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Audubon of the Everglades’ Owl Watch Project started March 5 with local volunteers who quickly answered the call. The purpose of project is to gather burrowing owl data during the nesting season mid February–mid July.

When news of the program started, 20 volunteers signed up to help monitor burrowing owl sites, record data and report to the project manager. Some volunteers are seasonal and new recruits are welcomed.

Jean Hall is project manager for owl watch. It's a volunteer position. Over the past 15 years former Marco Island environmental specialist Nancy Richie's had been collecting burrowing owl data.

“Volunteers work geographically in the same neighborhoods to check sites. Florida is the only state east of the Mississippi River that has burrowing owls, which are a western species,” said Hall.

There are approximately 158 burrowing owl sites on Marco.

“Audubon of the Western Everglades decided they wanted to continue what Richie started,” said Hall.

Bradley Cornell, Southwest Florida Policy Associate at Audubon of the Western Everglades decided it was the right time to execute “Owl Watch,” a citizen science project. Although not biologists, volunteers are bodies out in the field whose observations are very useful. As project manager, Hall accompanies them on their first rounds to answer questions and give instructions.

In addition to observing the owls burrows with binoculars and recording data, volunteers walk each site to see if there are any new burrows that are then roped off.

“Then the mowers know about it,” said Hall, explaining that heavy equipment used by the mowers could collapse the burrow.

The burrowing owl population in Florida is declining, according to Hall.

“They are close to being up listed as threatened status,” said Hall.

Burrowing owls eat small reptiles, rodents, frogs, lizards and large insects. Not just nocturnal, they also hunt during the day.

Male owls decorate the aprons of the burrow with objects to attract a female.

“We have found burrows that will crack you up,” said Hall. “Some have Christmas tinsel, carpet remnants, pieces of fabric, foil from cigarette packs, hibiscus flowers.”

Dog poop can also be found at the burrow opening. Biologists speculate that one reason is to disguise the smell of eggs and newly hatched chicks, and the other is it attracts insects that they can eat.

Lots with the protected burrowing owls can be built on but not in nesting season with an active nest. Application can be made to Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission for a permit. The burrow is scoped to determine if it is occupied. Permits are needed for removal or relocation of a burrow under city ordinance 01-34.

Recently a woman walking her dog noticed a new burrow near a driveway and mentioned it to an owl watch volunteer. A few days later the volunteer noticed that the burrow had been filled in and reported what she observed.

A call was made to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Local code enforcement and the Marco Island Police Department were also involved. They visited the owner of the house to ask about the burrow. He admitted he had filled in the burrow. This is considered a "take" and is punishable as a misdemeanor.

The life span in the wild of an adult burrowing owl is five to seven years.

“Only one chick in a clutch actually survives to adulthood,” said Hall. “It’s tough being out there in nature.”

More information

For details on Owl Watch and Owl Prowl contact owlwatchmarco@gmail.com.

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