Elf Owl: the smallest owl in the world

When it comes to filming wildlife we all of course have certain animals on target list. But, as any wildlife photographer knows, you truly never know what you are going to find when you head to the field on a filming trip. You don’t always get what you set out to film but sometimes you get what you never expected. While traveling from the Hill country down through the Trans Pecos during the month of June, Ray and I were able to gather great footage of Western Screech Owls and Elf Owls!

Elf Owls are the smallest owl in the world; as adults these birds weigh at most 1.4oz! That is as much as 8 nickles! Incredible! This pair of Elf owls in the Davis Mountains had taken up roost in what appeared to be an abandoned woodpecker cavity. We were able to capture them foraging at night to feed their young. The owls were filmed in infrared light, which is not visible to the eye and does not disturb the birds in any way. The result, awesome footage of parental care and the curiosity of an adorable young owl.

Special thanks to Shawn Bice, Regional Interpretive Specialist Cassie Honolka, Superintendent Wanda Olszewski and District Leader Mark Lockwood for their support and warm welcome to the park.

-Jessie and Ray

Panhandle sights from the last couple of days

The Panhandle is often under appreciated in many regards, especially its fauna.  The photos that follow are just a few of the sights I’ve seen in the last couple of days.  I hope you enjoy them.

white-throated sparrow PDCSP

white-crowned sparrow PDCSP

white-crowned sparrow adult PDCSP

western scrub jay

Northern Harrier at sunrise

brown thrasher PDCSP

Herons and egrets and fights, oh my!

I spent early Sunday morning in a park, camouflaged in a ghillie suit, very much out-of-place in the center of Amarillo, TX.  Fortunately it was still dark and I didn’t arouse suspicion.  Once in the cover of a wooded area the suit broke up my outline and the colors matched the background and I disappeared to both human and other animal observers, as long as I moved slowly.  And move slowly I did.  I was stalking a rookery of herons and it took me an hour to move 100 meters to be in place to photograph and video these beautiful birds.  Even before light there was a great deal of commotion and awesome sounds coming from the rookery.  I saw 4 species, cattle egrets (the most common), black-crowned night herons (second most numerous) and a few snowy and 1 great egret.  The lighting was terrible so my ISO was set high.  The morning was very overcast and the sun broke through just a time or two and only briefly then.  Regardless, I had a wonderful time watching and listening to these birds.  I was surprised by how aggressive, downright violent at times, these beautiful birds were.  There was bullying, stealing of nesting materials, and plain old brawls going on the whole time I was present.  I remained undetected for the most part, slipping up twice when I got tired from the tediously slow stalk.  I simply moved too fast and a number of birds flushed but returned right away.  I don’t think they ever recognized me but just saw movement that was suspicious.

Below is a snowy egret, recognized by its black bill and legs and its “golden slippers” as Dr. Zimmerman, my ornithology professor, liked to call them.  They actually use their bright feet to scare up prey by shuffling them along under the water as they move forward.  For whatever reason, the snowy egret remained out of any squabbles, seemingly too dignified to get involved.  Or perhaps simply a butt kicker that is best left alone.

snowy egret

Cattle egrets were in great abundance and, while small relative to the black-crowned night herons, held their own in numerous battles I observed.  These small egrets, now in their breeding plumage displaying an orange wash on their backs, heads, and upper chests, can be separated from the snowy egrets by a lighter bill and lack of “golden slippers” and it generally forages in fields, not on the water’s edge.  This species, amazingly, managed to colonize South America from Africa on its own and has since moved up through Central America into the US.  The can be spotted feeding along side cattle (hence the name), snapping up insects the cattle stir up.

cattle egret

I love night herons.  Just the name “night heron” suggests these birds lurk in the dark and snap up unsuspecting prey.  They are generally secretive but in some places can be quite abundant.  We have only the black-crowned here, with the yellow-crowned being found farther south in Texas.  These are handsome birds, with black and contrasting light plumage and wispy feathers serving as ornaments trailing down the back of their heads.  They also have blood-red eyes which adds a nice finishing touch to their overall appearance.  The photo below shows a black-crowned night heron (background) in a serious squabble with a cattle egret (foreground).  The cattle egret, with the help of a colleague, ended up winning this battle and displacing the night heron.

cattle egret and black-crowned night heron fight over nest sites

Hanging out under a rookery was a great way to start a Sunday.  I’ll have to be sure to make a trip back when they have young in the nests.