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by Stan Tekiela
© NatureSmart
May 10, 2010

Photo by Stan Tekiela©


I love the desert especially at night. Don't get me wrong, I love the desert during the day also. There is just something very special about the desert when the dark sky is perforated with millions of twinkling stars. Most people believe the desert is devoid of any wildlife. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have traveled all over this country to study wildlife and it's my opinion the desert is full of wildlife.

Several times a year I make a trek to the Sanoran desert in southeastern Arizona. And this is where you can find me this week. Surrounded by a multitude of cactus, sand and a wide variety of birds, reptiles and bats. I am here to study and photograph many of these but tonight I am on the prowl for one particular bird. The smallest owl in the world, the Elf Owl (Micrathene whitneyi). It lives in this area.

It's just minutes after sunset and we just drove several miles on a very rocky and rutted road that required our truck to have high ground clearance and four wheel drive. With me are noted author and photographer Rick Bowers and photographer Jim Zipp. We have parked at the base of a small mountain hoping the area we have chosen for tonight's adventure will hold some Elf Owls.

Once we are out of the truck we set up our cameras and flashes along with special high powered flashlights for an evening of desert exploring. We head out into the desert night. It's cool with a light breeze, requiring us to wear a light jacket. Perfect weather for this kind of work. Within a couple hundred yards of the truck we come across the first of several Western Screech-owls. They are calling back and forth to each other. We slowly approach and using our hearing we guess their location in the dark. We switch on a flashlight and sure enough one of the screech-owls is right before us.

The owl is not in a good position to photograph so we switch off the light and move on to find another. We don't go far before locating another screech-owl calling. Again we flip on the light and there it is. This time he's in the open and we set up to photograph him. We are all excited at the prospects of photographing this owl but this is not why we are here. After just a few minutes we move on.

We move away and start climbing up the mountain side, picking a path with the least amount of cactus. The mountain side is steep and rocky. Each step results in dislodging some rocks sending them down the mountain and running the risk of loosing our footing. This is not good when you consider that over my shoulder is over 15 thousands dollars worth of top of the line camera equipment.

About 20 minutes later we arrive in the area we want to be and start looking around. It isn't long before we hear a male Elf Owl calling. We stop and try to pin point where the sound is coming from and slowly move in that direction. Sometimes owls call so softly they sound like they are very far away when in fact they are very close. Only experience can guide you when this happens.

After more searching we locate what we have come for–the Elf Owl. He is calling within a cavity located inside a tall Saguaro cactus about 15 feet high. Since we are on such a steep mountain side the height of the cavity is actually at eye level, making it perfect for photographing. While setting up the owl suddenly jumps for the cavity and flies off into the desert night. It doesn't take long and we see him flutter back to the nest cavity.

As I mentioned before Elf Owls are the smallest owl in the world. They stand just over 5 inches tall, which is about the average size of a sparrow. But what I found so amazing about the Elf Owl is the way it flies. While trying to land at the nest cavity it will flutter its wings just like a butterfly. In fact each time it landed on a branch or at the cavity it fluttered. It's broad round wings looked just like a moth or butterfly.

It wasn't long and we were getting some amazing images and my cohorts and I were thrilled at the opportunity. After a round of high fives we were struck with the reality that we still need to climb down the mountain side and there is about a million cactus between us and the truck. Working our way back down I was unfortunate enough to run into several cactus which impaled their thorns through my pants and deep into my lower left leg and ankle.

Having no time to stop we kept going until reaching the truck. I was able to remove some of the larger, more obvious thorns but the rest will have to wait. It was slightly after midnight and I was climbing into bed and each time I rolled over I could feel more thorns in my leg. I had to get up and using my pliers continue to remove each of the thorns I could find but I couldn't find them all.

Two days later I could still feel some thorns in my leg. Eventually I got them all removed but I must admit the experience with the Elf Owl was well worth the time and blood. Until next time

Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the US to study and photographer wildlife. He can be contacted via his web page at


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