Owl Binge

Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) Winter Season 2022-2023 Part 1 (Oct-Dec)
Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) Winter Season 2022-2023 Part 2 (Jan-Feb)

The Burrowing Owl in Cesar Chavez Park has been gone five days. Each of those days I have met groups of people and individuals who came out to see it. They are disappointed. They postponed visiting the park for one reason or another. They read about it in an issue of the NY Times in their recycling bin. They knew there was a website that tracked the owl daily but they didn’t go there and check it. They saw one last year and figured it would always be here. And so they missed out.

Cheer up! This video is for you. It chains together every video posted on this blog (and on YouTube) featuring the owl since the day it arrived on October 30 last year until February 19 this year, when it left. That’s a lot of videos, almost one each day. That adds up to 97 and a half minutes of continuous Burrowing Owl video. Look at each day as an episode in a series, each episode about one minute long. Now you can see the owl’s entire winter season in one binge session. Or actually two. The complete season was too big for YouTube to handle, so it’s split into two parts. Part 1 covers Oct. 30-Dec. 31, Part 2 covers Jan. 1 through Feb. 19.

This video is simply a rerun. No narrative, no analysis. If you want that, go to “The Owls Came Back,” published in 2019. It’s only 24 minutes. You get a lot of insights but a lot less owl face time. Or you can browse to the blog items on this website, day by day, for commentary.

When it was here, the owl perched in one of two places, which have come to be called Perch A and Perch B. In the videos, Perch A has a short shrub and big stones for a background. Perch B has water for background, except in a few short sequences where the shot is from a different angle and the background is just rocks, no shrub. Park visitors could see the bird with the naked eye when it was in Perch B. Often all you could see was the bird’s head or its top half. It helped to be tall or to stand on a concrete retaining wall. I learned to set up my camera high on an extended tripod and in that way was able to get shots of the whole bird, or almost.

When the bird was in Perch A there was no way to see it from the paved perimeter trail outside the cable fence. I crossed the south side gate and set up my camera on the Open Circle viewpoint. From there the owl was 110 yards north. I had to stretch the lens out to 6000 mm to get detail. I was happy to spot the bird there for a handful of serious wildlife photographers with good equipment.

You can track the owl’s choice of perches on a calendar at this link. Sometimes it moved from one perch to another during the day. Occasionally the owl was absent for a day or two. We don’t know where it went then.

This owl was never seen perched on the grass. It spent the entire winter on the rocky embankment on the east side of the Burrowing Owl Sanctuary. One of the owls in the park the previous winter did the same thing. In fact, this was very probably the same owl, returning. The second owl that many park visitors saw last winter spent all its time on the grass, in plain view. It easily evaded raptor attacks. But it looks like a loose dog got it and broke its wing. It probably crawled into a burrow and died there. See “Owl Hurt,” Feb. 7 2022. So this fall we had only one owl, which wisely stayed off the grass. In both of its favorite stone perches it had crevices inches away where it could dive for shelter. Loose dogs repeatedly got into the area over or through the useless cable fence. The owl saw them, but they did not see the owl in its low rocky perches. That fence needs to be replaced with an effective boundary so that we can host owls on the grass again and have them survive.

When I first started doing videos of the owl, the owl’s mere presence was interesting subject matter. During the minutes that I ran the camera, the owl often did little besides look left, right, and up, repeatedly. Several of my videos just show that basic survival behavior. In time, that became boring, and on a number of days when there was no owl action besides the swiveling of its head, I posted a still image on the blog, instead of a video. Gradually I let the camera run longer to pick up other owl behaviors. Preening. Yawning. Moving its feet. Interacting with visiting Ground Squirrels. Diving for cover when raptors threatened. Action!

A highlight of the series is the episodes with the owl in the rain. We had a series of rainstorms (“atmospheric rivers”) and the owl stayed out and got wet in most of them. This isn’t news. The “Owls Came Back” movie already documented the owls’ tolerance for rain. But it made for some great video, with the owl looking drenched and then vigorously shaking it off.

If you watch this whole series, you can see how the owl is a shape shifter. Sometimes it fluffs itself up into a fuzzy ball like a kid’s stuffed toy. At other times it turns into a lean and mean raptor. Its face has astounding mobility. Sometimes the owl’s visage is dark, with accented eyebrows. At other times, it emerges from a preen with its face entirely white. How does it do that? Its eyes are fascinating. Its pupils expand or contract independently in each eye depending on the ambient light. Humans can’t do that. It can blink with each eye separately, with the upper or the lower eyelid. It always shuts its eyelid for an instant when turning its head quickly.

When I first began to film it, the owl eyed me carefully at some length. Soon it got bored with me. Oh, him again. Within a week, it paid me and other people passing by Perch B little if any attention. In Perch A, even less. I frequently turned the camera on and walked away, letting the video record unattended. The bird remained oblivious even when a dozen or more people jammed the Perch B viewing spot, with three or four standing on the low wall. It paid no attention to people’s conversation. In some of the videos, I edited out the human chatter from the audio track. One or two skeptics told me they doubted that the owl really ignored people’s conversations, so in one of the videos I kept the human voices on the sound track as the video showed the owl preening, yawning, or whatever. The owl quickly learned that these big featherless bipeds that were watching it weren’t going to hurt it or feed it, so it ignored us.

The videos tend to show a disproportionate amount of footage where the owl is looking in the direction of the camera. That’s because in editing the footage, I selected those moments. The owl’s eyes are one of its most charming and engaging features. In reality the owl looked in the direction of the camera much less often than the videos suggest.

Checking on the owl got me out of bed in the morning, rain or shine. Often, owl observer Mary Law got there earlier and sent me a text indicating whether the owl was in Perch A or B. Toward the end, Isabelle and Steve Gaston also checked on the owl and shared observations. On a few weekend mornings I had the pleasure of pointing out the owl (if in B) to park visitors, showing a close-up on my camera screen, and answering questions. There were still people who were seeing a Burrowing Owl for the first time. People reacted to the sight with surprise, amazement, joy, affection, and a whole bushel of other warm feelings. People who see the owl love the owl and want to protect the owl.

The owl departed during the day on Sunday, February 19. It departed on the same day last year. That’s earlier than some other owls in past years. Many stayed until the middle of March. Why it left is a matter of guesswork. A known basic trigger for bird migrations is the length of the day. But the length of daylight is just a proxy for the expected climate in its breeding habitat, where it was hatched. Given its early departure, my guess is that this owl did not come from very far north. Not Alaska. I’m guessing southern British Columbia or even Washington state. The owl’s decision to leave is also a guess on its part. Today, temperatures in southern B.C. are freezing. Not good. But it’ll take the owl some time to get there. Research indicates that the ones that breed in the West generally follow a coastal route. Their mileage is not well known, but one Burrowing Owl that was radio-tagged averaged almost 80 miles per day. If B.C. is its home habitat, the climate may have mellowed by the time the bird gets there.

After watching the owl day by day, it’s impossible not to get a bit emotionally involved. It’s a wild bird, of course, not a pet and not a human. But I feel love for it and I wish it all the best. It would be wonderful to see it again in the fall. With company.

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4 thoughts on “Owl Binge

  • Thank you for this beautiful post and for watching over and documenting the Owl all these months and for sharing him/her with park visitors like myself. As you say – it’s impossible not to fall in love with this adorable creature. I feel sad that it’s already gone. But the Owl needs to do his thing and we can only wish that he stay safe, breed successfully and return to the perch in our park later in the year. Fingers crossed.

  • What beautiful memories of the Burrowing Owl’s visit! Thank you so much Marty!!!

    I had planned not to watch the entire Owl Binge in one sitting, but sure enough I got hooked, and simply could not resist finishing it once I’d started. Like so many others, I love that little owl, it’s so precious.

  • You are the BEST !!!! Thank-you many times !

  • “Cheer up!” indeed.
    HOW GREAT to have this all edited together. thank you.

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