Friday, April 11, 2014

Twelve Year Quest for TBC Long-eared Owl

The 14th Annual Tucson Bird Count takes place April 15 to May 15. Over the last 14 years volunteers have tabulated over half a million individual birds from 248 different species! This data helps towards the goal of making Tucson a more friendly place for birds through improved urban habitat.

For more information on how you can join the fun and adopt a route please visit the TBC info page here to see what routes are available.

Guest post by Brian Nicholas
Long-Eared Owl (Courtesy Paul Suchanek)

The birds were active that Sunday morning in early February after a very light rain fell the day before.  Any rain is good rain in the desert, where conservation is survival, at least for the plants and wildlife.  Paul Suchanek joined me for a day of counting birds for the Tucson Bird Count, a citizen science project now run by the Tucson Audubon Society, which monitors the status of the Tucson area bird community over time.    Our first point count was Castlerock lake, where in five minutes Paul rattled off 23 species as I stood and scribbled names and numbers.  Even for this diverse water habitat 23 species was one of our highest counts.  

Our next count area was the nearby mesquite bosque.   This would be ten minute count in which we would walk through the mesquites and count birds seen and heard.   As we waited to start the clock I mentioned to Paul that there was one bird which had eluded me in this transect in the twelve years I'd been surveying this "park."   It was the mysterious Long-eared Owl.  In fact, I created this transect specifically with this bird in mind, since I had seen it in years past in these very mesquites.  That was over twelve years ago.   In subsequent winters it would be seen sporadically yet never during the Tucson Bird Count (or CBC count day).   I would call it a nemesis, but our relationship was not of hunter and prey, nor as competitors.  Our meetings were a gift to behold whenever seen, and part of the uniqueness was its unpredictability.   It was always a pleasant, unexpected surprise.

Our walk was rewarding as a Ruby-crowned Kinglet chattered, and 3 Western Bluebirds flew overhead.   An Ash-throated Flycatcher, rare in winter, gave out a single syllabled “pop.”  We already had some interesting birds for this woodsy section.   I calmed my usual anticipation as we neared the area where the owl had been seen in past years.  I knew its various perches, but this time wanted to clear my mind of expectations.  "You need to look with fresh eyes," I thought, "as if it's your first time here."  

With this in mind I scanned the vegetation to the right of the trail, where the owl had never been seen.   My eyes came upon a vine tangle which looked a little too solid.  I brought my bins up, focusing on its rich dark brown plumage, then turned to Paul with an excited whisper. "It's here!"   We marveled at how camouflaged it appeared, hiding in plain sight.  This owl has a way of stretching its body upward until it looks just like a thin broken branch.  After finishing the transect we came back over to its location on our way to our next point count.   As we slipped by the branches seemed to open up, and we were treated to an unobstructed view of this wonderfully rare friend. 

This long sought addition to our park count list of birds would also be a first for the Tucson Bird Count!  I was so happy to finally experience the awe of this bird's presence during a TBC.   What are some of your special wildlife experiences?   Thank you for appreciating the incredible diversity of our unique desert habitats. 

Tips on separating Long-eared Owl from the sometimes similar Great Horned Owl.   The Long-eared Owl has a cross-hatched pattern chest pattern, a slimmer build with longer tail (when in camouflaged posture here), and long ear tuffs which are set closer together than on Great Horned.  The Great Horned Owl also has a white bib on the throat.   Note that some Great Horned Owls will appear to have dark cross hatching on the chest.   The dark line which extends vertically through the Long-eared owl’s eye is one of the most reliable field mark for this species.     

Good Birding!

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