His owl sightings, photos, discoveries and frankly anything else having to do with owls is remarkable, amazing and downright hard to fathom. How does he do it? Great Grays, Western Screech, Flammulated, Long and Short Eared, Saw Whets and Pygmys and even Northern Spotted Owls and Hawk Owls. He knows their haunts, their habits, where to find them and how to photograph them. He is the “Owl Whisperer“. Owls are among the most sought after birds everywhere. We all want to see them. We struggle. We try and when we succeed at all, we are thrilled. Especially for some of these beauties, far too often, there is no success, no visual, no photo, not even a “heard only”. It seems that Khanh never misses. And there are not just pictures; there are photographs, beautiful works of art.
It would be so easy to hate someone like this. Each photo reminding us of our failures. But, he is also a good guy. Funny, engaging. Heck, he’s even cute. Not fair. Not even close to fair. I considered myself greatly fortunate to have photographs, well at least pictures, of every owl in Washington – except Boreal and Flammulated Owls. I have seen a Boreal Owl once – deep in the trees at Mount Rainier. It would not come closer. At best it was a glimpse, hardly even “a look”. Even a poor picture was not possible. I saw a shadow of one once – at Salmo Mountain late at night with snow on the road and more frosting the trees. Maybe it was a shadow or maybe it was just a spiritual presence in that very remote, beautiful and serene part of our State. But its hoots were real.
At noon at the top of Bethel Ridge several of us heard a Flammulated Owl calling. A creature of the dark night, this never happens. But I have witnesses. It called for more than 15 minutes, never visible to any of us, until it burst out of the tree, flew almost over our heads and then disappeared. Little bastard!! I had a brief visual on another occasion – at night – but could not find it after it perched who knows where. I have heard maybe 20 Flammulated Owls in Washington and last year with the aid of Tim Avery finally got a photo in Utah.
Khanh Tran routinely finds, sees and photographs both Boreal and Flammulated Owls. But I have no hate, just envy and admiration and a fantasy of having a day, even just a single day, when I could whisper to the owls and have them appear before me like they do – always do for Khan Tran. A single Khanh Tran kind of day. Just one. Please…
Well, it happened. No Flammulated Owls and no Boreal Owls but yesterday (June 22) I found SEVEN Burrowing Owls!! Not nearly as rare as Boreal and Flammulated Owls but hey they are much cuter!! And some of my pictures just may be good enough to be called “photographs”, but you will be the judge of that. If not quality, definitely there is quantity. Here’s what happened on my Khan Tran kind of day.
Last week on the way home from a wonderful visit to Sunriver, Cindy and I stopped at the High Desert Museum. Lots of good exhibits even with limits imposed by the COVID-19 restrictions. Pretty hard to beat the photogenic River Otters at feeding time, but at the very end, we enjoyed the Burrowing Owl exhibit and I got a very fun photo even though the owl was behind glass. Maybe it was an omen. (Whoa!! Maybe Khan was sending a message – hey, he lives in Oregon after all.)
River Otters – High Desert Museum, Bend, Oregon
So on Monday I decided to go looking for a Burrowing Owl in Washington. It would be my first of the year and I have seen them every year since 2011 so it would be the tenth year in a row. Recent reports have been from the area near Hatchery Road and Rocky Ford in Grant County, a place I had seen them in April last year, so that would be my target area. So the plan was an early start, a first stop at Bullfrog Pond near Cle Elum and then to owl country.
The birds were as expected at Bullfrog Pond and neighboring Wood Duck Road. Veeries were calling everywhere and I had five warbler species: Nashville, MacGillivray’s, Yellow, Wilson’s and Common Yellowthroat. No pictures of them worth sharing. Better photos were of a family of young Western Bluebirds and some Cassin’s Finches from Wood Duck Road.
Young Western Bluebirds
I had seen 40 species by the time I reached Ellensburg, the sun was out and the temperature was up more than 25 degrees from the time I arrived at Bullfrog and was now a comfortable 63 degrees. It got warmer as I continued East. I was relying on my phone’s GPS to take me to the spot on Hatchery Road where Ebird reports said 2 Burrowing Owls had been seen two days earlier. It chose a route that was not what I expected and it took me onto Road 9 near Soap Lake. There were many Western Meadowlarks and Western Kingbirds usually on the telephone wires.
Just before reaching Dodson Road as I was speeding down Road 9, my eye noticed something on the wire that was not a Meadowlark or Kingbird. It looked like an owl but I had never seen one perched on a wire that far off the ground. I made a quick U-turn and was under “it” and the “it” was indeed an owl, my first Burrowing Owl of the day and of 2020. I watched it for several minutes remaining in my car as a blind. Picture, picture, picture. It then flew to the ground and there were more pictures. It flew off…and disappeared with me thinking it had flown into a culvert – perhaps its nest burrow. I was still miles away from the “target area” and I had found my target already. I was a happy camper, indeed.
Burrowing Owl – Road 9
I gave a few minutes thought to changing plans and with such an early success finding the only real target of the day, I considered researching another FOY and trying for it – maybe a Gray Partridge or even a Dusky Grouse. But they were hours away, so I carried on towards Hatchery Road. My GPS told me to continue on Road 9 and then turn onto Road A. Not what I expected, but the deviation to Road 9 had worked – why not? And this worked, too.
It is not 100% clear how the road numbering/naming system works in the area but as I was traveling essentially what I think was East on Road A, my GPS said I was approaching Road 12.3 on my left. Traveling at 60 mph as I zoomed towards the intersection and then past it as another car was about to turn onto Road A, I thought I saw a little bump on a rocky outcropping a short ways up Road 12.3. I made another quick U-turn and turned right onto 12.3 and indeed it was another Burrowing Owl not bothered by my presence or the pickup that had just turned onto Road A. The camera was busy again.
Burrowing Owl – Road 12.3
A second pick up came roaring down 12.3 towards me. How could there be so much traffic on this little nothing of a road? This time the owl flew off and landed on a smaller rock maybe 100 feet away. I was still not even on Highway 17 let alone Hatchery Road and I had seen two Burrowing Owls. Pretty good indeed. Back onto Road A and then a right turn onto Highway 282 which is where I had expected to be earlier. A mile or so and then a left turn onto Highway 17. I recalled that Burrowing Owls had been reported on Highway 17 but I had not noted where since my focus was on Hatchery Road.
Maybe 3 or 4 miles up Highway 17 and perhaps a half mile before the right turn to Hatchery Road, I saw an SUV pulled over on the left side of the road. A guy was standing on the front seat and up into the open sunroof. He had a camera with a long lens. What was he seeing? On a bird chase, you always hope that there is a birder already there when you arrive with the target in front of him or her to be pointed out to you. This was sorta the case here. A photographer and not a birder, he was focused on a nest burrow on top of a rise leading to a fenced field. There was an an adult Burrowing Owl which flew off and two Owlets which retreated into the burrow. Amazingly, now before reaching the target zone, I had seen 5 Burrowing Owls. This was the first sense that this indeed was a Khanh Tran kind of day. No photos, but wow!!
Well, it was a good thing that I had found the Burrowing Owls that I did because there were none to be found along Hatchery Road or at Rocky Ford. Later I found out that the Ebird report I had relied on for the Hatchery Road sighting was inaccurate and that the owls had been seen on Highway 17 – maybe at the same burrow I had left earlier. Ebird is a wonderful tool but it and those who use it often leave much to be desired when it comes to pinpoint accuracy. I am sure I have sinned that way as well although I am trying to avoid doing so.
There were other birds along Hatchery Road, though. A distant Grasshopper Sparrow scratched out its insect-like song/call. Several Savannah Sparrows appeared atop the sage or on the wires and then disappeared in flight. Lark Sparrows did the same. Again quite distant with the resulting photos leaving much to desire. A Rock Wren sang on a rock and then responding to my playback flew to another rock and then another. Never close but no mistaking the song or the identification even without the rocks.
And Western Kingbirds were common and easily seen on the wires. All told on this trip there may have been 18 or more of them, even outnumbering the Western Meadowlarks.
Western Kingbird on Hatchery Road
Long ago I occasionally went flyfishing at Rocky Ford. There are some very large rainbow trout in the crystal clear waters. Challenging fishing for sure. This day the lure was a chance for Sora and Virginia Rails. I played the whinny call for a Sora and got an immediate response – actually two. A Sora was calling from across the creek, unlikely to fly over to check me out. Much closer was a Virginia Rail. I often find that either rail will respond to the call of the other. There are openings in the reeds near the fishing platform where I was trying the playback and I thought a visual might be possible.
I heard at least one and possibly two more Virginia Rails and they eagerly responded to the “grunt” calls my phone played for them. I spent at least 20 minutes there hoping for a view and maybe a photo. I had several views of one of the rails skittering between the reeds, but my only photos were of the spot where the Rail had just been or maybe its flanks against the reeds. Then one came into the open just long enough to get a photo of at least most of the bird. Probably my first Virginia Rail photo of the year.
Very happy for the day, it was time to head home. I would not have expected it, but there was even the chance to join Cindy for dinner. So it was back to the Burrowing Owl nest on Highway 17 hoping for a photo of the Owlets. They remained in the burrow and I had a glimpse of the adult in the field. Retracing my steps in about a mile I saw another Burrowing Owl this time on the other side of the road perched on a fence post. Maybe it was part of the family from the nest I had just left but a mile seems a bit too far for that. In the first photo the owl is looking right at me. In the second it is glancing skyward at a Red Tailed Hawk that was soaring above.
Before this trip, I think the most Burrowing Owls I have seen in one day in Washington is probably three, possibly four. Now I was up to six. There would be one more although I needed distant help to do so. Let me explain. I wanted to see if the owls I had found on the way in were still there – both from my own curiosity and also because if so then it would increase the chance that others could follow my reports and find them if they were interested. Coming up on Road 12.3 I could see that familiar bump on the rocky outcropping. The Burrowing Owl was still there. It took off as I turned onto the road, but I already had my photos, so that was no issue. I did see other critters on rocks – Yellow Bellied Marmots I believe.
Yellow Bellied Marmots
How about the first find of the day back on Road 9. As I was approaching the spot which was entered into my GPS I could see an owl-like form on the wire less than 100 feet from where I had seen the first owl that morning. It remained motionless as I again took a number of photos. Very pleased, it was now time to say goodbye to this extraordinary day and head home. Several hours later I was home and went through my pictures, editing some and posting the best of them on Facebook recounting what I thought was a six-owl day. One viewer, R.J. Baltierra – a super birder from the Tri-Cities saw the post and paid a lot more knowledgeable attention to them than I had. Noticing coloration differences between some of the photos I posted from Road 9, he wondered if perhaps there were two different birds. I responded to his inquiry with a clarification of when each photo was taken and indeed the first was the female and the second was of the paler male. So it became a seven owl day. And none where I had expected to find them.
Burrowing Owl – Second Viewing on Road 9 – the Spots are From an Irrigation Sprinkler in Action when I was There
Acknowledging that these are not Boreal nor Flammulated nor Spotted nor Hawk Owls, I loved finding, seeing and photographing these wonderful little owls, finding them in unexpected locations although in perfect habitat. I almost expected Khanh Tran to show up and with a smile, he would say something like: “I hope you enjoyed this. I knew you were heading this way and put in a special request for these owls to greet you. Welcome to my world, and no you don’t even have to thank me!!”