The AZ FEPO Search: Boots on the Ground

For some time it has been a goal of mine to see all 19 regular species of Owls that reside in the U.S.  Getting the Boreal Owl this past January was a dream come true in itself and put me within one Owl of reaching my goal, with the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl being the holdout. FEPO can be notched relatively easily if you’re willing to pay a hefty fee and travel to the King Ranch in south Texas. And I was. Our family had planned to take a very large cross-country road trip this summer, and my plan was to hit up King Ranch on the journey. Plans changed though. It’s funny how owning two houses for nearly a year with no end in sight will do that.

Eventually sweet relief came in the housing situation in March, but it was too late to resurrect any mega road trip plans. I did start talking to my buddy Tommy DeBardeleben, though, about trying to recreate his AZ FEPO magic from 2016. FEPOs are resident in small numbers at Organ Pipe National Monument along the U.S./Mexican border. They are very tough to come by there, but Tommy and others have proved it is indeed possible.  Success would be even sweeter in AZ considering I’d be with Tommy who’s helped me get so many other Owl lifers.  After discussing the decision with “Screw Texas” Tommy and cajoling my buddy Steve Gardner into making the trip with me, plans were set for a fast weekend trip in mid-April.

April unleashed some of the worst winter weather we’d seen with blizzard after blizzard pummeling us. The MN forecast for our AZ weekend was grim. Steve and I planned to leave Friday after work, and all day long we wondered if we’d make it out of the state. Getting to the airport was sketchy. The temp was hovering right at freezing, causing the road to quickly become ice-covered from the snow/rain which slowed us down. The main thrust of the storm would start that night after we were scheduled to take off. And it was forecast to be a doozy–lots of snow, lots of wind, lots of closures.  We finally made it to the airport and as we waited for the flight, Steve and I distracted ourselves from the possibility of a canceled flight by keeping up with the latest bird happenings on FB. One really caught our eye–a Fan-tailed Warbler was just reported in the Chiricahuas in SE AZ. Steve and I had never even heard of this Mexican Warbler before the posting. It was interesting, but we were focused on the Owl prize. Besides, a Warbler could quickly disappear…

Steve and I were relieved to actually get on the plane (the airport was predicted to be shut down sometime in the night and all the next day).  Getting the plane off the ground was another story. We sat on the tarmac for a long time.

airplane wing

Shortly after we de-iced, we got word that we couldn’t take off until the rain turned to snow, which was frustrating since the rain had been snow when we got on the plane. The possibility of this trip getting nixed was growing. There would be no flight out on Saturday.  Finally, though, the Captain gave the good word and we were in the sky only one hour behind schedule.

The Parents extended their snowbirding long enough (smartly) to not only avoid the lingering MN winter but to also be there to pick us up from the airport, be home base for the excursion, and lend us a vehicle. Thanks Mom and Dad!  Late that night we rendezvoused with Tommy at their house.  There was time for a 3-hour “nap” before our morning alarms would wake us for our 2-hour drive south.

Exhausted as we were, we made it to Organ Pipe. It was FEPO time. Alamo Canyon, Organ Pipe National MonumentOwls aside, I think Steve and I were just enjoying not being in a blizzard. Our sympathies for our families back home were quickly eclipsed by the beautiful weather we were enjoying. We picked a great weekend to be in southern Arizona.

Expectations for FEPO or any new lifers were low as we began the hike up Alamo Canyon. I mistakenly thought I might get one new non-FEPO lifer in Organ Pipe.  Shortly into the hike Tommy announced the presence of a Pacific-slope Flycatcher. Thankfully he did not announce the presence of a smuggler, though anyone smuggling in a load of Mexican FEPOs would have been met with open arms.

smuggle sign

As we continued our FEPOless, smugglerless hike up Alamo Canyon, we notched a heard only MacGillivray’s Warbler lifer. I totally forgot about the fact that we’d be in Arizona during migration. What else might we find? Well, a Gray Vireo was certainly not on my radar but was now on my life list. It was great to see one, but I was kinda saving that one for Janet Witzeman to show me–eventually I’ll blog about that backstory.

Gray VireoNot long after the Gray Vireo fun it was time to head back down canyon sans FEPO. A petty consolation came in the form of another Vireo lifer we missed on the way up, one of the Cassin’s variety.

Cassin's Vireo

Back at the trailhead for Alamo Canyon, we paused to figure out what was next. FEPO searching in the heat of the day is pretty useless, and the Organ Pipe area really held nothing for us (especially after the bonus lifers).  We’d have to travel a significant distance if we wanted to get in some more good birding. We landed on going to Madera Canyon to Owl at night. This was not a deviation from the original FEPO plans; one of the carrots to make the trip appealing to Steve was to do some other Owling as well. He could potentially rack up several Owl lifers in one night.  FEPO searching would resume Sunday night and Monday morning since we would spend Saturday night somewhere near Madera.

By the time we left Organ Pipe, the morning was still quite young, so we had plenty of time to do some daylight birding before the night Owling.  With mindset properly switched, I was ready for some great SE AZ action during the FEPO break. A couple notables on the drive, such as Prairie Falcons and a Crested Caracara, only amped up the excitement.  Our first stop was the famed Santa Gertrudis Lane. Several high-profile birds had been there of late, such as Sinaloa Wren and some Rufous-backed Robins.  As we walked to the Wren spot marked by a weird plastic tricycle from last century, we picked up another couple lifers, flyover Gray Hawks and a confiding pair of Dusky-capped Flycatchers. I was struck by its petite size compared to other Myiarchus species and surprised at how much I enjoyed this lifer.

Dusky-capped Flycatcher

We missed the Wren despite a solid effort, and we nearly missed the Robins too. As we were hiking out, we met a group of birders and traded intel. We had bad news for them; they had good news for us. They had seen three Robins where we had walked by! The nice guy even guided us right to them. I don’t think we ever would have found these Thrush statues without his help. This was a good moment, vindication for a failed attempt in January.

Rufous-backed RobinRufous-backed Robin

After Santa Gertrudis it was on to the De Anza Trail at Tubac to look for some Rose-throated Becards. We were all going in blind. We didn’t really know where to look in the towering Cottonwoods. Like the Wren, it was a bust. We did walk away with more Gray Hawk sightings, however brief due to the limited sky windows in the canopy. A juvenile did provide one quick photo op.

Gray HawkBy this point in the afternoon, it was time we made our way to Madera Canyon. Not wanting to waste any burning daylight, we squeezed out every minute stopping briefly at Florida Canyon for Rufous-capped Warbler for Steve and Black-capped Gnatcatcher for both of us. Nada on those, but the effort was minimal.  At least a Black-throated Gray Warbler was an nice lifer bonus for Steve. Next up was a stop at Proctor Road to try one more time for the Gnatcatcher. We did find a Gnatcatcher that was more Black-capped-like that Black-tailed, but the waning daylight and the bird’s fidgety behavior did not allow us to clinch the key field marks for an ID beyond a reasonable doubt. The regularity of this species makes it highly likely that it will eventually land on my list, just not this day.

With darkness settling in, it was time for the night show in Madera Canyon proper. Almost immediately we heard the barking of Elf Owls. It was a lifer for Steve and a sought-after Owl do-over for me. My lifer sighting a few years ago was brief and poor. I had wanted a better photo (that showed eyeballs) of this Owl for some time. Finally.

Elf OwlElf OwlElf OwlAfter enjoying the Elf show for some time, we Owled on for Steve. Lofty plans of looking for Whiskered Screech, Flam, and Spotted Owls collided with the reality of our extreme fatigue. We mustered enough energy to look for the easiest of those, the Whiskered Screech. Only one uncooperative bird was enough for us to be successful, but the brevity of the observation left a lot to be desired. But at this point, all we really desired was sleep. We drove on to Sierra Vista to spend the night so we could look for some reported Montezuma Quail at Ash Canyon B&B early the next morning.  Then it would be back to Organ Pipe to resume FEPO searching, or so we thought…

Arizona 2016: THE Trip Bird–#16 Becomes #1

Since my parents have become AZ snowbirds, our family has now made four trips to Arizona.  Each trip has had its own life bird goals or priorities.  Each time the target bird(s) have been realized along with a generous complement of bonus lifers.  Here’s a quick recap of those priority birds:

2014: Burrowing Owl, Vermilion Flycatcher, Cinnamon Teal

2015 (spring): Elegant Trogon and Painted Redstart

2015 (fall): Rufous-capped Warbler

So then what was the trip bird for this most recent Arizona adventure? It was an Owl, but before I tell you which one, it is worth noting that each Arizona trip has already produced multiple Owl lifers:

2014: Burrowing Owl, Long-eared Owl

2015 (spring): Elf Owl, Western Screech-Owl

2015 (fall): Northern Pygmy-Owl, Barn Owl, Spotted Owl

So what’s left in the Owl department? A few actually, but the only one I was after on this latest trip was the Whiskered Screech-Owl. It would be this trip’s most-wanted bird.

It is no coincidence that my Owl collecting started accelerating after I first met and birded with Tommy DeBardeleben in 2015.  Tommy of Tommy’s Owl Big Year (TOBY) fame is the reason why I have a pretty sweet collection of Owls.  Just like how you can never leave Grandma’s house hungry, Tommy has made sure I’ve never left Arizona feeling an Owl void.  No, he has made sure I have always gotten a good helping of a fresh Owl or two or three.  This past year our roles were reversed as I got to help Tommy find some Owls in Minnesota for TOBY, but now it was back to Tommy taking the lead once again in the storied Madera Canyon as we pursued my 16th Owl lifer.

img_0797

On the evening of October 19th, Dad and I drove out from our hotel in Green Valley to Madera Canyon to meet Tommy who was accompanied by another good birding friend, Gordon Karre.  Gordon, Tommy, and I have owled together many times all the way from the Canadian border down to the Mexican border. We’ve driven hundreds of miles together (3.6 of those were even in reverse!). We have logged an extraordinary number of Owls together from well over a dozen different species.  And here we were doing it once again.

As we waited for darkness to settle over Madera, we hung out for a bit at the feeders at Santa Rita Lodge, watching some Magnificent Hummingbirds and chatting with a birding couple from Tennessee.  With plenty of time to kill, we also successfully pursued a Rufous-winged Sparrow lifer.  Finally, though, complete darkness had fallen and it was time to go to work.  Tommy had assured me that Whiskered Screech-Owls are easy in Madera, but there was one catch: Tommy had only ever tried for them in the spring when Owls are more vocal.  Going after these birds in October was uncharted territory for Tommy. Yet, he was confident that even if the Owls were silent, we might be able to rouse them with some playback.

It turns out that the Owls were still fairly vocal.  Almost immediately when it turned dark, we started hearing some in the distance. But as we would pursue them, they would clam up.  Then the silence would hang on, which initiated the doubt-worry cycle about whether the night would be a success.  Tommy was unfazed, though, and has a lot of experience to draw from.  He owled on and kept the flashlight moving even when it seemed bleak.  Turns out the worry in my head was for nothing because shortly after we walked in the direction of a vocalizing Whiskered Screech-Owl, one landed in a tree right near us! But it must have been hunting and wouldn’t look at us…

img_0369As we crept along the canyon hillside to get in a better position to see the Owl’s face, it suddenly flew off! We could not find it again.  The satisfaction of getting the lifer was muted by the Owl showing us his bad side and only briefly at that. Would this be my lifer sighting–the side view of a bird?  The discouragement was returning the longer we weren’t finding it.  Again, Tommy never panicked or wavered; he just kept that flashlight moving. And then I heard him say those awesome words that I have heard him say so many times before, “Hey, Josh!”

Whiskered Screech-OwlThis, this is what I had been waiting/hoping for.  Tommy did it.

Whiskered Screech-OwlThis Owl was very cooperative (finally) and just let us enjoy the show.Whiskered Screech-OwlWhiskered Screech-OwlMaybe I had it backwards. Maybe it was the Owl who was enjoying the show of four happy birders who had just succeeded on their mission.

Eventually the Owl started to tire of us, perhaps even getting downright annoyed/angry with us.

Whiskered Screech-OwlWhiskered Screech-Owl

It was time to leave this Owl alone. We had gotten our fill.  So with one last look, we were on our way.

Whiskered Screech-OwlAt this point Dad went back to the car on account of a knee that was giving him fits. Gordon, Tommy, and I decided we would try for more Whiskered Screeches.  Why not?

As the three of us walked along, we heard a strange vocalization that Tommy couldn’t identify.  Earlier my dad had heard the same thing and thought it was a Whiskered Screech, but Tommy had said he hadn’t heard them make a sound like that. Eventually Tommy tracked down the source of the sound–a young Whiskered Screech high above us!

Whiskered Screech-OwlHearing this vocalization was an exciting learning experience for Tommy.  It wasn’t as cool as the Morse-code calling we heard the adult make earlier, but it was still pretty neat regardless. Have a listen for yourself:

Finally it was time to call it a night and call it a trip (birdwise, that is). Once again, the Arizona birding was a huge success with Owl lifer #16 officially on the books all thanks to this guy.

Tommy Dad GordonTwo Owl lifers remain for me in Arizona. The question is not whether Tommy can help find them, but rather, will it happen in 2017? Time will tell.