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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Want to learn more about nature photography at Lake County Backroads?
Check out my Lake County Backroads page with more information about the location, map, website, photography tips, etc. It is archived by date so you can see my images from previous visits. Maybe you'll be inspired for your own trip!
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