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_Elf Owl Surveys of Saguaro National Park

Elf Owl Surveys – Hiking in the MoonlightElf Owl Hunting

Tucson Audubon is doing night time hiking surveys to monitor Elf Owls and document all night birds we encounter. Saguaro National Park is coordinating with us for these surveys and a ranger or two may even be joining us. We will be hiking along moonlit trails in teams of two or three and listening for Elf Owls and periodically playing their calls to try and goad them into calling back to us. You must have reasonably good hearing and be comfortable walking a trail at night while using a headlamp or flashlight. These two surveys are scheduled near the full moon to try and have as much light as possible but it will still be quite dark out there!  We may encounter other owl species, cool reptiles and who knows what else!

Meeting info for both surveys:

We will not be meeting ahead of time as we have in the past but will instead go straight to our various trailheads. All data entry will be done online as well. We will be having a zoom meeting before survey day to go over details and protocols. A recording of this video will also be available. As soon as I set a date and time for the online meeting I will let you all know.

Elf Owl Survey #1 – Rincon Mountain District Tuesday May 2, 2023 (east side of Tucson) – Sign up here

Elf Owl Survey #2 – Tucson Mountain District Wednesday May 3, 2023 (west side of Tucson) – Sign up here

Information about the Elf Owl Surveys

Elf Owl by Bryant Olsen

Elf Owl by Bryant Olsen

Protocol  for the survey can be downloaded here

Data form for the survey can be downloaded here

Audio File needed for the survey – This mp3 files has the protocol timing built in with silence and calls built in. When you first listen to it don’t be fooled – it does start with a minute of silence. (Right click on the audio file link to save it, left click on it just to hear it play) (For Mac you need to “Control Click” on the link to download the file)

Note: The survey coordinator will have printed copies of both protocols and datasheets at the meeting location. You are not required to print these out but you do need to carefully review them before survey night. You also need to get the audio file above on you smart phone or mp3 player or be prepared to play the correct calls at the correct intervals (outlined in protocol) while doing the survey. The coordinator will also have speakers that can be borrowed, a few ipod like devices and snake guards that can be worn around your lower legs. All of this equipment is available on a first come first served basis.

Information for Survey NightElf Owl 0081 rnb 8092_jpg

Please be sure to read the whole protocol through as there is lots of good info on the species we may encounter, how to do the survey, safety info and directions etc. I want to emphasize that everyone MUST bring a strong flashlight or spotlight, wear sturdy hiking or walking shoes and be physically up for a hike on trails in dark, moonlit conditions. I would suggest you also bring a headlamp for data writing (I find red-light mode helpful here if your headlamp has that). I have asked some experts about snakes and have been assured by all that I asked that risk of danger from encountering rattlesnakes is quite low as long as everyone stays on trails, watches where their feet are going before setting them down and uses appropriate caution there should be no trouble. That being said, I am gathering all the snake guards that Tucson Audubon owns and will bring them to the meeting locations. They are worn around your lower legs and are not very comfortable but do protect your lower legs. They are available to be loaned to those who want them on first-come basis.

GPS – It is vital that teams be able to accurately identify their exact locations for the datasheet. This is easier than ever with smartphones but I will have some GPS units available for loaning out. I suggest you look into one of the many free GPS apps available. We also had a few volunteers figure out that a walking or exercise app worked well to determine when they had gone approximately 150 meters (about .1 of a mile) before doing the next point count. I made a video a few years ago on how to use a GPS unit but it is a bit outdated.

Info about Elf Owls: It is important for us to document pairs of Elf Owls whenever possible and you can do that by sound if you know what to listen for. This is a great link to read more about this species:
The large “Listen” button here plays an excellent recording for our practice purposes. There is a loud laughing call, that is the male. If you keep listening though there is a periodic “mew” call that is answering him – that is a female and his mate. We will need to carefully listen for this quieter and briefer female call to determine if we are hearing pairs. This is vital to understand as 40 pairs is our ultimate goal for each of the new IBAs – this is further explained in the protocol.

The other small owl we will encounter is Western Screech-Owl – read more about them and listen to them here:

These surveys are going to be fun and hopefully quite effective at finding Elf Owls for our new Important Bird Areas!

Map of Routes and Results from Previous Surveys