Guadalupe Mountains: Owl Adventure

Out of the 17 species of owls on the Texas State List four are strictly accidental with very few records, seven are fairly widespread and easy to see, and six are tough to come by, I know, I looked for Long-eared Owls more than for any other bird, until I was finally succesful near El Paso with no less than eight birds. I put in my time crawling through thickets from Big Bend to the Panhandle in winter. In the Rio Grande Valley birders seek Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls another tough one. The rest occur in the west.

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Texas Photo Stephan Lorenz

There are a few owl species in Texas that are difficult to track down and two to three of these occur in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, the robust Spotted Owl and the comparatively tiny Flammulated Owl. In addition there is a miniscule chance of encountering Northern Saw-whet Owls, which may be resident or rare visitors in the high elevation pine-oak forest. While I was hoping for all three species during my summer trip to the park, I realistically expected only two. Flammulated Owls are found in the higher mountains of west Texas, from Big Bend National Park’s Chisos Mountains to the Guadalupes. This small and strictly nocturnal owl is widespread further north and west during summer and migrates south during the colder months. Despite its large range it is not easy to see anywhere and much more often heard.

The Spotted Owl is truly a western species that is very rare in Texas, probably no more than a dozen pairs occur in the state, mainly in the Guadalupe Mountains with at least one pair in the Davis Mountains further south. This was going to be a difficult bird to find, since it prefers inaccessible box canyons.

Spotted Owl Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas Photo Stephan Lorenz

In order to have time at night in the Guadalupe’s famous bowl, where stands of pine and oak reminiscent of the Rocky Mountains thrive, I backpacked in for at least one night. After setting up camp I explored the forest. Several birds difficult to see elsewhere in the state were much in evidence like Mountain Chickadees, Steller’s Jay, singing Grace’s Warblers, and Pygmy Nuthatch. There were also several breeding species in full song that are rarely heard in Texas and in the evening I listened to the flute-like call of Hermit Thrushes. Just as the thrushes quieted, Mexican Whip-poor-wills and Common Poorwills picked up. It was time to head into the forest. About an hour down the trail, after the trees lay in complete darkness, I heard the simple “pooip” of the Flammulated Owl. I waited as the bird called nearby from a dense oak, suddenly it flew onto a bare branch right overhead and looked at me with its large black eyes for a moment before disappearing.

Spotted Owl country, Texas Photo Stephan Lorenz

The hike back down the following morning was easy after the success. After resting a bit, I inquired about possible Spotted Owl locations in the park from a helpful ranger at the visitor center. He gave me just enough information and after another four miles of hiking I found myself face to face with a Spotted Owl perched in a cliff hollow. I have since returned to the spot twice and was succesful one more time in locating a Spotted Owl here. The Spotted Owl in Texas is a symbol of wilderness, setting up territory exclusively in remote twisting box canyons that harbor some impressive old trees. It is worth the effort to see some spectacular country.


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