Saturday, November 22, 2008

Skywatch Friday: Burrowing Owls

Blue sky reflected in water where the burrowing owl thought it wanted to live.
February 2008 in Sycamore Canyon.
(Click on this or any other photo to enlarge for the best view.)
Photo by Kathie or Gus with Nikon D80 70 to 300mm lens.

In last week's Skywatch Friday post I wrote about my search for a burrowing owl in a vacant lot in Coolidge, AZ. The post brought many questions about this interesting bird and I promised Jim that I would write a post and answer his and others' questions.

Burrowing owls got their name because they actually do live underground in burrows. They will use burrows dug by other animals, especially prairie dogs, but they are also capable of digging their own burrows if the need arises. They are found in the open country of the western United States and Florida. Burrowing owls will often line the opening to their burrows with manure to attract insects. When the dung beetles show up, the owls gobble them up. This small 9 ½ inch owl has long legs and is often seen perching on fence posts, or standing on one leg near its burrow. The males and females are roughly the same size, and the breeding season is in April with a clutch of 6 to 10 eggs. The young owlets stay with the parents for up to 40 days with both parents responsible for their care and feeding.

I saw my first burrowing owls in Colorado in the 1990’s. They had taken up residence in a prairie dog town and used the prairie dogs as a warning system for potential danger. The ever alert prairie dogs give a high pitched whistle or bark when danger is sighted. Then everyone disappears below ground until the all clear is given. Since then I have seen burrowing owls in Florida and right here in Sycamore Canyon. I had one show up here around Christmastime last year.

Burrowing Owl in Sycamore Canyon January 2008

It thought the drainage pipe in the wash next to the house would make a great burrow and it hung around for a few weeks until the rain came and filled the wash. Suddenly the little owl discovered it had lake front property. You or I might rejoice at such a discovery, but for the owl, this was bad news. It left the next day and I have not seen it back again since.

Water-filled wash after a winter storm. February 2008 Sycamore Canyon.

While I was bird watching in Coolidge recently, my son had told me he had seen a little owl standing on the ground in the vacant lot near the school. I assumed right away that it was a burrowing owl. I went searching for it twice.

Does it live here...

...or here?

I found lots of potential burrows, but no owl. Finally on November first in the evening I took a walk over there hoping to find the bird in the rapidly fading light of dusk. By then the dirt and scrub were all the same dull color, and I had just about given up hope. Besides, in that dim light, I was pretty sure my camera would not be able to get as decent photo anyway. Suddenly the little fluff ball flew up in front of me. I tried to follow its flight path and see where it landed, but then I made the mistake of trying to see where it had come from. When I looked back in the direction it had flown, all the clumps of grass and scrub looked exactly the same. In the dim light I saw an outline that I thought might be the bird. It even moved, but closer examination revealed a piece of newspaper stuck in a bush and flapping in the wind.

Due to loss of habitat, the burrowing owl is considered threatened in or endangered in many areas. To see a burrowing owl is a special privilege. I was thrilled to enjoy the company of the one that was in the wash next to my house for the few weeks it was here. I intend to keep on looking for the one in Coolidge. I hope it doesn’t lose its home anytime soon. But development is not the only threat to these little creatures. The vacant lot where I saw it is full of tire tracks from dirt bikes and ATVs. I can’t imagine that this kind of noise and activity is conducive to setting up housekeeping for these birds. In my efforts to see and possibly photograph the owls, I intend to keep a respectful distance so they don’t feel threatened in any way. I want the owl to be there for others to enjoy, now, and in the future.

Burrowing Owl in Sycamore Canyon January 2008

For more fantabulous sky photos visit Skywatch Friday!

To learn more about Burrowing Owls visit these links:

All About Birds: Burrowing Owls

The Owl Pages: Athene cunicularia

Wikipedia: Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owl Facts Sheet from Saskatchewan Schools

The Peregrine Fund: Burrowing Owl info

Burrowing Owl Program

Sycamore Canyon: Two Birding Incidents

Sycamore Canyon: Burrowing Owl Confirmed

Sycamore Canyon: Evening Owl

Sycamore Canyon: Snow in Arizona


Linda said...

Thanks for visiting on my first Skywatch post.

I'm fascinated by the very different landscapes and vegetation in your blog, to say nothing of the birds, none of which I've ever seen before.

Beth said...

Kathie, that was really interesting. You are so interesting and share your knowledge well. Did you ever seen burrowing owls in New England or does our frozen tundra make it too hard to burrow?

Anonymous said...

Nice, informative post. I don't see Burrowing Owls around here where I live, at least none are in my backyard but we do have Screech Owls.

I used to work outside more than I am able to nowadays and then I could hear them in different trees talking back and forth to each other. It was as comforting as it gets to me.

Dewdrop said...

Glad you finally found your owl. I love reflection shots!

bobbie said...

What fascinating little creatures they are. I really love that first photo! Lake front property, indeed!

Lynne at Hasty Brook said...

Oh, Kathie! This is a marvelous post full of great pix and info. I would LOVE to see a burrowing owl. They come to eastern Minnesota but I've never made the trip. I can tell how special they are to you. Maybe your presence in their area will help.

gina said...

love all your pix of the sweet lil guy and your article. i was fortunate to see a burrowing owl years ago on the eastern coast of florida. his home area had been roped off and protected signs displayed, and the lil owl was perched right on the sign. i loved watching him.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Kathie. I love these little guys, they are just too cute.

abb said...

What a neat post and pictures, Kathy!

Louise said...

Interesting post and fabulous photos!

Vickie said...

Wonderful and interesting post. What a special opportunity to view this bird.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Kathie, that is a very unusual species. It looks a lot like our "Little Owl" only that doesn't burrow and lives in holes in large trees.

Anonymous said...

Who doesn't love owls? I didn't know some of them lived in the ground, neat post:)

Jim said...

Thank you Kathie -- You did really good with your write-up on the burrowing owl. I couldn't believe until this that birds would burrow in the ground.

I read below about your hike. It was a really nice one, I'd be there a lot if we had a nice pretty place like that to walk.
I think that owl in the first picture and the other pictures outside the pipe did not like dirt. Evidently it did not like water either.

Kathie Brown said...

Linda, welcome to Sycamore Canyon!

Beth, as far as I know, burrowing owls are only in the western Untied States and Florida. Your guess about the frozen ground may be right. It would be interesting to find out.

Abe, I have yet to see a screech owl, so you are one up on me there. The All About birds link has a sound recording of the Burrowing owl's voice. It is very unusual. Not at all like I expected.

Dewdrop, thanks for stopping by. I haven't photographed the one in Coolidge yet. These photos were taken earlier this year.

Bobbie, yeah, he moved on shortly thereafter!

Lynne, I hope you make the trip someday. It would be worth it! They are so cute!

Gina, the one I saw was in Cape Coral. My brother pointed it out to me. He saw them every day on his way to work.

Wren, you know I agree!

TSannie, and Louise, Thank you!

Vickie, it was wonderful.

Roy, that is interesting. Owls are so much fun and most people love them.

Bookbabie, yeah, we don't often think of birds as being associated with the earth, but this species sure is!

Jim, I hoped that you would like it. These owls actually do like dirt and need it to burrow in. The water is what chased it away. I'm sure it found another burrow somewhere nearby in the desert, but hopefully away from where more developement wil happen. Glad you liked the hike below also!

nina at Nature Remains. said...

Poor little guy.
I think they're so sweet. Would love to have them around here.

Habitat loss--such a nasty little thing!

Susan Gets Native said...

OMG. They are so cute, aren't they? Little adorable ferocious killers.
: )
We had one in Ohio recently....seems that it hitched a ride on a cargo truck from Arizona.
A roadrunner did the same thing a few years back.

Shelley said...

I enjoyed learning about the Burrowing owl and viewing your lovely photos of them! Thank you!

Texas Travelers said...

I really liked this post. Great photos and thanks for all the links. I know it was a lot of work assembling this and you are to be commended.


kjpweb said...

Neat! They are always so grim looking! Great shots!
Cheers, Klaus

Kathie Brown said...

Nina, It is sad but true that habitat loss leads to species loss. Perhaps seeing these cute little guys will get more people to care.

Susan, you would so love it out here. Especially at this time of year, when we have raptors, raptors everywhere! How amazing that the owl and the roadrunner hitched a ride to Ohio! It puts a whole new spin on the idea of migration!

Shellmo, you are welcome.

Troy, thank you for noticing and saying so. It was a bit of work, but I really wanted everyone to have access to as much information as they wanted. There is so much to learn out there!

klaus, so nice to see you again! I think they are funny and cute, but they do seem to have a serious look on there face. Perhaps they have Puritan ancesters. That would explain the grim look! Have you ever found any near you?

Larry said...

I recently saw a kids movie where they were trying to save land from developement because of Burrowing Owls. Cool birds-I can dig it and so can they.

This Is My Blog - fishing guy said...

Kathie: didn't see this one but it is neat that this bird took advantage of the man made home.

Celeste said...

Burrowing Owls have to be some of the most endearing owls ever, how wonderful that you had one as a neighbour for a while.

Yolanda said...

Oh how beautful it is there.

Amy said...

Hmmm, the look on their faces makes me think they don't like unannounced visitors. How cute! They look like they're saying , "Harumph!"

J Horst said...

Well, it's been quite a while since you posted here, but i just ran across it! Back in 2004/5 i was working with Burrowing Owls while doing research through the UA School of Natural Resources.

While it might seem like noise would be a problem for these little guys, it turns out that it's not. The largest and most concentrated population near to Tucson is on Davis-Monthan Air Force Base - between the taxi-way and runway!!! Not quiet at all...ever.

There is a sizable population near Coolidge too - lots are spread around on the ghost mesquite bosque near the Casa Grande Ruins and all the irrigation channels going to various farmers' fields have birds scattered around the county.

Great post!