Sunday, June 15, 2008

Echo

I saw, for the first time in my life, a mexican spotted owl poop. But before the reader gets overly excited about that, there is much more to tell! Echo Canyon. Located up a grunt of a trail from Weeping Rock trailhead, Echo is nearly a picture-perfect slot canyon, with the sandstone sidewalls swooping inward, spiraling down and forming small pools on the canyon floor, where many frogs bleat out their existence to whoever will listen. At its upper end, three canyons converge; the "crow's foot" as it was aptly named by Dave, my professor. In the center of the foot, evidence of the presence of owls abounds. Whitewash along stones and sticks indicate areas where owls have perched above. Feathers are found amongst the rocks. Previous surveys have found owls calling from this very spot. So this is where I decide to plunk down, and look and listen. I wait patiently until the sun slowly faded away to dusk. A yellow warbler sings his goodbye to the sun. A poorwill sings his hello to the night. Bats begin to swirl and swish above my head. An hour passes until he finally shows himself; "he" being the owl. I hear a rush of wings from down canyon, and in the waning light, a white ghost alights on a ledge of the canyon wall. I shine my dying headlamp on him to see. He looks at me. Red reflective eyes magnify his otherwise drab appearance. I wanted to test him. I wiggled my finger. His head snaps around and moves back and forth, focusing on my finger. "Sweet!" I think to myself. The sweetness turns sour as I watch him leap from his precipice and swoop straight towards my face. In fear I raise up my hands and do that blink-your-eyes-really-fast thing. He veers to the left, scratching his talons on a cliff face and roosts within 10 feet of me. However, he wasn't after me at all. I deduced from his outstretched foot while he perched that he had actually swooped on a prey item on the canyon wall, hence the scraping of talon on rock. Whatever the prey was, he decided it was worthless, and dropped it. From his perch, he hoots. His characteristic 5-note hoot echoes through the canyon. We have heard him before, and seen him. Typically the owls hoot a 4-note call, but not him. This distinguishing trait makes me feel welcome, like seeing an old friend. Throughout the night, as we grow more accustomed to each other (or at least me to him), he calls about 40 times, approximately at a rate of one call per 30 seconds to one minute.
He enthralls my attention. I begin to ignore mosquitoes. I ignore the cold (I forgot my coat, and yes, the desert gets cold at night, especially in these canyons). He appears to completely ignore me, continuing his business catching breakfast (for at this time of night, it is his morning) like I'm not even there. I fear that my presence disturbs him, but he continues to hunt, and it feels good to be invisible, to observe so closely without changing the behavior of the owl.
Down he swoops again, to the sandy floor. Pausing momentarily to look around, prey in grip, he flies to another perch, with outstretched foot again. This time he eats. I hear munching and crunching as he apparently downs a very large, crispy insect. After a moment, in between calls, he pounces again, flying to yet another perch with a small meal. Crunch and crackle. And again, a silent, floating swoop down, but he appears to have missed this time. Six minutes later, he pounces yet again, this time successful. Munch, munch, crunch. I see one last attempt for prey before flying out of sight. Success rate of 60%.
I had always assumed that the flight of the owl was always silent. I discovered that they are silent when they need to be...when swooping and pouncing on prey. Otherwise, the owl was quite noisy flying from perch to perch, with a rush of air against his wings.
I hear the wings return to a viewable perch. I take my final look, red eyes aglow. While my head is down, madly taking field notes, he flies off without me ever noticing until he called moments later from much farther down canyon. His hoots continued at their regular interval for some time. Until I began sneezing wildly. I called it quits for the night to make it to the bottom of the trail at our appointed meeting time of 11:30PM. As I depart, I hear the owl hoot out several times more into the night, in my mind, saying his goodbyes.
I would like to meet the female sometime, but she is currently a stay-at-home mom, incubating her eggs. We will see her later, and with her, several small, fluffy, ewok look-alikes screaming to be fed. Can't wait!

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