With my inward focus on county lifers I begin to realize that I had many common and uncommon species on my life list that now became new targets for the county.
In Santa Cruz County I had five species of owls: great horned, barn, burrowing, short-eared, and saw-whet. I had two more that I had not yet heard in the county, when owling, hearing is believing. These are the western screech-owl and northern pygmy-owl.
As day turned to dark, I headed to the slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains near Corralitos. Owling is a new kind of birding madness that makes one wake up at an ungodly hour or head up into the hills on one lane, windy roads in the darkening night. My destination was Hazel Dell Road, a productive owling road in the county.
I stopped at the intersection of Hazel Dell and Mt. Madonna Road and got out to listen of my target owling. I heard nothing except for the din of frogs just down the road. I struck out on both species.
Seeing a recent online birding post, I was reminded that I did not have white-throated sparrow in county. So on a Sunday morning, I headed out early to looking for this beautiful but uncommon Santa Cruz County sparrow.
I headed up Meder Canyon and turned right into the side canyon. This spot reliably produces California thrashers, except for today. I did hear the cat-like “mew” of a blue-gray gnatcatcher. I climbed up the slope to get a better vantage point to see the gnatcatcher and that’s when I first heard the northern-pygmy-owl!
If the toot-toot call of a saw-whet sounds like a owl on too much coffee, then the northern pygmy-owl has had too much NyQuil. I could clearly hear the slow toot-toot call coming from across the canyon. It was just 8AM.
It may sound odd that a nocturnal predator like an owl would be active in the day but northern pygmy-owl is noted for it’s daytime dalliances. According to David Sibley in his Sibley Guide to Birds, pygmy-owls are “active in daylight” and it’s song is “often heard during the day”.
I headed back down slope and to try to locate the owl. It sounded like the owl was calling from brush or trees further up slope. After about two minutes, the pygmy-owl stopped calling and I was unable to locate it. It was a great encounter anyway.
Now it was time for my next target bird, white-crowned sparrow. I returned to the main canyon and headed up to a location were the sparrow had been recently seen.
It was a warm morning and it had a feeling of a spring morning and I was surrounded by the calls of birds: Steller’s and scrub jays, wrentits, yellow-rumped warblers, a Bewick’s wren, a pair of oak titmice, and a northern flicker.
As I neared the end of the trail at Meder Street and University Terrace Park I stopped at the “bird feeder” house. The back of this house faces the trail and the owners put out seed and suet on the upper balcony. There were some juncos and an acorn woodpecker feeding at the feeder when walked up.
On the right side of the trail was a golden-crowned sparrow perched on a sign. This was a good sign. I was hoping the white-throated was loosely associating with other sparrows.
I saw a sparrow fly into the eucalyptus about ten feet high. I tried to get a better vantage point. I got bins on the bird: white suplercilium, yellow lores, and the the distinctive white throat! A new county lifer: white-throated sparrow.