Mexican Owls, Spotted
Spotted Owls are one of those rare species that resonate in the non-birding world, largely because of their long association with the environmental movement. Back in the 80s, Spotted Owls became something of a bogeyman among the timber extraction industry in the Pacific Northwest in much the same way that the Piping Plover is on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The story is a familiar on. Timber companies wanted to log the many hundred years old forest in Oregon and Washington. The Spotted Owl lived there and thus, many forests were protected under the auspices of the Endangered Species Act (back when it had teeth), and so, the closure of various timber mills and the economic impacts felt therein were blamed on the owls. Bumper stickers (many of them strikingly familiar to those of us fighting the plover battle) were common place. The conflict was even in Time magazine. Environmentalists were scape-goated. The whole nine yards.
Now the owls up in the northwest are dealing with other problems less overtly related to logging interest. Barred Owls invading from the east are depredating the smaller Spotteds and moving into areas where the Spotted Owls once nested. The species is still declining, and it is no longer the cause célèbre of those various environmental groups. But what is less known by the general public is that those northwestern owls are only one of three subspecies of Spotted Owl, whose range dips deep into Mexico. And arguably, the northern populations are the least in need of significant environmental intervention.
The southernmost subspecies, called Mexican Spotted Owl, is found in scattered high elevation canyons across the southwestern United States and Northwestern Mexico. It does not need the classic old-growth forest, preferring pine and mixed juniper/oak forests that could not be less like the towering moss-covered woods that the northern birds prefer. So for those brought up on the environmental clashes of the 80s, it’s still odd to hike up a canyon, one significantly burned off in the fires of the year before, and come across a big Spotted Owl perched in a pine tree right next to the trail. But that’s precisely what we found in Miller Canyon. It really couldn’t have been easier. Well, except for the impressive hike to get there.
The owl was a male. Apparently the female, and at least one quickly growing chick, had been seen in the area recently too, though we never got a glimpse of them. Not that it mattered, a good look at an owl is a rare thing indeed, and this one was practically a show-off, and completely unaffected by the small mob of people gathering around and poking long lensed cameras and spotting scopes up in its grill. This was an owl accustomed to gawkers.
We stood in a dry creekbed and looked up. Then we moved over to the opposite bank and looked across. The bird was barely 10 feet up the tree. A brave, or stupid, individual could probably have touched it had the owl allowed it. It was, by far, one of the easiest owls I’d ever seen, made all the more amazing because of its rarity.
Like its northern populations, Mexican Spotted Owls were under threat from logging interests, even in the relatively forest-free southwest. But these days their biggest threat is fire. The massive wildfires that torched millions of acres in Arizona and New Mexico last year destroyed a lot of prime owl habitat, and as the region warms, these sorts of fires are predicted to become semi-annual events, at least twice a decade.
Miller Canyon, where we found these owls, was one of the hardest hit in 2011. In fact, not more than a couple hundred meters from where we bathed in Spotted Owl goodness were the charred remains of a canyon pine forest. the fires had swept over the mountain but had luckly avoided this particular wall, this particular stand, leaving enough for a pair of Spotted Owls to get a chick out this year. But on the other had, that burned over portion of the canyon was alive with wildflowers and hummingbirds. In another couple years, the woodpeckers will have their pick of delicious grubs from forests of rotting timber. Fire is a crucial part of the ecosystem here, and active suppression is as harmful as letting the flames run rampant.
As with too many things related to land management for endangered species, the answer is complicated. And with federal agencies charged with protected this area pulled in so many directions by so many interests, it’s hard to see where the owls will end up in the shuffle. For now, though, there was at least one available to make a group of birder/bloggers very very happy.