Saturday, July 18, 2020

Western Screech Owl

I visited Corn Springs in the Chuckwalla Mountains this morning very early. I left home at 3:05 a.m. and arrived a little before 5:00 a.m. Very near the palm tree oasis in very early morning light I saw two small owls fluttering around in some honey mesquite trees. I got out of the car and one flew and I was able to take a few photos of the other. I've lightened the photo to provide a more detailed look. 
Elf owls are uncommon in California. A 1987 survey of elf owls in California identified Corn Springs as a spot historically where they are found. They are found only in riparian habitats. They are found primarily along the Colorado River in California and Corn Springs is one of the few additional sites. The BLM handout for Corn Springs notes that the palm trees at the palm tree oasis provide cavities that the elf owls use to nest. 

They migrate to far southeastern California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas in the spring and summer to breed and lay eggs and winter in central and southern Mexico. 
This photo is too blurry, but does show the yellow in the eye. 
They eat insects such as moths, crickets, scorpions, centipedes and beetles and migrate for the winter in Mexico because the U.S. deserts are too cold to support those nocturnal insects. 

The elf owl is grayish brown, has pale yellow eyes, thin white eyebrows and a gray bill. It is about the size of a sparrow. Chicks are born in mid-June or early July and by the end of July are fledged and ready to go out on their own. I believe these were young birds just leaving the nest as their flight seemed fluttery.

Yesterday I also signed up to become part of, something my son has encouraged me to do and one of my granddaughters recently signed up and posted some items. This owl was the first thing I posted and I got two responses the same day, both indicating it was a western screech owl. I'd ruled out the screech owl because they have ear tufts and this one doesn't. One of the responders said the gray color and black streaks on the back ruled out an elf owl. So I googled fledgling western screech owl and found an owl that looks like this one, without the ear tufts.

So turning to the western screech owl, I find that they have a much larger range, from Alaska to Nicaragua. It is a smallish owl with a squarish head and little ear tufts and yellow eyes. Plumage color varies from gray to brown, but it generally has dark streaks on the belly, a dark border around the face, and a dark bill. In the southwestern U.S. they tend to be paler gray. The one thing that had bothered me about my identification as an elf owl is that this one seemed too big.

This was a fun new foray into the world of inaturalist and I'm finding out, right away, the benefit of having others with lots of knowldge weigh-in. 


  1. The size of a sparrow? I had no idea there were owls that tiny! Very cute!