May 21, 2009
Elf Owl
Elf Owl
With any proper accounting of our species history, it should be no surprise that post modern man struggles with issues of borders and migration.  Somewhere deep in the recesses of our collective DNA there is memory of coming up out of Africa, of crossing the Bering land bridge, of seeking water when skies failed.  Borders are, after all, just artificial figments of some power seeker's imagination.  Never in our history has a border, political or physical, proven a successful barrier to that most primal of our instincts, migration

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We were struggling up out of the creekbed with 30 pounds of lighting and photographic equipment, the full moon now hours over the shoulder of the Santa Ritas, no longer the eerie, dusky, burnt orange of moonrise but the warm, bright, luminescent yellow that lights up the middle-of-the-night world of owls.  It had illuminated the sycamore snag where the Elf Owls were nesting in the old woodpecker working, and now it highlighted those classic cheekbones which render even women of a certain age "hot" in today's vernacular.

I had just fallen in love all over again when I heard the commotion above us on the road.  "Bear," she whispered.  No, not unless bears were flocking up like birds now.  There were several somethings running, almost in cadence.  I glanced up the hill.  "Horses" was my visceral reaction.  Dark shapes, moonlight behind them, clomping noisily down the road toward us, closing fast.  Instinctively, and with more adrenaline than the owls had produced, I triggered the seachbeam in my hand, splaying 1 million candlepower of light over a group of eight Homo sapiens carrying heavy backpacks.  Cued by the sudden shock of light, they instantly veered off into the woods and dropped to the ground, first a rush of sound, bodies rolling into dry oak litter, then absolute, utter silence.

We stood for minutes on end, unmoving, searchbeam off, watching moon shadow, unspeaking private thoughts, adrenaline dissipating into the velvet silence.  Then, down across the creek, the Elf Owls began to chatter again.  The vocalizations of the world's smallest owl have variously been characterized as a child laughing or a small dog barking.  Strictly insectivorous, Elfs move north across our southern border in late March as the warming desert produces enough bug biomass to sustain them here during breeding season.  In October they retreat southward back into Mexico.

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If it be laughing we hear when Elf Owls call, then surely the laugh is on us.  Elfs live in a world of predators (Great Horned Owls, Ringtails) and problems (high temperature variances and seasonal food shortages), but they are the most  common owl in Arizona in the warm weather months, and no arbitrary barriers block their passages through their special ecological niche.  Biology, instinct, and evolution have combined to insure their survival as a species.  We should be so lucky.