Give a Hoot
When birders (birdwatchers, in other words) talk about looking for, er, listening for, birds that make sounds in the night, but remain hidden in the darkness, it's called "owling". The English language is strange sometimes. And owls aren't the only birds you can hear at night.
The other day, I wrote about hunting the Buff-collared Nightjar. At the time, I had a talk with Miriam, who told me where I might find various kinds of owls and such. So I decided that I would see if I could find a few for myself. In particular, I wanted to hear the Mexican Whip-poor-will, which has a distinctive call. You can hear the call on this page: AZFO Bird Sounds Library Scroll down the page. It is currently at the very bottom. Keep that page open. You'll be able to return to it to listen to the various other birds I heard.
One reason why I wanted to do this at this particular time is because my car is stalling on me when the temperature gets too hot, and I have to stop at too many traffic lights. This trip would involve two traffic lights on the beginning, and three near the end. Hey, I still really like my Volvo, but we can't find the problem, so I just stay off the streets during the day until the temperature cools down, and that's fine with me.
I try to plan ahead to some extent. I knew I would be up in the canyon past closing for most restaurants, and I like to eat before I come home, so this time, I spent some time looking for a new and less expensive restaurant than the one I have been going to lately, and I would stop and get some take-out. I chose Saigon Flavor. Good choice. It's located north of Green Valley. I was heading for Madera Canyon, and I figured I wouldn't run into many traffic lights there, either. As it turned out, I didn't find it right away, and I did go in and get one of my favorite dishes. The only time my car hesitated was when I took it out of the parking lot to get back onto the freeway, but fortunately, it didn't do any more than that.
Unless otherwise stated, all photos are mine. This photo is what I saw as I waited for it to get dark enough for the night birds. I am sitting in the parking lot up by the Wrightson trails, and the very end of the road up Madera Canyon.
The Trip to Madera Canyon
Well, I figured that as soon as I got onto I-10 and traveled down I-19, I wouldn't have any car trouble. However, when I was getting fairly close to my first stop, I saw that the cars were moving at a crawl, and all stacked up. 5 mph. That's a guarantee of a stalled car if I ever saw one! I babied it along, and pretty soon, I saw an off ramp, and took that, and when I took the on ramp to get back on I-19, I was past the problem. I don't know what was going on. All I know is that there was a fire truck and several police cars there. And I didn't have any problems there.
After I got back on I-19 after picking up my take-out food, it was clear sailing the rest of the way. When I left home, I didn't have any red lights, and I didn't have any red lights in Green Valley, either. Way to go! Before I entered the canyoh, I called home and let my husband know I had made it. There is no phone coverage once you get past Whitehouse Picnic Area.
My first stop was Madera Picnic Area. I spent quite a bit of time sitting and watching, and relatively little time walking around, but I figured I walked about a tenth of a mile. It was still pretty warm, even up there, so I wasn't in a mood to walk much. The first thing I saw when I got there wasn't a bird. It was two Mule Deer. They were munching on the hay (what's left after the grass dried out). How they managed nourishment from plants so dry they've lost all their chlorophyll is a bit of a mystery, but they do it. Sounds like starvation rations to me! Periodically, the deer would lift her head and look at me, and I could just see the wheels turning in her head: "She doesn't look very dangerous," and she'd put her head back down and start eating again. They were in the area the whole time I was, which was over an hour.
After awhile, I heard and saw a Brown-crested Flycatcher. You may remember that I had a good picture of one in my Nightjar article. This time, I barely got any picture at all, but to help me a little, he also sang for me. I am much more interested in learning to identify bird songs than I used to be, and I like birding in the spring and early summer when they are most likely to sing.
Then before too long, I heard a bunch (only four, but they always sound like a bunch, because their calls are really loud and continuous, almost to the point of being obnoxious) of Mexican Jays. They came rushing in, full tilt, and landed in some trees a ways away. I don't have good pictures of them, either, so I will show you a picture I got another time.
Madera Picnic Area
This is the Mexican Jay.
After I heard these birds, I noticed that there was a whole kettle of Turkey Vultures circling overhead. I estimate there were at least 7. They circled a good part of the time I was there as well.
Here is one of the Turkey Vultures. It's one of the few decent bird pictures I got.
After that, I decided to go across the street for the first time. There is a trail there, and a whole bunch of picnic tables. It's shady, and the tables are at different levels, with low walls holding back earth, so it's picturesque and interesting. As I was walking down one set of stairs, I saw a lizard just two steps below me. But he was too close for my telephoto lens, so I wanted to step back, but when I moved, he ran off. Naturally! But I have plenty of pictures of that species, so I'm not upset.
While I was sitting just watching and listening, I heard my first owl. It wasn't even dark, it was just before 6 pm. This was a Pygmy Owl. I thought they were supposed to be endangered. I guess not so much these days. I tried to locate him visually, but was unable to find him. So at that point, I decided to go on up to the top and eat my lunch, and then wait for it to get dark.
Mount Wrightson Picnic Area
So I drove on up to the top, and found a nice parking spot. I wanted to be in a fairly quiet area close to trees, where I would be inconspicuous. As it turned out, there were only three other cars there the whole time I was up there. I figured I should eat my lunch quickly because the bears are probably hungry this time of year. But fortunately, I didn't see one. I just heard a Bell's Vireo, and I think I saw him off in the distance, but it was too dark for a picture.
I forgot to ask them not to put on any onions, so I had to pick them off. The wind was blowing occasionally, so I had to hold my box just so to keep it from blowing shut and dumping all the onions back on my food. I chose the lemograss chicken on vemicelli (I would prefer to have rice noodles, and I think I'll ask next time). It has so many wonderful flavors. I figured I'd put on the sauce after I got all the onions out, and when I did get them all out, I decided to empty them into the trash. They have these wonderful metal boxes that are easy to get into (once you figure it out), but bears can't get into them. So I went over there, and this is one of those times when I wish I was an octopus. I think mothers need more than two arms, and since I am a mother, I'd qualify, but no such luck. So I was holding the box open and carefully scraping the onions off into the trash, but forgot to watch what the part with the food in it was doing, and let it angle downward, and alluvasudden, I heard a "splat!" and there was my sauce, all over the ground. Darn!
Well, if there is anything I have learned, it is to expect the unexpected. I will probably have a little mishap every time I go. Oh well. Life goes on.
So I finished eating, and put the box into the trash, and went on over to my car, and sat on the wall next to it. That's when I saw the moon coming up over the mountain. It was the perfect night for an adventure like mine, because I could see well enough by moonlight to walk in strange and uneven ground without using a flashlight.
Pretty soon, I started hearing various night birds. I also could see an occasional shadow of a still-active day bird. The first bird I heard made a very loud and relatively high pitched "chew-chew" sound. I haven't figured that one out yet. Then I heard another Pygmy Owl. In fact, I probably heard two different ones, in two different directions. I was praying that I would hear the one bird I came for in particular.
And then I heard it! The Mexican Whip-poor-will! At first he was distant, but quickly got closer. He called for five or ten minutes before flying off for a short while. Pretty soon he was back, and this time he was much closer, and probably called for at least fifteen minutes, before flying off for a few more minutes. Next time, he was on top of me! He was so close that I was sure if I could just figure out how to make a video with my cell phone, I could get his call. I never did figure it out, not even last night. Fooey! I now can reliably take single frame pictures with my cell phone, though, and I took one. The one at the top of this section is what I got. :)
It was so quiet and peaceful up there, and I was totally alone. I like it like that.
But it seemed as if the Mexican Whip-poor-will would dominate the area for the foreseeable future, and I wanted to hear some other birds, so I started down the hill.
First I stopped at Amphitheater Parking Lot. I sat outside for about 20 minutes, but I didn't hear a thing! Well, the crickets were so loud they completely drowned out the habitual hissing in my ears. Oh, wait! I hear a Lesser NIghthawk! To hear that song, listen to the first of two on that page I gave you.
So figuring there were no owls there, I picked up and moved on down to the Madera Picnic Area again. I got out and sat on a picnic bench and listened for ten minutes. Dead silence! I realized that they don't like you to stay past 10 o'clock, and it was already approaching 9, so I went on down some more.
I next stopped at Whitehouse Parking Lot. Dead silence there, too.
At this point, I figured I didn't have many options left. But I could still go listen for the Buff-collared Nightjar. I figured that was probably a sure thing. It was close to 10, and I figured all the other birders had gone home. Again, I was all alone. I got out, closed the car door softly, and sat down on my Walkstool to wait. Within a minute, there he was again! Only this night there were two of them. They sang off and on for the 15 minutes I stayed there, but I didn't hear anybody else, so I went on down, and drove home. It was an hour's drive, and it was without incident. It was cool enough my car didn't care.
So I still haven't heard a Screech Owl, which I had been hoping to hear. But the Whip-poor-will goes on my life list.
What is it that is so fascinating about watching birds, and listening for owls? I sure can't explain it. Once it gets into your blood, you're hooked! And a lot of people are hooked. Birders are some of our major tourist populations. I run into folks from all over, and often they ask me where the best place is to find a particular bird. I'm not ready to charge for my services yet. That will probably take another ten years at least. But I can usually be helpful, and it's fun to be helpful.
Being a successful birdwatcher requires lots of patience. Sometimes you have to hike, and other times you have to sit quietly. It also works better for morning people, which is definitely NOT me. But I do the best I can. I am only 5 species away from a list of 300 birds I have seen in my lifetime. That's a modest list, but it will grow, and I hope to find five more birds before year's end.
Birdwatching is a very good thing to get children doing. It gives them something constructive to do, requires that they learn something interesting, and keeps them out of trouble. It's a good activity for older folks who won't be mountain biking or running marathons. It helps keep you fit.
Taking good bird pictures takes a lot of practice, and you have to throw away most of the ones you get. If you are smart, you DO throw most of them away. But gradually, people are starting to notice my photos. I could use a little extra income, so I hope it leads to something. In the meantime, I am going to have a lot of fun doing something wholesome and restful, that helps strengthen my body for the day I hope to return to martial arts. I had to drop out for the time being, but I'm not giving up! In fact, some famous martial artists said that hiking in the mountains is an important part of training. I agree.
The more I think about it, the more marvelous birds seem. Their design is exquisite, and I love to watch how they cavort in the air, and wish I could do that. Someday! Don't let anyone tell you that mistakes of nature resulted in these beautiful creatures. They're very much designed by God, and He has a wonderful artistic sense. And He even shows His sense of humor now and then. Some birds are very funny.
If you are looking for a hobby, this is a good one. I can't do it justice, but I hope I tempted you just a little.
Learn about birds of the night, and the songs of birds
There are several different ways to learn to recognize bird songs. Cornell University puts put apps for smartphones. I'm waiting for the one for android, because I have a tablet I can use that with. But there are also other ways. There are many web sites that have bird songs.
You can also learn about birds through books and recordings. I present a sample from Amazon here.
Bird Songs: 250 North American Birds in Song
by Les Beletsky
The Complete Book of North American Owls
by James Duncan
Owls of the World: A Photographic Guide
by Heimo Mikkola
I promise to give them back.