Burrowing Owl of The Big City Airport - Suburban Birding with Mel
Love The Birds You're With
There's an old tune from 60s hippie rocker Stephen Stills that sings "If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with." Half a century later, in the STD scare of the 21st century, it is unpopular to be an advocate of free love. Still, I believe that the message of this song points to higher principles than LSD-fueled orgies among flower children, and can be useful advice to everyone, from the lustful attendees of a fraternity bacchanalia to the celibate sisters of a heavily guarded convent.
Here's an example: Your self-effacing postman-author Mel Carriere, humble to the point of haughtiness, is also an avid avianophile bird-watcher, meaning he often has his eyes on the skies instead of the mail, which makes him stumble sometimes over his size 15 feet, scattering your letters everywhere. Alas, because Mel is desperately poor and works all the time, instead of peering through his binoculars at brilliantly plumed toucans and quetzals in tropical jungles, he has to make do dodging pigeon poop falling from street-light roosts as he makes his daily rounds.
But Mel does not despair. Taking the advice of good old Stephen Stills, instead of being with the birds he loves the birds he's with. He delights in doves, he fawns over finches, he high-fives phoebes, he swoons for swallows, he hails the hummingbird. Every avian attracts his attention, so that occasionally he catches a real rare bird, rising above the common feathered rabble in an unexpected, incongruous setting.
As such, the following account teaches us that with careful scrutiny of the skies, trees, rooftops and lawns, suburban birding can be as rewarding as flocks of shorebirds in a saltmarsh or brightly plumed passerines singing above a shady riverside path. With this idea in mind, your author recounts those rarities he has stumbled across in unanticipated spots, in the hopes that you too will leave no birding niche neglected, no matter how unpromising it seems at first binocular glance. So here is the first of these unforeseen treats, the Burrowing Owl.
A Runway Rarity
One of my (Mel's) many hats is working part-time airport security, a job that occasionally stations me way out on the airfield, a place no one can hear me choking on jet fumes over the blast of aircraft engines.
It was in this bleak setting, so apparently non-conducive to the proliferation of biological diversity, that I first came across Alfie, the airfield owl that defied this sterile, lifeless landscape and for several months was able to compete for a living with man made metal birds taxiing past or taking off overhead.
This rather unnatural history started while inspecting a passing vehicle, when the young driver of said conveyance, who looked like he he didn't know a Strigiforme from a stuffed Turkey, got out of the van and showed me the place the little burrowing owl lived.
This remarkable creature, who I later christened Alfie because of the AF in airfield and also because it was an androgynous name that could apply to male or female, was perfectly camouflaged among the weedy dirt and gravel at the runway's edge. If not for the youngster in the van pointing him out, I doubt I would have spotted the bird, so perfectly did it blend in with the dun colored landscape.
Alfie lived in a plastic drain pipe, into which it would duck for cover when a larger bird of prey flew over, but it was blithely unconcerned about the presence of humans. The bird allowed the van driver to approach within inches to take its picture, and during the following months it never flew off when I walked near. Only once did my presence cause Alfie to dive into its hole, possibly because it was tired of me gawking.
Instead, Alfie would remain stationed above the subterranean sanctuary for hours, its motorcycle helmet head on a swivel, in constant vigilance of the barren surroundings. I wondered how the bird lived because I never saw it hunting or eating. Quite possibly it emerged from its lair by night to search for sustenance, but because burrowing owls are diurnal, unlike their Strigiforme relatives that are active by night, Alfie's obvious ability to obtain food for itself remained a mystery to me.
Burrowing Owl Bytes
Ornithological authorities tell us that the Burrowing Owl (Athene Cunicularia) can be found in any open, dry area with low vegetation. Visitors to the Tijuana Slough Wildlife Refuge in Imperial Beach, California, for instance, might see the bobbing head of an owl on the grounds of the adjoining Naval Air Station, where there is a much larger population than the solitary specimen represented by Alfie up the bay on Lindbergh Field. The Cornell Ornithology Lab assures us that these birds do indeed live on the grounds of airports and airfields. I have also seen them perched above the irrigation ditches of Imperial Valley farmland. When one thinks of owls, one visualizes shadowy forests on rugged mountain slopes, but the operative word for the Burrowing Owl seems to be flat. Flat and featureless.
Although active during the day, credible online sources clarify that Burrowing Owls do most of their hunting between dusk until dawn, which solves the mystery of how and when Alfie got groceries, consisting mostly of insects and small mammals. If this round the clock lifestyle is true, the tiny owl maintains an insomniac vigilance over the flatlands it calls home, this range of habitation stretching from the Canadian prairies down to the chilly tundra at the tip of Tierra del Fuego, in South America.
Alfie's case shows us that the species will make use of many different types of convenient cavities, but in settings more natural than human-modified airfields they typically inhabit Prairie Dog and Ground Squirrel holes, although in the absence of contract labor they are able to excavate their own flats. Burrowing Owls are good roomies, rarely preying upon the mammals that give them quarter. This underground habitat is also shared with rattlesnakes, the experts telling us that A. cunicularia is able to imitate the rattling and hissing sounds of these reptiles, a phenomenon known as Batesian mimicry that helps to protect the tiny, vulnerable owl from predators. This talent would make Alfie a regular Rich Little of the runway.
The nesting season for the burrowing owl begins in March and April, which I think explains why Alfie vanished one fine spring day when love was in the air. Only other burrowing owls know where they go to meet chicks, but after hooking up the owls often nest in colonies, strange because Alfie was a dedicated loner. Site fidelity varies among members of the species, so only time will tell if Alfie will return to its airfield home to resume its lonely surveillance of the runway.
What's It All About Alfie?
I first learned about the existence of Alfie in January of 2018, but according to the driver who informed me about the owl's presence, it had already been there for some time. Since Alfie's coloration makes the bird practically invisible unless you know where to look, it is difficult to ascertain when exactly it first arrived and when it might come back, if it indeed intends to return to resume its ceaseless scrutiny, feathered head like a radar dome, sweeping its owlish beam across the vast expanse of the runway.
The Burrowing Owl mating season should be over by now, but Alfie appears to be on an extended honeymoon. Either it was eaten somewhere along the trajectory of its wedding march (perish the thought), it found better digs in more favorable climes, or its return flight was delayed. I check its PVC palace once a week when I make the .6 mile walk out to the isolated corner of the airfield, where I too am expected to keep an unblinking eye on runway activity, but where Alfie once stood watch all that remains is an empty drain pipe sticking out from the ground, its gaping maw fronted only by the invasive weeds that have clogged it since the owl's departure.
Whether the bird returns or not, its extended stay by our runway proves that nature does not conform to the neat pigeonholes in which we would file it, and sometimes animals pop their furry or feathered heads out of holes in places we are not looking for them. Life is tenacious and pervasive, so those avian lovers who shun suburban landscapes as a source for the feathered quarry they would photograph or catalog in their life lists, would be wise to learn to expect birds where they least expect them.