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 because information about this species is so limited. We figured since we were looking for difficult to find species we would add Fulvous Owl to our search too… since it is not ranged as being in Oaxaca at all.
Though not listed as occurring in Oaxaca we knew that Fulvous Owl had been seen in the mountains to the east of Oaxaca City in recent years and even had a general idea of where to look. To further narrow our search, experience has shown that Fulvous Owl is generally found above 7,000 ft. elevation in Southern Mexico, in dense cloud forests with large trees. It’s a fairly vocal owl and like its cousin the Barred Owl, it is reasonably bold. When planning this trip, we thought that finding Fulvous Owl would be much easier than it turned out to be. Searching such a vast area for a single owl with as much time and information as we had cannot be underestimated. After four full nights of searching the mountains, some minor altercations with the locals, the typical dangers of being on remote dirt roads in Southern Mexico at night, and in unfamiliar locations, our efforts were rewarded with a beautiful pair of Fulvous Owls. That just saved us a difficult trip to Chiapas or Guatemala and what a beautiful owl this is!
Now that the easy part of the trip was done (!) we headed for the coast to search for Oaxaca Screech-Owl. The descriptions of this owl are definitely not consistent. There are no recordings to be found, and to my knowledge, no photos in existence. The research seems to be from museum skins collected in the 1950’s. No researcher or guide we had contact with had ever seen this owl and the locations where specimens were taken so long ago had lost most of their native habitat. 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 quickly located the Oaxaca Screech-Owl. 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.
We did come upon and take pictures and recordings of several other owl species that I should mention here. The first of these being Mottled Owl. This is not an unusual species but I was surprised to see the northern race this far south. There are two readily distinguished races of Mottled Owl in Mexico. 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!
Another owl we encountered was Colima Pygmy-Owl. Oaxaca is the farthest south this species is found. 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.
We found two owl species in the mountains to the east of Oaxaca City that also deserve note here. First of these is the Whiskered Screech-Owl (photo shown). It is resident and non-migratory throughout its range. It can be found as far north as south-east Arizona, throughout most of Central Mexico and south into Oaxaca in proper habitat. The second of these owl species, also found in the US, is Flammulated Owl. This is probably the most migratory owl species in North America. We were fairly surprised to find this owl since it is not mentioned by Howell as being in these mountains and they were abundant in the high 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. I would be interested to survey the same locations a few months later to see if any of this species remained or if all of them had migrated north.
Last 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.