Shadow of the Southwest
Mexican Spotted Owl
(Strix occidentalis lucida)
Of the 19 owl species found within the United States, none fulfill the role of myth and marvel as well as the Spotted Owl. The Spotted Owl is one of the largest owl species in North America, however this doesn’t make finding them an easy task. Throughout the US there are three main isolated populations of Spotted Owls, and each population is made up of a distinct subspecies. In the Pacific Northwest the Northern Spotted Owl is as enigmatic as a shadow passing in the corner of your eye. Concealed within the darkness of California’s primary forests is the seldom seen California Spotted Owl. Lastly, here in the Southwest the slot canyons and oak-pine forests are blessed with the elusive calls of the Mexican Spotted Owl.
After 3 years of research and failed scouting missions, I decided my next destination was into the pine forests and canyons of southwestern New Mexico, not far from the Mexican border. My search brought me into a forest surrounded by high red rock walls, right at the beginning of May. Understanding their behavior and how it correlates with the seasons is essential since summer is the breeding season of these owls. May to June is the peak of Spotted Owl breeding, meaning if they are present, then their song can be heard echoing through the canyon walls once the sun sets.
After spending the day searching through tree cavities, branches, and snags for any sign of the owls, I returned to my campsite. However, right as the sun began to set, my girlfriend and I heard what we had hoped for all day: the distinct two-note hoot of a Mexican Spotted Owl, coming from a roost that sounded close. We responded with our best imitation and heard a response back. Following the song, we made our way up a steep slope towards a tall rock outcropping. With every step the owl’s song continued to get louder until we finally found ourselves staring at a male Spotted Owl singing from a large crevice in the canyon.
After the sunlight left the sky, we heard the call of a responding female and watched as two Spotted Owls flew over our heads from branch to branch. Before we knew it, both owls disappeared into the night, leaving us with an incredible encounter and only photos and memories to document it.
As humans continue to explore and utilize natural and wild spaces, it’s essential we remember and care for the animals that depend on the same spaces for survival. Due to drastic drops in their population, the Spotted Owl has been listed as Near Threatened on the Endangered Species Act. Careful management and habitat restoration for Spotted Owls has been proven effective in small scales, and hopefully as efforts continue these birds can return to historic numbers and maintain a healthy population.
Story & Photography by Zac Babbit
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