Sunday, June 30, 2024

In Search of Burrowing Owls

Ever since branching out from landscape photography to include birds and wildlife, I've paid much more attention to the local critters wherever I'm visiting.  Since I travel to South Dakota fairly often, I've come to appreciate the plentiful wildlife and numerous locations to photograph them that abound in the Black Hills area.  Thanks to the guidance from my neighbor Cheri, photographing birds of prey, such as eagles, hawks and owls, has risen to the top of my "photography bucket list."  Especially owls - they are such cute and interesting birds!  I've been fortunate enough to capture images of several owl species - Barred owls, a Northern pygmy owl, Western screech owls, and just recently, Short-eared owls.  But one specific type of owl had eluded me thus far - the tiny, ultra-cute Burrowing owl. 

The Badlands at sunrise

Burrowing owls are small owls with long legs and bright-yellow eyes.  Not much larger than a robin, these birds live underground, either in burrows they dig themselves, or have taken over from another animal.  Prairie dog burrows are especially popular.  These owls live in open habitats, such as grasslands or deserts.  They can be spotted during daylight hours, usually in the mornings and evenings.

Meadowlark announcing the day

Badlands National Park offers perfect conditions to support Burrowing owls.  Over the past few years, I'd seen internet images of these little birds taken in the Badlands by local photographers.  Keen to capture some photos of my own, I decided to try my hand at locating Burrowing owls in Badlands National Park.

Shaggy bison

For the past three years, every time I visited South Dakota, my sister accompanied me on my Burrowing owl quest.  We'd logged several hikes around Badlands prairie dogs towns, but sadly always came up empty.  Credit to my sis - she was a good sport for following her crazy sister all over a bunch of bleak, dusty landscapes.  After several unsuccessful tries, I'm sure she was convinced the owls didn't exist.

A burrowing owl!

In early May, I made a visit to my family in South Dakota.  Of course, another trip to the Badlands was on my agenda.  But this time I did a little research.  My birding friends had recently turned me onto a website called ebird.  This site featured locations all over the US where people posted lists of the birds they had seen (and sometimes heard) in a specific area.  Pouring over recent ebird reports from the Badlands, I discovered a few people had observed Burrowing owls along a specific road in Badlands National Park.  After consulting the weather, I picked a favorable day to drive out there.


Since early morning was a good time to see Burrowing owls, as well as many other animals, I left my parent's house well before sunrise.  Although I missed photographing an amazing sunrise because I was driving, my early wake up call got me to the Badlands at dawn.  Perfect!  Enroute to where the owls had been spotted, I stopped to photograph some Pronghorn antelope, several bison and a meadowlark - all right out my car window!  The day was already looking promising.

These two were obviously a couple

Five miles down the specific road was a prairie dog town.  I suspected that's where the owls had been spotted.  Approaching the parking area, it was occupied by several large bison.  I surely wasn't going to pull over there!  So I kept driving slowly along the gravel road, scanning the landscape.  

I loved how they posed

Not far from the parking area, I spotted a small brown blob out my driver's side window.  Unsure if it was an owl or just another prairie dog (they both look alike from a distance) I grabbed my camera and zoom lens to have a better look.  As the lens focused, an owl's face came into view.  Oh my gosh, I'd finally found one!

One was nuzzling the other

Ecstatic, I quickly fired off multiple shots from my camera.  The owl sat for several minutes before tiring of this paparazzi woman, and flew away.  But then I noticed another brown blob nearby - it was a second Burrowing owl!

On guard in the wildflowers

This time I exited my car in hopes of getting closer to the little bird.  For a short while, the owl tolerated my advances, until I got too close for its comfort.  The owl then flew across the road.  Darn - I'd just found Burrowing owls and they were already gone!

The owl couple at a prairie dog burrow

But at least I'd finally spotted some these adorable little owls.  Happy with my discovery, I decided to drive a bit further down this gravel road.  At an overlook I saw a flock of wild turkeys with two large toms.  Then I heard a coyote howl, and spotted this magnificent animal nearby.  Deciding the overlook was my turn-around point, I headed back down the road.  Maybe I could find the owls again?

"If I close my eyes, maybe the photographer will go away"

I piloted my car back to where I'd seen the owls and there they were, right where I'd first spotted them.  This time both owls were sitting together in the grass.  Remembering my previous mistake, this time I stayed in my car and photographed out the window.  The two owls were so cute - one began nuzzling the other's face with its beak.  A type of owl kiss?  I kind of assumed they must be a couple.

I caught one in flight

After several minutes of owl watching through the window, I couldn't stand it any longer and exited my car with hopes of getting a bit closer.  Again, for awhile the owls tolerated my advances, but finally both of them flew across the road.  This time I watched where they landed and was able to pinpoint their location.

Owl giving me the side-eye

I walked across a prairie dog town, to where both owls were sitting.  They appeared to be at an old burrow, possibly their own?  One owl was partially sunk down into a hole, while the other was standing on one leg.  They both glared at me suspiciously with their vivid yellow eyes.  What great photos this made!  But I couldn't get very close or they'd fly again.  I had to really zoom to get the owls - my lens maxed out at 500 mm and even with a 1.6x crop factor in my camera, it wasn't as close as I would've liked.  Right now I was wishing I'd brought my 800 mm lens for more reach.  

Baby prairie dogs

Eventually both owls grew tired of me and once again flew to the other side of the road.  By now I'd recognized a pattern.  The owls went to the same locations on each side of the road, so they were fairly easy to find.  So I followed the owls to one side and back again for a couple of rounds, before I decided I'd probably disturbed the little birds long enough.  I had plenty of great photos, so it was time to move on.

Green grasses surrounding the colorful landscape

So I drove back to the main park road and got some shots of the amazing scenery that Badlands National Park is known for.  The new grass was a brilliant shade of green and it really made the red and tan rock formations stand out.  Yellow wildflowers brightened the landscape.

I spotted two wild turkeys

It still being early in the day, I saw many more animals along the park road.  Two female bighorn sheep were grazing nearby.  Another sheep was perched on a overlook right off the road and I got some great photos of her lounging, contemplating the morning.  The only bummer is that the National Park tags and collars many of their Bighorn sheep, so they don't look very wild.

Coyote howling

I saw oodles of prairie dogs, but I've taken so many pictures of the little critters I don't usually photograph them any more.  However, it being spring, there were plenty of prairie dog babies clustered atop the burrows, and one group was so cute I couldn't resist snapping a few images.  I saw more bighorn sheep, another coyote, more bison, and several unique birds.  It was a very successful morning of wildlife photography!

Bighorn sheep, #28 to be exact

Finally, about mid-morning the park began to fill with visitors, so I took this as my cue to leave.  But I was ecstatic - I'd finally found Burrowing owls in the Badlands!  Before heading back to my parent's home, I texted my sister with the good news.  (My sis had to work so she wasn't able to accompany me this time.)  She couldn't believe it!  Later when I was able to download and edit a few photos, I sent them to her as proof.

Now that I know what to look for, you can bet I'll be roaming the Badlands with my camera next time I visit.  Hopefully I'll see the Burrowing owls again.


  1. The gang came out to see you! Great captures, Linda. A fine post.

  2. Nice work! Those owls are adorable looking. And so many other critters at that time of day, what a bonanza!

  3. That was a very productive morning. You have many great shots.

  4. Amazing shots of these beautiful owls and other wildlife. You had a great day, thanks for sharing.

  5. Wowza! These are great photos, Linda. You definitely hit the owl and wildlife bonanza.

  6. All that research paid off giving a load of great photos.

  7. What great shots of those burrowing owls.

  8. What a lifetime bucket list success! Great photos too!

  9. Your determination has paid off. They are the cutest owls!

  10. You were in our neighborhood! Well, with an hour or two. Where do your relatives live?
    So cool that you saw the burrowing owls! I've seen them once on our property, but since the P'dogs are gone, I think they are too

  11. I LOVE those burrowing owls! Good job, Linda!

  12. Perhaps the cutest birds ever!! Wonderful photos, and congrats on finding them. Lots of great images here. I really like the howling coyote!


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