"From their new bird’s eye perspective, they snuggled together and began a thorough inspection of the surrounding landscape."
Laura Crawford Williams
We have a prairie dog town in the northeast section of our property in Martin, South Dakota. For several summers, I followed the nesting progress of burrowing owl couples that returned to nest here each spring, including my favorite sibling pair featured in this photograph.
Because their burrow was so close to the road, I was able to use my car as a blind — shooting from inside, next to, or even underneath. The adults were completely comfortable with the vehicle and not afraid of my movements. The parents were easy to recognize as one had an unusually dark coloring while the other was exceptionally white. I saw them for several consecutive years.
Late July and August are my favorite times to head out to the dog town. The owlets are still young but very active and curious. If mom and dad are not feeding them, the owlets spend their daylight hours playing, exploring, investigating, and practicing. They jump up and down repeatedly and make short flights to and from the burrow.
Once new wings become strong enough, three fence posts and a fallen limb are the play items of choice. The game persists every year, a sort of owlet version of king (or queen) of the hill. One owlet will fly up to the top of a perch. They use wobbly wings to maintain balance as king or queen until one of their siblings challenges them in an attempt to usurp the lofty position. Sometimes one sibling will land on top of the other flapping and grasping until the current king or queen relents, falls, or pushes the challenger away.
Only rarely are two siblings able to occupy the same narrow perch at the same time, as they do in this photo. Perching beside mom or dad is relatively easy, but two shaky youngsters are a different story. After a few frantic moments of flapping and adjusting, these two siblings were able to settle into secure positions side by side on the limb. From their new bird’s eye perspective, they snuggled together and began a thorough inspection of the surrounding landscape by turning and cocking their heads in all the familiar owl-like ways. However, their success did not last. It wasn’t long before another sibling made a flying leap and crashed into them, feet first and wings flapping, sending all three owlets tumbling to the ground.
I was very sad when I discovered in 2011 and 2012 that my favorite burrowing owl parents didn’t return. In fact, the overall number of nests in the town is on the decline. Drought and predators are a problem, but so are neighbors using measures to control prairie dog populations that inadvertently kill owls as well. Still, the biggest threat to burrowing owl populations is land development. Despite their protected status, they are often eradicated in the name of human growth and development; an all too sad yet familiar story don’t you think?
Nikon D2X, Nikon 80-400mm VR lens, F7.1, 1/160th sec, ISO 320, handheld
Although Laura Crawford Williams is a native of New Orleans by birth, she is a west river citizen of South Dakota by choice. Her career experience outside of photography includes biomedical illustration and 3D animation as well as educational and entertainment software production.
In photography, she focuses on grassland and wetland species found in high plains steppe and temperate prairie ecosystems, while also leading custom photo tours with partner German Ambrosetti in Argentina. She and her husband Marty are avid supporters of The Nature Conservancy.