Northern Pygmy-Owl Encounter

Of the nearly 300 posts to this blog since March 2011, there have been very few that focus on a single species. This past Monday, however, a visit to Cienega Canyon in search of the Northern Pygmy-Owl provided one of those rare and remarkable birding experiences that calls for such a separate post.

Over the last eight years, I seem to have gotten pretty good at finding nesting Great Horned Owls, sometimes see Burrowing Owls or Western Screech-Owls, the occasional Barn Owl, once a Northern Saw-whet Owl and once a Mexican Spotted Owl. The only other one on my list so far is the Northern Pygmy-Owl that I’ve gotten to see once in four of the last five years, all of which were found in Cienega Canyon.

My first one was on May 20, 2015 after hearing about them from two excellent local birders. I’d made the mile-long walk to the end of the paved entrance road twice without seeing the bird and returned for a third time the day the access road was opened to walk the remaining short distance to the nesting area. Nothing at first, but after sitting there for a while looking around, I finally saw the tiny little guy sitting way high in a tall cottonwood.

The next year, on February 9, 2016, again upon hearing they were again being seen in that area, I made the long walk in over the ice/snow covered road, and eventually the little owl appeared in pretty much the exact same spot. They fly so quickly and quietly, one second they just seem to be where there was nothing a moment before.

In April of 2017, it took two trips to spot one. No luck on April 10 when I went with a friend to look for it, but when I returned on April 15, I ran into two other friends who tried to point one out to me buried in an evergreen. After they left, I looked again but still couldn’t see the bird. But sure enough, just minutes later it popped up in the bare cottonwood where I’d seen it the last two years.

Although I surely looked a few times in 2018, I never managed to see or hear any that year.

After seeing several reports on eBird that they’d been seen there and in nearby Sulphur Canyon since early 2019, I’d looked unsuccessfully along Sulphur Canyon, and then at the end of April walked in to the area where I’d seen them in previous years. For the first time I can recall, that day I heard at least one calling regularly but had no luck spotting it despite trying to triangulate on where the call was coming from and checking the usual spots. And after telling my good friend Rebecca about having heard them that day, we decided to try again on May 6.

While taking that long walk in, just as we approached the large meadow and group reservation area (and still a quarter mile from the end of the road where I’d seen them every other time), we heard an owl calling loudly. The calls were so much louder than I’d heard before and since we were still so far from the usual nesting area, I assumed it had to be someone playing a tape trying to attract one into the open. Looking around the area, however, we seemed to be the only people around when it began calling again from what seemed a different location. They are a pretty small bird and seem to be good ventriloquists calling from high in a tree somewhere, so it had us wandering all around trying to figure out just where it might be. Rebecca soon saw one right where we’d been looking, naturally right out in the open a good ways up in a tree.

Shortly after I got on it, another one flew in and the two started mating! That’s an event that only takes a few seconds and is something I’ve only rarely gotten to see for other bird species.

The two of them sat next to each other for the next few minutes, grooming each other.

A couple of minutes later they each flew off in different directions. I’d been watching one, probably the male, fly some distance away, but Rebecca had seen the other, likely the female, pop into a nest cavity just a tree or two away from where they’d been sitting together.

Moving a bit farther away, it was possible for us to spot the cavity she was probably in, and sure enough, about ten minutes later there she was framed in the opening, sometimes looking around,

sometimes sticking her head out to get a better view,

and at other times seeming to doze off.

After a while, the male flew back to a perch a few feet above the nest, and five minutes later he’d dropped down to grip the outside of the cavity and look around.

He then climbed all the way in with the female already in there. It surprised me not only how one can get through such a small hole, but also to realize there’s enough room in there for both adults at the same time. About a minute later, he flew off and the female soon popped up back in the opening.

After watching all this for the last forty minutes, we decided it best to leave them be and as we walked away I noticed the male had once again returned to keep watch from another open branch close to the nest tree.

That was such an extraordinary encounter, we didn’t even continue on the rest of the way to where there’s supposed to be another nest near where I’ve seen them in the past.  A return visit in the near future is sure to follow in hopes of finding the other nest and maybe getting a chance to see one of this year’s little ones.

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About joeschelling

Birding, butterflies, nature photography, and travel blog from right here in Albuquerque New Mexico.
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6 Responses to Northern Pygmy-Owl Encounter

  1. Linda says:

    There’s a moral to this story. Take Rebecca! 😍

  2. paula graham says:

    Oh wow…what a story and what wonderful results to your endeavours.

  3. Rebecca Helianthus says:

    What an experience. Only a few dedicated and lucky ones see things like this. Great story.

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