There is a magic – a special appeal – to seeing owls. In irruption years, Snowy Owls might be seen in the daytime – even in quantity. In the winter, Short Eared Owls can be seen hunting favorite fields – closer to dawn and dusk but sometimes even in the middle of the day. While there are occasional exceptions to the rule, for most other owl species, seeing them in the daytime means finding a roosting spot or a nest and getting what are often not terrific views. Every year in February Mike and MerryLynn Denny take on a bunch of highly appreciative birders to show them owls in their beloved Walla Walla County – in the daytime. Not surprisingly it is a very popular trip, and this year I got to go along. LOTS of owls and LOTS of fun.
It has been a harsher than usual winter in Walla Walla County and there was lots of snow. No problems on the roads, but our hikes were often through crunchy snow. An initial worry was that the snow on the ground would prevent us from seeing the telltale whitewash on the ground that is often a first clue that an owl is roosting in the tree above. Fortunately the trees acted as shields or umbrellas so the ground below was clear and there was lots of whitewash in our first stop – Hood Park where there are ALWAYS Northern Saw Whet Owls – but…not this day. We had been greeted by an American White Pelican with its breeding horn clearly visible and there were lots of Bald Eagles including one beautifully silhouetted against a brilliant blue sky but not very many other birds and definitely no owls. Some birds that were not so great to find were Mallards – or at least parts of them as we found feathers and skeletons and wings all over the ground – probably the work of the eagles and Red Tailed Hawks.
We had trudged through a lot of snow and did not have a lot to show for it. In addition to knowing every birding spot in the County (and every rock and tree and flower and bush etc) the Dennys are ever optimistic and were sure we would find some owls at our next stop – Charbonneau Park. At first it looked like a repeat of our first stop – lots of whitewash but where were the owls. Oh – wait – there’s one – and what a little beauty. A Northern Saw Whet Owl buried in the thick branches of one of the pine trees. Unlike what is often the case, there was a clear view through the branches and this little 8 inch beauty was in good light and was very photogenic.
Northern Saw Whet Owl
The first owl sort of broke the dam and the rest of the day was filled with owls – another Saw Whet at Charbonneau and then three more at Fish Hook Park. And three Great Horned Owls at Charbonneau and three more at Fish Hook.
Great Horned Owl
We also had a probable Barn Owl as we were leaving Charbonneau and then at least two more Barn Owls at Fish Hook. The latter were very uncooperative – always flying out of trees just as we got to them and always out the back of the tree giving only brief views in flight. I botched one good look and photo op with the wrong setting so can only show one very mediocre flight shot. An unusual photo op was of the disembodied head of a Red Tailed Hawk on the ground in the snow – probably the result of Great Horned Owl predation.
Red Tailed Hawk Head
A More Typical View of a Northern Saw Whet Owl
Barn Owl in Flight
I missed some Long Eared Owls seen by others as the group split on trails in the snow but as will be obvious later, there were many others. What I did not miss was a flock of Cedar Waxwings feasting on berries and Russian Olives and providing some very nice photo ops.
I was not tracking every stop that we made, but Mike and MerryLynn had scouted out numerous Long Eared Owl roosting spots in thickets along Sheffler Road and and Smith Springs Road. With spotting help from others , especially eagle eyed Dan Reiff I was able to finally see the owls in the very thick brush and even got some photos.
Long Eared Owl
A week earlier, the Dennys had located a Harris’s Sparrow along Smith Springs Road in a thicket with other sparrows. We only got intermittent and distant views, but there was no mistaking the bird and I got a couple of ID photos. Mike said that historical records had numerous Harris’s Sparrow records for the county each winter. Now they are few and far between.
There were more Long Eared Owls ahead but there was another possibility and the group was excited at the prospect of seeing a Great Gray Owl. A pair had been seen regularly, including earlier that morning, on Lewis Peak Road. We traveled to the spot and it looked perfect – hunting meadows and great trees for perching. Dusk was approaching and the timing was just right – but the owls had not gotten the message and pulled a very disappointing no-show. It would have been a life bird for many on the trip.
The gang regrouped later at a nice Mexican restaurant in Walla Walla. It had been a great day. 5 Northern Saw Whet Owls, 7 Great Horned Owls, 13 Long Eared Owls, 3 (or maybe 4) Barn Owls. After dinner, some of the group (not me) joined Mike and MerryLynn for one more owl – a Western Screech Owl. It was not an “owl by day” but it added a species and brought the total to 29 or 30. Quite a show – and the Dennys were super as always.
The next day on the way home, I stopped at the Dodd Road Barn Owl cliff and had one clearly visible in its cavity nest. So make that 30 owls for sure. Wow!!
Barn Owl in Nest Cavity
My only Great Gray photo in Washington was with the Dennys in 2015 on Biscuit Ridge – not far from Lewis Peak. I want another Great Gray Owl and another photo. I will have to return.
Great Gray from Biscuit Ridge in 2015