Sunday, March 4, 2007
Right place at the right time
As I was walking along a gravel path in the wildflower garden at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, I was contemplating leaving. It was close to 11:30 and getting hotter by the minute. I, being a northeasterner, was not prepared for the heat (in October!) and was wearing a black sleeveless shirt and no hat. Suffice it to say I was toasty and burning (not enough SPF). There was not much happening anyway. I should have come earlier in the day. I had seen some nice birds, but nothing new this time. Some other birders that I met along the path had told me that Harris Hawks nest at the zoo. I thought I might just go over and hang around in the parking lot to see if any were around.
The garden paths wound around and around. As I rambled towards the exit, a Roadrunner dashed by. I had seen one earlier in another section of the park by a huge mesquite tree. This time, I pulled out my camera to try and snap him. As I did, it ran across the path and around me to my left. I whirled around to see it dart into a low tree and come out with something dark in its beak. It suddenly spotted me and dropped its prey and backed off slightly, beak still agape. I looked down to see that the dark thing was a bird--and then-- that it was some sort of OWL! I had never seen such a tiny owl. The little owl spread it wings and faced off with the Roadrunner. The Roadrunner circled to the left. The Roadrunner circled to the right. Back and forth pendulum fashion trying to get an opening. I was standing not 2 feet away watching. As the roadrunner would dart in, I would shuffle my feet in the stones to try and help the little owl. The owl turned toward me and I saw dark eyes beseeching me. Tiny owl. Dark eyes. Hmmm, the only small owl that I knew of in the desert was the Elf Owl. Could this be that?
This presented the ultimate dilemma—to intervene or not, it is the life of the desert. I decided that I had seen many, many roadrunners but not this owl. I needed a better look. So I started to flap my arms and shuffle and stamp my feet—carefully staying on the path. The roadrunner pecked at the owl again and again. I thought at one point that the little owl flinched, as if hurt. It seemed to favor its right wing. Oh no! is that a speck of blood?
What to do…what to do….I couldn’t leave and get help. I knew the instant that I turned my back it would be all over. As luck and the owl gods would have it, a school group approached. As the kids came along, the roadrunner dashed off ahead of them. The guide spotted the roadrunner and stopped to show the kids. I sidled up to the guide and told her that the roadrunner had attacked an owl. I turned to show her and as I did, the owl fluttered off. She immediately picked up her walkie-talkie and called into it. “Come quick. We have an injured owl!” She said that there had been a juvenile western screech found a week before. I told her that the owl had dark eyes. Screechs have yellow eyes. We collectively looked and looked for the small owl. The guide asked me to stay and wait for the ranger.
Standing in the shade of a nearby saguaro trying to keep from frying, I flipped open my ancient Peterson’s. I turned to owls and scanned through them all. Hmmm. The only small owl with dark eyes is a Flammulated. Is that possible? The map does show it here, hmmmmm. I hurriedly looked through the pictures I had snapped. Sure enough, 1 small owl with dark eyes and 1 very agitated roadrunner.
As I waited for the ranger, I spied a Verdin flitting in and around an old nest. I snapped some pictures of it, but it was moving so quickly I finally gave up and watched it. As I was watching the Verdin, I saw a flash of dark movement out of the corner of my eye. (Thank goodness for good peripheral vision.) The ranger came down the path as I was continuing to scan where I had seen the dark movement. I told him of the drama. He was a volunteer for the garden and knew his birds. We looked for the owl. I told him it had dark eyes. We looked at the pictures and in the book. He said that there had only been one or two prior records of a Flammulated Owl in the garden. What a find! With him on the job, I felt free to make my way out of the heat to the relative cool of the gift shop.
On the way out, I became a member of the garden. It supports them and there is reciprocity with other gardens around the country, including the big one near me, New York Botanical Garden. More than that, it serves as host to migrating Flammulated Owls! It is a sea of green in an otherwise sprawling desert city.
After I returned home, I got an email from the ranger. After I left that day, he found the owl sitting straight and tall (well as tall as a 6.5 inch Flam can). As he was trying to take a picture of it, it flew off. He said that the flight looked nice and strong.
I encourage all of you to visit the garden, next time you are in Phoenix. It is one of my favorite places.