Stebbins, A Life and Times

ROBERT STEBBINS’S MEMORIES

Written when he was 95 years old.
There is no logical nor chronological order to the memories.

Post 7

A Close Encounter With Saw-Whet Owls, Pine Hills, San Diego Co., California

Dec. 17, 1945. About 6:30 P.M. I heard a Saw-whet Owl. The sun had long since set (about 5:00 P.M.) but visibility was good due to an almost full moon and cloudless sky. Anna-rose and I walked in the direction of the sound. We soon became aware of a second owl. The birds were calling back and forth. The bird is well named for the sound it makes. Indeed, it is like that made when a saw is sharpened. The song we heard often fluctuated in intensity and the pitch was varied slightly and irregularly. The tempo was also quite irregular and there were occasionally a series of more rapid notes. The pitch of the song was about 10 whole notes above my lowest whistle.

The birds at first did not respond to my attempts at imitation. The first response came when I concentrated on a continual rather rapid fire production of the song. It might have suggested an emotionally upset bird. I saw a small gray form move quickly from one perch to another at about a 15 foot height. The flight was direct, rapid, and soundless. Both birds alighted in a pine 20 25 ft. overhead. I startled them and they arose together and flew off in opposite directions. I continued my imitation, concentrating on the accelerated series of notes and shortly one bird returned. It flew within 12 ft. of me, perching in a scraggley pine. It was perfectly silouetted against the moon. The other bird called for a time and I tried hard to attract it, but failed.

The Pine Hills are occuppied by a rare subspecies of cone-bearing tree, the Arizona Cypress (Cupressus arizonica). It is found in and near Cuyamaca State Park, San Diego Co., Calif.

A Brief Visit to the Headquarters of Cuyamaca state Park

While in the area, I decided to have a look for the Large-Blotched Salamander (Ensatina eschscholzii klauberi) (See Fig. 2). Anna-rose and I had been travelling the roads in the area for this animal and I wanted to see if it occurred in the Park. I did not intend to take any. (I had no permit to remove one from a State Park). To my delight, I soon found a fine specimen. But as I was glowing with success, a Park Ranger seemed to emerge from nowhere. He asked to see what I had found. With a feeling of considerable anxiety, and expecting I would at least be in for a stiff fine, I opened my hand. To my surprise he said, “Oh, that’s OK, just don’t collect any animals”. I trust he was only a temporary stand-in for the regular naturalist.

Editor’s Note: With the exception of minor typographical and editorial corrections, all efforts have been taken to preserve Dr. Stebbins’ text as originally recorded.

For more information on this serial column featuring the life and times of Dr. Robert C. Stebbins, please visit this post.

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