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Monday, March 19, 2012

The watchful burrower

This is the smallest of the six species of owls that have been documented on Bodega Head.  I've been casually trying to get pictures of them for a while, but most often end up with just a blur.  These are still a little blurry, but at least you can tell that it's an owl and you can see some of the identifying features.  [Photos from the Bodega Dunes on 19 March 2012.]

Field marks to look for: small size (19-25 cm long), overall brown coloration with white spots, rounded head with broad white eyebrows and white chin, yellow iris, relatively long wings and long legs, short tail.

Burrowing Owls (Athene cunicularia) are listed as a Species of Special Concern in California.  They are rare winter residents (and migrants) on Bodega Head, occurring in both grassland and dune habitats.  Unusual for owls, this species is a ground-dweller and is active both day and night, although they tend to be crepuscular, with most hunting around dawn and dusk.  Preferred prey includes insects (e.g., grasshoppers, crickets, beetles) and small mammals.

Athene cunicularia = named after the Greek goddess Athena (known for wisdom and watchfulness) and for their underground habits (cunicularia = "a miner or burrower").

Burrowing Owls depend on open or sparsely vegetated habitats.  On Bodega Head they often use badger burrows for roosting (and sometimes dense clumps of vegetation or shrubs).  They haven't nested in Sonoma County since the 1980s.  Soon they will be departing the coast to breed in inland valleys.

P.S.  Happy Spring!  Vernal equinox at 10:14 p.m. on 19 March 2012.

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