Tommy J. DeBardeleben

Owls and Nightjars of Maricopa County


Barn Owl Tyto alba

The Barn Owl is found throughout the world and in North America, it is fairly widespread throughout the Lower 48.  It is generally uncommon and scarce, as it can be found in a variety of different habitat settings throughout Arizona.  It's "heart-shaped" face and pale appearance in flight give this owl a distinctive look to it at all times.  Finding a Barn Owl can be difficult in Maricopa County, as they are active at night and hide well during the day.  For better chances of seeing a Barn Owl, look under bridges within desert or riparian habitats, where they may nest or use as a day-time roosting site.  They are regularly found roosting in palm trees, and also are found in riparian woodlands dominated by willows and cottonwoods.  Also look on cliffs and inside abandoned old buildings. 


Western Screech-Owl Megascops kennicottii

This small nocturnal owl is common throughout the west and throughout all of Arizona, in woodlands, deserts, riparian habitats, and even in suburban areas.  This owl can be very hard to see during daylight hours, and owling at night offers the best of viewing chances.  Western Screech-Owls are best located by voice, and are very responsive to whistled imitations.  This species is very common throughout Maricopa County.  Go owling at night in deserts (check washes with dense mesquites, paloverdes for day time roosts), riparian areas, and maybe even city parks close to desert and wilderness areas, where this owl is often very vocal.  It can be found throughout Maricopa County in any area (Areas 1-13).


Great Horned Owl Bubo virginianus

The well adapted and widespead Great Horned Owl is common thoughout all of North America continuing south into much of Central and South America.  This large owl can be found in any habitat or elevation in North America, from hot deserts to northernmost forests.  It is often found in suburban areas as well.  Throughout all of Arizona, this owl may be found.  It is strictly nocturnal, but is regularly found roosting during the day.  Besides owling at night, look under bridges, in cottonwood forests, as well as desert canyons and mountains for daytime roosts.  Any area in the county (1-13) can be good for Great Horned Owls, from the Lower Sonoran desert up into the Transition Zone forests.  One of the better places to view Great Horned Owls is the Phoenix Mountains Preserve at it's north entrance just south of Highway 51 and the 32nd Street exit (Area 6).  There are a lot of Great Horned Owls within this desert preserve, who commonly call at dusk and sit on top of cliffs in the open.


Spotted Owl Strix occidentalis

Only active by night, the rather large and federally protected Spotted Owl favors dense and thick forested habitats in it's range.  It's range consists of moist old-growth mixed conifer forests in the northwestern United States and shady and dense forested canyons and drainages in the southwestern United States and into Mexico.  The Spotted Owl has several races, and this neat owl is listed as endangered in the northwest and threatened in the southwest.  Due to habitat loss and logging in forests, the Spotted Owl is extremely vulnerable and sensitive.  It's loud song is very distinctive, and consists of four notes that sound like high pitched barking.  The female also gives a high pitched whistle, which is also distinctive.  The Spotted Owl usually acts very tame if it is discovered on it's daytime roost.  When hunting at night, this feeds on small mammals, insects, and birds.  In Arizona, Spotted Owls prefer thick forested drainages and canyons often with mixed conifer that is highly dominated by Douglas fir.  In Maricopa County, the Spotted Owl is rare and isn't dectected very often at all.  However, certain locations in Area 1 within Mount Ord, Slate Creek Divide, Four Peaks Wilderness Area, and Mazatzal Divide Trail/Forest Road 422 have good habitat to listen for them in.  A Spotted Owl is going to seek out a shady area with a lot of cover and vegatation, and with a lot of luck, may be encountered on a daytime roost.  NOTE:  If looking for Spotted Owl in Maricopa County, do remember that this species is federally threatened.  Therefore, it is a violation to use tapes, hooting, or any playback to attract a Spotted Owl.  All Spotted Owl observations need to be done by listening without playback at night, or by luckily encountering one at a daytime roost.



Northern Pygmy-Owl Glaucidium gnoma

In western forests dominated by pine, oaks, and firs, the small sparrow-sized Northern Pygmy-Owl makes it's home.  This tough little owl is very strong for it's size, often taking prey larger than itself.  The Northern Pgymy-Owl is active by day, especially in the morning hours.  It doesn't take on the nocturnal hours as most owls do.  The Pygmy-Owl has some incredible field marks to protect itself against predators, who would obviously target a small owl in the middle of the day.  This owl has two black nape spots on the back of it's head that look like eyes, which gives a larger hawk or owl the impression that Pygmy has "eyes on the back of his head".  Obviously, the Creator really put some amazing thought into this fierce little predator when He designed it!  (Genesis 1:21)  Northern Pgymy-Owls are most easily located by voice as they commonly call throughout the morning.  They can be tracked down and are quite tame and cooperative for birders.  Most of the time, they don't care people are there!  Mobbing songbirds are also a clue to their presence.  These owls are found throughout much of Arizona year-round in forested habitats, with two distinct subspecies, "Mountain" and "Northern", that may be separate species according to their voice.  Maricopa County gets the "Northern" subspecies, which can be found in forested Transition Zones in the county dominated by pine and oak forests.  For this bird, look and listen in the Highway 87 Area (Area 1), at Mount Ord, Slate Creek Divide, and Four Peaks Wilderness.  Mount Ord is by far the best location to look, where these small owls are often seen.

The views of a Northern Pygmy-Owl at Mount Ord.  Front of face and back of head!


Elf Owl Micrathene whitneyi

The tiny Elf Owl is the smallest owl in the world.  This owl arrives in mid-March to it's breeding grounds and leaves close to fall, where it nests in the hole of a tree or saguaro cactus.  It is very vocal and only active at night, as it feeds on insects and small rodents.  The Elf Owl is a sought out bird for many, as it's limited to the southwest in North America, being found in Arizona, New Mexico, and some of Texas.  The Elf Owl is mainly limited in Arizona from the south to the central part of the state.  It can be found and heard easily in Maricopa County at night.  Elf Owls prefer deserts domintated by the saguaro cactus and mesquite trees, and also riparian canyons dominated by sycamores found in elevations between 3-5000'.  Two examples of great places to find them in Maricopa at night are Coon Bluff Recreation Area (Area 2-desert with a lot of saguaro cactus and mesquite desert), and Sunflower-Old Beeline Highway (Area 1-riparian canyon dominated by sycamore trees).  Both of these areas are very easy to walk and owl at night, where other owls and nightbirds can be heard.  Besides these two great locations, listen for Elf Owls at night in hotspots throughout the county especially in areas 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 9, 10, 11, and 12. 


Northern Saw-whet Owl Aegolius acadicus

The small and primarily nocturnal Northern Saw-whet Owl is widespread in North America, except in the very far north.  In it's range, it is usually found in mixed coniferous and deciduous forests.  Despite it's small size, this owl is very strong will feed on rodents, insects, birds, and bats.  Like other owls who are only active by night, this owl is often very difficult to find.  Northern Saw-whet Owls usually breed very early in the year in March or early April.  During this time, they are highly vocal and will sometimes sing for hours at a time.  Their song is a rapid and very high pitched continuous tooting.  They also have a high pitched call that sounds similar to a saw being sharpened, which is where this owl gets it's name from.  Once the breeding season is over, they will usually stop vocalizing and are very hard to detect at other times during the year by voice.  For birders, finding a Saw-whet Owl at night will mean enduring cool temperatures due to the fact that they are early breeders for the most part.  Forests throughout Arizona are good for Northern Saw-whet Owls, which consist of mixed-conifer and aspen forests in elevations of 8000' feet or more, and also lower forested elevations that consist of ponderosa pine and Gambel's Oak, as well as Douglas fir.  In Maricopa County, the Mazatzal Mountains hold good habitat for Saw-whet Owl, which consists of pine/Douglas fir forest with Gambel's Oak.  Although rare, these Owls have been detected.  Listen for them when owling in the Mazatzal Mountains at night in Area 1, which consists of the higher elevations of Mount Ord, Slate Creek Divide, Four Peaks Wilderness Area, and Forest Road 422.  The picture below shows a fledgling Northern Saw-whet Owl that was found at Mount Ord by Kurt and Cindy Radamaker in May of 2014.  Luckily, I was able to see the bird a few nights later.



Burrowing Owl Athene cunicularia

The ground-dwelling Burrowing Owl is active by day, making life easy for any birders who want to watch this unique bird.  Burrowing Owls live in holes created by other animals, which are often in midst of airport fields, highway edges, canal edges, and dirt beams at the edge of agricultural fields.  They are found throughout the west in these habitats, but are scarce throughout much of the west strongly due to habitat loss.  The Burrowing Owl is found throughout Arizona, and Maricopa County is an excellent place to view this species in a number of locations throughout the county.  Burrowing Owls are most often seen by driving out in habitats consisting strongly of agricultural fields, where the owls have their homes built and perch roadside.  Some days may result in seeing several dozen owls easily.  In Maricopa County, the best place to observe Burrowing Owls are in the southwest parts of the county, in areas 7 (Southwest Phoenix) and 8 (Arlington to Gila Bend).  In Area 7, check drive around the fields surrounding the Tres Rios Wetlands and Baseline and Meridian Wildlife Area.  The Hunter's Ponds are also good for the owls.  Also try the numerous roads that are near M-C 85, which pass through great agricultural habitat, where Burrowing Owls thrive.  The Burrowing Owls also thrive in Area 8, especially throughout Old US 80 and it's branch off roads.  The area of Paloma Ranch also has great Burrowing Owl numbers.  Other good locations to view Burrowing Owls in Maricopa County include Veteran's Oasis Park which has homes built in the ground for the owls (Area 4), the surrounding area of Higley Road Ponds (Area 4), and the area of Rousseau Sod Farms and Scottsdale Community College (Area 5). 


Long-eared Owl Asio otus

The elusive and cryptic Long-eared Owl is extremely tough to find at all times.  This bird is among the best and most talented in the camouflage race, blending in perfectly with the trees of it's daytime roost.  A birder can be only feet away from a Long-eared Owl and looking, only eventually catching sight of the bird after it spooks.  The Long-eared Owl is a widespread owl in North America, but is still never seen easily.  It breeds in woodlands throughout most of it's range, often near open areas.  It preys on rodents, reptiles, and insects.  During winter, Long-eared Owls form roosts that often number multiple birds.  Even with roosts, the birds are hard to see.  Long-eared Owls are found year-round and breed throughout much of Arizona, but they are most easily seen in migrations and winter when they form roosts.  They may spook and take a short flight to another tree to give away their presence if they are disturbed.  Spring (March through early April) and fall migrations (October) can be good times to find roosts of Long-eared Owls in desert washes (with dense paloverdes and mesquite trees) who are present at times throughout migration. The other bet is finding a dense roosting tree, which these ways are probably the best chance to find this species in Maricopa County.  If you find a Long-eared Owl, do not bring it to public attention.  Wait until the owl is gone for good until it is reported to eBird.  This species is extremely sensitive to human disturbance and viewing needs to be kept to a minimum. 


Lesser Nighthawk Chordeiles acutipennis

This nightjar of the southwestern United States is common in Maricopa County from spring through fall.  It is most often seen flying at dusk or early dawn over deserts, fields, large ponds, and sometimes in city areas, where it feeds on flying insects.  It is sometimes seen in the later morning hours on occasion.  The Lesser Nighhawk is interesting to watch in it's bizzare flight, especially when larger numbers of them gather in one area to feed.  They can sometimes be found roosting in the middle of the day in desert trees such as mesquite and paloverdes.  When looking for Lesser Nighthawks, stay in the lower elevations in Maricopa County, and look in the habitats mentioned above during dusk.  Their trilling song may be heard during the night.  One of the great places to view this bird in Maricopa County is the Glendale Recharge Ponds (Area 7), where large numbers of nighthawks gather around the large basins to feed on the mass of insects that fly over the water at dusk.  Good habitats can be found for Lesser Nighthawk in all areas of Maricopa County (Areas 1-13).


Common Poorwill Phalaenoptilus nutallii

The song of the Common Poorwill fills dry hillsides, deserts, and canyons throughout much of western North America during the night.  It is found year round in some places in the United States, in southern California and southwest Arizona, as well as southern Texas.  In Maricopa County, this bird is most easily found and heard from April through September.  It feeds on flying insects during the night.  Maricopa County birders can most easily see and hear this species by visiting habitats that consist of hilly terrain, deserts, riparian canyons, and chaparral covered hillsides that reach up to 6000 feet in elevation in midst of Transition Zone forests.  They are more often heard in deserts in the county that are north of Phoenix.  Excellent places to look for the Common Poorwill include:  Area 1 (Sunflower, Bushnell Tanks, Mount Ord, Slate Creek Divide, Four Peaks Wilderness), all of Area 2 (Lower Salt River Recreation Area-the entrance road to Coon Bluff is great), all of Area 3, all of Area 11, and Area 12 (areas of Bartlett and Horseshoe Reservoirs). 


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Birding in Maricopa County

An online guide to the birds and birding locations of Maricopa County


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