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Burrowing Owls in Provincetown, MA

Dear Bird Folks,

I just read on an environmental website, that there is a family of owls that may be affecting the wind farm project. I have not read anything about it in any of the Cape papers. Have you heard anything about this? How would it be possible for a land bird, such as an owl, to be causing problems for the offshore wind farm project?

-Jason, Wellfleet, MA


No way Jason,

You aren’t going to drag me into the middle of this wind farm thing. I get enough hate mail for liking crows and squirrels as it is. But I will say that you are talking about two different projects. The so called wind farm project, that is proposed for Nantucket Sound, will not have an effect on any owls. However, there is a much smaller project that has already started to take shape in the Province Lands of Provincetown. This smaller wind farm, which is more like a wind garden, could definitely impact a colony of owls.

The owls that you are referring to are Burrowing Owls. Burrowing Owls, as their name implies, actually live underground. They like to build their burrows in flat, wide open areas. The vast grasslands that make up the middle of North America are their traditional home. There is also an isolated population that lives entirely within the state of Florida, particularly around golf courses. Sadly, many of these areas have been under pressure from development in recent years. Because of loss of habitat, Burrowing Owls have been forced out of their more traditional breeding grounds and are starting to show up in totally new areas. One of these areas has been the dunes of the Outer Cape. Twice in the past decade a colony of Burrowing Owls has tried to become established in the Province Lands. The trouble is the sand is so soft that the burrows often collapse before the eggs can hatch out. Fine, but what does any of this have to do with the wind farm you ask?

With all the controversy swirling around the proposed wind farm in Nantucket Sound, few people have noticed the wind turbines that the National Seashore is placing in the dunes of Provincetown. Thirty, two hundred foot tall wind turbines are being built along the high ridge that runs along the dune tops. The park service claims that the power generated will supply their entire needs for years to come. Right now only five of the towers are built, with the rest scheduled for completion this spring. Amazingly the towers are nearly invisible. The park service is covering the towers with “Spectro-flecs,” a thin film that is much like what the military uses on the stealth bomber. Spectro-flecs reflects the ambient light and deceives the eye into not seeing what is actually there. And it works. I’ve been up there and it really is hard to see the towers, although you can still hear the “whoosh” produced by the turbines blades.

Here is where things get interesting. Last fall migrating Burrowing Owls noticed the construction (which has halted for the winter) and stopped and pre-dug their nesting burrows underneath the cement slab footings for the towers. Protection from the cement slabs is just what the owls needed. The burrows have not collapsed during the winter. That means the birds are guaranteed to return this spring and thus it will create the first colony of nesting Borrowing Owls ever in Massachusetts. And at twenty-three pairs, it will be one of the largest colonies anywhere. Yea!

We now have the perfect scenario, a cheap power source and home for the owls. However, the final construction of the turbines needs to be delayed until the birds finish nesting. There lies the sticky wicket. It seems that before she stepped down, Gale Norton, the recently resigned head of the Dept. of the Interior, had awarded the project to Gust-Corp, which is conveniently a subsidiary of Haliburton. According to the lawyers their contract has the “Non-El-Stop-O” clause, which is lawyer talk that prevents the work from being halted for any reason. That’s not good for the owls. Hopefully something can be worked out soon.

The best place to observe the owls and the wind project is from the observation deck atop of the Province Lands Visitor Center. If you’ve never seen these unusual owls, Jason, they are well worth the trip. A little trick that birders use to get the owls to pop out of their burrows is to blow a few short notes on a Kazoo. It seems to work every time.

It will be interesting to see if the owls accept the construction workers, as they have the golfers in Florida or if they abandon their burrows yet again. We will know soon enough, the construction workers and the Burrowing Owls are both scheduled to return this Saturday, April 1st.