A Quick Burrowing Owl

Let The North Dakota Blog Updates Begin!

I have so many updates, where do I begin? I think I'll just be blogging all day long today and tomorrow. I must admit, the intense rain and cold winds on Thursday really put a damper (har har) on my excitement to go birding in North Dakota, but the rest of my time outdoors at the Potholes and Prairie Bird Festival was nothing short of magical. Everyone should experience dawn on a prairie at least once in their lives.

Aren't we such a colorful group? That's Julie Zickefoose, Bill Thompson, Paul Baicich, and me having a great time on the prairie. I love being able to see my friends face to face as opposed to email, but really all of us were so busy giving programs, leading trips, meeting people, and answering questions that we barely had time to say hello to each other. I wanted to head home early Sunday, I really missed Non Birding Bill but I tagged along for part of a Julie and Bill's field trip to spend a little time with them and to see...

a burrowing owl lurking in the grass. This particular owl was standing guard at a hole in a colony of Richardson's ground squirrels. The owners of the property have seen two owls, and chances were good the female was inside incubating some eggs. They also said they had a second nest on the land but it was not easy to access. The owls probably took over an already excavated hole, although burrowing owls are capable of digging a burrow by kicking backward with their feet and digging with their bills--but why dig when an excavating mammal already did the work? Burrowing owls eat mostly insects and invertebrates and are not a primary threat to the ground squirrel colony. However, burrowing owls will eat small mammals so a tiny, young ground squirrel would be fair game.

When our group had arrived at the colony looking for the owl, we could see a low flying buteo flying away with a Richardson's ground squirrel dangling from its talons. Not sure which one it was, it was flying directly towards the sun and could have been a red-tailed hawk or Swainson's hawk.

Out beyond the burrow with the owls, we could see some very old box cars. The family that owned the property said that the dilapidated box cars were home to Clark Gable's grandparents and father--and Clark probably visited. As it was time for the rest of the group to press on, the family was kind enough to give me permission to explore them, warning that there really wasn't much left inside--but how could I resist?

They weren't lying. There was nothing left inside. There were no faded and weathered Clark Gable dressed as Rhett Butler glossies with an autograph reading, "Nana and Grampy, thanks for the memories! Love, Lil' Clarkie" tacked to the walls. The floors inside were covered with several layers of mud and cow pies. Any walls that remained standing were nesting sites for barn swallows. I wondered about the family times that were spent there, did they notice the birds singing outside? How did they survive the winter in a couple of box cars before the invention of Gortex? What made them choose this site to spend their lives? What were the families hopes? fears? What were evenings like at the end of the day? As I was marveling at this, I started to hear an incredibly high pitched "seep". It was akin to the sound of night migrants calling to each other. What bird could that have been?

A quick scan with the binos revealed barking Richardson's ground squirrels. Apparently, I was grounds for alarm. I love the shot that I digiscoped above. The ground squirrel's mouth is open so wide for such a high pitched little bark. Eventually, the squirrels settled down and started their feeding and chasing despite the human lumbering around them.

As I came around to the front of the box cars, I was surprised and delighted to see a burrowing owl in flight! I've never seen one fly before, only roosting outside a burrow or perched on top of sign posts. What a cute little bouncy flight--an it even hovered like a kestrel! I think I surprised it as I came around the front of the cars, it stopped mid hover and took off well over to my right and stood on the ground. You can't see it in the photo, but the bird is near some stones and with the naked eye, the bird looked like a smaller stone. I apologized to the owl for interrupting the hunt and headed to my car and home and NBB.