I found myself recently driving very slowly down farmland roads in Northern California. I had been doing daily runs to this out of the way place in hopes of locating and photographing burrowing owls. I was looking for a mated pair in order to document the growth of their chicks over the course of a season. My ultimate goal was to put together a photo essay aimed at raising awareness of the decline in their habitat due to population encroachment. But before I could do that I had to find them, and I was beginning to understand just how difficult that might be.
When I was younger and spent a lot of time performing archaeological field surveys, it was very common to see these, cute, curious little owls quietly watching their surroundings from small dirt or grassy mounds around their nesting burrows. Their natural habitat consists of dry, open areas with low vegetation where ground squirrels congregate. These adaptable birds have traditionally utilized farmland, grasslands, deserts, rangeland, golf courses, and vacant lots in urban areas as their habitat. When I decided to do a photo essay I did not expect them to be difficult to locate. So, I was surprised to find myself well into a month of searching and still no owls in site.
Some weeks later I was slowly driving the back roads of my California home area in an environment that looked right, but the owls remained elusive. I had heard that one of their favorite nesting areas was around culverts, of which there were many around my current location. So I parked my car and quietly approached one that was nearby to look for signs of an owl. Not finding any owl pellets or bird excrement I decide to give up my quest for the day and head home, I was chatting on the phone (hands-free) with a friend about my lack of luck when, from the corner of my eye, I caught some movement coming from a nearby culvert. Something small had just flown straight up from a drainage ditch and my mind instantly screams “Burrowing Owl”. I continued about 100 yards up the road as my brain collected location markers. I hung up on my friend with a shout. “I think I just found my owl,” and grabbed my camera and binoculars. Quietly I exited the car I headed back to the area where I thought I had seen an owl.
One of the few diurnal owls. They enjoying sunning themselves in the afternoon and are well camouflaged. If it wasn’t for the bright yellow eyes they would be impossible to spot.
I walk, stop and scan the area. I am ridiculously excited about the possibility of photographing my first owl but I find nothing. I decided to sit about 100 feet from the place where I thought I spotted the owl and carefully scanned the area. And there he was. Peeping at me from just behind a stone. If it hadn’t been for his bright yellow eyes I would never have spotted him. To give you an idea of scale, the rock he was peeping over was about the size of a softball. We watched each other for about a minute and then he started swiveling his head, right, left, up, and then back right keeping a vigilant lookout of the area. During this routine, his eyes would sweep across me, but he gave no indication that he was concerned. It was about then that I remembered I had come to take pictures and picked up my camera. Thirty minutes later I left the little guy napping in the sunshine.
I have visited him on several occasions since, being careful not to intrude into his space or make him feel uncomfortable. My hope was to spot him with a mate but so far he remains solo. The mating season is in early spring. The female can lay 6 to 12 eggs that are incubated for 28-30 days. The owlets fledge at around 6 weeks but will stay in the area to forage for almost a year at which point they are fully grown. So perhaps he will find a mate and produce offspring in the coming spring. Surveys show that there are only about 9,450 nesting owl pairs in the primary California range. Seventy percent of these pairs are located in Imperial Valley and are threatened by habitat loss. Currently, the owl population is declining at a rate of about 8% per year, but I will keep an eye on this little guy in the hope that he will be one of the lucky ones. I will keep you posted.