We’ll Never Know – Burrowing Owl Nest Abandoned

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It was with great anticipation that I started checking on my neighborhood family of Burrowing Owls this spring.  These little birds are such fun to photograph.  Who would have thought that birds who basically just sit on fenceposts most of the day could show such a myriad of expressions?  It’s amazing to watch the joggers that pass by these birds every day, completely unaware of their presence.  “What are you shooting?” is a common question.  “What birds?” is almost always the follow-up.

Peek a Boo (Burrowing Owl Preening)
Peek a Boo (Burrowing Owl Preening)

Well, these tireless little birds build their nests each spring in a burrow in the ground.  The burrows can be quite large, sometimes several meters long.  It’s pretty impressive for some of Nature’s smallest owls!  Sometimes they dig it themselves, and sometimes they use a hole left over from a gopher tortoise.   Each of the three or four years that I’ve watched these birds, they have nested in a different burrow.  After creating their nest hole, the female lays 3-12 eggs.  She incubates them for about a month.  When her babies hatch, they are completely helpless.  Mom and Dad feed them and take care of them until they are old enough to grow some feathers and emerge from their burrow.  For several weeks they will stand around the entrance to the burrow, learning to see, hunt, and eventually fly.  I had such a good time observing my little family last year, from their first day outside the burrow right up till their first flights.

Burrowing Owl on Watch
Burrowing Owl on Watch

For most of the long month of incubation, Dad sits on a fencepost or other tall item outside the burrow, keeping watch for predators.  The photo above shows how I found him week after week as we both waited for his young family to hatch.  This year I learned something new about the owls: the male is significantly lighter in color than the female, due to the hours that he spends soaking in the sun while his wife stays below ground with the eggs.

Breakfast Time!  Burrowing Owl with Bug
Breakfast Time! Burrowing Owl with Bug

Around mid-morning, Dad gets ready for a snack.  In the blink of an eye, he’ll fly off his perch, grab a bug, and return to his post to eat it.  Look at how his big feet wrap around the post as he prepares to devour his meal!  He made me laugh as he turned his head back and forth before performing the fatal gulp.  Then he repeated the whole process, this time giving me a chance to switch to video mode to capture his calls as he yelled victory over his prey.

Alas, Nature is not always kind to our feathered friends.  I grew uneasy as the weeks slipped by and no babies emerged from the burrow.  Birds are extremely predictable, and their migration and nesting habits are like clockwork.  I heard a report from another photographer about a dead baby found near the burrow.  Then other people asked me what was wrong, because they couldn’t find the owls at all.  When I returned, Mom was nowhere to be found.  Dad was on a fencepost in the general vicinity of the burrow, but he was no longer keeping watch.  The burrow was abandoned, a sea of scattered feathers.  What happened?  We’ll never know.  A pair of Red-tailed Hawks seemed to be monitoring the area on the morning that I saw the Northern Bobwhite.   Coyotes are common in the area and might have gotten to the nest.  It breaks my heart to realize that I may have contributed in a small way, as my car stopped outside the burrow may have attracted predators to the nest.

The Burrow - Photographed only after it was abandoned
The Burrow – Photographed only after it was abandoned

Nature has been cruel to the birds this year — the owl mother that disappeared in St. Cloud, my adorable little Sandhill Crane colts that I could never re-locate, the tiny Winter Park Osprey baby that fell from his nest.   Photography is such a wonderful way to share the wonders of God’s creatures, and I do try to do so respectfully, from a safe distance.

Mama and Papa Owl
Mama and Papa Owl.  This is an in-camera double exposure.  Papa is on the left, asleep as usual, and Mama is on the right, looking around.

This is how I will remember these birds, sitting on their posts watching and waiting together.  I do hope that these beautiful birds will have better luck next year.

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7 thoughts on “We’ll Never Know – Burrowing Owl Nest Abandoned

  1. So sorry to hear your words, especially the not being sure of what happened. I know how frustrating that can be. Just goes to show how we need to appreciate it when we do get those wonderful photographic opportunities. Hopefully, they’ll be back next year.

  2. Your photos are awesome and I must thank you. Your listing helped me identify a bird I saw on my run. Thanks. :-) And…..happy birding!

  3. Thanks for sharing, Jess. Brought tears to my eyes. I went to see the osprey yesterday and my heart sank from no activity. Your post confirmed my fears. :(

    1. I know, Robin, it’s been a sad week. :( The baby Osprey fell from his nest. When the Audubon folks picked him up, it was too late to help him. They noted that he was very thin and wondered if Mama Osprey was trying to care for him and feed them both, as they hadn’t seen Papa Osprey in several weeks.

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