Burrowing Owl, Elbow Cay, Abaco a (Milton Harris)BURROWING OWLS ON ELBOW CAY, ABACO

I hadn’t planned to revisit the birds of Elbow Cay so soon (2 days!) after the Key West Quail-Dove post, in which I alluded to another rare and special species there, the Burrowing Owl Athene cunicularia. However, Milton Harris – resident and birder – has already sent me some photos of his recent sighting at the north end of the cay, and they are so great that I am going to get them ‘out there’ (the interweb-cloud-ether-space-thing) right away. Carpe diem.**

“I’m watching you watching me. Don’t think I haven’t seen you…”Burrowing Owl, Elbow Cay, Abaco c (Milton Harris)

When I previously featured the BURROWING OWL, I used my own photos (not taken on Abaco). Click on the link to see them and to get some facts about these cute little birds. I also added reports of two sightings on the mainland in the Cherokee / Little Harbour area late last year. As I wrote then, “on Abaco, this little owl is a rare vagrant, presumably visiting from Florida which has the nearest resident population. There have been few reported sightings; and for ‘The Birds of Abaco’ we were unable to locate a photo taken on Abaco.”

Burrowing Owl, Elbow Cay, Abaco e (Milton Harris)

Here’s a wonderful shot of the bird’s legs and feet. Despite their small size overall, the claws (talons?) mark out this owl as a fearsome predator of small creatures. One with hairy toes, too.Burrowing Owl, Elbow Cay, Abaco b (Milton Harris)


Very unlikely indeed I’m afraid (unless you have been shown roughly where to look), and for 2 reasons. Firstly, the burrowing owl is rated as an uncommon to rare vagrant on Abaco. There aren’t even reported sightings every year. So it’s a question of ‘right place, right time’, with a bit of local knowledge, a lot of luck, and excellent eyesight (see below) – the one positive being that, unlike most owl species, these birds are active during the day as well as nocturnally.

Secondly, even were you to be given the exact location of a recently-sighted owl, it’s still a long shot that you would actually spot it, unless you happened to see it in flight. Otherwise, it will be most likely be sitting completely still on a branch in the coppice, quite well camouflaged, watching you stealthily walk by…

Would you notice this bird in the coppice from 75 feet away?Burrowing Owl, Elbow Cay, Abaco f (Milton Harris)

On the other hand, you could be in luck. Milton got a quick shot at this owl as it flew up onto a shed roof in the sunshine. But the bird knows he’s been seen, and he didn’t stay long… I reckon the one-legged pose is particularly neat!Burrowing Owl Elbow Cay, Abaco (Milton Harris) 2 sm

Burrowing Owl, Elbow Cay, Abaco d (Milton Harris)




** or, as Horace fully wrote, “carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero“; seize the day, don’t place too much belief in the future…

Credits: All photos taken on Elbow Cay (north end), Abaco by Milton Harris – with many thanks for use permission


Pied Imperial Pigeon 1, Nassau (Woody Bracey)

Pied Imperial Pigeon, Nassau


Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua (Melissa Maura)

Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua

Writing a bird book involves defining parameters at an early stage. Best to avoid working them out 6 months into the project; or (worse) letting them evolve gradually as each obstacle along the stony track to the printers is encountered. Far better to decide the general rules of engagement at the outset, and be able to tweak them later if need be. 

Brown Booby + egg, San Salvador (Woody Bracey)

Brown Booby on its nest, San Salvador

And so it was that we stayed for a convivial weekend with Peter and Jane Mantle to discuss the pros and the cons, the whys and the wherefores, the format and the style of a book to showcase the birds of Abaco. And how on earth to get started on the project…

Pied Imperial Pigeon 2, Nassau (Woody Bracey).JPG

Pied Imperial Pigeon, Nassau

Black-headed Gull imm, New Providence (Bruce Hallett)

Black-headed Gull (immature), New Providence

One thing was clear at the outset. It was essential that every photograph in the book would have to be taken on Abaco. It wasn’t to be ‘The Birds of Abaco including Birds from Grand Bahama, New Providence, Eleuthera and Inagua that You Might also Find on Abaco’. Or ‘The Birds of Abaco, Mostly’. And there was to be no cheating.


Burrowing owl, Great Inagua

The project involved the work of some 30 photographers in all, from the prolific to a couple of people who offered a single excellent photo. I amassed a large archive, though only a percentage could be used. For example many fine photos fell by the wayside because resolution was inadequate for high-quality print purposes.  

American Avocet, Bahamas 1 (Tony Hepburn)

American Avocet, Nassau

I also collected plenty of folders containing images of birds we desperately wanted to include, that were not all taken on Abaco but were part of a wider field trip. These were ruthlessly (but painfully) excluded from consideration. In fact, to stick within the (self-imposed) guidelines, I set aside all photos that I was not certain had been taken on Abaco. Where there was doubt, they were out.

Key West Quail-Dove, Nassau, Woody Bracey

Key West Quail-Dove, Nassau

This post contains a selection of photos from the Aviary des Refusés. We would have loved to have included the peregrine falcon and burrowing owl, for example, but had no Abaco images to use then. Other bird species were in any event disqualified for being unknown on Abaco. A Pearly-eyed Thrasher recently found its way to Treasure Cay, this first recorded for Abaco; yet could be found elsewhere in the Bahamas two years ago.

Peregrine Falcon (Woody Bracey) sm

Peregrine Falcon, New Providence

Pearly-eyed Thrasher, San Salvador (Woody Bracey) jpg

Pearly-eyed Thrasher, San Salvador

Horned Lark, Nassau (Woody Bracey)

Horned Lark, Nassau

Boat-tailed Grackle (f), Nassau (Woody Bracey)

Boat-tailed Grackle (f), Nassau

Roseate Spoonbill WB 59_IMG_6302 copy 3

Roseate Spoonbill WB 58_IMG_6230 copy 3
Roseate Spoonbill, Great Inagua

Cuban Grassquit, Nassau (Woody Bracey)

Cuban Grassquit, Nassau

Brown-headed Nuthatch, Grand Bahama (Woody Bracey) cr sm copy

Brown-headed Nuthatch, Grand Bahama

American Avocet, San Salvador (Woody Bracey)

American Avocet, San Salvador

Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua (Melissa Maura)

Flamingo Chicks, Inagua

Credits: Woody Bracey for taking / supplying a most of these great images, with Tony Hepburn, Bruce Hallett, Melissa Maura (the wonderful Flamingos) and all those involved in the joint field trips from which some of these photos originate. And Peter Mantle for having the idea for the book and for being wholeheartedly supportive through thick and thin…



Burrowing Owl 1


The Burrowing Owl Athene cunicularia is a small owl found in the open landscapes of North and South America. Their natural habitat is in grasslands, agricultural areas, and other open dry areas with low vegetation – even deserts. They nest and roost in burrows. Unlike most owls, Burrowing Owls are often active during the day, though they do most of their hunting from dusk until dawn when they can make use of their excellent night vision and acute hearing. 

On Abaco, this little owl is a rare vagrant, presumably visiting from Florida which has the nearest resident population. There have been few reported sightings; and for ‘The Birds of Abaco’ we were unable to locate a photo taken on Abaco. The main images featured here were taken by me of a rescue bird that is used in wonderful free-flying displays. As you can see, it is in prime condition. 


STOP PRESS Sept 27 Alison Ball from Little Harbour, Abaco has kindly contacted me to say “I saw a burrowing owl sometime during the first week of October last year here in Little Harbour.  I was watching some parrots eating the berries in the top of a large ficus tree by the edge of the road, and suddenly realized that the owl was sitting on a lower branch of the same tree, right at my eye level and only about 8 feet away.  We stared at each other for at least a minute – plenty long enough to get a definite identification – then he flapped off into the woods.  It was about 8 a.m.” Any other reports of sightings would be very welcome.

STOP PRESS Nov 5 Keith Kemp, with his sharp-eyed daughter Emily (11), saw one at the side of the road near Cherokee after dusk – possibly the Little Harbour one? It was Emily – already a promising birder, I gather – who first said ‘…it’s a little owl – he’s so cute’. Spot-on, too, Emily. The only other candidate for Abaco, the Barn Owl, could not be described as ‘little’. 

STOP PRESS 2016 NEW POST Burrowing Owls on Elbow Cay HERE



Burrowing Owl 1a

In the next photos you can see the bulging eye lensesBurrowing Owl 5Burrowing Owl 2


  • They have spectacular eyebrows above their piercing yellow eyes
  • When hunting, they use a perch to spot prey, then swoop down on it; or ‘hawk’ for insects in flight
  • Their long legs enable them to chase prey on the ground when hunting in open terrain
  • Burrowing owls mainly eat large insects and small rodents and reptiles
  • Unlike other owls, they also eat fruits and seeds
  • When agitated or excited, they bob their heads
  • They are one of the few avian species that benefit from deforestation
  • The owls often return to the same burrow nest each year
  • A major cause of mortality is vehicle-strike as they cross roads
  • Prehistoric fossil remains have been found in the Bahamas, showing they were once resident
  • There are many subspecies including a Floridian one, where they are ‘of special concern’
  • Florida Atlantic University campus is a National Audubon Society designated burrowing owl sanctuary
Show us, I hear you ask, a burrowing owl in a typical burrow for which it is namedBurrowing Owl Alan Vernon Wikimedia

Burrowing Owls may get quickly fed up with being photographed…Burrowing Owl 6

“Oh, do stop. I’ve had enough of you”Burrowing Owl 8 Burrowing Owl 9

“Right. I can’t see you anymore. You are sooooo gone”Burrowing Owl 3

The Burrowing Owl featured in a 1991 Bahamas bird stamp seriesBurrowing Owl - Bahamas - Animal Vista

I rather like this woodcut by Andrea RichBurrowing Owls woodcut 1987 andrea rich.com

Burrowing_Owl_Florida (Tom Friedel Wiki)

If anyone has seen one of these little guys anywhere on Abaco, I’d love to know when and where… [Now see the 2 stop press sightings near the start of this post]


Credits: RH, Alan Vernon & Tom Friedel Wiki, Andrea Rich, Cornell Lab, Defenders.org