Tag Archives: Mottled Owl

Owling Oaxaca, Mexico

In late February we took a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico to find the newly defined Oaxaca Screech-Owl. This was going to be a real challenge. There is very little information regarding this species. We figured since we were looking for difficult to find species we would add Fulvous Owl to our search too… since it has no confirmed Oaxaca range at all.

Fulvous Owl

Fulvous OwlAlthough the  Fulvous Owl does not have a formal range listing showing it as occurring in Oaxaca, we knew there had been reports of sightings in recent years. We even had a fair idea of where to look or at least a general area. That was still weak information on a species that is only supposedly present. I had some previous experience with this owl from the mountains in Southern Chiapas. I knew he was normally resident above 7,000 feet in elevation. The habitat would be dense cloud forest with large trees. This owl is a fairly vocal one. Like its cousin, the Barred Owl, it is reasonably bold in behavior.

We underestimated the difficulty of searching such a vast area for one owl with the time and information we had. We spent four full night searching the mountains. Adding to the difficulty was “minor altercations” with the locals, the typical dangers of being on remote dirt roads in Southern Mexico at night, and being in unfamiliar locations. Yet our perseverance paid off when we found a beautiful pair of Fulvous Owls. That just saved us a difficult trip to Chiapas or Guatemala and what a beautiful owl this is!

Oaxaca Screech-Owl

Oaxaca Screech-Owl

We headed for the coast now that we had finished the easy part! Next was to search for Oaxaca Screech-Owl. The descriptions of this owl are definitely not consistent. We knew of no recordings and there were no photos available. The people who wrote the research we could find had done it using museum skins.  No researcher or guide we had contact with had ever seen this owl. So we first checked the locations where the research specimens had come from so long ago. There was no longer native habitat and only man-made sounds at night.

No sweat, all we needed to do was find a screech-owl along the south-eastern Pacific coast of Oaxaca (or at least within 50 miles of the coastline) with an unrecognizable vocalization. With a little inside info of where to look from Michael Carmody, a top guide here in the US, we finally located the Oaxaca Screech-Owl (or some owl with an unrecognizable call in the right area). The problem was that it stayed buried deep in thick thorn forests and was so timid that we spent five nights traveling every back road we could find to get a glimpse of this owl (and every day pre-scouting for proper habitat). Now I know why there are no pictures out there! With this experience behind me I am certainly going to have to come back here again and see if a different time of year makes seeing this owl a bit simpler.

Mottled Owl

Mottled OwlWe did come upon and take pictures and recordings of several other owl species that I should mention here. Mottled Owl was the first of these. This is a common owl species in Mexico. The surprise was to find the northern race this far south. The two races of Mottled Owl are readily distinguishable. The northern race is much lighter than the southern race. Photos of both races can be seen on Owling.com. I have seen the southern race to the north-east of the Oaxaca coast in Chiapas. We saw multiple Mottled Owls in our efforts to get one of those darn Oaxaca Screech-Owls to show itself. Mottled Owl is probably a predator of Oaxaca Screech-Owl. This one came in looking for dinner but found us instead!

Colima Pygmy-Owl

Colima Pygmy-OwlAnother owl we encountered was Colima Pygmy-Owl. Oaxaca is the southern range extent for this species. It is smaller than the Mountain Pygmy-Owl and found at lower elevation. This cute little owl is extremely unpopular with the other small birds because despite being the size of a large sparrow they are voracious predators that prey upon the other birds as their primary diet. There were quite a few of these that were vocal both day and night. Since he is primarily diurnal (active in the day) it was interesting that we heard them also in the night. In retrospect it might have been interesting to see if we could have called one in at night.

Whiskered Screech-Owl and Flammulated Owl

Whiskered Screech-OwlWe found two owl species in the mountains to the east of Oaxaca City that also deserve note here. Whiskered Screech-Owl (photo shown) was the first of these. It is resident and non-migratory throughout its range. In the northern extents of its range it is a resident owl species of south-east Arizona. It is a common resident  throughout most of Central Mexico and south into Oaxaca in proper habitat.

Flammulated Owl was the second of these owl species. This small owl migrates into the US in the spring and summer. This is probably the most migratory owl species in North America. Howell does not mention this owl being in these mountains. Finding this species surprised us. Furthermore they were abundant in the higher elevations. In the US during the winter months all Flammulated Owls migrate south out of the country. At this time of year (late February) they were very vocal in the mountains. It would be interesting to survey this area a few months later to see if the Flammulated Owls all migrate north.

Mountain Pygmy-Owl

Mountain Pygmy-OwlLast owl of mention here is the Mountain Pygmy-Owl, another very small diurnal owl, which is similar in habits and appearance to the Colima Pygmy-Owl. His primary diet is also the other small birds and is about as equally unpopular with them! He is vocally different from the Colima Pygmy-Owl and found at much higher elevation. Our primary interest with this species, in this location, was to have recordings to compare with the nearby Guatemalan Pygmy-Owl that we will look for in Chiapas on a future trip. The Mountain Pygmy-Owl is found as far north as Arizona and although accepted by most authors as unique from Northern Pygmy-Owl (vocally and genetically distinct), the AOU still combines this with Northern Pygmy-Owl. Expect that to change in the future.

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Owling Costa Rica



Friend and expert photographer David Nelson and I traveled to Costa Rica to do some research on Vermiculated Screech-Owl. While there, we also photographed several other owls including two species that I had never seen before. We flew into San Jose and then headed west to the Carara Biologica Reserva area (1). This area had the first new owl for me: Striped Owl. I have missed this species on previous trips to southern Mexico, Panama and Costa Rica. It is a really beautiful bird. We found four Striped Owls and multiple birds of four other owl species this first night and the next morning.

Our second day we went back across to the Caribbean lowlands to stay for two nights in Veragua (2). This is a developing ecotourism and educational reserve in eastern Costa Rica. Not yet developed for anything beyond a day visit, it was one of the most interesting places we went. The reserve is about a 45-minute drive off the main highway and then another hour on rough dirt roads. We stayed in very basic quarters, setup for the construction crew that had built the reserve’s educational center. At 6:00 each night, everyone left the reserve and we were alone, locked-in and far from anyone. It was quite an experience to be in such a remote Caribbean jungle all alone. The staff turned off the generators at night. Subsequently there were no lights, fans or even water, and no phones or cell phone coverage.

It was a really amazing place to be at night with incredible nocturnal wildlife from jaguars to vipers. The diurnal wildlife was equally impressive. We saw many types of interesting birds, mammals, and two species of poison dart frogs. Owls we found there included Vermiculated Screech-Owl, Crested Owl and Central American Pygmy-Owl, the other owl species new to me. The main reasons for visiting Veragua was first to record Vermiculated Screech-Owl. This would be for a tentative research article on systematics of the Vermiculated Screech-Owl complex. Second, to photograph Central American Pygmy-Owl. We photographed both red and brown phase (morphs) of Vermiculated Screech-Owls. The Central American Pygmy-Owl we also found and photographed. We also recorded the voices of both of the preceding species along with Crested Owl. Our short exploratory venture here was both fascinating and breathtaking.

After Veragua, we went north to La Selva Biological Reserve (3) to get additional recordings and photos of Vermiculated Screech-Owl there. La Selva is a popular destination in Costa Rica. We spent the fourth and fifth nights at this location. Although we got what we went there for, we struggled with rain. In both Veragua and La Selva, we had multiple rain storms that made it difficult to achieve our goals – cameras and recording equipment do not do well in rain! Despite the weather trouble, we got done everything we went there for. La Selva is a beautiful place and a popular birding destination. A large NBC crew (200+) arrived to shoot some new reality show the day we left. They wouldn’t tell us what it was about. We were glad not to be not around for that.

The sixth day found us south again, this time in the San Geraldo de Dota area, a lush, secluded canyon region in the mountains below San Jose (4). We were hoping to photograph a rare red phase of the Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl that I knew was nesting in this canyon. Our stay was very pleasant and we saw lots of new species of birds and wildlife. We found the pygmy-owl we went for, but it stayed very high up in the canopy so our photos were poor. I have photographed and recorded this species before but have to try to get pictures of this color morph another time in the future. It was still nice to get out of the lowlands into the cooler mountains and an interesting change of birds, wildlife and habitat.

On our seventh day we moved to the volcano Irazu to the east of San Jose (5) to look for Unspotted Saw-whet Owl, a very rare species in Costa Rica. It was a long shot and access into the forests along the side of the volcano proved to be just too difficult without more time to explore the area. We did find and photograph Bare-shanked Screech Owl, another mountain species, while searching the area. Late that night we decided to return to the Carara (6) area on the west coast where we began our trip. That way, we could try for better photos of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl in the early morning before catching our flight home the next afternoon.

Our last morning in Costa Rica went just as planned. We found at least four different Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl individuals and got better photos than we had previously. Even with the unseasonable amounts of rain at this time of year, it was a productive trip and we saw lots of wildlife. Costa Rica is a very beautiful country and always a pleasure to visit.

Enjoy the photos,
Dan Lockshaw