Thursday, October 1, 2020

Social Distancing Recommendations for Nesting Burrowing Owls & Gopher Tortoises


March 7th, 2020 was the official kick-off for the burrowing owl nesting season (February – July) for the Owl Watch Program of Marco. According to Alli Smith, of the Audubon of the Western Everglades, Project Manager and biologist for the program, most male owls are in the midst of their courtship rituals to attract their “lifetime mates.”

Photos by Jean Hall | You Are Too Close—when you see this defensive posture from a burrowing owl.

However, baby chicks came early to an owl pair with the first chick sighting on March 23rd. Pretty soon, we will be entertained by the comical, quirky and playful behaviors of the new generation of Marco’s burrowing owls.

Some burrows are found in high traffic areas and attract a steady flow of owl admirers. When agitated, owls bob their heads, hisses, puff their feathers, chatters or they may also fly off to a nearby bush. If you observe any of these behaviors—you are too close.

Burrowing Owls are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty and in Florida, they are designated as State Threatened. In Marco Island, they are also protected by the Protected Species Ordinance, and it is illegal to harm or harass owls or their burrows.

The Federal, State and City regulations have set guidelines or rules to minimize and/or avoid disturbance of protected species by designating protection zones or buffer areas for burrowing owls and gopher tortoises. Entry into these protection zones is prohibited except as authorized by Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), by trained City or Audubon of the Western Everglades (AWE) staff, or volunteers. These protection zones are indicated by a PVC post and ropes around the owl burrows. 

Photos by Jean Hall | Back Off—this burrowing owl is telling you that you are too close!

To prevent unnecessary disturbance and to prevent burrow collapse, parking of any vehicle or equipment within 33 feet of any burrowing owl burrow—or within 25 feet of a gopher tortoise burrows is illegal.

Enjoy the burrowing owl from a distance: 

  1. Stay outside the marked PVC pipe postings. Burrows can be 10’ feet or longer—so the burrow can extend beyond the marked area. Approaching an owl closer than 33’ during nesting season is not recommended.
  2. Best recommended viewing time is early morning or end of the day—chicks may be out and about exploring.
  3. Never feed wildlife—human food can attract predators, like crows, dogs and raccoons.
  4. Keep curious pets such as dogs away from burrows.
  5. Drive slowly at night when owls are hunting. 

Photos by Jean Hall | Early chicks were sighted on March 23rd—pretty soon more of them will be out to entertain you with their quirky and playful behaviors.

The Gopher Tortoise is another Marco prehistoric resident and protected by Federal, State and Local regulations. Not as celebrated as the burrowing owl, but just as special, they share vacant lots as choice habitat, which are declining in Marco Island.

Marco’s Beach and Coastal Resource Advisory Committee (BACR) has partnered with AWE to initiate a field study and survey for the gopher tortoise population. This is a conservation partnership similar to the Owl Watch of Marco Program.

According to AWE, the initial surveying phase has already started, and they hope to include collection of research data. 

In the spring as the weather warms up, the gopher tortoises are out foraging for food and also searching for a mate. Often, they will cross the road for choice greenery or visit a potential mate. With the increased volume of construction traffic, the slow-moving tortoises are easy victims to vehicular strikes.

Practice Safe Driving to keep Gopher Tortoises Safe:

  • Observe speed limits and wildlife crossing signs.
  • Scan the road and shoulder for gopher tortoise.
  • Gopher tortoises are slow-moving—allow them time to cross the road.
  • You can help the gopher tortoise across the road in the direction it was headed, but do not put gopher tortoise in water. They are land animals and cannot swim.
  • When viewing gopher tortoises, observe from a distance.

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