Have you ever been to an Owl Festival? And I don’t mean any festivals for night owls you may have frequented in your youth. I mean real Owls. I hadn’t either, until recently. The annual Burrowing Owl Festival took place last Saturday in Cape Coral on South Florida’s Gulf coast. It’s the home town for many colonies of these pint-sized owls, and I wanted to see these expressive, tiny birds in person for the first time.
If I wanted to go on the “Photographer’s Tour”, I had to be at the festival grounds at 7 a.m. on Saturday morning. So I drove south in the congested traffic on Friday afternoon for over three hours and spent the night at a hotel. But only after filling my ‘tank’ at a great Mexican establishment. Fajitas (enough) for two enjoyed by me and myself.
Appropriately fortified by a rare 6 a.m. breakfast, I arrived at our meet-up-location on time. And boarded a Parks and Recreation bus with The Photographers. Most with their massive 600mm lenses and tripods, weighing over 10 lbs/5 kg. I tried to carry one of these combinations. Ouch. To tell you the truth, I’d need to go to the gym just to be able to lift that kind of equipment to eye level. So there I was with a ‘tiny’ 70-300 mm lens on my Canon and my “jogging camera”, a light-weight compact superzoom. Feeling a bit intimidated, but hopeful the owls would treat me well. And they did. Relatively speaking.
We arrived at a sports field. There was an active burrow with both parents preparing for the nesting season. Only one greeted us when we arrived, but soon the other parent (I believe the female) also came out and they posed for us together. Too cute.
Soon one of them, I believe the mom-to-be, decided it was time to continue to make their home ready for the little ones…
…and disappeared down in the burrow. The dad-to-be stayed above ground to keep an eye on us.
Although we were well-behaved, I could see he was on his guard. We soon discovered there were Monk Parakeets on the sports field. Among them a sweet courting couple.
I was delighted to be able to observe this couple as we do not have this species in our area. Beautiful love birds.
From there our journey continued to another site known to host much larger owls, namely Great-horned Owls. We discovered they already had fledglings. One ‘baby’ was sleeping high up in a pine tree.
His mother was nearby, well camouflaged behind branches in the same tree.
Perhaps we made some unintended noise because the ‘baby’ woke up. And seemed to nail his big yellow eyes right on me. Howdy!
Just for the record, we saw the other ‘baby’ in a close-by tree, but papa Great-horned Owl was nowhere to be found. We believed he might be sleeping in a another tree away from the mom and the babies. Perhaps seeking some privacy after a night of hunting.
We continued our journey to a field close to the owl nest in an effort to locate a family of the rare and threathened Florida Scrub Jays. We were lucky! There was a family of four residing in the scrubs on a grassy field. They are beautiful birds, a bit like the more common Blue Jay.
After a while they became curious. And before we knew it, two of them came to greet us! They sat on heads of photographers who wore hats…
…and one of them even wanted to specialize in photography, thoroughly examining the equipment of a fellow photographer. What a treat!
On that field I also captured more familiar birds, a couple of Mourning Doves on a wire in the distance.
But I missed the Eastern Meadow Lark’s brief appearance while trying to zoom in on an approaching young Bald Eagle. And didn’t get good pictures of several other smaller birds. You just can’t have everything.
We continued our journey trying to locate a Bald Eagle nest. We found both Papa and Mama Bald Eagle. With mixed feelings.
A note on the road side told us that this couple had lost all three of their hatchlings for unknown reasons about two weeks earlier. The note further speculated that the reason the parents hadn’t left the nest might be that a second clutch of eggs was forthcoming. I hope the author was right as Mama Eagle stayed firmly in the nest…
And Papa was guarding their home just a branch or two higher up.
I wished them the best and took a portrait of them both.
Our last stop was another active burrow, where we found a rare Burrowing Owl with black eyes. Based on the apparent division of labor I concluded he was the male.
After he trusted us a bit more, he flew closer to the burrow and soon we saw his ‘better half’ for a brief moment.
After posing for us, she went down again and started working on their burrow. Fine sand flew out in waves right on the face of her hubby.
She demonstrated an ability which is unique to Florida Burrowing Owls, namely that they dig their own burrows. At first her hubby closed his eyes and took the intense sand blast, but soon realized that the remodeling effort had just started, and flew up on a perch nearby.
I truly enjoyed this tour with our fantastic guides, Tammy and David McQuade. And needless to say, these tiny owls captured my heart. I hope I can go back to see them next year. And if I do, I will be a little better equipped. My new 3.62 pound ‘baby’ arrived a couple of days ago.
The good thing is that I will not need to go to the gym to be able to hold it. I just need to be a good parent and teach it to do exactly what I ask for 🙂 Wish me luck.
I hope you enjoyed the short visit to the owls. Thanks for coming along.