Thursday, June 20, 2013

Long-eared Owls nesting at the Davis Mountains Preserve, Texas

Hi all, I was holding this news pending an announcement by TNC.  Well, they've spilled the beans on their Facebook page (why not go like it?), so here you go!  
On May 25, 2013 a group of people conducting point counts on the Davis Mountains Preserve, Jeff Davis County went owling on the preserve.  We found a cooperative Common Poorwill on the road (and had to stop short to avoid it), and while watching this diminutive nightjar we saw a medium-sized owl in flight.  The owl landed behind some trees up ahead, but not visible (at least from where the lead car stopped).  We pulled up to see the owl, and it flew directly over the lead vehicle.  It was Rich Kostecke who first identified it as a Long-eared Owl!  A great find for May in the Davis Mountains - and a source of much discussion, as the late date made me suspect it could be nesting.

The next day, I was conducting point counts in the area where we had seen the Long-eared Owl, and my attention was drawn to a suspicious looking feather in a vast stick nest.  It looked suspiciously like the ear of a Long-eared Owl... but it was not possible to see into the nest from the point.  I finished my points, and found a place where I could see into the nest on the way back.  I was extremely pleased to see a Long-eared Owl looking at me, and I could see the head of a chick in the nest too!  Sorry, the chick isn't visible in the photo below - a digi pic, but still, you can see how obvious the bird on the nest is...
We collected the team up again, and observed the nest from a distance on the way back down for lunch.  We stayed far enough away that the female did not look at us directly.  The two fuzzy chicks were stretching their necks and featherless wings.  We returned in the afternoon in better light and better scopes for digiscoping and took some photos of the nest   The female sheltered the young under her spread wings much of the time, panting in the heat.  With the beetle damage to the ponderosa pines, the nest was fully exposed to the sun and it was quite warm.

Several folks left, with the work done, and Rich, Sam and I went up high to check out the birds at another spring. As Rich got out to unlock a gate, I got out to close it behind us - and stopped without a thought to look at another stick nest.  I "threw a wobbly" and could only tell Rich to get back to the car - there was ANOTHER Long-eared Owl on a second stick nest!  This nest was much smaller than the first, and lower.  We couldn't see in to see if there were chicks in this nest.  Mark Lockwood photographed chicks in this nest a week later!  Here's his pic on the TNC Texas Facebook page. 

You can see the second nest in the middle of the picture above, against the clouds.  So one nest was an oddity, a source of much discussion, but still explainable as an anomaly.  A second nest led to many more questions with few answers.

  • Were the owls always nesting here, but not detected?  Hard to believe since the area is covered by owling efforts by researchers and on open weekends. The nests were much easier to see with the dead trees from the pine beetles and fires, but they were easily accessed compared to much of the preserve.  

  • Did the owls move in after the fires opened up the forest?  If so, from where?  Did they nest in the riparian corridors along Limpia Creek?  Did they stay after wintering in the area, finding lots of prey and good conditions?  
Stay tuned, I'm headed out to look for more nests!  The preserve is open on selected days.  Remaining open dates for 2013 are
  • July 12-14 - Open Weekend
  • August 16-18 - Open Weekend
  • October 19 - Open Day
  • December 7 & 14 - Open Day 
I can just about guarantee you WON'T find a Long-eared Owl, but who knows what you WILL find in this beautiful place!  

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Birding The Nature Conservancy's Rancho El Uno Reserve, Chihuahua

I had the privilege to visit the Nature Conservancy's Rancho El Uno Reserve in northern Chihuahua, March 11-14, 2013.  While the main purpose of the visit was for work, as usual it's hard to separate the birding from the work for me!
This region of the Chihuahuan Desert has been in drought conditions for over a decade.  This winter, poor grass conditions even on well-managed El Uno reflect the exceptional drought of last summer.  Range conditions are better on the ranch than the surrounding grasslands, and the birds are concentrated on the ranch as a result.  Predators are also concentrated on the ranch.  One of the research projects we participated in, a Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory radio tracking project looking at winter movements and survival in Baird's Sparrow, had some birds lost to predation by raptors including Loggerhead Shrike and Short-eared Owl.
Jesús tries out the scratching post for the bison

TNC has restored bison to the ranch, with 36 bison roaming one (huge) pasture.  Our first morning we were entertained with the bison herd just outside the building compound, playing, rolling, and shaking the ground.  Discussions are underway about restoring other native grazers including pronghorn.
We met with members of a local ejido who are grazing their cows on Rancho El Uno while the ejido pasture is restored.  Some members of this ejido are quite progressive in their outlook, willing to help with the work of rotational grazing their cows on Rancho El Uno.  The ejido is also receiving ecosystem services payments from the Mexican government while they reduce grazing pressure on a different tract of ejido land.  These funds are from the forestry department!
Rancho El Uno is a great place for Baird's Sparrow, but it's not a great place to study Baird's Sparrow - except in flight!  They certainly don't sit up and pose for you, but they are present in some numbers along with Grasshopper Sparrow, Chestnut-collared Longspur, Sprague's Pipit, and other grassland birds.  Brush-loving birds are found in the surrounding area in numbers, including Vesper Sparrow, Lark Bunting, Brewer's Sparrow, and other birds.  
The last morning as we were heading out to El Paso we were treated by Jose Luis of TNC to a trip to Casas Grandes to see the Laguna Fierro and Laguna Redondo.  These reservoirs hold numbers of Snow and Ross's Geese and other waterfowl, particularly in spring migration.  Flocks of Chestnut-collared Longspurs were coming in to drink, and Western Grebes were present on the water.  My favorite birds were the stately Common Mergansers since I don't see them where I live in south Texas.
The diverse arid grasslands of Rancho El Uno
It was a whirlwind trip, and I can't wait to go back and spend more time at Rancho El Uno!  
Chihuahuan Ravens on the entrance gate to the reserve.