Burrowing owls materialize

Burrowing Owl by Greg Johnson

Greg Johnson took this photo of a Burrowing Owl June 16, 2018, on the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society field trip around southeastern Wyoming.

“Burrowing owls materialize on southeast Wyoming grasslands,” published July 29, 2018 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and at Wyoming Network News, https://www.wyomingnetworknews.com/burrowing-owls-materialize-on-southeast-wyoming-grasslands.

Burrowing owls materialize on southeast Wyoming grasslands

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By Barb Gorges

Burrowing owls were like avian unicorns for me until this spring. Mark, my husband, and I searched prairie dog towns in southeastern Wyoming to no avail.

It wasn’t always like that. Fifteen years ago there was a spot on the east edge of Cheyenne guaranteed to produce a sighting for the Cheyenne Audubon Big Day Bird Count. But the area around it got more and more built up.

I did some research through my subscription to Birds of North America, https://birdsna.org and discovered burrowing owls don’t require complete wilderness.

These owls are diurnal—they are active during the day, most active at dawn and dusk. However, when the males have young to feed, they hunt 24/7.

The eggs are laid in old animal burrows, primarily those of prairie dogs. Because prairie dogs live in colonies, the burrowing owls tend to appear in groups, too, though much smaller. Besides nesting burrows, they have roosting burrows for protection from predators. They stockpile prey in both kinds of burrows in anticipation of feeding young. One cache described in a Saskatchewan study had 210 meadow voles and two deer mice.

Western burrowing owls, from southwestern Canada to southwestern U.S., winter in Central and South America. However, there are year-round populations in parts of California, southernmost Arizona and New Mexico and western Texas and on south. But there is also a subspecies of the owl that lives in Florida and the Caribbean year-round. They excavate their own burrows.

Burrowing owls breed in the open, treeless grasslands. No one is sure why, but they like to line their nesting burrows with dung from livestock. They, along with their prairie dog neighbors, appreciate how grazing animals keep the grass short. It’s easier to see approaching predators.

The owls’ biggest natural nest predator is the badger. Both young and adults can scare predators away from their burrows by giving a call that imitates a rattlesnake’s rattle.

Short grass means it’s easier to catch prey by walking or hopping on the ground as well as flying. Burrowing owls also like being near agricultural fields.

The fields attract their primary prey species: grasshoppers, crickets, moths, beetles, and in addition to small mammals like mice and voles, shrews.

You would think these owls are ranchers’ and farmers’ best friends. However, in the Birds of North America’s human impacts list are wind turbines, barbed wire, vehicle collisions, pesticides and shooting. I’m surprised by shooting.

Since western burrowing owls can’t be blamed for making the holes in pastures (they only renovate and maintain burrows by kicking out dirt) I can only surmise that varmint hunters have bad eyesight and can’t tell an owl from a prairie dog. It could be an easy mistake: Owls are nearly the color and size of prairie dogs and have similar round heads. Except the owls stand on long skinny legs. From a distance the owls look like prairie dogs hovering over the burrow’s mound—and then if you watch long enough, they fly.

Burrowing owls have been in sharp decline since the 1960s despite laying 6 to 12 eggs per nest. The Burrowing Owl Conservation Network, http://burrowingowlconservation.org, reports the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists them as “a Bird of Conservation Concern at the national level, in three USFWS regions, and in nine Bird Conservation Regions. At the state level, burrowing owls are listed as endangered in Minnesota, threatened in Colorado, and as a species of concern in Arizona, California, Florida, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.”

In our state, Grant Frost, Wyoming Game and Fish Department wildlife biologist, said “(burrowing owls) are what we classify as a species of greatest conservation need (SGCN), but mostly due to a lack of information; their status is unknown.  That is why these surveys were started three years ago.  There are 15 surveys being done throughout the state in potential habitat…each survey route is done three times each year during set times to occur during each of the three nesting stages – pre-incubation, incubation/hatching, and nestling.”

When Grant said he could lead an Audubon field trip to see the owls and other prairie birds, 15 of us jumped at the chance.

As might be predicted from the BNA summary of the literature, the owls were in the middle of an agricultural setting of fields and pastures. We watched them hunt around a flock of sheep and enjoy the view from the tops of fence posts along an irrigation canal.

The first sightings of the morning were distant—hard to see even with a spotting scope. But as we departed for home, driving a little farther down the road, two burrowing owls appeared much closer and we all felt finally that we could say we’d seen them and not just flying brown smudges.

Winter raptors

2016-12ferruginous-hawk-usfws

Ferruginous Hawk, courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Digital Library

Published Dec. 4, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Winter raptor marvels, mysteries show up in southeast Wyoming.”

By Barb Gorges

Mark and I drove over to join the Laramie Audubon Society on their mid-November raptor field trip on the Laramie Plains.

It was a beautiful day that makes you forget all the previous white-knuckle drives over the pass. However, what’s good weather for driving isn’t always good for finding raptors.

Trip leader Tim Banks checked his intended route the day before and found nary a hawk, falcon, owl or eagle. So instead, we drove across the Laramie Plains on a route his chapter frequently takes for general birding.

The reason for our first stop was a mystery, but then the broken branch stub of a lone cottonwood across the road became a great horned owl. However, a rough-legged hawk and a northern harrier were too distant to enjoy.

Finally, at Hutton Lake, out of the birdless sky, the wind picked up and kicked out a golden eagle, two bald eagles, and a ferruginous hawk.

Three weeks before, on a Cheyenne Audubon field trip at Curt Gowdy, we saw two bald eagles in the canyon. Another day at the park, Mark spotted three checking out his stringer of fish.

Bald eagles are marvelous looking, but I also marvel at their history, from endangered species to birds seen three times in three weeks.

Bald eagles were first federally protected in 1940. Later they were classified as endangered. Banning the pesticide DDT and educating people not to shoot them allowed their numbers to increase. In 1995 they were reclassified as merely threatened. They were completely delisted in 2007, though they are still protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

While bald eagles do breed in Wyoming, there are more here in the winter, migrating from farther north. Fish are their favorite food (carrion is second choice) so looking for them around reservoirs and Wyoming’s larger rivers is good strategy, especially if there are big cottonwoods for them to roost in.

We all recognize the adult bald eagle, dark brown with white head and white tail, but until they are about 4 or 5 years old, they are dark with splotchy white markings like those of young golden eagles.

Golden eagles never came quite as close to extinction as bald eagles, but they were targeted by stock growers. In 1971, one man confessed to killing many of the 700 found shot or poisoned near Casper.

Golden eagles live in Wyoming’s grasslands and shrublands year-round. They might choose to nest on cliffs. And they prefer eating rabbits, ground squirrels, prairie dogs and the occasional new lamb if the rancher isn’t watching.

If you see a massive raptor flying in Wyoming in the winter, it is probably an eagle. Balds and goldens have wingspans about 80 inches long.

2016-12roughlegged_hawk-usfws

Rough-legged Hawk, courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Digital Library

But if it is a smaller dark bird, wingspan only 50-plus inches, with a neater black and white pattern under the wing, it might be a rough-legged hawk.

Every winter they come down from their Arctic breeding grounds, sometimes right into Cheyenne, wherever there’s a power pole perch, open land, and mice, voles or shrews. It’s a break from eating lemmings all summer.

They were also shot at, but like all migratory birds, they are now protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

For me, the most fascinating raptor we saw on the Laramie Plains is less common: a ferruginous hawk. Its name refers to the color of rusted iron because its top side is a reddish brown. Its belly is a creamy white, slightly spotted, compared to the streaky rough-legged’s. Both have feathers all the way down their legs.

However, some sources say the ferruginous shouldn’t have been in Wyoming in November. They are almost all supposed to migrate south in October and return in March.

Some field guides show the Colorado and Wyoming border as the north boundary of their winter range. I think that winter range boundary at the state line may have more to do with the greater number of birders in Colorado in the past who could distinguish between ferruginous and rough-legged. But there are now a dozen Laramie Plains and Cheyenne-area eBird records for ferruginous from November through February within the past three years.

Guess I can no longer assume in winter any large dark hawk that isn’t a red-tailed hawk is a rough-legged. It might be a ferruginous.

Meanwhile, we can all brush up on our hawk identification skills at www.AllAboutBirds.org or download the free Merlin Bird ID app for help. It will make winter more interesting.

Bird book reviews: Weidensaul and Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Jan. 31, 2016, “Two books suited for winter reading.”

“Owls of North America and the Caribbean,” by Scott Weidensaul. Part of the Peterson Reference Guide Series published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, hardcover, 333 pages, $40.

“The Living Bird, 100 Years of Listening to Nature,” by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Gerrit Vyn, photographer. Published by Mountaineers Books, hardcover, 200 pages, $29.95.

By Barb Gorges

Two bird books of note were released last fall because they would make perfect holiday gifts, and now I’ve finally read them.

“Owls of North America and the Caribbean” is by Scott Weidensaul, whose previous book about migration, “Living on the Wind,” was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

This book concentrates on a group of birds that he has spent nearly 20 years researching. Surprisingly, there are 39 owl species to write about. Half occur south of the U.S., in Mexico and the Caribbean. Twelve of the northern owl species are regularly seen in Wyoming.

The accounts of the Caribbean owls are each only three to four pages long since little is known about them. Our familiar, comparatively well-studied owls have 12-15 pages each.

This is not a field guide, though lavishly illustrated with wonderful photos. Instead, each account sums up what is known about a species: length, wingspan, weight, longevity, range map, systematics, taxonomy, etymology (how it got its name), distribution by age and season, description and identification by age, vocalization, habitat and niche, nesting and breeding, behavior and conservation status.

In a reference like Birds of North America Online, this information is reduced to tedious technical shorthand, but Weidensaul makes it readable, injecting his experience and opinion. Of the snowy owl’s description, he says, “If you can’t identify this owl, you aren’t trying.”

I’ll admit, I haven’t read this book cover to cover yet. I looked up the owls I’m most familiar with, learning new information, and now I’m curious about the others.

One drawback: there is a reference map naming the states of Mexico, but not the states of the U.S. or the provinces of Canada, or the Caribbean countries.

However, all the information presented makes owls more intriguing than ever.

The second book, “The Living Bird,” is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and photographer Gerrit Vyn to mark the 100th anniversary of the lab.

In a 10- by 11-inch format, there is plenty of room for Vyn’s art, the heart of the book. Some birds portrayed life-sized practically step off the page. All of the 250-plus photos are available as individual prints through www.gerritvynphoto.com.

It would be easy to ignore text of this book, except for the name recognition of the contributing authors.

If you missed CLO director John Fitzpatrick’s inspiring presentation at Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society’s 40th anniversary banquet in 2014, you can read it here as the introduction, “How Birds Can Save the World.” The age-old human attraction to colorful creatures that fly makes us notice bird reactions to environmental degradation. And in Fitzpatrick’s additional essay, in stories of rehab success, we find that when we help birds, we help ourselves.

The essay by one of my favorite authors, Barbara Kingsolver, hit home. She was a child forced to accompany her parents on birding field trips. But despite her best efforts to rebel, birds have come to be important to her, as I hope they have to my children, who attended many bird events in their early lives.

Scott Weidensaul also has an essay, more of a golly-gee-whiz list of cool things you might not know about birds (including some I didn’t), titled “The Secret Lives of Birds.”

The other major essayists are Lyanda Lynn Haupt, a naturalist and author who examines how birds inspire us, and Jared Diamond, an ardent birdwatcher who is famous as the geographer and author who wrote “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.” He projects what coming decades will hold for birds, after decades of population declines.

There are also three essays written by Vyn about his exhilarating photographic expeditions. Three short profiles include a citizen scientist, a researcher, and an audio recordist. CLO is known for its extensive library of recorded bird songs and other sounds of nature, thus the second part of the book’s title, “100 Years of Listening to Nature.”

After perusing the photos, I could still barely concentrate on the text. But afterwards I enjoyed the photos again and the photo captions. Written by Sandi Doughton, they add insight. The photos themselves are laid out in a thoughtful, coherent way.

Altogether, this is a book to enjoy, a book to inspire, and maybe it is even a book to cause you to take action.

Read now, before spring migration, when you abandon books for binoculars.

Owls are among us

Great Horned Owls

What the crows fear most is that Great Horned Owls will move into the neighborhood and raise a family that needs a constant supply of prey. Courtesy USFWS.

Published Jan. 5, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Owls are among us. Here’s how to tell if the elusive bird is lurking in your Cheyenne neighborhood.”

2015 Update: And spring brought reports of owlets, including three celebrities from a nest in Lions Park.

By Barb Gorges

In late November, Mark and I became aware that a flock of crows, also known as a murder of crows, was convening just before sunset in a neighbor’s big spruce tree.

They were very loud, very raucous, as if they were a lynch mob yelling for noose justice.

Our double-paned windows are somewhat of a sound barrier, but when we let the dog out, we were bombarded with enough noise to overwhelm a backyard cookout.

Was there an owl roosting in the spruce? It’s a big tree, probably planted when the neighborhood was new 50-60 years ago, so you can’t easily see inside, even when standing beneath it.

Or had the crows decided to establish a roost in our neighborhood? That was an unbearable thought.

Thanksgiving morning, while I was out sweeping up sunflower seed hulls from under our bird feeder and throwing the ball for the dog, the crows sounded even more agitated—gathered in a spruce even closer to our house. “There must be an owl within those thickly-needled branches,” I thought. “And he isn’t getting any sleep after a night of hunting.”

The next morning, just before sunrise, I lifted the window shade and saw a lump on the bare branch of our big green ash tree. Yep, a great horned owl. I told the dog she would have to wait a few minutes before she could go out.

The owl was perched about a foot away from a small squirrel nest made of dry leaves stuffed into a vortex of small branches. Leaving the kitchen lights off, I pulled out my binoculars and there was just enough light to see which way the owl was facing. It wasn’t surprising that it was facing the squirrel nest, bobbing its head up and down in a circular way, to get a better fix on a squirrel probably trying desperately not to be heard breathing.

There’s a bigger nest, or drey, on the other side of the alley. Ours looks like it is barely big enough for one squirrel, much less the three scampering around our yard every day, teasing the dog.

I was surprised that the owl didn’t just poke a taloned foot or sharp beak into that pile of leaves. But great horned owls prefer to feed in openings where they can perch and then wing after prey they hear or see, and pounce, pinning it to the ground. Eventually, this owl spread its wings and flew off.

No more mobbing crows here, however, owls have come up in recent conversations with two women I know, one living east of town and one on the northwest edge of Cheyenne. Both women were pretty sure their local owls were knocking off rabbits, the great horned’s favorite food. And both women seemed fine with that, noting that there seemed to be bunny abundance this year.

I’ve talked to my share of folks who complain when an avian predator grabs a meal, especially if the prey is a cute songbird or furry animal. So in addition to getting reports on owl activity, it was gratifying to hear people appreciate owls, even for their feeding habits.

If you are connected to any sources of birding news, you know that this winter there is another irruption of snowy owls, but in the Northeast and upper Midwest, rather than the Great Plains, as it was two years ago. Another shortage of lemmings in the Arctic, forcing them south, I guess.

Snowy owls like to be out in the open, being birds of the tundra, even if it’s the middle of the day, making them relatively easy to pick out when there isn’t too much snow acting as camouflage.

So how many great horned owls are among us, shrouded in a cloak of nocturnal invisibility or daytime coniferous cover? What about the smaller, less common owls of southeastern Wyoming: eastern screech-owl, long-eared owl, short-eared owl?

Is there a great horned owl in your neighborhood? Look for the signs: angry crows, the odd rabbit leg on the sidewalk, a large bird flashing through the beam of your headlights, and even the chunky silhouette, the size of Harry Potter’s snowy owl, in a tree or on a fencepost at dawn or dusk.

Don’t begrudge your dog’s request to be let out on a winter’s evening or just before dawn. Follow and take a look around.

Owl family fascinates park visitors

young Great Horned Owl

One of three young Great Horned Owls in Lions Park, Cheyenne, Wyoming, was perched in a cottonwood tree May 10. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published May 11, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Owl family draws visitors to Lions Park.”

By Barb Gorges

There’s been quite the parade of admirers trekking to Lions Park to see the pair of owls that nested there this spring, and their three owlets.

By mid-April, they became widely known within the Cheyenne birding community and among regulars at the park. Generally speaking, they can be found in the trees north of Sloans Lake and the Cheyenne-Kiwanis Community House.

I suspect someone aiming a long-lens camera at the top of a tree will have passersby surreptitiously looking in the same direction to figure out what they are shooting. Or, being Cheyenne-friendly, they’ll simply ask. Then they, too, become converted to the owl-watching cult.

The day I went to see them, my husband Mark and I could only find one adult and one young, but I’d heard that one of the owlets had been seen on the ground, toddling, like a Furby toy, to another tree—and climbing it. It takes a few weeks before owlets are strong enough to fly much.

The owlets will stay with their parents for the summer, so we hope everyone keeps their dogs leashed while in the park. The neighborhood red foxes present enough of a challenge.

When it comes to breeding, great horned owls get an early start in the year. The male can be heard hooting in February to establish its territory. Chances are, his mate from last year is still around. Other than courtship, they don’t roost close to each other during the year. They don’t build a nest. Instead, they use a tree cavity or an available nest in a tree made by a hawk, crow, heron or squirrel.

The female is the one who incubates the (typically) two eggs. She’ll lay more if food—prey animals—is very abundant. For more than 30 days between February and March, she can successfully incubate through winter conditions, even -27 degrees (-33C).

The male keeps her fed. Food found in our park could include rabbits, mice, waterfowl and other birds. This was not a good winter to find ducks, since Sloans Lake, in the park, stayed completely frozen until mid-March.

Research shows owls occasionally take squirrels, and with the overabundance available in the park, that would be my guess as to what they are eating. If anyone finds owl pellets—the compacted balls of bones that are regurgitate by the owls —we could find out for sure.

At 6 weeks old, and nearly equal to their 22-inch-tall parents, young owls climb out of the nest and take a stroll onto nearby branches. Over the next four weeks they practice flying short distances and may be found roosting on the ground.

The siblings hang out together, but the parents, except for occasionally dropping off food, prefer to roost away from the kids, to avoid hearing their incessant begging that starts up whenever the parents come near.

The owlets start out catching insects and eventually learn to catch mammals and birds by the perch and pounce method. By October, they are ready to fend for themselves.

Typically, young owls are 2 years old before they breed. But it really depends on the amount of prey available. If pickings are slim, many can’t find a big enough territory to support a family because there are probably more dominant owls in the area chasing them off. The researchers call the unpaired birds “floaters.”

Great horned owls don’t migrate seasonally. But the young disperse to find new territory, looking for some place that has an abundance of prey. Studies cited in Birds of North America Online show they moved a mean distance of 46 miles (75 km). Otherwise, they would have a long wait before they could take the place of their parents’ generation—this species has been documented to live more than 20 years. So, for the young, it’s about waiting for those years when rabbit reproduction is up.

Whether the current pair nests in the park again next winter depends on the nest they used still being in good shape—or if a replacement is found. But more importantly, is there still enough food?

Great horned owls across North America, the only continent where they are found, work out answers to these questions every year.

It seems, despite people feeding the park squirrels (even though they shouldn’t and the over-abundant population is chewing up and damaging park trees), the owls are here to bring balance. It’s another step in making a manmade landscape more natural.