On June 1, 2018, I discovered I was wrong three years ago. Considering all the time and trouble I went through; I am excited to be proven wrong. Well, although I’m not exactly happy about it ─ I remain excited.
When it comes to learning, I maintain a child-like curiosity. Like the kid who, when finally accomplished tying his shoes, can’t help but run around bragging about it.
The adventure began in June of 2015 when I strolled through the desert with my dogs, Bernie and Chris. I spotted a bird perched on a thin branch. When Bernie got too close, the bird flew some distance and settled on another branch. Although the bird’s behavior caught my attention, I paid it little care and continued to cruise through the low desert brush. Unleashed, both dogs investigated and hunted critters. Despite their enthusiastic pursuit, they never caught anything.
I meandered in a large circle and ended at the car. While waiting for the dogs to jump into the car, I searched for the bird and found it balanced on the same branch. At that moment a challenge was issued.
For the next five months, my entire focus was to identify and photograph that bird. It became my most frustrating and exciting summer. I was like the bowler who struggled for the perfect game, yet never quite achieved it.
In my previous book, “Challenges and Rewards,” I shared my attempts. “Something happened recently. When I let the dogs loose, I go walking in the desert. The dogs are investigating, but they are always nearby. A few weeks ago, Bernie and Chris went too close to some birds. Two flew up and dive-bombed the dogs. No harm was done. I walked close enough to identify them. I thought they were hawks.
Since that day, I’ve carried a camera. I don’t have a zoom lens, and the shutter speed is too slow. I’ve been able to get within eight feet before a hawk flies away. I believe these are Cooper Hawks (named after the naturalist William Cooper [died 1864]). Each day I see two hawks and believe they are paired. The female is larger than the male. Four hawks are the most I’ve seen at one time. I’ve gotten within ten feet of a hawk before it flew away.”
Every day from the first time I saw Henry Hawk until sometime in late September I carefully approached his area. I wanted a clear photo of him in flight. Yes, I named him Henry Hawk. After much research, I determined that it was a hawk, not an owl. Like a little boy who successfully tied his shoes, I told everyone about Henry. I convinced myself and therefore had to convince everyone else. I even brought a couple of people to see Henry. We were never able to get very close before he flew away. By now the dogs knew the routine and would run close to the hawk area before we got there. When the dogs got close, Henry flew.
The last time I saw Henry Hawk was late September 2015. Coyotes and rattlesnake concerns kept me from using that part of the desert. Whenever we drove by the area, I always thought of Henry Hawk. I missed him.
This morning, I opened my online subscription of DesertUSA and found Henry Hawk. However, Henry wasn’t a hawk. The article “Burrowing Owls Rescue” shattered my carefully crafted story.
I was wrong. As I looked at the birds and learned about a burrowing owl, my excitement was renewed. Unknowingly, I had been blessed with a wonderful experience. I had the unique pleasure to be among a burrow owl family. I had watched them, tried to take photos, and plotted how to sneak up on them. I spent hours distracting my dogs so I could creep up Hawk Hill before the dogs joined me.
Before today, this was what I knew about owls ─ aka Henry Hawk. Nothing.
I was reminded of the football player who picked up a loose football and ran the entire field for a touchdown ─ only to discover he ran to the opponent’s touchdown end. That’s what I did. I identified an owl as a hawk. I was wrong.
Now pointed in the correct direction, this is what I learned. The Burrow Owl is the only raptor in the world to live underground. They don’t dig but rely on other animals to make the burrow and then move in. In Arizona, the armadillos, skunks, tortoises, prairie dogs and ground squirrels are burrow building candidates.
Burrow Owls are found throughout North America.
The Burrow Owl is small, from 7.5 to 10 inches tall. They are opportunistic when it comes to diet. If it moves, it can be eaten. Their diet includes beetles, grasshoppers, spiders, small birds, amphibians, reptiles and small animals.
Since they live in open grasslands, the burrowing owl has developed long legs that enable them to sprint when hunting. The baby owls (owlets) can scare away their predators by mimicking rattlesnake sounds. They make a chattering or chuckling call and also bob their heads when they are excited or distressed.
Although the owls can live about nine years, their population continues to decline. Land development destroys their natural habitat. One organization, Wild At Heart, has been rescuing and rehabilitating burrowing owls since the early 1990s. Wild At Heart takes owls found on land scheduled for development and provides food and shelter until artificial burrows are built. Colored bands are put on birds so people can track individual bird activity.
The Phoenix Downtown Owls Project was started in 2013, and since then volunteers have built more than 250 artificial burrows in that area. The Rio Salado habitat used to be a literal dump. The picture is of a hand-dug burrow.
Artificial burrows are excavated about four feet deep to maintain a 75-degree temperature. The tunnel always has a severe bend. The total length can be ten feet. The bend serves to block light and provides a defense against predators.
Artificial burrows consist of a five-gallon bucket and about ten feet of flexible tubing. Rocks prevent erosion and keep predators from digging up the burrow.
Although I know Henry was an owl, he’ll forever be my Henry Hawk.