Juvenile Whiskered Screech Owl, Photograph and Sound Recording

Photo by George Hentz, 1998

In January 1996 Tim and I were in the mountains south of Patagonia, Arizona for our first Christmas Bird Count in that area. We arrived at night having participated during the day at the Count on the San Pedro River near Sierra Vista. After six miles of hiking along the San Pedro, the drive from the river to Patagonia, and the painstaking effort to find an obscure spot in the wilderness for the first time (and at night) we were ready to hit the sack. It seemed like I had just dropped off to sleep when Tim was telling me he had found something. As soon as I could get my boots on we were off down a canyon road with flashlights keeping us from falling into a rivine. I don't think we had gone 50 feet before it started to snow. Except for our boots crunching it was dead quiet. Tim seemed to know where to go so for about 1/4 mile we walked in a snow storm with nothing but snowflakes to hear. Tim stopped and indicated with his flashlight where I should be listening. It was pitch black, cold, and really snowing hard as we stood on the edge of a ravine our lights could not outline. Then, seemingly parting the snow and the darkness, the most beautiful, haunting call floated our way from across the distant ravine. The smooth, sweet notes of the Morse Code call of the Whiskered Screech Owl should only be appreciated this way. I will probably live the rest of my life hoping to hear another bird that could so quickly warm a snowstorm and shine a beam of vocal revelry so bright you forget you're cold and in the dark of night.

With recording equipment ready, we returned in January 1997 to the same spot. On this trip I was able to get within an estimated 100 feet of one of the birds while it was calling. The resulting recording includes some preliminary notes before the only Morse Code call sequence I have ever recorded. I recommend you turn out the lights before playing the recording.

In 1998 George Hentz was following a Morse Code call in a different area in Arizona. What he found is shown in the photograph. Based on the fluffy white appearance of the feathers, George found a juvenile owl. By elevation and habitat (and the call George heard) the bird would seem to be a Whiskered Screech Owl rather than a Western Screech Owl. Anyway that is what we are calling it. If you have thoughts on this subject please let us know, there are very few breeding confirmations for Whiskered Screech Owl and it would be nice to know if there is information in the photograph that reveals what kind of owl it is for sure.

The original Whiskered Screech Owl sound recording was produced using a Sennheiser MKH70 shotgun microphone and the audio was stored on a 48 ksps DAT using a Tascam DA-P1 digital audio recorder. The recording was down-sampled to 44.1 ksps and converted to MPEG3 to reduce the file size to 480K bytes. Because the distance from the microphone to the bird was so great, the signal level was lower than optimal. For this reason the recording was digitally amplified to make it louder, and then filtered, to remove the amplified hiss overlayed on the call notes.

download mpeg3 recording (wsko.mp3)

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Copyright Greg Clark, 1999

update 8/2012