Today would have been the third monthiversary of the Burrowing Owls’ residence in the park this winter season. There’s just one problem with the celebration. The owls didn’t show up.
The Second Owl — the one usually in plain view in the central circle of the Burrowing Owl Sanctuary — was last seen on Thursday, January 27. I did not see it when I visited Friday morning. Several park visitors told me that this owl was missing all day Saturday and Sunday, when I could not come to the park. I visited Monday the 31st and Tuesday and today and did not see this owl. Its gravelly perch, where many scores of people have seen it, was empty.
The First Owl stuck around a bit longer. People said it wasn’t here on Saturday and Sunday but this bird is hard to see and may just have been overlooked. I photographed it in its usual spot on Monday the 31st. There was no sign of it on Tuesday Feb. 1 nor today.
It’s a bit early to conclude that the birds have begun their return migration back north to their breeding grounds. They may just be taking a short break, sheltering from the wind, or exploring spots with better foraging. We’ll know in a few days.
Normally — in the past — owls that spend the winter stay until the first or second week of March. What factors influence their timing is largely a matter of speculation. They come here because their breeding habitat is covered in snow and ice. Length of day, as a proxy for temperature in their breeding habitat, is a probable key trigger to start the return trip. A couple of years ago I noted that the owls seemed to start their migration northward into the face of a north wind. This seems weird — why fly into a headwind? But possibly the north wind carries some message from which the owls deduce conditions in northern climes, where the wind comes from. It’s also possible that climate change has accelerated warming in northern latitudes — this is notoriously the case for the Arctic — and the owls know this somehow. Hence no need to wait until March to migrate. But this is all guesswork.
Updated Feb. 3: Both owls are back. Yay! See “Owls Well,” Feb. 3 2022.