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!