Roadrunner vs. Flammulated Owl

I am pulling together an Arizona birding weekend after a business trip in October.  I am going to go out with Melody Kehl, hoping to score some life birds.  I certainly did last time I was in Phoenix.

This is a repost from my other blog (before I spun off the birds) if you read it before go ahead read it again.  It is an amazing story.

As I was walking along a gravel path in the wildflower garden at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, I was contemplating leaving. It was close to 11:30 and getting hotter by the minute. I, being a northeasterner, was not prepared for the heat (in October!) and was wearing a black sleeveless shirt and no hat. Suffice it to say I was toasty and burning (not enough SPF). There was not much happening anyway. I should have come earlier in the day. I had seen some nice birds, but nothing new this time. Some other birders that I met along the path had told me that Harris Hawks nest at the zoo. I thought I might just go over and hang around in the parking lot to see if any were around.

The garden paths wound around and around. As I rambled towards the exit, a Roadrunner dashed by. I had seen one earlier in another section of the park by a huge mesquite tree. This time, I pulled out my camera to try and snap him. As I did, it ran across the path and around me to my left. I whirled around to see it dart into a low tree and come out with something dark in its beak. It suddenly spotted me and dropped its prey and backed off slightly, beak still agape. I looked down to see that the dark thing was a bird–and then– that it was some sort of OWL!

I had never seen such a tiny owl. The little owl spread it wings and faced off with the Roadrunner. The Roadrunner circled to the left, then to the right. Back and forth pendulum fashion trying to get an opening. I was standing not 2 feet away watching. As the roadrunner would dart in, I would shuffle my feet in the stones to try and help the little owl. The owl turned toward me and I saw dark eyes beseeching me. Tiny owl. Dark eyes. Hmmm, the only small owl that I knew of in the desert was the Elf Owl. Could this be that?

This presented the ultimate dilemma—to intervene or not, it is the life of the desert. I decided that I had seen many, many roadrunners but not this owl. I needed a better look. So I started to flap my arms and shuffle and stamp my feet—carefully staying on the path. The roadrunner pecked at the owl again and again. I thought at one point that the little owl flinched, as if hurt. It seemed to favor its right wing. Oh no! is that a speck of blood?

What to do…what to do….I couldn’t leave and get help. I knew the instant that I turned my back it would be all over. As luck and the owl gods would have it, a school group approached. As the kids came along, the roadrunner dashed off ahead of them. The guide spotted the roadrunner and stopped to show the kids. I sidled up to the guide and told her that the roadrunner had attacked an owl. I turned to show her and as I did, the owl fluttered off. She immediately picked up her walkie-talkie and called into it. “Come quick. We have an injured owl!” She said that there had been a juvenile western screech found a week before. I told her that the owl had dark eyes. Screechs have yellow eyes. We collectively looked and looked for the small owl. The guide asked me to stay and wait for the ranger.

Standing in the shade of a nearby saguaro trying to keep from frying, I flipped open my ancient Peterson’s. I turned to owls and scanned through them all. Hmmm. The only small owl with dark eyes is a Flammulated. Is that possible? The map does show it here, hmmmmm. I hurriedly looked through the pictures I had snapped. Sure enough, 1 small owl with dark eyes and 1 very agitated roadrunner.

As I waited for the ranger, I spied a Verdin flitting in and around an old nest. I snapped some pictures of it, but it was moving so quickly I finally gave up and watched it. As I was watching the Verdin, I saw a flash of dark movement out of the corner of my eye. (Thank goodness for good peripheral vision.) The ranger came down the path as I was continuing to scan where I had seen the dark movement. I told him of the drama. He was a volunteer for the garden and knew his birds. We looked for the owl. I told him it had dark eyes. We looked at the pictures and in the book. He said that there had only been one or two prior records of a Flammulated Owl in the garden. What a find! With him on the job, I felt free to make my way out of the heat to the relative cool of the gift shop.

On the way out, I became a member of the garden. It supports them and there is reciprocity with other gardens around the country, including the big one near me, New York Botanical Garden. More than that, it serves as host to migrating Flammulated Owls! It is a sea of green in an otherwise sprawling desert city.

When I returned home, I got an email from the ranger. After I left that day, he found the owl sitting straight and tall (well as tall as a 6.5 inch Flam can). As he was trying to take a picture of it, it flew off. He said that the flight looked nice and strong.

I encourage all of you to visit the garden, next time you are in Phoenix. It is one of my favorite places.


Filed under migration, Photos, Travel

16 responses to “Roadrunner vs. Flammulated Owl

  1. Wow! That’s some real drama.

  2. What a great story. One of those situations where the average person would find it impossible not to intervene.

    I’d always associated Roadrunners with the southwest. (Too many cartoons?) However, they are common here in the Ozarks.

  3. Thanks John, It was absolutely amazing.

    Marvin, I have only see Roadrunners in CA, AZ and TX, good to know they are in more places.

  4. Ric Mcarthur

    Birdchick sent me over and I’m glad she did.
    Great story.

  5. Birdchick sent me over, too. Great story and pictures. I’d love to see a Roadrunner and/or a Flammulated Owl.

  6. Nice sightings, missed both those birds last time I was in Arizona.

    Drew @ Nemesis Bird

  7. That was a great blog entry on an amazing wildlife encounter. I can totally relate to not being sure of whether to step in and help or back off and let nature take its course. The science side of me would say “back off and watch.” However, my human side would have tried to help the owl.

    Great photos and great observation.

  8. Absolutely amazing story! I hear owls around here all the time, but never see them. They stay deep in the woods.

    Congratulations on your find! What a coup!

  9. Came over from birdchick’s blog – what an exciting story! So glad the owl made it!

  10. Channelflake

    from Birdchick. Teratornis lives, holy cow, I would not have thought _owls_ were in danger from roadrunners.

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  12. I’d be thrilled with a roadrunner or an owl, let alone both. And I would have intervened to help the little guy, too.

    I never would have thought of a road runner attacking an owl, however. What an interesting post.

  13. Oh, I forgot to mention – I’ve also been birding with Melody, though it was many years ago on a trip to Tucson. She’s great, and I had a wonderful day with lots of lifers, including my first burrowing owl.

  14. Very cool experience!

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  16. Cloyd Mathews

    Lovely story, especially the news that the owl flew off strongly.

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