A Burrowing Owl on the Hopi Res
Burrowing owls, like mountain lions, are crepuscular. That's a fancy way of saying that they're most active during sunset and sunrise. I know this because I've just begun studying them for a project in the Mojave Desert. I've been mapping habitat suitability to help preserve habitat for these little guys before it gets developed. This will help prevent populations from getting get wiped out by habitat destruction, which is happening all over Central California right now.
Last night, far away from the hustle and bustle of the owl wars, I had the chance to see one of these desert dwellers up close and personally.
I'm on the Hopi Reservation, where developments are few and far between. Richard lives in a housing development near Polacca. He told me that he'd seen a pair of burrowing owls previously, while hiking in a wash near Highway 264. I asked him to take me there. We stepped out his back door and headed west into the sunset. The sky was fierce. Dark menacing clouds closed the gap between earth and sky, and a solitary pink streak spanned the horizon, evenly slicing the space between clouds and earth. We walked across soft, sandy soil that gave underneath my foot with each step. The wind howled as we trudged forth. We caught a glimpse of a group of feral dogs, getting wilder and skinnier by the day. They used to belong to someone, but they were kicked out to fend for themselves. Now they're eeking out a life in the desert, running along the rim of the canyon we're headed for.
We dropped into a narrow side canyon and were enclosed by sandstone walls almost immediately. The canyon was made deeper by the recent rains scraping the debris off the canyon floor. This is how the Grand Canyon was formed, I think. The wind became a distant whisper once we were inside the canyon's walls. As we closed in on the junction with a larger canyon, Richard pointed to a ledge about 20 feet high in front of us. "They were up there last night." As he spoke, I saw something move.
"There's one." A little owl took flight from the base of the rock wall. It perched on the top of the wall and surveyed us, standing motionless. It looked even smaller than I have imagined them, with stilt-like legs, back lit by the violet sky. The little silhouette didn't make a sound. I didn't either. We watched eachother for a few minutes, then just as suddenly as it had appeared, the owl took off. It caught an updraft and flew across the narrow strip of sky above the canyon. It landed out of sight behind us, somewhere near the wild dogs. I hope he can escape them, if he needs to. We turned and hiked out the way we came. When we topped out of the canyon, the howling wind pushed against our backs.
"Hoo-hooo." We heard a two-syllable call coming from behind us. I turned my head to try to get a better idea where it was coming from, but all I got was an ear full of wind. I turned back around. "Hoo-hooo." The call followed us into the moonlit night as we ambled away in the darkness.
Photo credit: Richard Alun Davis, 2010