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At night in the San Gabriels, venturing into the world of the owls

Studying the mysterious nocturnal creatures in their forest habitat has become a passion for two scientists.

July 26, 2012|Gale Holland, Los Angeles Times
  • A fledgling saw-whet owl perches on a branch in the Angeles National Forest.
A fledgling saw-whet owl perches on a branch in the Angeles National Forest. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

The wind whooshed through the alders, the stars pressed down and the International Space Station swung by on its 90-minute loop around the Earth. Lance Benner snapped speakers to his iPod with a rubber band and pointed the contraption at the trees, emitting a "Toot .... toot .... toot." In the distance, three baby owls hissed in response, "Tsst .... tsst .... tsst."

It was half-past 9 p.m. on a Thursday, and Benner, his girlfriend, Kathi Ellsworth, and I were high up in the San Gabriel Mountains on an owling expedition.

Owls are the glamour-pusses of the bird-watching world. Some swivel their heads 270 degrees, "Exorcist"-style. Their eyes lap up light; their flight is silent. In Japan, they are worshiped as gods, and in Tanzania, they are feared as omens of death, Benner said. Yet they're so cute. Teen girls claim them as totems.

One of the marvels of living in Los Angeles is how easy it is to bridge the urban-wilderness divide. Los Angeles County, with its cactus-to-clouds habitat shifts, has an enormous variety of birds. Within an hour of the well-kept homes of La Cañada Flintridge, Benner, who leads owling trips for the Pasadena Audubon Society, had located eight owl species in June alone. All I had to do was follow his trail for a world-class look at the elusive species.

Birding in general never appealed to me. Peering through clunky binoculars? Compiling a life list of species? I don't have the patience. And I don't care about "collections." When my parents gave me a coin collection, I pried the shiny dimes out of their little cardboard slots to buy comic books.

But owling with Benner, an asteroid scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Ellsworth, a clinical microbiologist, was different. In the birding community, people whose interest in birds does not extend past listing them are known as "tickers."

Benner and Ellsworth, however, have spent years immersing themselves in the mysterious netherworld of the owl, uncovering new information about species, habitats and migratory patterns. They post regularly to an online catalog of birding observations called eBird that's used by scientists as well as amateurs. They are scientists by day — and scientists by night.

"A dedicated birder can make new discoveries," Benner said. "It happens fairly frequently."

"I used to be a ticker," said Ellsworth. "Now I'm not."

We had headed up the Angeles Crest Highway just after 6:30 p.m. armed with a Sibley field guide, radios, a boom mike, spotlight and headlamp and binoculars, and stopped for a picnic of burritos and cherries. Aside from the occasional hot-rodder screaming by, we were largely alone. The wind provided the soundtrack; being a city person, I had to check to make sure it wasn't freeway noise.

"A lot of people are afraid of the dark. I'm not kidding," said Benner, who started owling here in 1998. "Unlike me, they didn't grow up in Maine playing hide and seek in the dark."

Benner became even more nocturnal in his undergraduate days at Cornell University, when, as both a physics major and a photographer for the school newspaper, he pulled late-nighters.

We drove up and down the mountain, stopping periodically for Benner to whip out his cellphone or iPod with prerecorded bird calls to summon the owls. I thought of the prince in Mozart's "The Magic Flute," whose instrument tamed wild creatures.

We struck out on our first try to draw out the Lilliputian Northern pygmy owl. Later, the flammulated owl — named for his fiery breast — also failed to show .

About 6,500 feet up, we walked a couple hundred yards off the road to a stand of trees and played the male saw-whet owl's call. Saw-whet mothers fly away after hatching babies; the fathers stick around to feed them. The response from the hungry fledglings is known as the begging cry.

Suddenly, in a white fir directly over our heads, a baby saw-whet owl peered down, first at Ellsworth, then at me. The bird was only 15 feet up; we didn't need binoculars to study its white-ringed eyes or burnt sienna breast. It blinked slowly, now and then turning its head from the light. It stood still until we had our fill, taking us in with utter equanimity.

"At this age, they're curious," Benner said.

They also heard the western screech and long-eared owls, although Benner had to pull out his boom mike for me to hear the latter. The barn owl, whose cry is like nails on the blackboard, didn't show up.

"Listening so intently, you hear things," Ellsworth said. "You can hear the clink of the guardrails cooling down."

Benner vetoed climbing up to find the long-eared owl. The steep slope was covered with poodle-dog bush, a poisonous plant with a lavender flower that appeared after the Station fire. Benner still had a rash from an earlier encounter.

Back at the picnic area, they heard the great horned owl's classic "hoot." "They will eat other owls if they can get them," Benner said.

The chalk-white cliff across the road was luminous, and the moon, just past half-full, was so bright "you can almost see the green in the trees," Ellsworth said.

I asked if the trip wasn't something of a busman's holiday for the two scientists.

"Birding takes you to lots of beautiful and amazing places you wouldn't otherwise go," Ellsworth said. One year, the Northern Lights were visible in the sky above the mountains.

"It's an extraordinary world," Benner said. "The deeper we got into it the more fascinating they are."

We sat in the hush of the night for a while, then headed back to where the sound of freeways overpowers the wind.

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