no reason for sour grapes.
    I think I’m going to try taping plastic bags around my shoes next time. Even my hiking boots, worn the second go-around, were far from impervious.

    Congratulations on everything Josh, too much to recount here. All that’s left is a trip to Disneyland to celebrate I guess? Or maybe the Everglades…

    • Perhaps the pain came not from the owls themselves but from missing the wild party at the end that was not that unlike the crazy ornithologist parties of the Roaring 20s.

      I like how you think, Laurence, on that celebration tour. Every dad wrestles with how to get his kids to Disney World at some point–my problem is twofold as I must also find time on said trip to nab FL birds.

  2. Great post and Photos Mr. Jaosh!!! Don’t feel bad, I am not even near the top 100 bird-selfie list for AZ. That photo of your shoe made me laugh!In the last month I have not been able to bird my patch without having a shoe and sock full of those nasty grass seeds!

    • You and I both have much to aspire to in the bird-selfie department, Caleb; Tommy sets the bar high.

      I’m totally bringing my Army boots next trip; I don’t even care what they displace from my carry-on.

  3. 1. I need to go out West.

    2. I need to try this “meeting other birders” thing. It clashes with one of my main reasons to go birding, but it sure looks like fun.

    3. Hey, let me know if you’d ever like a guided tour of the Coon Rapids Dam Regional Park (Hennepin County side only until July 31, though I guess I could drive over there for a special occasion: just don’t expect me to know about much). We’ve got a Great Blue Heron Rookery, and the following breeding birds (*=probable, ^=nearby):
    Canada Goose, Mallard
    Ring-Necked Pheasant, Wild Turkey
    Great Egret*, Green Heron*
    Osprey, Bald Eagle^
    Cooper’s Hawk*, Broad-winged Hawk*, Red-tailed Hawk^
    Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove
    Eastern Screech-Owl*, Great Horned Owl*, Barred Owl*,
    Chimney Swift*, Ruby-throated Hummingbird*, Belted Kingfisher
    Red-bellied, Downy, Hairy, and Pileated Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers*
    Eastern Wood-Pewee*, Eastern Phoebe, Great-crested Flycatcher*, Eastern Kingbird*
    Blue Jay, American Crow*
    Tree, Northern Rough-winged, Bank, Barn, and Cliff Swallows
    Black-capped Chickadee, White-breasted Nuthatch*, House Wren
    Eastern Bluebird, American Robin, Gray Catbird
    European Starling, Cedar Waxwing
    Ovenbird*, Blue-winged Warbler*, Yellow Warbler, American Redstart, Common Yellowthroat
    Chipping, Clay-colored*, Song, Swamp*, and House Sparrows
    Northern Cardinal, Rose-breasted Grosbeak
    Red-winged Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, Baltimore Oriole
    House Finch, American Goldfinch

    In spring and fall, many Ducks, Warblers, Sparrows, Thrushes (all but Wood), Grebes (all but Western) migrate through in turn.
    Winters feature Common Goldeneyes, Common Mergansers, and American Tree Sparrows (plus a few wiley Northern Shrike). Plus, the Owls are easier to see.
    In late summer, there are high numbers of Ring-billed Gulls with a few Herrings scattered throughout to really get some good Larid practice.

    Sorry if that’s not enticing. The really cool birds here are either ephemeral (Long-tailed Duck, Prothonotary Warbler), common elsewhere and just as ephemeral (Snipe, Woodcock, Rough-legged Hawk, Rusty Blackbird), or uncountable (feral Swan Goose).

    • 1. Make haste.

      2. Even the most misanthropic enjoy the company of other birders from time to time. Plus, you learn a lot by birding with more experienced/skilled birders.

      3. I have been impressed with your birding patch fidelity. If you eBird, your data could be valuable for future birders. If you get a Surf Scoter, Black Scoter, Barrow’s Goldeneye, or mature drake Harlequin, I’ll be there in a heartbeat. I’m also looking for an easy Barred this winter for a couple AZ guys. Are you moving on to greener, birdier pastures after July?

      • 1. Working on a trip to Alaska to visit my sister. Just me, not the wife or kids.
        2. I’ve found a need to show off my impressive ID abilities, and nonchalance about species others get excited about (PIWO, YRWA). Pathetic in retrospect; I’m not in Junior High anymore.

        3. I’m not moving, that’s when the walkway over the Dam reopens. Right now, I pretty much stick to the Hennepin County side of the River. After that date, my patch doubles in size. It would have been nice to have it open for the LTDU, and duck migration in general, but that gives me something to look forward to next year. I’ll also have some sortof new habitats to check out (non-river-bottom woods and grasslands). I’ve seen Indigo Buntings regularly over there in midsummer, but only rarely and during migration on my side of the River. (And driving over there requires me to pay for parking.)

        I’ll try to find a regular BADO next winter with your Arizona friends in mind. I see them about a third of the time I pass through the park during that season, but rarely in the same place. I hear them often in late August into September, but they’re hard to spot, and I rarely chase after them.

        I just found a probable GRHE nest from last year, and I saw a COHA yesterday and this morning near what I suspected was last year’s nest. My reading suggests that both build new nests, though the COHA might just add to old nests.

        • Alaska AND no family? Dude, you better get some hardcore birding in and bring home some key lifers.

          It sounds like a good patch. Seriously, find some sea ducks this upcoming fall/winter. I may have to get Barred Owl at Ft. Snelling State Park–they seem to be a fixture there, and it’s much closer to the airport.

          • I’ll have my sister’s kids.
            I’ve gotten most of the easy lifers when I was up there last time (10 years ago):
            Puffins, Kittiwake, Glaucous-winged Gulls, Turnstones, Oystercatchers, Harlequin Ducks, Cormorants, Rufous Hummer, Steller’s Jay, Magpie, Raven, Guillemot, maybe an Auklet? I wasn’t paying quite enough attention then (a 22-month old, a pregnant wife, and my sister’s wedding), and right now I can’t really remember what I only saw at the Sea Life Center.
            I’ll have to look for finches, shorebirds, and pay more attention to gulls.
            Plus, I’ll be pretty much restricted to the area between Anchorage and Seward, and then maybe branching out around Seward.

            I think your request list has cursed me to find a White-winged Scoter this year.
            (The one that wouldn’t be a lifer for me, either!)

          • It’s so kind of our relatives to move to great birding locales–much easier to justify trips!

            I know a White-winged Scoter would be brutal, but hopefully you can make the most of it.

  4. Awesome post Josh! It was a blast showing you those owls and showing you the Screech well, well enough for a selfie to take place!

    It was an awesome and hilarious experience and I’m glad I was a part of it!

    • I think we went past the maximum threshold for allowable fun while birding. Crusty, serious birders would definitely not approve.

      The memory of the fun will long outlive the memory of seeing just another bird. Thanks for the good times…and the owls!

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