The Burrowing Owl that has made the north side nature area its seasonal residence since December appears to have left on its migration back north. This morning at 7:10 a.m. as I was setting up my camera to photograph it in its habitual spot, and before I had the camera turned on, the owl rose up with rapid wingbeats and flew toward the ridge, where I lost it against the shrubby background. I thought it was just off on a feeding mission; these birds do their hunting before sunrise and at dusk. I waited in the drizzle for 50 minutes for the bird to come back. I saw no fewer than five off-leash dogs invading the nature area, where they have no business entering. I did not see the owl come back. It got cold and the rain got heavier, so I left. I may have been the last one to see it.
I returned to the spot around 5 pm. No owl. I’ve seen it in this spot so many times that I can spot it even if it is almost totally submerged in the tall grass. Very often in the hour before sunset the bird stands out prominently and allows itself to be seen easily with the naked eye. I scoped the area in detail from several angles. Not now. No owl.
Last year, the two owls that remained for the season departed on March 4 and on March 11, respectively. If indeed the sole owl in our park this season began its return migration today, it would have split the difference. I’m suspending judgment for a day or two, in case the owl was just evading the dogs or hunting up food and will come back tomorrow. But the odds are that it’s gone.
Will we ever see another one? Burrowing Owls are in trouble all over the country. Suburban development and conversion of wildlands to agriculture has decimated their breeding habitat. It may be that the scores of park visitors who saw the owl in our park these past months, many of them for the first time, had a unique experience, not to be repeated. We may now only see Burrowing Owls mounted as museum specimens, like this one in the well done Natural History Museum in Morro Bay, down south near San Luis Obispo.
But then again, the owls may surprise us. In the winter of 2017-2018, not a single Burrowing Owl was spotted anywhere in our park. There were dark speculations that they were history. But the following winter, some eight or ten owls visited for various lengths of time, and two stayed for the whole season. I made a movie celebrating their return, “The Owls Came Back.” I sincerely hope that this coming October/November/December, this owl will come back and bring its friends.