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Rare burrowing owl sighting is a real hoot

Burrowing owl by Sam Cooper.
Burrowing owl by Sam Cooper.

Earlier this week I made a quick run down to the coast to try to add a bird to my State List. I’ve written about chasing birds before; it’s something some birders do to build up their life, state, or even county lists.

This time the destination was the south end of Wrightsville Beach where I could scope over Masonboro Inlet to Masonboro Island to see my target.

The target was an owl that has been hanging out on the rock jetty on the south end of Masonboro Island. It’s not your typical owl, rather it is a tiny owl that spends a lot of its time not above ground – but underground. Meet the burrowing owl.

Burrowing owls stand only less than 10 inches high. True to their name, the owls often occupy burrows excavated by prairie dogs in the western United States and gopher tortoises in Florida, but any appropriate burrow will be claimed by burrowing owls throughout their range.

They are birds of open country, preferring golf courses, airports, prairies, pastures, or any similar habitats. There are only two previous records for North Carolina, both from the immediate coast. The birds that have occurred here have had to improvise their underground retreats, like choosing the crevices of a rock jetty, enlarging the burrow of a ghost crab, or occupying a section of abandoned dredge pipe.

I arrived at the site early Monday morning and with the aid of a spotting scope immediately found the owl perched on a rock across the inlet. It stood still but was pretty actively swiveling its head around to survey the area. For an hour that little guy did not move a step. What a neat little bird to see in North Carolina! It has been 44 years since the last burrowing owl occurrence; who knows when the next one will be found.

As is often the case with a chase, there were other really nice birds to see in the same spot. A long-tailed duck, five razorbills, six piping plovers, and two great cormorants all could be seen without moving one step. That’s a nice species list even before you add burrowing owl. And it’s a nice day when you can increase the number of your State List.

Taylor Piephoff is a naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com. Check out his blog at piedmontbirding.blogspot.com