Don and I recently led our annual Venice Area Birding Association burrowing owl trip to Cape Coral. The burrowing owl likes to make its nest in open fields with short grass. The Cape, with its sandy fields and limited vegetation, is perfect for them. There are a few other spots around the state where these birds are abundant, but Cape Coral is actually famous for them.
Burrowing owls are Florida natives, but they can also be found across much of the western United States. Years back, cowboys dubbed them the “howdy birds” because of their bobbing action when the burrow is approached.
The owls appreciate finding old burrows from other earth-dwelling animals. In the western part of their range, most owls live in borrowed burrows. However, we have seen them digging sand out their holes here in Florida, so we know our owls will dig their own burrows. They aren’t as lazy as their shiftless cousins out west.
Areas that are good for owl burrows are also good for development. As a result, this special little owl is sadly endangered due to loss of habitat. Audubon and area organizations have groups that try to protect the owls. The nesting areas are cordoned off with signs asking people to please not approach the burrows. The owls can get distressed, and this will interfere with their nesting.
During nesting season, the male will bring the female food. They eat lizards, frogs, snakes, large insects and occasionally nestlings of other birds. Four to six eggs are laid here in Florida. When they hatch, the male continues to bring prey, and the female will feed the hatchlings.
The young will leave the nest at about five or six weeks. They will not be very good at flying or hunting for some time, and so the female will still bring them food for several weeks. Florida burrowing owls may have two clutches a year.
Burrowing owls are small birds, about 10 inches tall with a wing span of up to 24 inches. They have long legs, which enables them to see over tall grass and spot prey. They’ll also collect animal waste and put it around their burrows to attract dung beetles. This is one of their favorite meals, and it’s even better when they don’t have to go out and hunt for it.
Our drive to Cape Coral took about an hour and 15 minutes. On the way, our Abbie Banks Syndrome (car birding) was on full display. It seems many people have this malady. It’s just second nature to have our eyes scrutinizing the landscape. We saw wood storks, great egrets, boat-tailed grackles, cattle egret, white ibis, black and turkey vultures, and I sighted an American kestrel.
But our day was devoted to burrowing owls. We never know if we will see them, since we can’t call ahead and ask them all to come out of the burrow for us. Fortunately, when we arrived, several of the owls were peering out of their burrow.
The area where we stopped first had about 15 burrows, and we saw owls at six. Everyone is fascinated with these adorable little owls. They look like stuffed toys. We spent a while watching several go in and out of their burrow, then decided it was time to investigate another spot.
Our car caravan took off and went to a more remote area where dozens of burrowing owl areas were marked off. Thankfully, David knew the way, winding through back roads. This particular area has dozens and dozens of marked burrows. Down the road, a gopher tortoise was slowly crossing the road. As I looked up, I spotted two swallow tailed kites appearing to do figure-eights in the sky.
We got involved watching one particular owl as he hopped off his perch and started walking the field. Suddenly he snatched something and wagged it back and forth. We were trying to figure out if it was a big lizard or a small mouse. In a matter of seconds, the creature was ripped up and the owl ate half of it. He hopped back to his burrow and dropped the remains into the hole. Was his mate there waiting for a snack, or was it to be saved for later? We’ll never know.
Speaking of meals, we all decided it was time for us to eat. So, off our caravan went to have a great brunch at the local Metro Diner in Cape Coral. Since we never stop birding, it was not a surprise when one of the group spotted a red-shouldered hawk flying up into a nearby tree while we were entering the diner. A perfect end to a fun morning.
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.