Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Pygmy-King of North Mountain

Last weekend we set out for an ambitious outing down near the Oregon/California border for our second annual trip to the Winter Wings Festival (a superb, excellently run small festival). Ordinarily we'd recount all our adventures chronologically, but on our fifth and final day we found a certain owl that's generated no small amount of interest, and I felt the need to write a timely account (at least compared with our usual leisurely blogging schedule).

Golden-crowned Sparrows

We spent Sunday night in Ashland with a few target birds in mind. Last year we found our lifer California Towhee at the Songer Wayside, along Emigrant Lake. We'd seen it for exactly as long as we needed to ID it, and not a split-second longer. We hoped we might have better luck this time, but an hour wading through the heavy fog turned up little more than Oak Titmice (Titmouses?) and Acorn Woodpeckers -- not that I'm complaining!

Foggy day at Songer Wayside

Oak Titmouse

But thank goodness we dipped on the towhee. We were ready with a back-up plan and headed for North Mountain Park, where they'd been reported in the past couple of days. We didn't expect much when we pulled in to a parking lot with a baseball diamond on one side, and a soccer field on the other. "This will be a quick stop," I thought. But the farther along the path we got, the more active it became. Through a scrubby thicket of buckbrush, I spotted a chunky bird that looked good for California Towhee. We tried entice it into the open, when a second towhee flew out in front of us, and then we got superb, unobstructed views of them both as they scratched around for worms. This would definitely be the bird of the day… for another five minutes.

California Towhee

Towhee butt

The path continued through an ethnobotanical garden, and I walked a few yards past Maureen as she paused to take photos of scouring rush. I noticed a good-sized fuzzball only 15 ft off to my side, in a tree inexplicably covered in white and pink ribbon. "What the hell?" I didn't even realize it was a bird at first. My brain slowly resolved the image, and I whistled back at Maureen to get her attention. I whispered, and mostly mouthed, "Pygmy-owl" just loudly to get the message back to her. She was skeptical, but gamely inched forward to where she could follow my eyes.

Northern Pygmy-owl

For a long, long time we watched the potato-sized owl take us in, along with the rest of its surroundings. Eventually it flew to another, farther part of the tree, but came back after a little while. It was definitely alert, and on the look-out. A pair of Lesser Goldfinches flew into a tree behind us, and the owl locked in immediately. Its body postured straight at them, with its head stretched up toward them. For a full minute, the owl readied itself for just the right moment, but when it finally moved in to strike, it missed its target by the slightest margin.

Pygmy-owl eyespots

Staying alert, looking for prey

Target acquired

Instead of flying off to safety, the goldfinches stood their ground and initiated their alarm call. In no time at all, they were joined by a Black-capped Chickadee, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and a Bushtit, and they jointly harassed the owl and made clear that they wouldn't look favorably upon further attempts to predate them. Whether the owl decided to take its frustration out on us, I don't know, but it flew close by us on the way back to its original perch, and we decided that would be a good time move along.

"Move along, buddy"

We left Ashland for Agate Lake, a bit farther north, hoping for Lewis's Woodpecker, which we'd dipped on earlier in the day. There wasn't a whole lot going on, other than an immature Bald Eagle perched just over the entrance. A good-sized flock of meadowlarks passed back and forth for a while, but not close enough for pictures. But our last stop before heading home was at Rogue Creamery to pick up some souvenir cheese. We were glad for the chance to appreciate Oregon's state bird and Oregon dairy all at once!

Juvenile Bald Eagle


  1. Wonderful photos! Thanks so much for sharing these. I've never yet seen a pygmy owl, and would love to. OTOH, my yard's full of California Towhees (but I cheated: I live in Calif.)

    1. Thank you very much! We had never seen a Pygmy-owl, either, until only 3 days earlier -- but sometimes when it rains it pours. Here's hoping you have one of your own soon.

  2. Your photos of the owl are excellent. I was a little disappointed I didn't get a photo, or even good looks at the NOPO I saw in Banff, but I was just so happy to see one. Golden-crowned Sparrows are getting to be one of my favourite species, so I'm jealous of all the photos you're posting.

    1. Thanks, Charlotte! We got super lucky with the owl - in fact, it's a little sad knowing that the we've probably already had the best look we'll ever get. Of course birding never fails to surprise, so you never know. We definitely couldn't have asked for a better experience with a bird as great as the Pygmy-owl.

      Golden-crowned Sparrow is a favorite of mine, too. I'm going to miss them when they leave us in a couple of months.