Digging In

By Chuck Graham   |   August 20, 2020

The nameless dirt road turned out to be a nighttime buffet for a squadron of opportunistic burrowing owls. It was all about the crickets and grasshoppers, a menagerie of entomology living in the tall grasses and the cunning eight-inch-tall owls gobbling down as many as they could before taking a break.

As I inched forward in my truck, my headlights enhanced the feeding frenzy. There were eight burrowing owls in all taking advantage of the beams of light along the edge of the dirt track. When the owls took a break, I took advantage with my camera and a dusty, lit-up road. Slinking out of my truck, I laid down in the dirt, the burrowing owls posing for me in between the bug fest.


Recently scouting wildlife for a film crew, I was employed to seek out feathered and four-legged critters alike. Burrowing owls were at or near the top of their want list. Fortunately, I came through.

During the winter of 2019/20, I received a hot tip from a reliable birder about an active burrowing owl den out on the Carrizo Plain National Monument. When speaking of the last of California’s grasslands, 50 miles east of San Luis Obispo, it’s not as simple as turning down Brown Road and looking under the locked iron gate at the end of the line. It was more like connecting from one dirt road to the next and then following a well trampled game trail that lead to a bushel of green ephedra where the den might be.

Wildlife is on no timeline except its own, so my first attempt last winter revealed nothing in the way of burrowing owls, but there were a few clues. There were some dirt mounds that were dens along a rolling hillside, but they could have belonged to any number of different species of wildlife. I sat and waited for several hours, but I struck out on that cool winter day.

I came back in the spring poised for another run of wildlife with burrowing owls on the brain. I drove to the same spot and didn’t need to leave the truck. The male was roosting outside the den and let me know about it. With a series of defensive cooing calls, he let it be known that this was his turf, and that I had zero chance of approaching the den for photos.

I had a plan. The next morning, I was on it, sneaking near the den site at 3 am. As soon as I crested the ridgeline of the rolling hillside just east of the den, the male burrowing owl let me have it with a barrage of coos. I sat in the bushes for over an hour hoping he would settle down, but he was relentless, and I had no chance of getting any images.

However, the film crew scored, getting some incredible footage of behavior between the parents and their little owlets, camera traps capturing the cute, the responsible and the many anthropomorphic moments that burrowing owls can convey.

Hold the Salt

I always knew the Salton Sea, located in the Golden State’s southeast corner, was one of the best birding hotspots in North America. So, initially I thought I would see some burrowing owls during five kayaking trips (and counting) around some of the 110 miles of shoreline of California’s largest lake. After all, the Salton Sea possesses about 70 percent of California’s entire burrowing owl population. I saw and photographed many other birds: American white pelicans, American avocets, sacred ibis, geese, swallows and so on, but no burrowing owls.

On a non-kayaking trip, I traded in my paddle for some trail shoes and spent some time at the Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge (NWF), located in the southeast corner of the Salton Sea. Still, no burrowing owls, so I walked into the visitor center where I was hesitant to ask the person at the front desk where all the owls were.

“I know this might be a dumb question,” I asked sheepishly, “but where are all the burrowing owls?”

She immediately slapped a map of the NWF on the counter. “Not a dumb question at all,” she said kindly. She marked several places to look on the map, and I was off on the “burrowing owl highway” in the southeast corner of this manmade, inland sea.

I wasn’t five minutes into my drive when I spotted one above a ditch. Before I knew it, I had seen nine owls, most of which were outside their dens, the Salton Sea finally proving to me to be a Mecca for these long-legged owls.


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