by Sarah Toner
The sun beat down on the exposed rocks of the wash, and also on the young birders of 2012 Camp Chiricahua. Even though we were at 5,800 feet in the Huachuca Mountains of southeastern Arizona, the sun was still quite intense. The burned trees around us, remnants of the Beatty’s famous apple orchard, provided little shade. Mr. Beatty approached our group and we chatted about recent sightings. He mentioned the Spotted Owl family residing in a lightly-burned area.
“Where’s that?” one our leaders, Michael O’Brien, asked.
“Not very far. You go up to the gate and follow the trail for a couple hundred yards until you see pink flagging. Turn left and follow the slope down. Cross the stream and head up the slope until you see another pink flag. Stand at the post and they’ll be in the immediate vicinity. I saw them there yesterday.”
Although explicit, these directions still left us a bit bewildered. Nevertheless, after a few minutes of circuitous confusion, we found the back fence and the elusive gate.
Spotted Owls, of course, are a famous endangered species, but most people know about the Northern Spotted Owl, the subspecies in the Pacific Northwest. The Mexican subspecies, which reaches from Arizona south through the Sierra Madre mountains, was one of the special Arizona birds that we had hoped to find during camp, so we were excited to have a family group in the area that would increase our chances.
Excited, we hurried along. While hiking up the rocky, steep trail, we paused to enjoy Arizona Sister butterflies that drifted past, unbothered by the harsh sun. When we turned off of the trail, the blackened, bare soil crumbled beneath our feet, making progress down the slope difficult. Soon, however, we reached the creek that we had to cross.
Some campers carefully stepped across on the wet rocks, but I was wearing sandals and didn’t want to risk slipping and breaking my camera. Instead, I unbuckled my sandals, stripped off my socks and stuffed them in my pocket, put my sandals back on, and waded in. The water was refreshingly cool, a lovely feeling on the hot day. I dawdled in the stream for a bit before following the group toward the flagging.
The slope was quite steep and as dirt tumbled into my sandals and stuck to my wet feet, I placed my feet carefully to avoid slipping. I finally made it up the slope to the back of the group and found that everyone had stopped. Glancing to my left, I saw the pink flagging on the stake, and I was just about to ask why we weren’t continuing on when I looked straight ahead and saw the owl.
I was breathless. We were less than thirty feet from a juvenile Mexican Spotted Owl, peering at us and bobbing its head. He still had tawny fluff on his head and body, but some of his brownish feathers had come in. He blinked at us curiously, unperturbed by our presence. Hesitantly, I lifted my camera and took a few pictures. As the owl continued to stare at us, I started on a field sketch. We were enjoying the experience.
For a while, I lost all sense of time, but I realized that it had been about ten minutes when the owl seemed to be getting a little annoyed. Understanding that our presence was no longer welcome, we turned and stumbled back down the slope, more dirt getting stuck in my sandals along the way.
Back at the creek, we relaxed and splashed around. I cleaned off my dirty feet and we doused our sweaty heads. As we rested on the rocks, we noticed the many butterflies that were feeding on the rocks by the creek. One particular Golden-banded Skipper was obliging enough to land on Louise and a few campers. It was quite peaceful in the clear, cool stream, with the smooth rocks massaging my feet as I waded. It was a nice way to finish off the sighting. The hummingbirds were sparse at the Beatty’s feeders, but the thrill of the owl made the day.
About the author: Sarah Toner, 14, has been birding since she was 8. She lives in southeast Michigan but wants to move to beautiful Whitefish Point, Michigan. She doesn't have one favorite bird, but likes drab, brown northern birds such as Clay-colored Sparrow, Boreal Chickadee, and Rough-legged Hawk. She was a member of the 2011 ABA Tropicbirds team in Texas and attended the 2011 Camp Colorado. Sarah also received first place in the 10-13 year-old writing division and third place in the illustration division of the 2010 ABA Young Birder of the Year contest.