From the passenger seat of a pickup truck going 60 m.p.h. down a southeast Colorado highway, April Estep scanned the landscape using her hand to shield her eyes from the blinding dawn sun.
Estep, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) wildlife biologist and raptor expert, was staring intently, searching for prairie dog colonies in passing fields.
“Turn around!” Estep said to her technician, Rebecca Schilowsky, who was driving the biologist toward Holly, near the Kansas border.
Schilowsky quickly maneuvered the truck west and they circled back to a field pocked with small craters and dotted with prairie dogs standing on their hind legs atop mounds of dirt, soaking up the first rays of morning sunshine after emerging from their subterranean homes.
“Over there in the middle,” Estep said excitedly, pointing toward a specific mound several hundred yards away as she raised binoculars to her eyes. “Burrowing owls!”
Schilowsky slowly pulled the truck forward until they had the best view of the distant mound, where Estep assured a passenger (me) she could clearly see a family of the chunky little owls, with their long legs, brown spots, bright yellow eyes, white eyebrows and gray beaks.
I was oblivious until binoculars revealed what was obvious to Estep at 60 m.p.h. Indeed, a family of eight burrowing owls — a species listed as threatened in Colorado —was clustered in the middle of the field.
Two adult owls took turns flying off to retrieve grasshoppers and other morsels. Then they swooped back to feed their young.
Cattle grazed not far away, and prairie dogs stood watch on their mounds as the owls enjoyed their breakfast.
For the next hour or so, Estep, Schilowsky and I sat on the side of the highway and studied the owls. Occasionally, they maneuvered the truck for a better view.
“Sometimes I see them standing on the ends of yucca plants,” Estep said of the owls, which are the size of a small football. “You should hear them. Sometimes they hiss like a snake.”
Nationally, it is the Year of the Bird. But for Estep and her colleagues, it’s always the year of the bird — especially raptors like the burrowing owls.
“We study them because they are a Tier 2 species and listed in our state wildlife action plan as a species of concern due to a decline in numbers and habitat loss,” she said.
As she spoke, Estep jotted down notes in her journal documenting all her observations of the owls, as well as precise date and time, coordinates, distance and things like habitat, scene and weather. (For the record, it was 71 degrees, sunny and clear skies that morning.)
“Actively hunting” was one of her journal notations to document their feast on grasshoppers in the field east of Las Animas, not far from John Martin Reservoir State Park.
Later, Estep would add the prairie dog colony locale to a map of nesting burrowing owls and enter her data and observations.
“Most of our burrowing owls migrate south over the winter,” she said as Schilowsky guided the truck to another field, closer to John Martin Reservoir, where another known prairie dog colony produced more burrowing owls.
“An abundance of grasshoppers may delay their migration this year,” Estep said.
TO SEE BURROWING OWLS
When looking for burrowing owls, you will increase your chances of seeing one if you are near a black-tailed prairie dog colony from March through September (most of our burrowing owls migrate).
Scan the burrows with your binoculars and look for an owl perched at the edge of the burrow.
Sometimes they are below ground. If you spot a burrow with significant amounts of whitewash on the edge of the burrow and small owl pellets, you have found a burrow used by burrowing owls. Be patient if you don’t see one, they may be under ground.
Burrowing owls will also perch on fences, yucca, signs and low power lines. The best time to see burrowing owls is from dawn until just after sunset. However, the owls will hunt at night, too.
The shortgrass prairies of eastern Colorado are the summer home to Western burrowing owls, which prefer open, treeless fields.
Typically, the owls are found where burrows exist on vacant lots, farm fields and pastures, cemeteries, golf courses, fields surrounding airports and other open spaces.
They catch prey with their talons, and insects are a primary target. They also eat rodents and snakes, as well as scorpions and amphibians.
They are monogamous and mate in early April. In their burrow nests, they will raise three to 11 nestlings. When the young owls reach two months old they begin to fend for themselves.
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Bill Vogrin is the public information officer for CPW’s Southeast Region. He’s based in Colorado Springs.