Young Burrowing OwlYoung Burrowing Owl  – Nikon D200, f6.3, 1/320, ISO 200, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light, not baited

Earlier this year in March I wrote an article titled “Burrowing Owls – Loved to Death?” and this post is a sequel to it. If you didn’t read the first post about these amazing Owls you might want to click here  (opens in a new window) before continuing to read this post so that you might understand why I am writing this sequel.

A brief excerpt below:

When we came around the hill where the burrow is visible we saw three vehicles parked on both sides of the road but that wasn’t the shocker. There were three photographers, all with long lenses, out of their vehicles plus another person who didn’t have a camera in hand. What made me sick was that there were three of those people tromping around the owl’s burrow. I mean RIGHT up on it. They had no need to be that close but they were.

I felt like my stomach had been punched. You know, I can understand wanting to have a close look at the burrow but not at this time of the year, not when there are chicks, not when fledglings are still present and certainly not before or as the adult owls are in the process of deciding whether to use the same burrow again.”

I was concerned that day after seeing those people stomping around on top of the owl burrow, I wondered what I would see during the rest of the nesting season for those Burrowing Owls after those people disturbing the birds and the nesting site.

Juvenile Burrowing Owl flapping its wings

Juvenile Burrowing Owl flapping its wings –  Nikon d200, f6.3, 1/1600, ISO 400, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light, not baited

After those photographers harassed the owls by approaching and standing on top of the burrow the behavior of one of the adult owls changed significantly.

The previous year I had found that by parking on the side of the road and using a vehicle as a mobile blind these owls were not disturbed by our presence and did not show any signs of distress. They went about their normal habits which made for great opportunities to photograph them.

But not any more. Even when slowly driving up to park the visible owl at this disturbed burrow would sound a series distress calls then fly far from the nesting site. It did that even weeks after the burrow disturbance. I kept hoping that things would go back to normal for the owls.

A pair of juvenile Burrowing Owls

A pair of juvenile Burrowing Owls  –  Nikon D200, f10, 1/160, ISO 250, Nikkor 200-400mm with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light, not baited

Last year at this time the juveniles were out of that same burrow, perching on the sagebrush, hiding in the grass, learning to fly and interacting with the adults and siblings. They were enormous fun to observe and photograph and by using a mobile blind they were not harassed, distressed or disturbed. One day I counted 7 immature birds plus one adult. Quite often; first thing in the morning, both adults would be perched on top of nearby sagebrushes keeping an eye on their young.

It was amazing fun to watch the young birds last nesting season. The juveniles would preen each other, make silly faces, pose in the most comical positions and walk around peeking out from between the grasses or sagebrush leaves. They would stretch their wings, hop around, parallax and exlore the world beyond their burrow. I have hundreds of images from that burrow last year, all of them showing the birds just going about the business of being owls.

Burrowing Owl juvie in sagebrush

Burrowing Owl  juvie in sagebrush – Nikon D200, f5.6, 1/1250, ISO 400, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light, not baited

About five to six weeks ago I thought I spotted a juvenile low on the sagebrush that grows over this particular burrow, it seemed to drop to the ground and hide well from sight.  The grass under that sagebrush is much longer this year than last because we had such a wet spring. I think now that I just wanted to know that the March disturbance hadn’t affected the success of this burrow. Today I believe I wanted to see chicks at that burrow so much that my mind had only played a trick on me.

Right now I should be seeing the fledglings perched on this sagebrush or other bushes nearby. I should be seeing them testing their flight skills or basking in the light of the rising sun. I should be struggling not to laugh when the juveniles antics cause me involuntary giggles. I should be seeing them scanning the sky overhead for the predatory birds in their airspace or looking for fat grasshoppers to catch and eat.

Lonely adult Burrowing Owl

 Lonely adult Burrowing Owl  – Nikon D200, f5.6, 1/1250, ISO 400, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light, not baited

Instead this is what I am seeing, one lonely adult Burrowing Owl perched on the sagebrush that grows over the burrow. It is almost always hidden behind the leaves, it doesn’t sound a distress call anymore and it doesn’t fly away. No chicks.

Of course I can not prove that the disturbance those photographers caused at this burrow that day had anything to do with the overwhelmingly apparent signs that this nest failed this season.

It does,  however, give me reason to believe it might have played a part in it.


Two places to read about good field ethics:   Principles of Birding Ethics published by the American Birding Association and NANPA’s Ethical Practices (pdf)

Save the Owls Project