Owl Big Year: Part 5 of 19
This is the latest installment in an “Owl Big Year” — an attempt to find all 19 of North America’s owls. This is, however, our first joint-blog post—kind of a test run to see if people are interested in following our journey! We hope to share writing and photography from more guest writers in the future.
When Christian and I started dating almost four years ago (wow!), one of our earliest conversations was about how we both loved the National Parks, and my dream of seeing each and every one of them. To me, there’s something that feels almost sacred about their protected trees and trails and monuments. As the popularity of visiting the National Parks grows, visiting them has become less tranquil and a little more social experience. Nonetheless, as our list of parks visited together grows, each one feels just a little more special because we got to experience it together.
This year, a new National Park visited together became a little more fun. If you haven’t already gathered, we both love making lists. In January, Christian and I decided to put a twist on a Big Year - one that would give us a challenge and a checklist to complete throughout the year, while at the same time allowing us to stay close to home to finish up some pretty important projects: grad school prep for me, and writing and traveling for him. This month, we got to add another “lifer” National Park and a lifer owl (for me!) at the same time.
Family gatherings and a birthday surprise brought us to Palm Springs, California for a long weekend. After a few days of family time, eating Mexican food, and scouting for the best panaderias (Mexican Bakeries) in the area, we were itching to get out of town for some time in nature. Only a short drive from where we were staying in the Coachella Valley is Joshua Tree National Park, a massive park that spans two deserts and is home to the area’s peculiar Joshua Tree, a twisted, bristly tree that looks like it was lifted right from the pages of a Dr. Seuss book.
Among the usual desert residents of cacti, roadrunners, and rugged rock formations, evidently, there also lived a pair of Great Horned Owls. Great Horned Owls have a vast range across North America and have been found in every state - including our backyards in Colorado, where my best look was just a flash and some wingbeats in my headlights at night. More commonly found in or near forested areas, the middle of a desert seemed an unlikely place to find this bird.
As we entered the gate, Christian showed us the eBird report and we discussed the likelihood of seeing the owl. Not extremely likely - I gathered. The report wasn’t very recent, gave a very vague description of the area in which the owl had been found, and included a photo of the owl sitting on a rock ledge. It could be anywhere. We agreed to do a diligent search in the most promising area, but wouldn’t spend all day looking. It just seemed silly to spend a lot of time looking for an owl we could find easily in Colorado when there was so much more to explore here.
We started our drive across the park, making the obligatory stops for short hikes and photos with the gnarled trees and Skull Rock. The weather couldn’t have been better. Knowing that I had narrowly escaped town during the most severe blizzard of the winter in Denver, I basked in the sunlight and enjoyed the cool breezes as we hiked around. Joshua Tree NP becomes blisteringly hot in the summer; the heat and exposure have claimed the lives of many hikers in the past, so I was grateful for the chance to see the park outside of that dangerous window.
I fell asleep in the car in between hikes as our rental car wound its way through the park. As a night shift nurse, I struggle to stay awake during the day if I’m sitting or not doing something active. (Basically, I was made for this Owl Big Year and scouting birds at night.)
I awoke as we pulled into a campground to look around. “No Parking except for campground guests” signs were everywhere. It seemed this campground was one of the most popular spots in the park. Christian had spotted a rock ledge, not just any rock ledge, but the exact rock ledge from the photo. “We’ll just look for a few minutes - the car will be fine”, Christian assured me. These kinds of things give me anxiety. I have infamously bad luck with parking tickets.
But Christian was right! We hiked towards the ledge and explored around, just a short hike from the campground parking. The whitewash high on a small cliff ledge indicated an owl might be nearby. We skirted some tents and picnic tables and hopped a few boulders to get a closer look. There it was - a solitary Great Horned Owl napping in the warm sunlight far up on the ledge. We kept a respectful distance from the bird, who seemed unfazed by my excitement down in the boulder field. After a few minutes for photos and getting better looks through the binoculars, we high-fived for owl number 5 and scampered back to the car. (Where it was parking ticket-free, in case you were concerned)
These are the kinds of experiences that make me love birding. Of the millions of visitors to Joshua Tree each year, I’d guess that only a handful has seen this particular owl, hidden away so close to constant human activity. While there’s so much beauty to be found everywhere in the park, I love finding unexpected beauties in the less-trafficked areas. Birding makes you get off the beaten path and find those little gems where many others aren’t even looking.
Is there a word for the joy of finding something in an unexpected place? For me, that word is birding.
As Teresa noted, the Great Horned Owl is not an uncommon owl across most of its range in North America. They can be found in backyards, local parks, business parks— even downtown in big cities! They truly are an adaptable predator, eating everything. Small rodents, rabbits and squirrels, birds (including hawks, falcons, and other owls) and even cats make up the non-discriminating diet of this large raptor.
An owl of this size and wide distribution isn’t exactly hard to find. On a family-oriented trip, we decided to mix things up and search for this species in a different environment—the desert. Here in southern California, a moon-scape of boulders and rocks provided infinite hiding places for a large owl, and each Joshua Tree looked like it could conceal an old Red-tailed Hawk nest—the perfect spot for an owl to be raising young this time of year.
This truly was a shot-in-the-dark effort. I had a little faith we would find the exact rock in the photo, and when I spotted the ledge from the car as we drove around, I was surprised. The owl wasn’t there, but the whitewash was and the folds of the rock were identical to the photo I’d screen-captured from an eBird checklist earlier in the day. My “owl sense” was tingling; I knew that if we looked around a little bit, we might just get lucky. And we did!
I’ve seen (and heard) well over a hundred GHOW’s (I had to check eBird to count) but this one was special. I loved seeing the smile on Teresa’s face as she spotted it after I looked at her and said, “It’s here!”. That was the best. I’m grateful to have fourteen more opportunities to do that again this year!
Christian Hagenlocher and Teresa Vodopest met in 2015, and have been adventuring together as much as possible ever since. They’ve traveled across the U.S. in search of birds, as well as to Peru, Costa Rica, and Colombia. They both enjoy climbing, running, and shopping at REI.
From Christian: On our first date, Teresa told me that in college, she went to Ecuador and went birding. She even had her own pair of binoculars! From that moment on I knew she had a chance…
Christian and Teresa decided to set a shared goal of seeing all 19 North American Owl species together, as a way to get out and enjoy some of the places “off the beaten path” and to see the birds that live there. Both live in Denver, Colorado, while Christian commutes from his Seattle-based “home office”.
If you like this post, and want more Owl Big Year blogs, we’d be happy to share! Let us know in the comments, or tell us on social media. Follow The Birding Project for more!