Burrowing Owl on the California Prairielands at Willms Road
The California prairielands used to extend in an unbroken band across the lower reaches of the Sierra Mother Lode and the four-hundred mile long Great Valley. Today 95% of the prairie has been plowed or paved over, and much of the rest has been preserved intact only because ranchers use the land for grazing. Such is the case for the Willms Ranch area south of Knights Ferry on the Stanislaus River, and east of Oakdale. It's privately owned, but the grasslands stretch for miles, and a handful of country roads provide access. It's a favorite spot for Mrs. Geotripper and me to go birding.
The funny thing about today's trip is an ongoing joke (but not really a joke) where I insist that this is the day that I'm finally going to see a burrowing owl and get pictures. I saw a Burrowing owl out there perhaps a decade or two ago, and we can't pass the spot without looking for another. But we never saw one again, despite birder reports of their presence in the area. Until today, that is.
I stopped as I always do at one of the ephemeral creeks that crosses the road, and I inadvertently flushed out a bird that I didn't immediately recognize. It was larger than any of the sparrows or meadowlarks we had been seeing, but was too small to be a hawk. I kept an eye on the bird and saw it land in the distance under an alcove. It was a hundred yards or more away, so the chances of seeing anything weren't great, but I upped the zoom and scanned the alcoves, and there it was: a Burrowing Owl!
The pictures aren't of my preferred quality, but they were enough to confirm the bird's identity. The Burrowing Owls (Athene cunicularia) range the length of the western United States all the way into South America. They prefer open grasslands, and their population has suffered as the grasslands have given way to development, either of the orchard kind, or the urban kind. Their name comes from their preference for burrows, either excavated by themselves, or the various other denizens of the prairie.
So next time, I'm going to be more careful about scaring birds! Maybe there will be some clear shots...