At some time of another, most birders have a “nemesis bird”—that species you really want to see but you always seem to show up a minute too late. Or you show up in the wrong spot. Or you hear, “We always get that bird on this trip; I don’t know why it’s not here now!”
I’ve come to realize that I don’t just have a nemesis species—I have a nemesis family! For some reason, I have an extraordinarily hard time finding owls.
Part of the reason is that I’m just not a night person. I typically get up rather early—between five and six in the morning—so it’s very hard to stay up late, too. But in the winter, with days so short, owls are up and out by dinner time. So that’s not really a good excuse.
Another possibility is that owls are just hard to see. While all my non-birding friends think I’m amazingly observant, my birding buddies know me as the one going, “Where is it again? Which tree? It’s in plain view? I can’t find it!”
With skills like that, owls pose a particular challenge. I’ve been told that the best way to spot owls is to look at trees, and then look closer at anything that doesn’t look quite like a branch. Doing this, I’ve spotted trapped balloons, plastic grocery bags, and thousands of squirrels, but no owls.
Then there are all the trips to places where everyone always sees owls. With visions of success, I optimistically sign up for any and every field trip promising owl sightings. Would you believe that after fifteen consecutive years of Western Screech Owls, the year I joined the trip to Pawnee Buttes we didn’t hear so much as a hoot.
On a trip to Arizona in 2009, I spent forty-five minutes staring at a hole in a telephone pole in Madera Canyon, waiting for the evening emergence of the Elf Owl that everyone assured me was in there. We could hear others calling nearby, so I had my hopes up. And then, somehow, I managed to blink right at the exact second it popped out and immediately took flight. Gone. I missed it.
I even agreed to go camping at 7,800 feet in the middle of winter, just so I could finally hear (much less see) one of several possible mountain owl species. After hours of tramping off trail through thigh-high snow in 11° darkness, playing recordings, and holding still to listen until I was shivering so hard that I couldn’t have heard anything over the swishing of my nylon snow pants, we had tallied exactly zero owl calls. I apologized.
What all this boils down to is that I have a huge gap in the checked off birds on my life list. I should point out that I have seen some owls. Burrowing Owls are diurnal, so our schedules tend to synchronize, plus living on the edge of the plains guarantees lots of prairie dog towns. I’ve managed to find several Great Horned Owls on my own, and have seen quite a few more with the help of other birders. I’ve even seen the adorable owlets.
Somehow, I’ve managed to see a few more species—a Barred Owl (it was at Corkscrew Swamp in Florida, with a scope focused on it and a sign proclaiming “Barred Owl”), several Barn Owls (again, known residents pointed out to me), and, miraculously, a Northern Saw-whet cutie sitting in a tree at eye level, not six feet off a trail at Aiken Canyon. I sure wish I’d had my camera with me for that one!
When the Snowy Owl showed up in El Paso County a while back, I was right there in line, taking fuzzy pictures with a digiscoping set-up. And most recently, while in Grand Junction last spring for the Colorado Field Ornithologist convention, our field trip leader took us to see a family of Long-Earned Owls that had been documented during a breeding bird atlas survey.
Still, seven out of nineteen North American species isn’t exactly a great showing. The Western Screech-owl continues to mock me. It’s even our Audubon chapter’s mascot—and I’ve never seen one! A local researcher has spent over twenty years studying a nearby population of Flammulated Owls, but I’ve never seen one of those, either.
So, I need some encouragement. What owl success stories do you have? I’d like some advice. How does one go about finding these elusive hunters?
Owls, from top: Burrowing Owl, Barn Owl, Great Horned Owlet