Somehow, in darkness, my son spotted an Elf Owl perched in a bush just feet away from me

Birding Baja California: The Elf Owl Road

As I planned for our 2023 trip to Todos Santos in Baja California, I checked eBird to see what chances I had at picking up some life birds. At most, it looked like I might add 6 new species to my list. One of them (the endemic Baird’s Junco) wasn’t going to happen because I wasn’t going to make it to their restricted, high-elevation habitat. Another (Varied Bunting) seemed unlikely as well, because there are few of them around and nowhere reliable was close. Three other endemics (Gray Thrasher, Xantus’s Hummingbird, and Belding’s Yellowthroat) seemed like certain finds (I found all three). The sixth possible lifer was the Elf Owl. At 5 inches tall, it’s the size of sparrow. Indeed, it is the world’s smallest owl. Having seen one of the world’s largest owls earlier this year in New York City’s Central Park, Elf Owl quickly became the target bird for the trip.

Owls are notoriously difficult to find, and those the size of a juice box even more difficult. Still, I felt like I had a pretty good shot of finding an Elf Owl. That’s because, back in March 2020, a birder named Logan Kahle drove down a dirt road outside Todos Santos at night for a few miles and detected 57 Elf Owls. Every quarter mile, he stopped, played Elf Owl calls, and heard anywhere from 1-6 individuals call back. That’s absolutely insane. He didn’t report any visual sightings, but I was hopeful that I could get eyes on one of these little creatures.

Elf Owls live in deserts, riparian woodland, and dry forests in Mexico and the American Southwest. They roost and nest in old woodpecker cavities in cactus and other tree cavities. At night, they hunt insects. Apparently, they catch scorpions, and remove the stinger before eating. My first trip out to the dirt road was a mid-day scouting trip on Christmas. To my delight, my oldest son came along. He was excited to see one of these tiny owls. We’d rented a Ford Bronco Sport, so I had 4WD and clearance. But we didn’t need it. The dirt road was washboarded in sections, and sandy in others, but was passable by a typical sedan.  Once we got to the spot, we’d get out, wander, and check woodpecker holes in cactus. Once, my son climbed up a big saguaro cactus (watch out for spikes!) to look inside a woodpecker hole and see what it was like. Despite this enthusiasm, we never saw any owls. 

On my second trip, I went out alone around 8:30pm. It was dark, though lit by a full moon. I stopped at 3 locations along the road and played an Elf Owl call. At each spot, I got responses from 1-3 individuals. A couple were in trees just off the road. While I heard some fluttering that I suspected was a flying Elf Owl, I never saw one. The third trip was the charm. With my son again alongside, we arrived 45 minutes before sunset. We were hoping to see an owl in a woodpecker hole, or maybe even perched on a cactus, while we still had some daylight. We stopped at the spot where I’d heard an owl just off the road, wandered, and checked woodpecker holes. I found two Ladder-backed Woodpeckers peeking out of cactus cavities, but no owls. My son found a cactus that really looked like it had a roosting Western Screech Owl, but it was an illusion. 

After the sun set, we played an Elf Owl call. We gave it three tries. And we got a response. An Elf Owl was down the road 50 yards (and a Western Screech Owl somewhere off in the distance). We went to the spot and did our best to see in the quickly diminishing light. Thanks to the eagle eyes of my son, we got eyes on a tiny owl. First, it flew from the brush up to a tall cactus, where it disappeared into a hole. I snapped some photos, but it was too dark to show anything more than a light smudge. Then, the bird flew from the cactus right to us. From behind me, my son said “it’s right there, perched next to you.” I scanned, but couldn’t find it. “Don’t move”, he said. He then took the cellphone picture at the top of the post. Just 8 feet away was the world’s smallest owl, doing his mighty best to defend his territory from our intrusion. I then turned on NightSight for a photo with my phone, and got the picture below. Given that it was almost completely dark, that’s a pretty good shot.

My cellphone finds the Elf Owl I couldn’t see with my bare eyes

The owl flew back toward the cactus, perching 15 feet in front of us. It sounded like there were two owls at the cactus. We tried a few more photos, but we just didn’t have enough light. It flew around a few minutes more, across the road and then back to the cactus. We were giddy with excitement. I couldn’t believe we’d actually seen an Elf Owl. It was one of those wonderful encounters with wildlife that brings me tremendous joy. To have shared it with my son made it all the better.  The eBird checklist is here for the exact location. The truth is, go anywhere on that road after dusk, and you’re likely to find Elf Owls.

More Desert Birds in the Area

I ended up going out to this magical dirt road 4 times during our trip. Once was a morning trip to explore a wash to see if I might stumble into a Varied Bunting or something else interesting. There were no Varied Buntings. But the morning wash was very birdy. I saw some birds here that I didn’t see anywhere else during the trip, like Black-chinned Sparrow, Western Flycatcher, and Gray Flycatcher. I even found a short spot of flowing water, which was attracting a diverse collection of birds for bathing and drinking.

The best sighting for me in the wash was a Gray Vireo. This was only the second time I’ve ever seen this desert species. 

The combination of the morning wash and evening Elf Owl madness made this a fabulous birding location. It would’ve been nice to have a flashlight while we were out at night. We might’ve gotten better pictures of the Elf Owl. But that’s no complaint at all. It’ll go down as one of the highlight birding moments of my life.