Monday, February 19, 2018

Burrowing Owls Survive Irma


Typical posting damage - lines down and tangled in branches, which also pulled down many pvc pipes. This pair of owls doesn’t seem to mind.

Typical posting damage – lines down and tangled in branches, which also pulled down many pvc pipes. This pair of owls doesn’t seem to mind.

Since Hurricane Irma, people have been concerned about the welfare of the beloved burrowing owls on Marco Island.

Just last week, Jean Hall (Manager) and Karol Tenace (Assistant Manager) of Audubon’s Marco Owl Watch Program surveyed 75 owl postings. Almost all needed repair. Fortunately, they saw 32 owls in just four hours. This is great news for Marco Island’s resident raptors. Posting repairs will be ongoing in the coming weeks and weed whacking has already started.

An Owl Watch monitor took a quick owl survey of postings in her neighborhood four days after Irma and noted that the owls suffered no visible impact from the hurricane. The monitor commented, “If only the people had survived so well!” The burrows were clear of debris and well maintained, and the owls were acting feisty. Some of the postings were down and were re-righted without using tools.

An owl pair sits near their burrow, which was completely covered by palm fronds and debris, and postings down.

An owl pair sits near their burrow, which was completely covered by palm fronds and debris, and postings down.

It was estimated that as many as six million Floridians left the state to escape from Hurricane Irma’s path. Humans got plenty of time to prepare and flee Marco Island as the news media focused on the Irma’s predicted record setting strong winds and water surges. Our resident wildlife did not have that luxury. Our feathered friends were left to deal with whatever Hurricane Irma brought along.

Unlike humans, burrowing owls could not evacuate to avoid Irma. They sought shelter wherever they could find it, like this owl whose refuge was found under a house’s cement slab. Owl Watch added a new perch near the slab.

Unlike humans, burrowing owls could not evacuate to avoid Irma. They sought shelter wherever they could find it, like this owl whose refuge was found under a house’s cement slab. Owl Watch added a new perch near the slab.

This time of year, the young burrowing owls have left the burrows and taken flight. During the summer months, they hide inside the cooler temperature of their burrows. While our island is subject to tropical storms and hurricanes, nature has provided well for our burrowing owls. The owl nesting season runs from mid-February through late June. Most of the fledglings are born in April and begin flying by May. By the time hurricane season is here (from June-November), the chicks have already left the nest and are on their own.

Palm fronds and cuttings completely cover an owl burrow. Photos by Jean Hall

Palm fronds and cuttings completely cover an owl burrow. Photos by Jean Hall

Marco Island’s soil is also composed mostly of sand, which is very porous and drains quickly. Flooded burrows drain quickly and owls return. Just like humans, they go someplace safe during a hurricane. Burrowing owls find shelter in building awnings, protected alcoves, under cars, behind thick hedges and anywhere they feel safe. During a hurricane, their burrows can get blocked by tree branches or palm fronds, blocking their exit or entry.

Just as Marco Island residents are busy rebuilding after Hurricane Irma, burrowing owls returning to their burrows may also decide to make a few changes. Each day, you will hear more and more of them returning to their old burrows and at night you’ll hear their gentle coos and chirps; signs that life is slowly getting back to a routine. Just like human communities, wildlife landscapes and ecosystems may undergo some changes, but in time will recover stronger than ever.

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