Owl Diary: Feb. 8-15

Friday 2/15

Scattered clouds, occasional light showers this morning, more showers in the afternoon. Both owls still in residence, looking dried out and fluffy again. At the time of my visit, around 9:30 a.m., the east owl perched in the mouth of a burrow up on the plateau, in a spot on the east border of the paved path inside the fenced area. It had used this same location several times before. When I returned after visiting the north owl, the east owl had retreated back down into its rip-rap hideaway with just its head peeking out over the edge. This bird seemed calm, swiveling its head only every five seconds, more or less.

East owl atop a burrow on the edge of the paved path in the fenced area
East owl in the rip-rap on the east edge of the area

The north owl had resumed its habitual site, when it’s there at all. A brisk northerly breeze fluffed its feathers. The bird seemed hypervigilant, swiveling its head every second or even more frequently.

North owl on high alert

Thursday 2/14

More atmospheric river in the morning. With few pauses, it has been raining hard for 36 hours. The forecast for this morning showed lightning and thunder, and I went to the park hoping to see what the owl or owls would do in a thunderstorm. I was disappointed. No flashes of lightning, no claps of thunder. The east owl stood on its pyramid rock without the slightest shelter. If there’s a limit to how much rain one owl can tolerate, it hadn’t been reached.

East owl in the rain

As I walked west to check on the north owl, I saw a Great Egret in the nature area, similarly ignoring the downpour. I had seen it yesterday as well. There seems to be an ethic among certain birds that precipitation is to be ignored.

Once again, the north owl was absent. This bird is leading a double life. It spends a day or two, or some fraction of a day, in another location. It has a split site fidelity — it’s a site bigamist. I and others have searched the park’s most likely owl sites diligently, with no luck so far.

Wednesday 2/13

Atmospheric river today. Not just a shower. The east owl totally ignored it. When I first arrived shortly after 11 a.m., the east owl was perched on the pyramid rock just a bit east of its hideaway with the awning. I could hardly see the bird through the dense rain, but it was definitely there, looking as drenched as if it had been dipped in a bucket. There’s a video below but it’s very unsteady due to my having left the tripod in the car, so here’s a still image:

East owl on its pyramid rock, fully exposed to the rain

In that location, I knew, the bird could also be seen from outside the fence. This is what it looked like from that vantage point:

East owl in the rain seen from the paved perimeter path

I then went to check on the north owl. Nobody home there. When I returned to the Burrowing Owl enclosure, the east owl had moved to the top of a pointy rock on the water’s edge.

East owl atop a rock on the water’s edge

Here is a video of the conditions and of the owl. Apologies for the unsteady bird video; I had to hold the camera in one hand, the umbrella in the other.

Tuesday 2/12

All’s well in this little corner of the world: both Burrowing Owls are present and accounted for. The north owl showed up for a second consecutive day, a noteworthy achievement lately, and the east owl perched on its pyramid rock, puffing itself up in a ball for warmth in the low-40s morning.

East owl puffed up for warmth
North owl saving energy

Monday 2/11

The north owl was back, and at the time of my visit, around mid day, engaged in a prolonged preening operation. I feel a bit like a peeping tom watching a bird preen, because it exposes portions of its anatomy, such as the upper thigh, that it normally conceals. It also makes facial expressions and bodily contortions that humans would normally consider private. I have to remind myself that it’s a bird, not a person, and if it didn’t want to be watched it could very well do its preening behind a rock. Quite beyond the privacy issue, preening is a reminder that the bird’s presentation, like our own, takes constant maintenance. Purely as a matter of education and perhaps entertainment, watching a Burrowing Owl do its preening is an action upgrade from the usual video which consists of the bird standing still and swiveling its head. This video, edited to select highlights, runs eight minutes. A second shorter anthology shot in high speed video follows it, below; it features the owl fluffing, scratching, yawning, and making itself big to fend off a ground squirrel, all in slow motion.

The east owl, meanwhile, briefly perched in a burrow topside, in the spot where it has stood when it rains, but disappeared while we watched and minutes later stood tucked in its rip-rap hideaway, out of sight except with long zoom from the Open Circle viewpoint. It’s the identical photo as yesterday.

Sunday 2/10

Once again the north owl was absent when I visited at around 9 in the morning. A pity that, for Burrowing Owl public relations, as numerous visitors circled the park, taking advantage of the sunny skies, so contrary to the weather forecast. Many would have delighted to see this bird.

The east owl, likewise, opted for discretion over valor, and tucked itself into its rip-rap hideaway, under its brush awning, concealed from adoring eyes other than those equipped with long optics positioned in the Open Circle viewpoint.

Saturday 2/9

The north owl was back this morning, and quickly became the center of attention of a string of park visitors passing by on the north side of the perimeter trail. The owl is so relatively near the trail and stands so openly that the camera can display a sharp detailed image and the naked eye can see the whole bird silhouetted against the water.

North owl dozing a bit while adoring fans watch
Part of the north owl’s legions of admirers

At least half a dozen park visitors said this was their first view of a real live Burrowing Owl. They were thrilled.

The east owl meanwhile perched on the pyramid rock a foot or two east of its hideaway in the rip-rap. Obviously yesterday’s flying raptors didn’t get it. As often happens, a ground squirrel took up position nearby and watched the owl.

East owl on its pyramid rock with ground squirrel supervising

Three park visitors joined photographer Phil Rowntree and me on the Spiral (aka Open Circle viewpoint) to have a look through the long zoom lens at the owl in this position. Though the bird was small on the display at this distance, the visitors expressed delight at seeing it; “it made our day!” they said.

When the bird is on this stone, it can be seen from the perimeter trail if one knows exactly where to look. The rusty iron object on the ground is a clue for the location.

East owl seen from the perimeter trail

Friday 2/8

Once again, the north owl was missing when I passed by around 9 in the morning. Its repeated absence is cause for concern.

As if to make up for it, the east owl pulled a surprise by coming out of its hideaway in the rip-rap and standing topside in front of the concrete slab with the white dot. This was the owl’s preferred position for several days around the winter holidays, but not since then. Here the bird is visible full body. Note, however, how well the bird’s plumage blends into the background. Both are brown with white speckles. When the owl turns its eyes out of sight, it practically disappears. At least to human eyes. Raptors, however, have much sharper vision than we do.

East owl in front of slab with white lichen spot
When east owl turns eyes away, it becomes much harder for us to see it
East owl standing tall

It surprised me to see the owl in this location. Moreover, the bird kept its head immobile sometimes for more than ten seconds, sometimes for more than half a minute, indicating a state of low alertness. Yet two hundred yards away, a Red-tailed Hawk sat on a Barn Owl box, and the male Northern Harrier flew in the vicinity. This would seem a good time for a small owl to hide under its brush cover in the rip-rap. Evidently this owl knows something my merely human brain does not.

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