Owls in the Southern Sierra Nevada

Birding under the giant Sequoias | Photo by Mary Freeman

Birding under the giant Sequoias | Photo by Mary Freeman

By Mary Freeman, Field Trip Leader

Since 2003, LA Audubon has led trips to experience owls in the southwest Sierra Nevada mountain range, around Camp Nelson and Ponderosa.

Each year we have had memorable participants and birds, including — of course — owls. Our target owls are the beautiful and small (did I say “cute”?) Northern Saw-whet Owl, the fascinating yet smaller Flammulated Owl, the tiny Northern Pygmy Owl, and the impressive California Spotted Owl.

Nick and I have visited this mountain range many times over the years including participating in Flammulated Owl nest box building and surveys. We were participants on many LAAS trips where Bob Barnes was the leader. This led to my curiosity of the owl species of these mountains. We thank our friend Margo DeGrosse, who guided us to a foothold at Camp Nelson, a small mountain town where the residents seem to all know each other. We began renting summer homes for what has become a tradition over the past 16 years, with an emphasis of leading trips to finding owls in the Giant Sequoia groves.

Nick and I have learned about the densities of the various species of owls in this mountain range. We have found few families of Northern Saw-whet Owls, which is perhaps our biggest treat — seeing the little “chocolate teddy bears”. Nick has said if you want to get the very best Saw-whet Owl as your lifer, find a juvenile! Some years we have found high numbers of Flammulated Owls and it made us wonder if there are other owl species in the mountains!

Last year in 2018, we found seven Northern Saw-whet Owls that included a family: one adult and three juvies. I was ecstatic that night when I first heard the chick's calls, an insect-like “sst sst”. When we drive up the mountain slopes in the Sequoia groves, we try for the poster-child of old growth forests, the Spotted Owl.

Juvie Northern Saw-whet Owl, red eye.JPG

Many years ago, a generous biologist lead us to sites were these owls have set up territories. She imitated a call of a Spotted Owl she named “Elvis”, who showed up right on cue. One year I recorded a pair of raucous Spotted Owls; carrying on with barks, hoots, squeals. It was so entertaining that I found it hard to hold back my giggles in the recording. Last year I imitated the call of a Flammulated Owl. It flew in right overhead into a conifer tree and booped away. Then we watched two owls fly out of the same tree as they turned and twisted after a tasty-looking (in their eyes) moth.

It was a memorable experience for all who watched these tiny owls foraging in mid-air. During the day, when we are not feasting on great food brought in by the participants or LAAS, we head out in search for daytime birding. We came cross a Northern Pygmy Owl as we made our way to a refreshing creek. Near the Trail of 100 Giants, Pileated Woodpeckers have made appearances. Lincoln Sparrows populate the grassy meadows, and the tiny and elusive Pacific Wren show in boggy creek tangles.


But entering the Giant Sequoia forest at night with the Milky Way shining down on us, has always been a humbling and profound treat for all who have attended these trips. We plan on leading another Sierran owl prowl in 2020 so look for the announcement in next year’s May newsletter.

This article was first published in the July/August 2019 Western Tanager, Vol. 85 No. 6.