A tiny owl with white eyebrows and yellow eyes is getting some love from local birders.
In sort of an avian version of Habitat for Humanity, a half-dozen members of the Pendleton Bird Club spent Saturday installing several underground homes for burrowing owls at the 2,700-acre Wanaket Wildlife Area near Umatilla.
The project is an offshoot of a successful program 15 miles away on the Umatilla Chemical Depot that began in 2008. There, volunteers constructed artificial burrows from plastic juice barrels and had their first tenant in less than 24 hours. The dwindling population of owls rebounded, going from four observed breeding pairs to more than 60 in three years.
Rich Scheele, wildlife biologist working for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, is overseeing the Wanaket project. He expects some of the owls to move over to the rolling Wanaket grasslands.
The depot is at capacity, Scheele said. Were hoping the birds fledged at the depot will fly over.
The fate of the diminutive, sandy-colored owl is closely linked to that of the badger and coyote.
Their name is actually kind of a misnomer, said Jack Simons, a Pendleton birder and co-author of Birders Guide to Umatilla County, Oregon. Burrowing owls are dependent on excavations from badgers and coyotes.
A coyote-control program in the 1970s and 80s slashed the coyote population, and farmers guarding their crops have contributed to lower numbers of badgers. Burrowing owls suddenly had fewer places to nest.
Backhoe and bucket
Simons leaned on his shovel, watching Scheele operate a backhoe. As the wildlife biologist cut the engine, Simons took his shovel and walked to a 3-foot-deep gash in the earth Scheele had created.
Together, the burrow crew connected the parts: a 30-gallon water tank cut in half, a two-gallon bucket and 10 feet of corrugated plastic pipe. They placed the barrel, open side down, in the hole, attached the tubing and covered both with sandy dirt. The bucket, filled with soil, fit into a hole in the solid end of the barrel.
The bucket acts as a cork, Scheele said. We can later pull it out and look into the nest structure.
Scheele grabbed a long-stemmed device with foam duct taped on one end and inserted it into one end of the black tube to pack down dirt into a natural entryway. They stood back to admire their efforts. The only thing visible was the end of the pipe, a burrow entrance framed by rocks an enticing sight to a burrowing owl.
The finishing touch was a post where owls could perch and look for predators and prey.
The crew placed another burrow close by since each nesting pair uses twin burrows like a two-room condo, one for the actual nest and the other to store whatever food (rodents, insects and the occasional small bird) the male owl brings home.
The complex joins five others, one constructed Saturday and four installed earlier. The burrows were placed within close proximity, so the owls can alert each other of approaching predators.
Scheele hopes Wanaket sees as much success as the depot, where burrows are more than 90 percent occupied.
Don Gillis, retired depot environmental protection specialist, works on that project. He said the depot acreage is an owl paradise with plenty of tasty rodents such as voles and mice. All that was missing were the burrows.
Once we installed the artificial burrows, the population just exploded, Gillis said.
David H. Johnson, executive director of the Global Owl Project, which oversees the depot program, placed 3.2 gram geolocation devices on many of those owls inside tiny neck packs with Teflon straps and 1/16-inch antennae. The locators tracked the owls as they wintered in Southern Oregon, California or Mexico. The devices dont transmit, they collect data about ambient light every 10 minutes to determine location and researchers detach the locators from the owl when they return to nest. The birds dont all migrate to the same spot. Some flew to points in Washington, California and Oregon.
One bird made a beeline for Las Vegas, Johnson said.
Sharon Simons, a member of the burrow brigade at Wanaket, also helps monitor the depot burrows. Each spring, she lifts the bucket corks and peers inside to determine occupancy. Occasionally, she finds rabbits, but usually a family of owls is home.
They are fascinating to watch, she said. They are very curious. They will fly a short distance then stand there and bob their heads at you.
Scheele said Wanaket is taking it slow at first in its quest to attract the curious owls.
We need to make sure these burrows are occupied before going forward, he said. Well do monthly surveys and see if birds are migrating into the area.
Contact Kathy Aney at email@example.com or 541-966-0810.
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