A Screech-Owl Hail Mary

I had about one hour of light left on Sunday March 13 when I pulled into Estero Llano Grande State Park in Weslaco. It was a specatular evening—windless, cloudless, 80F. Perfect. So, even though the visitor center was closed, the park was still pretty crowded.

I really wanted to see and photograph the local subspecies of Eastern Screech-Owl, McCall’s Screech-Owl. Actually, Eastern Screech-Owl was one of my biggest misses on my photo life list. I had some photos of the species from the raptor rehab center at Auburn, but no pics of wild birds. So the local screech-owls were of interest both because they were a unique population and because they seemed to be photographed quite a lot. I had seen several photos of McCall’s Screech Owls at Estero Llano Grande State Park posted on e-bird, with all of the birds looking out of what seemed to be the same next box. Easy peasy, right? Walk up to the box and photograph the bird.

The one small problem is that I had no idea where the box with the owl was and Estra Llanos Grande is a big state park (oh—and I only had one hour of light left). My only slim chance was to find someone who could give me directions to the box. Hence I walked onto the patio outside the visitor center which faces a beautiful wetland filled with ducks and wading and shore birds looking for information. There were a few apparent birders photographing water birds and I asked if anyone knew of a nesting box with a screech-owl. Sadly they had no idea, but by a stroke of incredible luck, a woman standing nearby with her do heard my plea for help and nearly yelled out, “I know where the owl is!”

“Great” I exclaimed. “Can you give me directions?” And she proceeded to attempt to do so. After about three minutes with what seemed like dozens of lefts and rights and many references to this tree and that pond I was thoroughly confused. I don’t mean to be critical of this kind woman because she went way out of her way to be helpful and she really wanted to get me to the owl. She just wasn’t very good at giving directions. However, over and over she kept referring to Alligator Pond, so I finally decided just to head there. Before I set off, I asked “Is this nest box on a post in a pond or up on dry land?”. “Oh” she exclaimed, “it is way up in a tree!”

I thanked her and set off in the direction that she pointed. Twenty-five minutes later, I was thoroughly confused. I hadn’t seen anything that matched any of the directions that she had given me and I hadn’t seen any sign of Alligator Lake. And suddenly, I was at Alligator Lake, which was a little pond surrounded by scrubby forest. There was a little loop road/trail running past the lake and to a pavilion. On one side of the pavilion was a box on a telephone pole. “What are the chances?” I asked myself as I stealthily walked around the box so I could view the front. And then “No way!” as I looked up into the face of a McCall’s Screech-Owl sitting with its head and shoulders out of the box.

The light was perfect and the little owl posed for me as I took its picture. Although I saw a bunch of much rarer birds on my trip, the little screech-owl in its box, found mostly by sheer ridiculous luck, was my favorite of the trip.

I was very lucky to find the box where the McCall's Screech-Owl site at the entrance in the evenings.