When I first started birding, back in the 1970s, the accepted wisdom on where to find a pygmy-owl was to go to the saguaro cactus habitat in the Sonoran Desert. It was not until much later that I heard people talking about pygmy-owls in South Texas. Now, it is very difficult to find an owl in the desert. The go-to place is Texas.
The decline of owls in the desert (G. b. cactorum) is not fully understood, but rampant development of the desert around Tucson, and southern Arizona in general, is surely part of the picture. It is not the whole picture, however, as owls have become exceedingly scarce even in the undeveloped parks and refuges in the region and are declining in Mexico as well. To be sure, pygmy-owls were never “common” in Arizona (at least not since the early 1900s), always being a treasured find and a rarity at the edge of their range. But, beginning in the 1990s population declines became severe enough for the US Fish and Wildlife Service to list the western subspecies as endangered. Unfortunately, despite no evidence of recovery in the region, political pressure led to the de-listing of the species in 2006.
Recent studies of owl populations in Arizona and nearby Sonora, Mexico indicate that population decline is a regional phenomenon and there is little hope for increased recruitment of owls into the Arizona desert from the desert of Sonora. This suggests that the likelihood of significant recovery of the population in the U.S.is low and the prospects for birders to see more owls in the Sonoran Desert habitats in the near future are not good.
Less is known about the history of pygmy-owls (G. b. ridgwayi) in Texas. It was not until the pioneering work of Glenn Proudfoot and others in the middle 1990s that significant research effort was made. Indeed, it was just a few years earlier that pygmy-owls even made it onto the radar of most birders in the area. Whether this represents a case of recent increased colonization of the habitats of South Texas by the birds or just an increase in birders’ recognition of the species I do not know (although I suspect the latter).
Prior to the 1920s, pygmy-owls were a regular part of the South Texas avifauna (although I have not found any information on their abundance at that time beyond Oberholser’s account in The Bird Life of Texas) and were found in a variety of brushland habitats. From the 1920s until the 1970s massive clearing efforts for ranching and row-crop agriculture removed over 90% of the native brush and owls became rare.
How To See a Pygmy-Owl in the ABA Area
Since the 1990s, along with the increased research interest, there has been an increased interest in pygmy-owls as an important resource for ecotourism in South Texas. Much of what we know about owl populations is due to that ecotourism interest. Ecotourism is also the key to preserving the owls and the only reliable way to see an owl for a birder’s life list. There have been resident birds at several public-land locations in the Rio Grande Valley over the past 20 years but at the present time the only reliable locations are all on private land. (I will have more to say about searching for owls on public lands later.)
Without a doubt, the best chance you have to see a pygmy-owl is by taking an ecotour of the Norias Division of the King Ranch. Tom Langscheid and his staff have intimate knowledge of birds at several locations and they are often able to take their groups directly to an owl or owls. Unfortunately, the trip is rather pricey; about $125 and up, depending on how many are in your group. (Visit http://www.king-ranch.com/visit/nature-tours/ for more info.)
Other private ranches (El Canelo, San Miguelito) have offered birders the opportunity to see owls in the past but the presence of the birds has been less reliable lately. Contact the ranch to verify that they are seeing birds before you make the attempt. (El Canelo – http://www.elcaneloranch.com/birding) (Recent attempts to visit the San Miguelito website have failed. The ranch is listed as “for sale” and it looks like they are no longer offering birding access.)
Even though there have been no reliable reports of pygmy-owls on public lands in South Texas since the summer of 2010, there is no reason to think that they are not there somewhere. Likely locations to search are the Salt Lakes tracts of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Santa Ana NWR, and Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. Driving the back roads in ranch country during the main calling season (mid-March to mid-May) at dawn and dusk might also produce an owl. Some better than average chances are likely to be found along Highway 186 between Raymondville and Port Mansfield near the El Sauz Ranch. But be warned, you will find a whole lot of nothing before you find a pygmy-owl!
In Arizona, the two best locations to find a pygmy-owl are the western unit of the Saguaro National Monument and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Inquire at the park when you arrive and they will do their best to help you find an owl. Another location that has been fairly productive in recent years (but still not a sure thing by any means) is the Tortolita area just northwest of Tucson. Driving, or hiking, and listening are your best strategies.
Do not rely on eBird to produce your lifer owl. Don’t get me wrong. I love eBird. But, people are very protective of “their” owls and most sightings don’t even make it to eBird. Those that do may not give accurate details on location.
Hit the roads or just pony up the bucks and take a tour of the King Ranch. Either way have fun searching for your lifer FEPO!