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Monday, April 9, 2012

The Burrowing Owls of Colusa County

Recently hubby, our friend Dana and I all headed up to Colusa County to Williams, CA to hopefully view fields of blooming California Poppies. What we found instead was, imo, even better than flowers :)

Granzella's located at 451 6th Street Williams, CA 95987

I'd gone online and found an article that said Bear Valley Road in Williams is one of the top ten places in the state to see seas of blooming California Poppies. Another article said the roads can wash out and another article said to stop at Granzella's on your way to the meadows because you can pick up everything you'll need for a picnic lunch there. I made note of it as a street address for our GPS to navigate to.

From the South Bay you'll take the CA-20 BUS West exit off of I-5, stop at Granzella's, get back on the CA-20 BUS route and head West until it intersects with HWY 20. From there you'll travel about 19 miles southwest until you reach Bear Valley Road. There is a large yellow sign. Turn right just after the sign onto Bear Valley Road.

Once on the road all of the property on each side is private property. Photographing is no problem though because you can park wherever you are and stop to take pictures walking right up to the fence and shooting through it. Even where there isn't fence it's good to be respectful and not trespass.

California Poppies blooming amidst green serpentine rocks

These were the first poppies we saw that day. We were too early meaning both to early in the day so they hadn't opened up yet and too early in the season because there were very few poppies on the entire road. We probably saw fewer than six blooming plants on the entire 14 mile route. I tried to call a phone number I found online for current flower conditions but it had been disconnected.

Most of Bear Valley Road is dirt or kind of paved. The internet mentioned the road washes out sometimes. Um, yeah, we saw how that could happen.

The top of the slope didn't look anymore stable than the bottom. That tree would make me a little nervous in rainy weather.

To your left a creek runs alongside the road. It has no name that I could find online. Down in the cattails and rushes we could hear the call of red-winged blackbirds. The females are a non-descript brown but the males are quite showy.

A Male Red-winged Blackbird

Here's one! The male blackbirds flit about puffing up the bright red feathers at the top of their wings. As we watched them we also heard a cow loudly mooing nearby. I'd never heard such a vocal cow before! As we headed down the road we may have stumbled upon who the cow was mooing at.

A loose cow and her calf were meandering down the road.

A short distance further and we saw this sign by the American Land Conservancy, an organization that has conserved more than 274,000 acres of land nationwide. From their website:

"We conserve critical habitat for plants and animals, protect threatened lands and rivers, preserve working farms and ranches, and create new outdoor recreation areas that allow people to enjoy and explore the natural world."

We took it as a good sign that we were getting close to the meadows of flowers I'd read about online.

When we finally made it to the flower meadows we discovered there were no poppies blooming. We were disappointed but then Dana spotted some birds.

One look and I knew, because they were smallish, sitting on the ground, and because there were several of them, they were burrowing owls even though I'd never seen one in real life before. We had no idea there were burrowing owls in Colusa County! The absence of blooming poppies was quickly forgotten as we excitedly began photographing the owls from our car.

Opening the car doors caused the owls to fly away

I say "from our car" because if you opened the car door to step outside they almost immediately flew away so to take great owl photos from your vehicle here are some tips we figured out that day:
  1. Roll down your windows so you're not shooting through glass.
  2. Turn off your car engine. The slight vibration it causes can blur your images when using long focal lengths.
  3. Brace your arms, hands or camera against the opening of the car window to help steady it.
  4. I also used my monopod bracing it on the ground outside of the car. You can turn your tripod into a monopod by only extending one leg.
  5. If you have a sun roof use it African safari style. I popped out the sunroof and braced my monopod on the center console between the two front seats. But only park and remove your seatbelt where it is safe to do so.
The owls remain very relaxed if you photograph them from your car

The easy thing about photographing burrowing owls is that they don't move around much, particularly during the day when they stand outside their burrows.  Here in California they most frequently use abandoned ground squirrel burrows.

Burrowing owls hunt by flight and foot and eat insects, reptiles and small mammals. They stand at approximately 8" to 9" tall and can live about the same number of years.

Almost all of the owl were shot with my 100-300mm telephoto lens and a monopod

While their numbers have declined steadily over time the owls are not yet listed as Endangered but rather a "Species of Special Concern." California's burrowing owls are protected under the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act as well as under the Fish and Game Code, Sections 3503, 3503.5, 3513, and 3800.

Reasons for their declining populations include loss of habitat, pesticides, poisons (particularly those used to kill ground squirrels), predators including raptors, coyotes, dogs and cats, reduced burrow availability due to the extermination of prairie dog and ground squirrel communities, and vehicle collisions, particularly at night.

As I watched, this owl flattened itself close to the ground. Why would it do that I wondered? To hide? Who was it hiding from. It hadn't seemed bothered by our presence in the car.

Um, maybe it was the very large bird of prey, flying overhead. Wow. It was huge! Immediately my mind went to eagle, not hawk. I've seen red tailed hawks many, many times before but this bird was much larger and heavier looking. And then there were two circling overhead!

This photo by John A. Vink

I was very challenged to get a photo because I hadn't brushed up on my automatic focal settings so I didn't have my auto tracking turned on. Hubby did though and got two great pictures that he loaned me. I am 99% certain these were mature golden eagles.

The owls didn't take any chances. They ducked down into their burrows because California's golden eagles will eat them for lunch. Turns out golden eagles will eat pretty much any small to medium sized mammals and birds. While their diets here typically consist of ground squirrels, jack rabbits and lizards they will kill birds as large as swans.

This photo by John A. Vink

I'm really going to have to practice shooting local birds (pigeons, sparrows, etc.) in flight so that the next time I have the chance to shoot an eagle I'll know how to use my camera to get pictures like hubby's.

All clear?

This photo by John A. Vink

As it turned out the owls had more to worry about than just the eagles. As we watched a lone squirrel approached an owl sitting at its burrow. Inexplicably the squirrel charged the owl!

This photo by John A. Vink

The owl easily launched itself upward. LOL It was rather playful. Neither the owl or squirrel were harmed.

This photo by John A. Vink

And when it was over the squirrel ran away and the owl went back to just standing beside its den.


Even when they're hiding the owls aren't impossible to see if you look carefully.

Most were standing right out in the open like this one. The dark holes beneath it on the side of the creek bed wall are burrows. I know this because I saw an owl sitting in the opening then disappearing inside.

Note the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge is just on the other side of I-5

On Bear Valley Road there were two locations where we spotted the owls.

The first was on the right hand (north) side of the road after passing the American Land Conservancy sign and immediately preceding a 90ยบ righthand turn that sits at the southwest corner of the Keegan Ranch where we saw a sign that said they sell a wildflower guide. The second location was on the lefthand side of the road (west) shortly after making the above turn but before you pass the entrance to the Keegan Ranch.

Hubby and I
If you go, bring your telephoto lens and please be respectful that on either side of the road you're looking at private property that is legal to photograph but not legal to trespass upon. I would also encourage you to disturb the owls as little as possible so planning to shoot from inside of your car when near their burrows is a considerate, but not required, gesture.

Our friend Dana took this picture of hubby and I, hubby shooting out his side window and me shooting out the sunroof with my monopod resting on the center console, as an example of how we utilized the space we had. If your car doesn't have a sunroof but you have a friend with a car with a sunroof, be sure to invite them along :)

From what I read online this is just the beginning of the nesting season. It takes three to four weeks to hatch a clutch of eggs and another four weeks before the babies are ready to venture out so I'd guess by mid-June you might be able to see young owlets joining their folks outside of their burrows.

If you go and take pictures let me know! I'd love to see them.

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