By Scott Prater
Runners and cyclists who travel the base’s perimeter areas may have noticed some unusual birds poking their heads out of prairie dog mounds lately.
Western Burrowing Owls are back at Schriever and the 50th Civil Engineer Squadron Environmental office has, once again, developed a protection campaign to safeguard the threatened birds while they maintain temporary residence here.
Prior to their mating and nesting season, the owls fly thousands of miles from their winter abodes in Mexico. Once here, they chase prairie dogs away from established burrows, then use those to mate and care for their young for a few months before migrating back.
The only concern for Schriever comes with the fact that the birds have been designated as a threatened species by the state of Colorado and covered under the Migratory Bird Act by the federal government, as well as in an Air Force Instruction. So, steps need to be taken to protect them and the habitat in areas they reside.
“That the Western Burrowing Owls keep returning to Schriever to nest and successfully raise offspring year after year is a good indication that our installation has retained enough biodiversity to sustain this state-endangered species,” said Al Fernandez, 50th Civil Engineering Squadron environmental engineer. “It may also be a good indicator that we have been practicing good stewardship of our installation, especially the still-undeveloped portions that the owls prefer to nest in.”
At Schriever, the 50 CES Environmental office is in charge of protecting the birds while they’re here, which could last until Nov. 1, the date that the Colorado Department of Wildlife has designated as the end of the Burrowing Owl’s nesting season.
This year, Western Burrowing Owls have commandeered Black-Tailed Prairie Dog burrows at several sites on base: near the north gate, at the northeast corner of the base perimeter and on the south side near the Base X training area. The owls will mate and care for their young for the next few months, until they deem the fledglings can survive on their own, according to Mr. Andrew Jensen, 50th Civil Engineering Squadron natural resource program manager.
Since the owls are a protected species, their presence can often delay or impede construction plans or transportation in the vicinity of the designated burrows. During 2009, owl nests near the Child Development Center delayed construction of the center’s expansion, but for the past two summers, they’ve commandeered prairie dog burrows in less populated areas.
Government regulations stipulate that no physical harm should be caused to either the birds or their natural habitat. Those same governmental agencies don’t provide specific requirements or protocols for organizations to meet compliance, but the Colorado Department of Wildlife does offer a recommendation, which states that a buffer zone of 150 feet should exist between the owls’ nests and any construction or transportation area.
The environmental office is the organization responsible for monitoring the owls and reporting any violation of Air Force, state and federal regulations concerning the owls. Violations are reported to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and CDOW, who take the matter very seriously and follow through with at least some sort of punishment.
Jensen has erected signs warning everyone to stay out of the protected buffer zones and has released a base bulletin, which informs Schriever personnel about the protected birds.
Small in stature, the owls are about the same size as the prairie dogs they are dependent on. But, they are predatory. They like to eat insects, but once summer turns to fall and the insects disappear, the owls like to attack invertebrates such as mice and lizards.
“I’ve even seen pictures of a burrowing owl with a lizard dangling from its beak. That said, when I do informational talks on the birds, I’m often asked why they don’t eat the prairie dogs. Then I hold up a prairie dog skull and a replica of a burrowing owl skull. It’s easy to see how the prairie dogs are bigger.”
The environmental flight continues to monitor the base for other nests. In the meantime, CEV seeks to make people here aware of the potential for more burrowing owl sites.
“Last year, we noticed they were here until mid to late September,” Jensen said. “Then suddenly, their gone, and the prairie dogs can be found occupying the same burrows just a week later.”
For more information contact the environmental office at 567-3360.