MARCO ISLAND — A nesting family of Florida burrowing owls attracted a crowd last month on Marco Island, when workers brought equipment to a vacant lot.
John Zahrobsky, who lives on Cottonwood Court, said he and neighbors worried construction would harm the fowl, labeled a species of concern by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“It has got to be very disturbing to the animals,” Zahrobsky, 62, said.
Marco’s burrowing owl population has been on the rebound for two years since a drought attacked its ranks, and the increase is expected to create more delays for builders — especially during nesting season, which lasts from February through July.
Nancy Richie, Marco Island’s environmental specialist, counted about 62 pairs of owls expected to produce this year, up from about 45 pairs last year. She’s also counted three homes, including the one on Cottonwood, now in the midst of owl-related permitting.
“In 2006, 2007 and 2008, this was more common,” Richie said. “We had so many sites with owls who like empty, mowed lots.”
Landowners and builders at Cottonwood Court site have followed city and state rules, applying for and receiving building and nest-removal permits to accommodate the mating pair of owls expected to hatch chicks soon, Richie said.
The burrow is at the edge of the lot, and permits allow workers to work 20 feet from the site of an active nest, Richie said.
Cathy and Chris Schmidt own the lot at 1057 Cottonwood Court and plan to move from Colorado once their new home is complete. They don’t mind waiting for the birds to nest, in the meantime.
“They’re really cute,” Cathy Schmidt, 43, said. “They have a nest there and we really don’t want to disturb them.”
The Schmidts and their builders, Sunset Builders of Southwest Florida, applied for permits through the wildlife commission in January when just one owl was occupying the nest on their lot. Since then, the first owl found a mate and the two now have an active burrow. The builders can’t remove the nest and relocate the owls until no eggs or flightless young are present, Richie said. Workers surrounded the burrow with silt fencing, and Richie said the fine for disturbing a nest with young is $5,000. The city has ticketed builders in the past.
“These guys won’t do anything until I say ‘yea,’ ” Richie said.
The two other sites where homes are waiting to be built have active burrows in the centers of the lots, making it more difficult to start work on the site. Richie said nests can be removed and owls are usually encouraged to live in a new burrow nearby. Re-homing is usually successful, Richie said, but sometimes the owls disperse.
As a species of concern, propagation of the burrowing owl is protected, but the burrowing owl’s habitat is not.
Burrowing owls are 9 inches tall with bright yellow eyes. Adults hatch from five to eight eggs each year, and the chicks can fly 42 days after hatching. They are the only owl species that nests underground.