The Mighty Elf Owl

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we welcome Alicia Arcidiacono to share her stories of searching for owls including many beautiful pictures. Check out the end of her post for her bio! For more of her photography and stories visit her websites and

After many years working along the lower Colorado River studying breeding birds beneath the scorching sun, the dark side of nocturnal life called to me. It was the mighty elf owl: a dainty little ice-cream cone sized owl that calls louder than a Stellar’s jay on cocaine. It is the world’s smallest owl and the focus of my studies. In the spring, I search every nook and cranny of Arizona’s vast riparian system. The work requires a sense of humor: encounters with scorpions in your pants, cougars stalking you, rattlesnakes awaiting, and a nightly meal of peanut-butter and jelly become normal.

clearing bushes

Cato demonstrates safe trail clearing techniques.

As always, the beginning of our season starts with a rigorous boot camp, known to other field biologists as “trail clearing”. A successful day includes throwing down the axe in rage, swearing in languages unknown to any human, and charging at the vegetation with a full body dance that resembles an intoxicated rhinoceros. It ends with a few hundred meters of trail cleared and at least three open wounds.

Eventually, boot camp ends and the fun part begins; we become master bird spies.  Armed with a GPS, binoculars, and knowledge of what kinky owl behavior looks and sounds like, we decipher the owls’ deepest secrets and record them. At least, that’s what I tell people I do.

kayaking in the Bill Williams wildlife refuge.

The beautiful Bill Williams wildlife refuge, home to many survey sites.

A “typical” day & night studying the elf owl:


Saguaros are often homes to the mighty elf owl.

I chuckle at the desert scene unfolding in front of me. A donkey skull covered in donkey scat adorns the base of a creosote bush. I descend into a dense tangle of invasive salt cedar, the arch-nemesis of all living bodies along the Colorado River. I meander into the murky depths of a beaver dam and shudder when the water reaches my waist. Every 150 meters, I pause to record the survey point and an overall vegetation estimate while actively avoiding points in ponds or on cliffs as these points are revisited at night. After thirteen points, the sun has drawn its shades and part one of an elf owl survey is complete.

I meet my field partner, Keith, and we perch next to the marsh and wait for the darkness. We eat our nightly in-field dinner of PB&Js as the Virginia Rail and wild asses serenade us. Romantic, eh? When the final rusty dusk lights disappear over the earth’s edge, the official survey begins. Blasting the playback on the ginormous FoxPro unit, the maniacal laugher of the elf owl haunts my brain. Oh wait, there’s an actual owl responding! The excitement dwindles as we realize he’s at every survey point following what he perceives to be a suitable mate. Sigh. We trudge back through the moonlit desert listening to the sad song of the lone elf owl. As we cross the beaver dam, the resident beaver angrily slaps his tail. We swim-walk quickly to the safety of dry land and then limp to the Ford F150, our home for the next three months. Wet boots are ripped off, a tent grumpily set up, and a second dinner of stale Triscuits consumed. I listen to the hysterical sounds of donkeys until sleep takes me away.

tent beside the Verde bridge

Riverfront camping along the Verde River and Sheep Bridge.

Great-horned owl looks for prey

Not a mighty elf owl, but this great-horned owl would love to eat one.

Barn owl sits with its hidden nestlings

A barn owl mother sitting with her hidden nestlings.

Pickup truck with field work supplies

Fancy living out of a pickup truck.

The Mojave Desert.

The Mojave Desert.

Sitting having peanut butter and jelly before the survey begins

It’s peanut butter jelly time before the survey begins.

AliciaAfter growing up in Delaware, Alicia Arcidiacono fledged and migrated westward. For ten years, Alicia has followed the zugunruhe ways of her feathered friends. She has released endangered Aplomado Falcons in west Texas, conducted point counts in the Sierra Nevada, nest searched for woodpeckers in post-fire habitats, mapped breeding birds on the Colorado River, conducted surveys for the endangered Willow Flycatcher and Yellow-billed Cuckoo, taught environmental sciences as a teacher naturalist in the redwoods of California, conducted bat monitoring in southern California, researched sea turtles in Costa Rica, and studied Yellow-rumped Caciques in Peru.

Her true calling has been the Lower Colorado River, where she’s spent considerable time melting beneath the desert sun while keeping tabs on the local birds she calls family. This spring, she will be back among the mighty Elf Owls and armed with plenty of PB&Js.

Check out her photography at:

Check out her latest adventures at:



One thought on “The Mighty Elf Owl

  1. Pingback: Dispatches from 2016 | Dispatches from the Field

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