The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Owl's Escapade
By Ron Smith
McAllen Monitor


The 47-foot sloop, Escapade, was under way in heavy fog sixty miles off the Oregon coast bound for San Francisco. Below deck, co-owner Dr. Mark Upham heard a cry from one of his crew of friends,"There's a bird on board!"

When he saw the creature sitting on the deck, he noted two things: it was an owl, and it was heavily spotted. As a Michiganian, he was aware of species like Barred and Great-horned, but this was a very different bird. A brief thought, considering the location, was that it might be the rare Spotted Owl, but this one was only about nine and a half to ten inches with very long legs. A check of the bird book nailed the ID --- a Burrowing Owl!

The immediate question was, "How did it stray out to sea from its prairie home?" The farthest western range of the species is usually the dry side of the Cascades in Oregon and Washington and then on down into California. They do migrate, but not in the general direction of Hawaii or Fiji! Was fog the cause of such poor navigation?

The bird fascinated the crew. When approached or disturbed by some maneuver of the boat, it would fly up, flutter about, and circle the mast but always return to the deck, After a while, it allowed them to approach within inches but refused any food.

Mark is a retired ER doctor, but oddly enough, had treated no owls brought in by ambulance. The only choice they had to help the bird was to go on to San Francisco and hope that the sight of land would urge a flight toward safety. Coincidentally, on that day, Mark's wife, Karen, was at our home in northern Michigan for a dinner party, and so we were able to participate with great interest in the phone conversation.

The plan actually worked. Much later, after passing pods of Humpbacks and looking for Gray Whales, they sailed under the Golden Gate, and the owl lifted off, aiming for the hills, and one would hope, a drier, safer landing.

It is noteworthy that here in the Great Lakes region, sailboats, fishing craft, and freighters also have migrating species land aboard. Sometimes they are known to sit on the wheels or the captains' caps,, exhausted from their long journeys.

Burrowing Owls are interesting species, especially with their long legs, beautiful plumage and unique nesting habits, The notion that they share the same burrows as rattlers, Prairie Dogs and other creatures is a common myth; actually, they do use abandoned Prairie Dog holes, but they are quite capable of digging their own.

They live in a rather cooperative colony with the rodents and both benefit by each others' warning calls. The owls make one that sounds like a rattlesnake. This and the rodents' whistles warn of Golden Eagles, various hawks, Coyotes and other hunters. It is a mutually beneficial relationship.

Cowboys of the Old West used to call them "Howdy Birds" because of their habit of comically nodding their heads.

Here in the Valley we are very pleased when we find them. South Texas is actually a major wintering area for the owl, according to fairly recent work done by the Canadian Wildlife Service and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi..... The studies continue to improve their chances for survival in the Valley's threatened environment.

The owls smoothly adapt during their stay here by using our altered and disturbed habitats.. In all the conversion to agriculture and residential sprawl, there are still sites next to farm fields and other open spaces where the owls can use culverts as burrows. We have seen them in several places along dirt roads and highways nestled into the ditches. This can be hazardous for the birds wherever there is traffic.

One of the most peculiar nesting sites was a regular stop for birders wishing to check off the owls on their life lists, a golf course in the Florida Keys. They could always be found on Marathon at a certain hole of the Tres Sombreros course undisturbed by the strangely clad people carrying large bags and whacking around little white eggs.

You will delight in finding them here in the Valley, but it would be rare to see one land on your boat while cruising the Gulf. Have a doctor on board if you do.