On my way to see the Burrowing Owl, I ran into a string of Berkeley Fire vehicles. The Berkeley Fire Department was holding another wildfire suppression drill in the park this morning. This one was special. It featured a fly-in by a brand-new helicopter operated by CalFire, the statewide fire fighting department. The CalFire crew chief, Sean Ketcham, gave a talk to a semicircle of Berkeley Fire Department personnel, some in yellow work gear and some in uniform. He explained that this helicopter was a model that had been used in Vietnam and other wars for more than 30 years. It had been fitted with a 1000 gallon water tank under its belly. But, said Capt. Ketcham, that was too much weight for the chopper to carry easily, so they usually would not haul more than 600-800 gallons. Still “a lot of water,” he explained. Besides fire suppression, the aircraft was used in rescues. It could also haul crew and cargo to inaccessible locations. This crew operated out of the Alma Helitack base in Los Gatos. Other CalFire crews were distributed around the state. Their goal was to be able to respond to a wildfire emergency anywhere in the state within 20 minutes.
After listening to this briefing for a while, I decided that the owl was more urgent, and departed further north. A good thing I did, because the owl had an encounter I would have been sorry to miss.
This was the second helicopter story I covered in Chavez Park. The first one was a Coast Guard bird that made an unscheduled landing due to electrical trouble. See “Injured Coast Guard Bird Hauled Away Safe,” May 21 2017.
Burrowing Owl Update
(Updated 2/17: No fewer than three readers have contacted me to say that the attacking raptor looks more like a Cooper’s Hawk than a Merlin. On review, these readers are right. There are many similarities between the two species but this bird has the orange iris of a Cooper’s, not the black iris of a Merlin. I’m updating the article below to correct the identification. Thank you, critical readers!)
The Burrowing Owl in the park stood at Perch A this morning around 10 when I visited. It had a new visitor this morning, a most unwelcome one. While the owl was almost snoozing, it heard the sound of wings nearby. Quick as a reflex it hunkered into a low crouch and then slid into a protective crack between the rocks below and disappeared. A second or two later, a Cooper’s Hawk appeared. The Cooper’s Hawk is a ferocious raptor. Although it’s barely bigger and heavier than the owl, and its main meal is sparrow-size birds, this raptor has also taken larger birds, including crows, pigeons, and at least one Burrowing Owl in Arizona. Here in the park, a Burrowing Owl charged and backed off a Cooper’s Hawk a few years ago without suffering the loss of a feather (“Owl Defies Hawk,” Jan 4 2020), but the owl dove underground for cover immediately after the contact. Note that the hawk here did not try to find the owl or pursue the owl into its shelter. It hung around for about fifteen seconds and then took off. Choosing safety over valor, the owl remained in its rocky shelter for more than ten minutes before resurfacing. It then took another seven or eight minutes to settle down, have a poop, get comfortable, and perch on one leg again. The whole episode is condensed in this video: