Some days are just wonderful and more fun than others. The day I met Gregg Wrenn and introduced him to burrowing owls was pretty amazing.
I receive many emails from people who read my columns in WaterLine. I truly appreciate each one and answer them all. Several weeks back, I received an email from Gregg, who was doing several weeks of intense writing on Manasota Key at The Hermitage. All he wanted to do was see burrowing owls. Well, Don and I surely could help him out with this request.
We set up a meeting date at my brother-in-law’s house. My brother-in-law, David, live in Cape Coral and is surrounded by dozens of burrowing owls. There’s one that often rests in his front palm tree. Sadly, it was not there the day we went — but we found owls nevertheless.
The burrowing owl is a small bird of prey, only about nine inches in length. It has a mottled brown back with white spots, and the chest area is barred with horizontal stripes. This extreme mottled appearance helps them blend into their habitat. They have white chins that remind me of the masks we are wearing these days.
Since they live in the ground and not in trees, burrowing owls are found in open fields with a lot of dead grasses. The burrows of different families are at times quite close together. The owl’s long legs let them stand high enough to see over the grass as they look out for predators or a food source. They dine mostly on insects but also eat lizards, snakes, rodents and even other birds.
Burrowing owls can be found across most of the western U.S. and into Mexico, with seasonal north-south migrations. In the eastern half of the country, these little guys live only in Florida, and our birds are year-round residents. There are also some in The Bahamas.
While western burrowing owls are more likely to move into an abandoned prairies dog or tortoise hole, in Florida they usually dig their own home. Rarely, a family will take over an empty gopher tortoise burrow.
Nesting season is usually from the middle of February to the middle of July. The female can lay up to eight eggs. The maturing process of the young takes approximately 12 weeks before they can actually fly. Until then, the female stays with the young and the male brings food back to the burrow, which the female will carry underground to feed the babies.
These beautiful little owls are endangered from loss of habitat and are protected by the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. In addition to habitat loss, they are also in danger from flooding rains and predators. Domestic animals, especially outdoor cats, pose a serious threat. Sadly, people have often been unkind to these creatures. Now there are serious fines for harming these birds.
When we finally found some of the little beauties, I could see that Gregg was elated. We watched them for a bit and moved on. After slowly driving through blocks of burrows, we did not see any more owls. We decided it was time to take a break and get some energy to carry on the search. So, off we went to Miceli’s in Matlacha to have lunch on the deck while enjoying the music and the conversation.
Our new friend Gregg is an assistant English professor at Samuel Adams University in Virginia. He is originally from Jacksonville, Fla. Gregg is writing a book and plans to incorporate the burrowing owl. It sounds like quite an unusual book, and we’ll let you know when it’s published.
After a delicious lunch and some fabulous music, we took off to continue our exploration trip searching for the elusive burrowing owl. We drove to a different area of Cape Coral where, as luck would have it, almost every burrow held owls peeping out at us. The hard part was deciding which ones to look at first.
Birders are always birding. In addition to the owls, we spotted a female harrier flying low over a field and to land in a tree along the road. Female harriers are brown. The males are gray and are sometimes called “the gray ghost.”
We also had some sightings of ospreys, white ibis, great egrets, mockingbirds, loggerhead shrikes, black vultures, Cooper’s hawks, American crows, fish crows, wood storks, boat-tailed grackles, and right next to David’s house we had some excellent looks at a stunning eastern meadowlark. Plus, a huge frying pan-sized gopher tortoise honored us by crossing the road in front of us.
We had a truly grand day. Outings like this don’t take the place of our VABA field trips, but they are very good for a birder’s soul.
Abbie Banks is a member of the Venice Area Birding Association, a group of folks who want to enjoy the environment and nature without the cumbersome politics of an organized group. For more info on VABA or to be notified of upcoming birding trips, visit AbbiesWorld.org/references.html or email her at Amberina@aol.com.