Owl Day, 02-25-21

I went out at 6:30 with my friend Roxanne to look for Burrowing Owls again.  The last time we went looking for them, we saw nothing.  So, we were happily surprised to find them in two different locations today: both sites where they had historically been, but hadn’t been seen for over a year. It was windy outside, and the wind was cold, but the owls were out, trying to soak up some sun anyway.

At our first stop, we found just one owl, but there may have been more in the burrows. (They make their homes in abandoned ground squirrel burrows.) I assumed the one we saw was a male because usually the males stand guard outside the burrow during the day. 

Standing guard outside his burrow.

His beak looked a little bloodied so I assumed he’d recently had some meaty breakfast. According to Cornell: “…Opportunistic feeders, primarily taking insects (mainly grasshoppers, crickets, moths and beetles) and small mammals (e.g. mice, voles, shrews), but will pursue any potential prey they can physically handle including birds, ground squirrels, frogs, snakes, salamanders, earthworms, bats, scorpions, and caterpillars… During the nesting period, insects (e.g. grasshoppers) are the primary prey during the day and are usually captured by females; vertebrates are captured crepuscularly (low light — dawn and dusk), primarily by males…”

I wondered if the wind interfered with bird’s hearing and hampered its hunting ability.

For the most part, Rox and I were able to use the car as a photo blind, so we didn’t startle or disturb the owl. Some of my photos were taken from the car window, holding the camera lens under the mirror; ya do what ya gotta do. I managed o get some good photos and a video snippet here.

This video and the photos don’t really show you how tiny these owls are. He’s maybe 7 inches from the top of his head to the tip of his tail, so, maybe as tall as your open palm is long.

Head on a swivel
Burrowing Owl, Western Burrowing Owl, Athene cunicularia hypugaea

At the second site, we walked along the ag buffer trail and finally saw one of the top of one of the owl’s head; it looked like a pale stone in the high grass. Then we spotted a second owl standing behind the first one.

They look like little pale stones in the grass.

When we first saw these two, I thought it was an adult and youngster… but now I think the size difference I was seeing was caused by perspective. I think we were looking at two adults, most likely a male/female pair. The owls are generally monogamous, but studies of them in California seem to indicate that because their populations are declining the owls sometimes take on other partners. “… 5–10% of offspring resulted from extra-pair fertilization…”

Seeing the two there made me hopeful that in a month or so we might be seeing babies. According to the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation:

            “…The eggs are incubated for 28-30 days and then the chicks begin hatching asynchronously.  At hatching, the chicks are helpless and mostly covered in a white down… After about 14 days, the chicks are big enough to emerge and spend some time outside… After emergence, the chicks spend more and more time outside.  They begin learning how to pounce on prey and how to stretch their wings (Figure 5).  Feathers continue to grow and develop and the chicks slowly lose the downy look and develop the light brown spotted pattern of an adult. 

            “Older chicks will also begin to use satellite burrows next door to the main burrow. They will spend time helicoptering their wings as a strength-building exercise, and eventually they begin to fly.  After 44 to 53 days post-hatch, chicks are considered fledged and can leave the nest, though many stay longer.  By the end of the season, the fledglings are strong flyers and have adult feather patterns, making it very hard to distinguish the adults from the young of the year…”

Burrowing Owl, Western Burrowing Owl, Athene cunicularia hypugaea

Because these owls were further away from us and obscured by grass for most of the time, it was more difficult to get clear photos of them. Rox got a good one of the male and posted it to Facebook with the caption, “Tiny experts at judgy face.” Hah!

Photo by Roxanne Moger.

While we were out, we also saw some White-Tailed Kites, sparrows and Black Phoebes on our walk among other stuff.

CLICK HERE to see the full album of photos.

This was a short trip, but we got to see what we wanted to see, and are feeling very hopeful for more owls over the next several months.  This was hike #22 of my #52HikeChallenge.

For more information on the owls see the Burrowing Owl Protection Society website.

Species List:

  1. Anna’s Hummingbird, Calypte anna
  2. Black Phoebe, Sayornis nigricans
  3. Black-Tailed Jackrabbit, Lepus californicus
  4. Bladderpod, Peritoma arborea [kind of looks like Jerusalem sage but gets bladder-like seed pods]
  5. Burrowing Owl, Western Burrowing Owl, Athene cunicularia hypugaea
  6. Bushtit, American Bushtit, Psaltriparus minimus
  7. California Ground Squirrel, Otospermophilus beecheyi
  8. California Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma californica
  9. Candleflame Lichen, Candelaria concolor
  10. Coyote Brush, Baccharis pilularis
  11. Golden-Crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia atricapilla
  12. Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos
  13. Pointleaf Manzanita, Arctostaphylos pungens
  14. Raven, Common Raven, Corvus corax
  15. Small Milkweed Bug, Lygaeus kalmii
  16. Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia
  17. Toyon, Heteromeles arbutifolia
  18. Tree Germander, Teucrium fruticans [purple flowers, kind of looks like vinegarweed]
  19. Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura
  20. Vesper Sparrow, Pooecetes gramineus ?
  21. Western Meadowlark, Sturnella neglecta
  22. Western Sycamore, Platanus racemose
  23. White Tailed Kite, Elanus leucurus
  24. White-Crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys