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Owl Prowl

June 24, 2010

Full moon nights in springtime are an opportunity for one of our favorite activities – an “owl prowl”. Five species of small owls nest in the nearby Huachuca Mountains and an evening spent watching and listening as they proclaim their territories and attract a mate is a wonderful experience. There’s something magical and mysterious about owls, they are so supremely adapted to the night where we feel so out of place. Even in broad daylight an exposed owl can be hard to see, their bark-patterned camouflage is so perfect. At night they seem invisible but they are easily heard. We choose not to use taped calls to avoid unduly stressing the nesting pairs with a pitch-perfect rival, but will sometimes call softly to the owls to elicit a response. Even if we don’t see any owls, an evening spent listening to the night sounds of owls, poorwills and coyotes is an evening well-spent.

For the last several years we have been visiting each spring with a pair of Elf Owls, the smallest owls in the world. These little House Sparrow-sized owls have set up housekeeping in a cavity probably excavated by an Acorn Woodpecker high in an old sycamore stump. Every evening at dusk the female can be heard softly calling to the nearby male. The call is a high pitched chuckle, not at all the hoot that we associate with owls. Eventually the male will fly in from his nearby roost in a live oak and the “changing of the guard” ceremony will proceed. He takes his place in the nest cavity while the female flies out to stretch her wings and begin the night’s hunting. Depending on the stage of the nest, they will share hunting duties throughout the night bringing moths, crickets and other invertebrates to the nestlings in the cavity. We once saw a 4 inch owl proudly carry a 6 inch desert centipede to an exposed perch near the nesting cavity.

Dead snags are an important, but impermanent feature of the landscape and this year a spring storm toppled the tree occupied by our most familiar Elf Owl pair. We were relieved to hear the pair nearby calling loudly to each other the following weekend. Thankfully, it was early in the nesting season and plenty of time remained to find a new cavity among the myriad of abandoned woodpecker nests. It may take us a few visits to find the new address of our old friends but that’s just one more excuse for a moonlight walk in the woods.

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