Burrowing owls call Eglin Air Force Base home
Growing up in South Florida, I would often find burrowing owls in the fields and pastures I explored. These little guys were a fairly common sight down south, with habitats in close proximity to urban areas.
However, for a burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia floridana) colony to exist in Northwest Florida, well… is quite extraordinary. The Eglin Range area is the only place the birds reside in the Florida Panhandle – with the nearest area of known burrowing owl population to be near Lake City, Florida.
Who would ever think that burrowing owls would opt for the Eglin Air Force Range to be a sustainable habitat? With a recent count of 55 resident owls, the range has become without a doubt, a suitable dwelling for these interesting birds.
Jackson Guard Natural Resources Facility at Eglin A.F.B. started monitoring the owls in 1999, when the first survey of the colony area was initiated. The first discovery of the owls was in 1993, and it is estimated the owls have resided at this location since 1985.
The monitoring project is currently done by a group of volunteers lead by Lenny Fenimore, an avid birding enthusiast, member and past president of the local Choctawhatchee Audubon Society.
I met Lenny at a bird watch a few weeks ago with the Audubon group. When it was revealed that he was involved in the owl-monitoring project at Eglin, I asked if I could have the opportunity to see the birds once again.
Lenny indulged me, and another local from Santa Rosa Beach, Caroling Geary; and we went along for a population check with him on Oct. 25.
The owl’s colony is on a man-made prairie area that is used for target practice by the Air Force. The area is littered with small pieces of shrapnel and plastic; so paying attention to where you step is very important!
We drove to a nearby area to the first burrow and approached quietly. I could easily view the birds from a short distance. However, as we got closer, they would fly off, landing sometimes within 150 feet, then turning around and looking at us. They were watching us as we watched them. Who are you? I imagined they were thinking.
Lenny drove us around to several of the burrows, which were scattered across a 1.1 x .4 mile area. Most of the burrow openings were four to five-inches in diameter. Then we came upon one burrow with an entrance that was much wider and arching seven to nine-inches.
“That’s was a gopher tortoise hole previously,” Lenny explained. It is not unusual for burrowing owls to occupy a burrow previously dug by another animal.
“The burrowing owls have interesting traits,” Lenny went on to tell us.
Scattered around the entrance to the burrows, there were tiny pieces of plastic, shiny shrapnel and deer moss.
Lenny explained the owls place the items around to “decorate.” Why the birds decorate is not known. Maybe to attract a potential mate was discussed as a theory.
We spotted six owls on our expedition.
I was delighted to see the birds again. Their golden eyes and curious demeanor still captivates me to this day. No wonder the owl is the traditional symbol for being wise… their gaze so intense, and stature so gallant.
Thank you Lenny Fenimore!
About burrowing owls
• Lifespan is 8-10 years
• Size: 19-25 cm (7-10 in)
• Wingspan: 55 cm (22 in)
• Weight: 150 g (5.3 ounces)
• The Eglin owls typically lay 2-6 eggs, with the average being 4
• Burrowing owls are philopatric, returning to the same nesting site each year
• The burrowing owls are a species of special concern in Florida
About Eglin Natural Resources Branch
The Eglin Natural Resources Branch is commonly known as the Jackson Guard. The name comes from the days before Eglin when this area was the Choctawhatchee National Forest. Ranger stations were known as “guards.” This particular one was called “Jackson” as a nod to the future President of the United States, Andrew Jackson, who kept prisoners here during the Seminole Indian Wars.
All Eglin recreation, hunting and fishing permits are sold at Jackson Guard in Niceville, on Highway 85 just north of Highway 20.
Eglin A.F.B. spans three counties, including Walton.
For more information about Jackson Guard: (850) 882-3931
Venture Walton is a feature column for outdoor enthusiasts in Walton County, Florida and the surrounding area.
Lori Ceier is the publisher of waltonoutdoors.com, and can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org