Burrowing Owl — With Prey and in Flight

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The other day I came across a Burrowing Owl perching at roadside. This owl may have been a familiar figure because it was perching very close to the location where I’d photographed a pair of owls just about a week previously.

I photographed the owl through the driver’s side window of my parked vehicle. The owl watched me closely as I photographed it.

Suddenly, the owl took flight and I was very fortunate to capture an image of it in the air. Burrowing Owls are extremely difficult to photograph in flight. They give no warning when they take off and they fly erratically, so I rejoice any time I can get an image of one of them in motion.

The owl stayed airborne for just seconds. It flew in nearly a complete circle and landed at almost the exact spot from which it had taken off.

I found the owl’s behavior to be a bit puzzling. Why had it flown and why did it return so quickly to the point of origin? The first image in this post may hold a clue. Look just in front of the owl’s foot. There is a large insect — likely a cockroach — on the ground. My surmise is that the owl had captured it.

But why hadn’t the owl eaten its prey? Another guess on my part — the prey was intended as food for the owl’s mate and/or offspring. This is breeding season for Burrowing Owls and I’d seen a pair of birds at this same location just a few days previously. Perhaps the owl was a male and the cockroach was intended to feed his mate — likely sitting on eggs — down in their burrow.

That solves part of the mystery. Unanswered is why did the owl fly in a circle? Perhaps, the owl saw me as an interloper and flew to lead me away from his burrow and, possibly, the food item. The fact that he returned so quickly to his takeoff point suggests that he felt a need to quickly return to his guard position.

I’m going to leave these owls alone in light of their likely situation. I’ll return in a few weeks when offspring will have left the nest.

Images made with a Canon R5, Canon EF 400mm f4 DO II lens+Canon EF 1.4x telextender, M setting (auto ISO). First image, ISO 500, f5.6 @ 1/4000, -1/3 stop exposure compensation. Second image, ISO 400, f5.6 @ 1/4000, -2/3 stop exposure compensation.

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