In the March Madness blog I shared my experience photographing the little burrowing owls of the Imperial Valley. Although I had seen several single birds, most of the owls I photographed at that time were mated pairs perched near their burrows. That got me thinking that the breeding season was underway and perhaps there would be chicks in the near future. To follow up on that hunch, I returned to the valley in early May. This time Bob Miller of Southwest Birders (www.southwestbirders.com) joined and guided me through the maze of dirt tracks that crisscross the agricultural fields of the Imperial Valley. After many hours of searching we had found many burrows and spotting fifty or more birds, but not chicks. Finally, as our frustration and disappointment peaked, we stumbled upon a burrow with chicks. With relief, using the vehicle as a blind, the two of us relaxed and watched very young birds slowly and tenuously emerge from their nest.
The next morning I returned to the burrow by myself and spent three hours, parked about 30 feet in front of the nest, watching and photographing. The evening before, Bob and I had seen four chicks, but this morning only three came out of the nest. They were roly-poly little balls of yellow down with a squatty heads accentuated by big, bright yellow eyes and a stubby beak. As they emerged from the burrow, they were unsteady on their disproportionately long legs and stumbled about, flapping wings that exhibited only a hint of the feathers yet to develop.
Three hours of watching the interactions of this owl family was exhilarating and exciting. Of the three owlets, there was certainly an "alpha" chick who was normally first in line when the female brought a morsel of food to the burrow. I suspect that the fourth owlet was the runt of the brood and not brave enough to venture from the underground nest chamber yet. I watched as the female foraged for creepy-crawly things and brought them back for the chicks. At one time she was only a few feet from the vehicle, totally involved in chasing down a tidbit. During the entire three hours, the male owl only appeared once. When he did, he came flying in with a loud alarm call that sent the three chicks scrambling back into the burrow. The male and female stood guard in front of the burrow. I could not determine the cause of the alarm, although I did notice a turkey vulture soaring low over an adjacent wheat field.
I have included the images from this photo shoot in the Burrowing Owls gallery. I hope you enjoy them. These images would make really fun photo-greeting cards. Let me know if you would like some. Just click the blue "send message" button to email me.