It’s been a very productive year for the British Columbia Burrowing Owl program. The season began with record numbers of owls returning from migration (many of these yearling males, making the long trip back from southern wintering sites in Washington and Oregon. Fifty owls came back to pair up with other migrants, or to mate with yearling owls released back to the wild in mid April. Many of the owls released in spring were “soft released”, meaning they were paired, placed in a mesh tent, covering their new artificial burrows in the wild. There are many advantages. The birds have a chance to “scope out the neighbourhood”, and acclimate to their new future home. Many of these owls also paired up, and nesting often has commenced even after 10 – 14 days when the tents are removed.
Our crews have been monitoring the progress of the owls in the field since the releases, tracking the birds that have paired and noting their progress. Burrowing owl broods can be quite large, usually 5-8 chicks, but occasionally as high as 10-11 young. The chicks grow rapidly, and at 5 weeks they are almost ready to fly. In order to record and identify the young we need to examine them and band them before they are capable of flying, and when they are big enough to band.
In late June, our field teams visited the known breeding burrows to check on the numbers and health of all the Burrowing Owl chicks for the 2015 breeding season. The broods are easily caught up. A foam plunger is passed up the long entrance tube to confine the young birds in the artificial dens. The biologists can then access the breeding den from above via an entry port in the top of the den.
Each baby is carefully removed and examined. They are weighed and measured (wing cord lengths, tarsus lengths) as part of further studies. Two bands are attached, one to each leg. The first is a US Fish and Wildlife band, an international standard. The other is a British Columbia band uniquely coloured green over black, with large letters and numbers. This band is very useful to our monitors – with a spotting scope they can be identified from considerable distance.
Our field teams banded young in three areas. In the Lac du Bois Grasslands, near Kamloops, wildlife biologist Dave Low has done some excellent work and the number of owls in this area is growing. Dawn Brodie banded 56 young owls here. A few days later, field coordinator Lauren Meads and her field crew, (Lia McKinnon and Charyl Omelchuk and Mike Mackintosh) banded 98 young in the Nicola Valley. Later, 31 more owls were banded from sites in the south Okanagan. To date we have banded 185 young this year, with a few more nests fledglings to be done…not quite ready for banding.
Our team will be kept busy over the summer months, following the movements of the owls, observing them with special wildlife cameras, and learning as much as we can about their movements, diet, and social interactions until mid fall, when most of the owls will have headed south for the winter.
One interesting note about migration…we work with David Johnson, coordinator for the Global Owl Project. He has been heavily involved in migration studies for Burrowing Owls in the US. One of the BC owls, (a female, hatched and raised in the south Okanagan in 2014), has been located at Umatilla Oregon. She has mated with an American owl and has 4 fully fledged young at the site!