Burrowing Owl

A Burrowing Owl. (Photo courtesy of Patrick Caneday / February 15, 2013)

Three miracles happen each day: the sunrise, the sunset and a third you need to discover in between. Each day offers the chance to see something rare and beautiful. Usually, you have to seek it out. But sometimes, if you are lucky, it visits you.

I'm no bird watcher. Yet I've written in this column about herons and mallards in the L.A. River, emerald parrots making cacophony overhead and omen-inducing ebony crows on the street in front of my home. Even a myna bird from some real or imagined childhood memory.

I don't have a particular fascination with our feathered friends, save my hatred of their using my truck as a toilet. But on rare occasion, they do capture my attention. The latest avian emissary to do so is somewhat of a find I'm told.

An owl.

Old? Maybe. Wise? Perhaps. Lost? Very likely.

A burrowing owl to be specific, unlike the barn owl or great horned owl which would be more common in these parts.

The Wife saw it first, but we didn't believe her. And she only half-believed herself. But she knew there was something very different about this bird, so unlike any you'd expect to see in our urban wonderland.

Yet, when our girls opened the blinds in their room one recent morning, there, in the lower branches of the communal lemon tree in our neighbor's yard, he sat. Or perched. Or roosted. Whatever.

Sprightly in stature, but dignified and peaceful. An up-close look tells why owls have some perceived wisdom. He (and I assign the masculine with no preference or knowledge either way) gazed in upon those of us who were entrapped in our own exhibit with a passing, learned curiosity. The Polar Bears, he must have thought, will be far more interesting.

With the Wife's vision and sanity momentarily confirmed, they set to naming our diminutive visitor, choosing Hedwig — of Harry Potter fame — over my suggestion of Hootie. Probably best since we have no blowfish.

I've never given owls much thought. But I've also never seen one in the daytime, and not one as unique as this outside a zoo. Higher authorities confirmed our Google Image assessment that our now-daily lemon tree tenant was indeed a burrowing owl. As well as its rarity in these parts.

“I'm not aware of any records in that area in the 30 years I've been birding locally,” Dan Cooper of Cooper Ecological Monitoring told me when I sent him a picture. His agency has extensive experience designing and conducting studies of bird distribution, habitat usage and restoration throughout California and Latin America.

According to Cooper, the main populations are in the agricultural areas of the San Joaquin and Imperial Valleys, nesting mostly in the burrows left by ground squirrels. Thus their name. But even there, numbers are not great.

“There are only a couple individuals known on the coastal slope of L.A. County (away from the desert) at the moment, at the Ballona Wetlands and along the San Gabriel River channel near Pico Rivera,” Cooper said. “And now your bird.”

Though rare, the burrowing owl is not considered endangered, says Kimball Garrett, Ornithology Collections Manager at the Natural History Museum.

“However, coastal slope breeding populations have virtually disappeared in Southern California, and the species is of great conservation concern in our area,” Garrett added.

Yet, there he was each morning — watching us watching him — in the lemon tree perched upon one leg. Perhaps some ancestor had a scandalous affair with a flamingo somewhere in his lineage, I suggested. But, standing on one leg, we learned, is a common trait for burrowing owls.

With Valentine's Day upon us, I wondered — and hoped — whether we could expect any owlets this spring.

“Definitely not,” Cooper told me. “They're highly migratory, wintering out on the Channel Islands even. So it wouldn't surprise me if your guy leaves after a couple days. Either way, it's an astonishing record.”

“You were lucky to stumble into a wintering bird,” said Garrett. “Or it stumbled into you.”

And they were right. The experts so often are.

As it goes in nature and civilization, Hedwig's appearance was temporary. He must have found us far less fascinating than we found him. We look out the window each morning to see if he's returned, and are disappointed.

We miss him like a summer day cut short by nightfall; like one last bite of ice cream; like a glass of wine with friends who've moved away.

If nothing else, it serves as a reminder of the need to take a snapshot of a world that whirls past in unstoppable, temporal moments; fleeting encounters with small wonders.

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PATRICK CANEDAY refrained from making Hooters jokes in this column. He can be reached at patrickcaneday@gmail.com. Read more at www.randomthoughtsonbeinghuman.com.