West Coast Pelagic Repo Cruise Part 3: Pterodromas to the Rescue

The second night on the boat passed smoothly. Exhaustion the previous day knocked me out quickly, and my alarm was the first recollection of waking in the dark. We went through the same morning routine as the previous day. Got ready, went to breakfast and then returned to our cabin to grab our gear. Only today there was a letter from the captain at our room. Reading the long form letter, the captain informed the passengers that the ship had not been able to travel at typical speed the previous day, and therefore we would be arriving in port 9 hours late!!!

Now for us, this wasn't an issue. Chris was taking a bus back to Seattle on Sunday, and Dorian and I had flights on Monday. But many a passenger likely had daytime flights on Saturday, and the letter said anything before 7:00 pm Saturday would likely be missed. A couple hours later they updated their assessment and let us know they were able to speed up overnight and given current conditions, we would only be 3 hours late. We hear stories of others who had contacted their airlines and changed flights, booked hotels, and paid various fees etc, only to find out that in most cases it would be unnecessary. It seems the letter was premature, and while it must take some work to print several 1,000, this minor inconvenience likely ruined the trip for some passengers. For us, it was a blip on the radar.

Emerging on the starboard side in very low light it became apparent that this morning there was far more action on the water than the previous day. Shearwaters, fulmars, gulls, and alcids could be made out by their shapes as they seemed to be flying all over the place. It was hard to make out details on most but there was certainly lots of activity. Perhaps most exciting thing was that there were already both LAYSAN and BLACK-FOOTED ALBATROSS flying near the boat.

Black-footed Albatross making a pass

I don't remember the exact time, but I remember there were only about 10 of us on the side of the boat when it happened. Most of the birders on board had migrated to the bow but a small contingent stuck to the side. As we scoped the water I heard a voice scream out, "SHORT_TAILED ALBATROSS!!!". It was Nick Lethaby and he had spotted our first target bird of the trip. Finding the bird in the distance wasn't too difficult--it's enormous pink bill hung obviously against the blue of the water. It wasn't a super satisfying look, but it was a lifer and got things moving.

After this, for the next hour, things seemed to slow down. I decided to check the port side where for some reason there were a good number of shearwaters and nearly a dozen albatross. I was the only one on the side of the boat which meant if I had a good bird, it would just be me, and vice-versa, I would miss something back on the starboard side if they had a good flyby. I was thinking about heading back to let the others know when a birder named Zach (Zack?) form the bay area appeared to let me know there was a lot happening on the other side of the boat. Super cool of him, and super thoughtful. We headed back to starboard and as we walked out the door screams of, "SHORT-TAILED ALBATROSS", erupted from several people. I didn't even need binoculars to see the large tubenose, which had come around the front of the boat and was banking out past us. I dropped my scope and started taking photos.

Lifer and rarity--Short-tailed Albatross

Zoomed and cropped version of the same image.

The bird passed close enough to get decent shots and make out a shiny band on its rear left foot. The bird headed straight away towards a fishing boat that had a steady stream of albatross following it. As the shortie veered to the right I scoped the line of Albatross behind it and counted more than 40 birds!!!

43 Albatross in one field of view!
White = Laysan, Yellow = Black-footed, and Red = Short-tailed.

I snapped a few pictures before the birds lifted off, and doing a quick review, Dorian spotted another SHORT-TAILED ALBATROSS in my photo sitting on the water!

The 2nd Short-tailed Albatross seen with the large group!

Had Zach not come and got me, or had we stayed 30 seconds longer, I/we could have missed the whole show. I am truly thankful for his visit. As a side note, both Dorian and Chris apparently took off to try and tell me, but both found the port side of the boat empty. Luckily, they didn't miss anything else--but this brings up the point I mentioned in my previous post about NOT LEAVING THE GROUP. If you leave you risk missing big things. I opted to move my gear up to the group and stick out the rest of the day on the bow with everyone else. I learned my lesson.

As a side note, once I looked at my pictures I found that I had got both Short-tailed in this group in the same shot when all the albatross were in the air a few moments later.

Both Short-tailed Albatross in the same field of view.

The morning held a few more interesting birds and animals. For me, a pair of lifer FORK-TAILED STORM-PETRELS was a welcome find. The second interesting bird was what appeared to be a pair of all dark auklets that streamed by the boat. Several people said Crested would be the most likely species, but even that would be rare.

Much better shot of Laysan Albatross than the previous day

By the time I went to lunch it had been an eventful couple of hours. I tallied 14 LAYSAN ALBATROSS and 76 BLACK-FOOTED ALBATROSS, more than 100 NORTHERN FULMAR, and 17 BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE.

Dark morph Northern Fulmar

Aside from the birds the morning had proved quite productive for marine mammals. I snagged 3 lifers in a small pod of beautiful DALL'S PORPOISE which came right alongside the ship.

Dall's Porpoise barely breaking the surface

A single FUR SEAL swam by at one point, and I mostly just got to see its flippers out of the water. The coolest thing, and perhaps most disappointing unfortunately was a pod of KILLER WHALES that made a pass. By the time I saw them, it was just their tails disappearing into the water. The downside of a cruise ship is that it DOES NOT STOP, so if you miss something--it is gone. I was stoked to see something that is one of my top 5 animals to see before I die but want a much more satisfying experience.

Humpback Whales Breaching

On the flip side, we had a pair of very entertaining and confiding HUMPBACK WHALES that kept breaching alongside the ship for close to 20 minutes. I was able to take several photos, and get a few video through my spotting scope. I have had much better looks at this species in Mexico and southern California, but anytime I get to see a whale it's an exciting experience.

A quick break to the Lido deck and I scarfed down a couple hamburgers. Back to the bow, all focus was on petrels--we had to get Mottled Petrel before it got dark! For a couple of hours, things moved along slowly--then came the first yell, "MOTTLED PETREL!!!". Now imagine 50-60 birders crowded on the bow of a boat, with the person who saw the bird shouting out clock positioning and direction moving, as well as perceived distance from the boat. Seems like something fairly easy to pick up on. Now put your self 60' above the water and moving at about 20 MPH. Oh yeah, and now think about the bird you're looking for being just 13" long with a 2 1/2' wingspan. I got lucky. I spotted the bird with my binos as it zigged and zagged up and down from the water, several hundred yards ahead of the boat.

Guy McCaskie scoping for Petrels

I attempted to get a picture, but it was a ways off. And in a matter of seconds, the bird was gone. There were cheers, high fives, and relief on several peoples faces. But it became apparent that the majority of people on the bow had missed the bird. There were plenty of frustrated, angry, and beat down birders who thought there only shot at this gadfly had flown... But leave it to Dorian Anderson, who missed the lead bird to stick his nose to the grind and start scoping. A few minutes later I heard his boisterous voice yelling, "MOTTLED PETREL!!!". He had found his own. I rushed his direction to see if I could get a photo. Everyone else also moved this way and I couldn't get my eyes on the bird this time.

Imagine standing on the bow of the boat, staring through a spotting scope and not adjusting for the up and down--this is what the view was like on the bow.  Not only did you have to steady your body, you had to move the scope to keep a steady view as you scanned horizontally.

I turned to the bow to scan and immediately caught the up and down-swoop of another petrel, it was my turn to yell, "MOTTLED PETREL at 12 o'clock!!!". People turned their focus to the bow--and almost immediately I heard someone else blurt out, "It's a COOK'S PETREL!!!". Sure enough, the gadfly I spotted wasn't of the mottled form, but instead the much less common this time of year COOK'S PETREL. I followed the bird, noting the clean undersides. I grabbed my camera and snapped away, getting a few shots before it disappeared.

Lifer Cook's Petrel

I was ecstatic. This was another lifer and if I could just get a photo of a Mottled the trip would be a complete success. The next 90 minutes would be something that I don't think anyone on the boat ever expected. There was a constant stream of MOTTLED PETRELS. Some were by themselves, others in pairs, and a couple times there were small flocks or gatherings. On one occasion Chris spotted one that was being trailed by a Cook's Petrel. In all, I counted 44 MOTTLED PETRELS that I definitely saw. On the bow, several observers who stayed glued to their scopes the rest of the day scanning far out on the horizon tallied more than 200! Here is a sampling of some of the images I was able to capture.

And it wasn't just the petrels, both LAYSAN and BLACK-FOOTED ALBATROSS both showed in good number the rest of the day, adding another 17 LAYSAN and 32 BLACK-FOOTED. Some even made close passes for photos, improving on the previous day's horrendous photo ops.

Black-legged Kittiwake trailing a Laysan Albatross

I managed photos of a couple other birds including a few shots of BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE and an identifiable shot of a RHINOCEROS AUKLET.

Rhinoceros Auklet that didn't seem too worried about the ship approaching

Besides the typical seabirds, we had a couple of interesting moments during the afternoon. At one point, California birder Tom Benson points to the sky and almost bewilderingly shouts, "RED-BREASTED MERGANSER". Here we are 50 miles off the coast and this duck was heading southwest away from the coast.

The lost at sea Red-breasted Merganser

But it got much stranger a few moments later when Chris spotted a PEREGRINE FALCON. Shouts of Peregrine popped up left and right as the falcon came swooping out in front of the boat. What in the hell was this bird doing out here? This was a long way from home and seemed like a bad place for the falcon to be. But then the bird did something incredible. We watched in disbelief as it dove towards the water, and knocked a FORK-TAILED STORM-PETREL out of the air. The falcon then proceeded to stoop on the storm-petrel, while being dived on by a MOTTLED PETREL. The whole thing maybe last 15 seconds, but it seemed like an eternity before the falcon grabbed the storm-petrel and disappeared up and around the boat.  Seeing these species together is almost surely something I'll never see again.

The "Petrel and the Peregrine"

I think everyone was shocked but then someone relayed a story that somebody else on the boat had told them they saw a hawk on board. I think the birder that hear this likely scoffed at the story, but it now made sense. Either this falcon had gotten lost and ended up on the boat--OR--and the story I like to imagine, the Falcon made the trip out of LA with us. We did see falcons in the Port of LA, and the falcon seemed quite skilled at open ocean hunting. The ease with which it took out the tiniest of the seabird

Me, Chris and Dorian stoked about the petrels

The rest of the afternoon sped by and around 4:30 pm, I decided to call it a day. I was exhausted, cold, and very satisfied with my haul of 4 life birds, and both target species for the trip. I retired to the cabin to relax and watch the sunset to the west. Others stayed on the bow, aware we were fast approaching Washington waters, and their ability to add a few state birds to their lists. As it turns out, those that did indeed added Mottled Petrel to their Washington life lists. Instead, I laid back, smiled and thought about that falcon. What a smart, and delightful bird.

The last sunset at sea...

Photos from Today
December 1st - Short-tailed Albatross
December 1st - Mottled Petrel
December 1st - Cook's Petrel
December 1st - Laysan Albatross
December 1st - Black-footed Albatross
December 1st - Rhinoceros Auklet

Checklists from Today
REPO Cruise -- Southern Oregon Waters (44.2128,-124.9576)
REPO Cruise -- Northern Oregon Waters (45.401846,-125.220306)

Other Posts
 in this Series
West Coast Pelagic Repo Cruise Part 1: Adios Los Angeles
West Coast Pelagic Repo Cruise Part 2: California Slog
>> West Coast Pelagic Repo Cruise Part 3: Pterodromas to the Rescue
West Coast Pelagic Repo Cruise Part 4: Vancouver, BC or Bust

West Coast Pelagic Repo Cruise Part 2: California Slog

I was awake when my alarm started buzzing on Thursday morning. It was still dark out and the motion of the boat was quite apparent. We prepped for the day, grabbed breakfast, then emerged on the starboard side of the boat facing the sea. It was cold, mainly due to the speed at which the ship was moving. I had been told previously that the bow of the ship is the best place to be so you can see birds on both sides of the ship and have a good vantage point for birds passing in front. However this morning, the bow was closed to traffic, so we stuck to the sides.

Birders scanning the ocean at first light

It was still rather dim out and making out birds was difficult in the early light. A few gulls passed near and far, and NORTHERN FULMAR and a handful of SOOTY SHEARWATERS appeared as things began to lighten a little. But things were definitely moving quite slow the first couple of hours.

Sooty Shearwater with barely enough light for pictures

At one point as we watched a fulmar passing, I noticed a shearwater behind it and to the right. As I focused my binoculars, I could make out an obvious pink bill. I immediately took my camera and started taking pictures. I believed it was a FLESH-FOOTED SHEARWATER, but the pictures weren't great. Several others looked at the pictures and concurred that is what it looked like, but it was pretty far out.

 Record shot of sunlit Flesh-footed Shearwater

There was a lot of downtime punctuated by the occasional burst of excitement. A distant BULLER'S SHEARWATER made a pass, a lifer for me. A single PINK-FOOTED SHEARWATER came by some time later. Besides the 3 single species, we tallied around 12 SOOTY SHEARWATERS. Myself and several other saw several completely dark storm-petrels in the distance at one point--but species ID was impossible. The general assumption this time of year and locations would be ASHY STORM-PETREL, given the lack of white on the rump.

The ubiquitous and ever present Northern Fulmar

RED PHALAROPE came and went usually as singles, but there were a couple small flocks. CASSIN'S AUKLET awkwardly scurried away on the surface of the water when the boat would approach. The occasional POMARINE JAEGER made a pass, usually pretty far off in the distance. Things moved slowly. About an hour before noon I headed to the port side to get a different view and pick a spot to lock down for the afternoon. The bow had opened and a number of birders headed there. I wanted to get away from the crowds for a bit so stuck to the side.

One of several Pomarine Jaegers seen during hte day

Several birders followed and a small contingent of us set up shop. It wasn't long before I yelled out SABINE'S GULL as a bird floated along in the distance. This would be the only one of the trip. Shortly after that, we picked up a Jaeger and after a few seconds, I mentioned it looked more like a PARASITIC JAEGER. It was sleek and flying fast, and lacked the barrel-chest appearance of the poms. Another only of the trip. We also snagged our first BLACK-FOOTED ALBATROSS of the day with a distant flyby.

Eventually, I took a lunch break and after hurriedly scarfing down a hamburger on the lido deck, returned to the post on the side of the ship. Out of nowhere the entire contingent of birders appeared and filled in the entire front section of the side. They had been booted from the bow due to rough water conditions.

The afternoon crowd was even bigger!

I decided to take a quick walthrough just to see what the crowd was like...

The 5 hour afternoon vigil was even slower than the morning watch. Only 11 species graced us, but one was a lifer for me with a LAYSAN ALBATROSS. We actually had 2 as well as 3 more BLACK-FOOTED ALBATROSS, but none came anywhere near the boat. And all were in the last 90 minutes as we made our way further north in California waters.

Distant record shot of my lifer Laysan Albatross

Distant record shot of my first photographed Black-footed Albatross

Aside from the albatrosses 14 CASSIN'S AUKLET were one of the most numerous species of the afternoon--following the 6-7 NORTHERN FULMAR that popped up every hour.

Typical ass-end view of a Cassin's Auklet avoiding the ship

There was a brief moment of excitement when someone yelled out that there was a Cook's Petrel. This was about the same time that an interesting Northern Fulmar and a Buller's Shearwater made a pass and left several of us scratching our heads. I got shitty pictures of the Buller's and a few of the fulmar but missed the petrel--which would have been a lifer. Later in the evening, I heard that this species was taken back upon further reflection, so I felt much better about things.

Very poor record shot of a banking Buller's Shearwater

The sun finally started to fade to the west, so I decided to wrap things up and head to the room to get some pictures. My companions remained on deck till the last rays of light disappeared hoping for one of our targets to emerge--alas they did not. But the sunset was a beauty.

Gorgeous sunset over the Pacific

As we spent the rest of the relaxing, eating dinner, and talking with other birders on board the consensus was that it was a disappointing day. I was actually thinking things went pretty well. I snagged 2 lifers and had 2 other possible lifers that I just didn't get good looks at so I left them off my list. I had expected distant and terrible looks at far and few between birds. Others felt the numbers were light and the overall diversity low--but being my first repo pelagic, I was pretty happy with the outcome, minus the lack of target species.

Here are two views that I had much of the day.  Distant views of open ocean where birds were mere specks on the horizon, and water-filled views as I looked down from 30-50' above the water on the ship.

 Typical view through my 600mm lens looking out over the ocean

Typical binocular view at 8x looking down at the water from the boat

Being dark by 5 meant we had 5 hours to kill, and being a cruise there is lots to do. That being said, I was wiped and just wanted to relax. We retired to our room and watched Thursday Night Football, but for those inclined to do other things, there was an outdoor theatre and an indoor theatre with movies playing basically all day and evening long. A casino, a sports bar, a coffee shop, numerous lounges, sit-down restaurants (with cover charge), and various other entertainment opportunities can provide things to do if that's your cup of tea.

Being honest during my time on the ship, I never went lower than the 6th deck, and never ventured back past the main lobby to the read half of the boat. I stuck mostly to the room, the Lido deck (14th floor) where the restaurant bars and pools were located, the bow and side decks for birding, and an occasional trip to the lobby where the bar and a cafe were located. Leaving your position was a risky bet--if a bird flew by it would be gone within minutes at the most. If you were inside, you missed out, if you were on the wrong side, you missed out. And so on and so forth.

If you do a repo pelagic, you should plan on spending the majority of daylight hours glued to the group and scanning the water--and Friday would prove the importance of that...

Photos from Today
November 30th - California Seabirds

Checklists from Today
REPO Cruise -- Central California Waters South of SFO (36.67875,-122.68943)
REPO Cruise -- Central California Waters North of SFO (37.74964,-123.48051)

Other Posts
 in this Series
West Coast Pelagic Repo Cruise Part 1: Adios Los Angeles
>> West Coast Pelagic Repo Cruise Part 2: California Slog
West Coast Pelagic Repo Cruise Part 3: Pterodromas to the Rescue
West Coast Pelagic Repo Cruise Part 4: Vancouver, BC or Bust

West Coast Pelagic Repo Cruise Part 1: Adios Los Angeles

I woke up and was congested. What a brilliant start this would be to 3 nights on cruise ship followed by a couple days in Canada. I slugged some Day Quil, grabbed my gear and was off to the airport. I took an early flight so I could spend 1/2 the day birding around Orange County, and met my buddy Dorian Anderson at baggage claim once on the ground. We kept the plans fluid and had hoped to chase a Nazca Booby that had been about 40 minutes south two days earlier--but with the bird being a no-show the previous day we stuck closer to the airport. After an hour at Huntington Park East, Chris Monahan met us and we birded Bolsa Chica and Mile Square Park before dropping off the rental and UBERing to the cruise port.

One of a handful of Scaly-breasted Munia in the grass

Huntington Park had it's usual suspects, with a decent sized flock of SCALY-BREASTED MUNIA eliciting a few clicks of the shutter from me. A wayward WHITE-FACED IBIS also posed for some nice shots along the edge of the currently flooded pond basin.

Very abiding White-faced Ibis

Overlooking Bolsa Chica from Harriett M. Wieder Regional Park I snagged a pair of FOX SPARROW, a new California bird for me. From the 101 we walked across the boardwalk into the main impoundments at Bolsa Chica. Birding was phenomenal as usual. We picked up 55 species in under 45 minutes, including a wayward REDDISH EGRET, several RUDDY TURNSTONE, a MERLIN, and a couple HORNED GREBES.

Digiscoped and dancing Reddish Egret

We decided we could fit some time in at Mile Square Park and headed that way. The ponds were rather dead, so we hit the botanical garden/"wild" area in the middle of the park. A couple VERMILION FLYCATCHER were here as well as a lost GRAY FLYCATCHER and on the golf course, a SNOW GOOSE joined a flock of Canada Geese. With a few new state birds in tow, we grabbed lunch nearby at Sabrosada (great Carne Asada Fries), then headed to the port.

Snow Goose standing out in the crowd

Being my first cruise everything I had been told was conjecture. I didn't know what to expect and to be honest, the boarding process wasn't as bad as I imagined. We were on the ship in under an hour and found our room. It was small as expected, but we splurged the extra $40/person for the balcony, so we had some fresh air.

Dorian checking out the cabin

Before we could depart there was the mandatory, emergency drill. This initiated with a blast of the alarm, followed by us descending 5 flights of stairs to our muster point with 800 other guests. One misconception I had was that this would be a lightly packed cruise--it was not. As far as I could tell the cruise sold out and the thing was packed to the gills with passengers. According to the Princess Website, our vessel, the Star Princess could hold 3,100 guests and 1,205 crew.

After listening to the captain drone on about safety procedure with way more tangents than were needed, we bailed on the interior of the ship and joined a rather large contingent of birders on the bow to see our way out of the harbor. I recognized a few familiar faces including Michael Lester who currently resides in Utah, past client Keith Camburn, and birding great Paul Lehman who I hadn't seen in over a decade.  I also had the pleasure of meeting a birding legend in Guy McCaskie.

Chris and a handful of other eager birders checking out the bow

We had gotten a late start so by the time we reached the breakwater it was for all intents and purposes too dark to bird. We managed PEREGRINE FALCON and BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERON on the way out, then quickly disappeared to our cabin.

Peregrine Falcon terrorizing all other flying things in the port

One thing to remember about a November repo cruise on the best coast (that's right--the best) is that daylight is at a premium. Sunrise was sometime between 7:30 and 8:00 am, and sunset between 4:45 and 5:00 pm. This meant that there was a lot of downtime in the evenings. On our first night on ship this gave us an opportunity to look at field guides and study up on what we would be looking for the next day.

Sunset over the breakwater as we departed LA

For most birders on the ship there were 2 very distinct targets. The first and most expected was Mottled Petrel. This should be a give me on this cruise this time of year, but being on the open ocean there are no guarantees. The second bird for many was a "hopeful", and for most probably a second thought due to how rarely encountered it is. That bird is the Short-tailed Albatross. A species that half a century ago was brought to the brink of extinction when all the breeding pairs were killed off. If it wasn't for juveniles at sea, the species would have been wiped from the face of the planet. When these young birds reached sexual maturity, they returned to one breeding location on Torishima. And with conservation efforts, it is estimated that there are perhaps 2,500 on the planet now.

The main difficulty in seeing these birds is they are rare in North American Waters--which makes sense given their occurrence range of 13,400,000 sq miles.over the entire Pacific Ocean. Being only the 2nd west coast pelagic I had been on I had a handful of more likely species like Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel, Buller's Shearwater, and Laysan Albatross I hoped to pick up. I also studied up on Cook's Petrel, the auklets, and various other seabirds with hopes I wouldn't miss anything I caught in my scope or binoculars.

After dinner and relaxing in the room it was time to turn in for the night. As it would turn out this was the lousiest night of sleep I ever had. I couldn't get comfortable on the tiny bed, and the motion of the boat made things worse. I slept some here and there, but when my alarm went off the next morning, I was anything but perky for my first day of pelagic repo cruise birding...

Photos from Today
November 29th - Los Angeles

Checklists from Today
Huntington Central Park -- East
Harriett M. Wieder Regional Park
Bolsa Chica -- Walk Bridge
Mile Square Regional Park

Other Posts in this Series
>> West Coast Pelagic Repo Cruise Part 1: Adios Los Angeles
West Coast Pelagic Repo Cruise Part 2: California Slog
West Coast Pelagic Repo Cruise Part 3: Pterodromas to the Rescue
West Coast Pelagic Repo Cruise Part 4: Vancouver, BC or Bust

Yard Owls

In the April 2016, I got an itch to put a screech-owl box up in my backyard.  I knew the odds of getting an owl were slim, but I had seen Western Screech-Owl in the yard once at night.  The biggest issue was our house is set back on our property, so we have a big front yard, but a narrow backyard, meaning that if we put the box in our backyard it would be very close to the house.  On the upside,  if it ever got used, we would be able to see it very easily from our deck.

Our largest tree sits in the northeast corner of the backyard and stood about 50' tall.  During the summer, it is thick with foliage and would provide good cover.  And during the winter it would be easy to see and provide a southwest facing cavity for lots of sunlight.

So one Saturday I ran to Home Depot, snagged a board and built a Screech-Owl box to spec using a Kestrel/Owl directions form the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife:

The directions are super easy to follow, and I figured I would build a couple more to throw up in the mountains for Flammy, and Saw-whets.  But the first one was going to end up in the yard--and perhaps give the family a great learning and watching experience

The end view from our dining room would make it easy to keep an eye on...

So up the box went and then it was the waiting game.  And we waited and waited, and check and checked.  Every time I let the dog in or out of the house.  Every time I went out to use the BBQ, get firewood, pick tomatoes from the garden, play baseball with Cam, etc etc etc.  I checked.  And nothing.

But one-day this February I found some walnuts sitting on the ground under the box.  Looking up I could see what looked like more in the drain slots on the bottom.  So out came the ladder and up I went to see what the deal was.  Sure enough, there were a handful of walnuts in the bottom.  A squirrel was using the nest box as a cache!

So while the box was being used, it was unfortunately not by a squirrel.  Eventually, as spring wore on the nuts disappeared, and the squirrel moved on.  The box was back to being just an owl box.  And the waiting game continued.  The checks o the empty entrance hole were ritualistic.  Every morning, every evening, and anytime I walked by the back door.

On Thanksgiving morning, I was in the yard smoking our turkey and peeked up at the box--still empty.  Last night I let the dog in and looked up--and again nothing.  It was expected.  Today I was sitting in our dining room working on something when I got up to grab a drink.  I peered out at the next box and had to do a double take.  There in the entrance hole was a WESTERN SCREECH-OWL!

I was so excited are started freaking out to get Sam to come take a look.  This was, after all, more than 18 months in the making!  We admired the little owl, excited that it was using our nest box.  And luckily, Cameron woke up from his nap and got to see his first day time Screech-Owl.

My hope is that tomorrow he/she will return to the roost and maybe use it all winter long.  I would be more excited about it getting used as a winter roost due to the visibility from our deck since the leaves mostly hide the box all summer.

It might have taken a little while but the owl box is at least a small success!  And in reality, it could've taken years to get used--or perhaps never.  Yard owls are pretty hard to beat!