Burrowing Owls

Burrowing Owl Near the Great Salt Lake
Courtesy Bridgerland Audubon Society
Lyle Bingham, Photographer

This is Dick Hurren from the Bridgerland Audubon Society.

During a recent field trip sponsored by our group, we saw two small burrowing owls with long legs and round faces, standing by their burrow, near the road, on a large stone.

A car stopped close by and the owls disappeared under the ground. Not wanting to disturb them, we stayed in our car to watch the pair. A few minutes later, after the other car left, one of the owls was back on the stone surveying the area and the other reappeared soon thereafter.

Burrowing owls are one of the less commonly seen of the 14 owl species found in Utah. With many former grasslands and prairies, the preferred habitat of these owls, now cities and cultivated farms, these protected birds have tried to adapt.

As their preferred habitats disappear, they may take up residence in cemetaries, golf courses, airports, on the edges of farms or in deserts. But their numbers are declining precipitously.
Most inhabit holes built by other animals. Occasionally, however, they burrow their own holes. For both nesting and off-season living, their preferred holes are bare of vegetation with a nearby mound. They stand on the mound mornings and evenings and hunt primarily nocturnally. Burrowing owls are often common near prairie dog towns and love to take over old prairie dog holes for their own. Where natural burrows are sparse and in winter, they may resort to using dry culverts under roads.

In spring, burrowing owls migrate north from the southerwestern states, that is Texas, New Mexico, Southern California, and Arizona. As well as parts of Mexico and from as far south as Honduras. Some travel as far north as Canada to nest. Most burrowing owls fly back south by the end of September, with the last leaving in October.

Weighing less than 6 ounces, this long-legged owl stands just 8 inches tall. The female incubates from 3 to 11 eggs while the male ferries in food to her for that 30-day period.

Their diet is diverse, a smorgasbord of invertibrates such as scorpions, grasshoppers, beetles, moths and worms as well as vertibrates like kangaroo rats, mice, frogs, snakes and lizards.

Both parents tend to the young until they fledge, at 40 to 45 days. In the burrow, the young can make a buzzy rattle-snake-like sound. This helps deter animals and humans from reaching in the hole to disburb them.

Land owners find that providing space for burrows or by building artificial burrows gives them, that is the landowners, the benefit of a voratious preditor of insects and rodents.

We can enjoy burrowing owls, and help reduce their declining numbers, when we preserve open spaces, restrict free-roaming dogs and cats, and restrict using pesticides that kill owls and the insects and small animals they eat.

For Wild About Utah I’m Dick Hurren.


Photo: Courtesy Bridgerland Audubon Society, Lyle Bingham, Photographer
Text: Bridgerland Audubon Society – Lyle Bingham

Additional Reading:

Winter Ecology of the Western Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia hypugaea) in Southern Texas 1999–2004

Utah Field Office Guidelines for Raptor Protection from Human and Land Use Disturbances, Utah, Laura A. Romin and James A. Muck, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Utah Field Office, May 1999,

Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia), Hawkwatch International,

Burrowing Owl, Utah Division of Natural Resources,

Burrowing Owl Preservation Society (California), http://burrowingowlpreservation.org/index.htm

Pikas, Our First Haymakers

Pikas, Our First Haymakers
Photo © 2004-2008 Mark Chappell

“Make hay while the sun shines” is a venerable bit of farm wisdom that encourages cutting and drying of hay during fair weather. One, two, possibly three cuttings of alfalfa hay have been baled and stacked this summer by Utah’s farmers to feed dairy cows and horses this winter. More traditionally, ranchers have cut meadow or marsh hay to be piled in the lofts of their barns.

Utah’s first haymakers were not ranchers at all, however. These earliest haymakers cut hay for their own consumption. To see and hear these daytime haymakers, you must travel high into our mountains, to 9,000 feet or higher. Look for a boulder strewn talus slope or rockslide. Listen for this call….. if you hear it, you have found the pika, our first haymaker. That call was either declaring the pika’s individual territory or an alarm announcing you. These rounded relatives of our rabbits resemble a tawny-coated chinchilla or a plush, plump guinea pig. They have nearly circular small ears and no apparent tail.

All day long during the alpine summer, pikas are busy cutting grasses, sedges and wildflowers from neighboring meadows. They haul this back by the mouthful to tuck in crevasses in their stony stronghold to dry. These stockpiles are their winter larder. You see, unlike their alpine kin, such as marmots, ground squirrels and chipmunks, our pikas don’t burrow and they don’t hibernate. Unlike the snowshoe hare, pikas don’t get out much either once the snow flies. Under the snow pack, they simply dine on hay.

Pikas are strange little lagomorphs
(relatives of rabbits and hares)
that live in rocky areas and talus slopes
in alpine habitats in much of the
mountainous western US and Canada.
Photo © 2004-2008 Mark Chappell

In Utah, poke around for pikas amid high peaks along the mountainous central spine of our state, from the Uintas south to Brian Head, wherever peaks reach toward tree line and you can find. There you may find pikas making hay or loafing atop prominent stones in their rock jumbles, or contributing to the territorial calls of their talus slope choir. Their intolerance of heat keeps them from spreading downslope. Like the moose, they are one of the animals that will fare poorly with significant climate warming. For now, though, you can continue to peek for picas amid Utah’s glorious alpine scenery.


Photo: Images of the Natural World, Courtesy & Copyright 2004-2008 Mark Chappell http://faculty.ucr.edu/~chappell/INW/

Text: Bridgerland Audubon Society – Jim Cane

Additional Reading:

American Pika, Utah Division of Natural Resources, http://dwrcdc.nr.utah.gov/rsgis2/search/Display.asp?FlNm=ochoprin

Pikas in Utah, Video from Utah DWR, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=czMoUzBUkTE&feature=channel_page

“Damn Cute Pikas” Narrated by David Attenborough and posted by Paul Garita on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QVJuRgil0wQ&NR=1

American Pika, Nature Works, New Hampshire Public Television, http://www.nhptv.org/NATUREWORKS/americanpika.htm

Pika, Utah DWR Instragram Account, https://www.instagram.com/p/r7_haQtoZC/?modal=true

Important Bird Areas

Important Bird Area Sign
at the Deep Canyon Trailhead
Leading to the Hawkwatch Intl
Wellsvilles Site
Courtesy Bridgerland Audubon Society

Not all places on earth were created equal. Some places attract lots of birds, and some don’t. And some places support birds that are at more at risk of extinction than others. Those two simple statements are the basis of a worldwide effort to map Important Bird Areas or IBAs as they are called in the birding world. This effort has been led by Birdlife International which is a conglomerate of partnership organizations dedicated to the welfare of birds. To date, over 7500 IBA sites have been identified and described in over 170 countries.

In the United States, the partner for identifying IBAs is the National Audubon Society. Wayne Martinson and Keith Evans of the Wasatch Audubon Society have just completed a book about the IBAs in Utah called Utah’s featured birds and Viewing sites. Reading it, I learned that Utah has 21 different sites and more are under consideration. Many of Utah’s IBA’s are clustered around the Great Salt Lake . The largest ones in area are Gilbert Bay and the Deseret Land and Livestock Ranch.

Landowner permission is required for an area to be recognized in Utah. Furthermore, an IBA designation does not imply any oversight or management implications. It is merely a form of recognition of the unique nature of each site.

IBAs are designated to be of global, national or state significance. There are carefully-defined criteria for making the designation. To be considered globally significant, one of the following must be true for a given site:

  1. It must regularly hold significant numbers of a globally threatened species or
  2. It must regularly hold a significant population of narrow endemics or species with very limited distribution or
  3. It must regularly support exceptionally large numbers of migrating or congregating species

8 of Utah’s 21 IBA’s are considered of global significance. The globally significant sites include Gunnison Bay , Bear River Bay, Ogden Bay, Farmington Bay, Gilbert Bay of the Great Salt Lake, Deseret Land and Livestock Ranch, and the San Juan County/Gunnison Sage-Grouse IBA.

In the future, we’ll probably see more including Zion National Park based on the presence of Mexican Spotted Owl and California Condor, Parker Mountain based on Greater Sage Grouse , and Cutler Marsh-Amalga Barrens based on its large White-faced Ibis colony.

Each one of Utah’s important bird areas is an interesting subject in and of itself. You might just hear about a few of them in future episodes.


Photo: Courtesy Bridgerland Audubon Society

Text: Stokes Nature Center: Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading:

Important Bird Areas, Audubon Society, www.audubon.org/bird/IBA/

Globally Important Bird Areas of the United States, American Bird Conservancy, http://www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/domestic/sitebased/iba/

Globally Important Bird Areas in Utah, American Bird Conservancy, www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/domestic/sitebased/iba/utah.html

Important Bird Areas(IBAs), BirdLife International, http://www.birdlife.org/action/science/sites/index.html

Autumn Colors

Autumn Colors: Fall Colors in Cache County Photo © 2006 Bridgerland Audubon Society
Fall Colors in Cache County
Photo © 2006 Bridgerland Audubon Society

In autumn, our days shorten noticeably and frosty dawns become the norm across most of Utah. Now leafy plants must be preparing for winter. Their summer of intense metabolic activities must gradually give way to winter’s dormancy. Photosynthesis and respiration are gradually shut down as nutrients and sugars are withdrawn from leaves, to be shunted to the stem and roots for storage.

The brilliant autumn yellows of our aspens, ash trees and cottonwoods, as well as the crimsons of our maples and sumacs, are all indicative of leafy plants frugality with their valuable nutrient stores. The foliar pigment phytochrome first registers the lengthening nights, initiating the cascade of physiological events that prepare a tree for the icy blasts of winter. Before discarding their leaves, deciduous trees and shrubs rescue and store what they can of sugars and nutrients found in their leaves.

The key photosynthetic green pigment, chlorophyll, and its attendant enzymes are all broken down, their components moved to storage for recycling next spring. Essential nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, are likewise extracted from foliage for later reuse. With chlorophyll gone, the other colorful leaf pigments are revealed in all their glory. These accessory pigments have been there all along, they just have been masked by the dominant green of chlorophyll.

These accessory pigments serve several functional purposes for the leaf. Some pigments protect the leaf from sunburn, some scavenge free radicals, but most capture energy from wavelengths of light missed by chlorophyll. The multi-hued spectrum of sunlight, as revealed by a prism or a rainbow, not only allows us to see splashy fall foliage colors, it is the reason for their existence.

For the plant physiologist and chemist, then, the palette of colorful leaf pigments have complex functional explanations. More mysterious psychological stirrings accompany the aching beauty of our autumn foliage, but it gives an undeniable tug at my heart. Standing before a blazing yellow stand of aspens, I smile to think that recycling can be so beautiful.

Photo: Courtesy www.bridgerlandaudubon.org
Text: Bridgerland Audubon Society – Jim Cane, Linda Kervin

Additional Reading:
Utah Scenic Byways, http://www.utah.com/byways/fallcolorstour.htm
Utah Fall Colors, http://travel.utah.gov/Fallcolors.htm