Fixing the Owl Fence

A Parks staff member yesterday again repaired the top cable on the ornamental fence surrounding the Burrowing Owl area.  The cable, on the northern section of the fence, had been detached and missing for more than a year.  A Parks staffer replaced the cable and anchored it in the north side retaining wall on about September 20 this year.  However, the anchor did not hold and the cable lay on the ground by September 24.   On or about September 30, a Parks staff member attempted a second repair, again anchoring the end of the cable in the same hole in the wall with epoxy.  Already by October 2, the anchor failed and the cable dropped.  This time, on October 11 — two days after the Burrowing Owl visited — another Parks worker drilled a new hole and reset the cable, hopefully for good this time.  Without the top cable, the fence was barely two feet high.

Top cable repair Oct. 11 2018
Top cable hangs loose before the Oct. 11 repair

This fence has been controversial since it was installed as part of the Open Circle public art project in 2011.  Burrowing Owls regularly visited the area before that time.  When an illegally loose dog attacked one of the owl burrows and drove the owl away in 2008, Audubon Society volunteers quickly erected a temporary plastic construction fence.  This proved effective to protect the birds.  But a deal struck between the Society and the City in 2011 installed the current cable fence in the belief that this would suffice.  Few park visitors would agree.  The cable fence, with its low profile Art Deco posts, serves more as an ornament than as a barrier.  A dog killed and carried off a Burrowing Owl in December 2016, and Burrowing Owl numbers in the area have been in steady decline.  No owls visited the area enclosed by the fence in the winter of 2017-2018.  (Three owls took up residence on the Albany Plateau.)  The first owl that visited our park and was photographed on October 9 this year chose a spot many yards outside the fenced area.

Parks management worked hard this year to mow, chop, and weed-whack the area in early August, almost two months before the earliest owls have ever arrived here.  The fence, however, has raised many questions.  Namely:

Who is the fence supposed to keep out?   At its highest, directly at a fence post, the top cable of the fence rises a fraction short of 33 inches above the pavement.   On the northside paved entry path, the top cable peaks at 26 1/4 inches.  On the southside paved entry path, which leads to the Open Circle spiral, the top cable rises to 28 1/2 inches off the pavement.   The gap between the top cable and the next cable down is about seven inches.  The  gap between the second and the third cable down is about the same.   From the third to the fourth is about five inches.   Three inches separate the fourth and the bottom cables.  The bottom cable hangs at about two to four inches off the pavement, depending on location.

Such a fence is an effective barrier to toddlers and children on tricycles.  The average adult can step over it without hurting delicate parts.   For a dog of any size, it’s no hindrance.  They can slip through it or hop over it.

Do the owls need protection from small children?  Yes.  But so far there’s no record of an owl having been disturbed by a human of that age group.  Do the owls need protection from adults?  Yes and no.  Owls in the park have been known to sit in spots a few feet from human foot traffic.  The owls generally don’t seem to consider humans a species of concern to them.  Owls in the wilderness have sometimes fallen victim to the boots of inattentive hikers, but there’s no record of an adult human disturbing an owl in this park.  The problem is that the owls are so rare and beloved that crowds form when one is sighted, and that must eventually disturb any feathered creature.  If there were no other threats to the birds than adult humans, they would be amply protected if a fence were put up quickly only after an owl was sighted.

The primary threat to Burrowing Owls in the park comes from illegal dogs.  It is not legal to have a dog off leash on the paved path that passes by the fenced area.  The nearest area where dogs are legal off leash is at least two hundred yards away.  Yet illegal dogs pass by the area every day.  There are human adults who would not personally disturb a bird on the ground, but who allow their four-legged proxy to run loose and do whatever comes naturally.  There is a strong inverse correlation, reflected in years of data collected by Audubon Society volunteers, between the number of illegal dogs passing by the owl area and the number of owls who roost there.  The winter of 2017-2018 saw a historic peak in illegal dogs and a historic zero in the number of visiting owls.

For a video of what disturbs an owl, see this post.  Runners?  No.  People walking and talking?  No.  An off-leash dog?  Yes, very much.  The bird goes into panic mode.  Watch the video.

Bottom line:  The fence is effective in keeping out creatures who are not a big threat to owls.  The fence is ineffective in keeping out the primary menace to their safety.

The solution to this problem is to reinforce the cable fence with a four-foot high plastic pet fence during the expected owl season.  Volunteers used a similar fence ten years ago with great effect.  It could be done again by two people in half a day at a materials cost of a few hundred dollars.  Parks probably has the materials in stock.  (Home Depot sells a roll of 330 feet for $161.)

Here for illustration is a photo of a similar kind of temporary green plastic fence currently in use on an unrelated Marina site about three quarters of a mile away.  It isn’t as pretty as the Art Deco cable fence, but it still has good visibility and it will create a safe space.   

This brings us to the next question.

The Open Circle Spiral

Why does the fence block access to the Open Circle spiral?  About five years ago or more, one owl was sighted posing on the spiral wall of the Open Circle artwork in the southeast corner of the fenced area.  If the brief historical appearance of one bird were reason to fence that area forever after, then most of the park’s shoreline west, north, and east would have to be fenced.  The Open Circle area does not fit the definition of good Burrowing Owl habitat.  The area is not flat; it has poor sight lines.  The stonework and nearby native bushes make perches for raptors that prey on the owls.  The likelihood of an owl taking up residence there is remote.

There is slim virtue and a high price to pay for fencing off that area during the October-March season.    The Open Circle viewpoint is the best birding observatory in the whole park.  It is also the only spot from which you can view the rocks on the east side of the Burrowing Owl preserve.  Some of these owls like to roost in gaps between the rocks.  Without access to the Open Circle viewpoint, bird observers are blind to the presence of owls in the rip-rap.  Blocking access to the viewpoint handcuffs Burrowing Owl docents and raises big question marks over the quality of owl counts.

The winter season is the high time for migrating waterfowl and shorebirds on the North Basin.  Click here for a short video survey of many of the species that visit. A premium spot to observe them is the Open Circle viewpoint.  Blocking off this viewpoint sacrifices observers and lovers of every other bird species to the low probability and low quality observation of one species.  The Burrowing Owl deserves all the love that people feel for it, but other species also deserve our respect, consideration, and stewardship.  An extremist attachment to one rarely seen species at the expense of every other does not help the owls; it only fosters lingering resentment.

There is, not least, the interest of the public to consider.  The Open Circle stonework (“the Spiral”) forms an open air classroom, conversation spot, and rest area with an unsurpassed view of the scenic and seasonally bird-rich North Basin.  The Spiral has its stakeholders.  There are park visitors who use it on a regular basis.  They’re seniors resting, they’re families loving the enclosed space for their kids, they’re lovers talking intimately, they’re groups on an outing, they’re solo individuals doing meditation, and many others.  Is it wise to shut them out for half the year?  Does this build good will for the Burrowing Owls?  On the contrary, it builds resentment and anger.  Twice this fall, after the fence across the path to the artwork went up, park visitors wrote strong, angry words demanding to keep access to the Spiral.  As a Burrowing Owl docent, I cannot defend blocking access to the Open Circle viewpoint.  It does not pencil out.

Yellow line = route of fence

The solution to this problem is not difficult.  Run the temporary fence of green construction plastic just north of the paved path during the winter season, and keep the existing decorative fence open.  No owls would be harmed, and many members of the public, including owl docents and other bird lovers, would be gratified.  It just makes sense.

Here in the photo to the right is the route that the protective fence should take in order to keep the owls safe with the Open Circle viewpoint open.  Follow the yellow line.  Google Earth scopes out this route as being 460 feet long.

This brings us to the third fence question:

When should the fence be closed?  The earliest owl ever to arrive in our park since Audubon Society volunteers kept records came on September 29 in 2013.  Since then, no owls have arrived earlier than October 1.  The last owls recorded left on March 21.  The historical data suggest that an effective fence should be erected in the last week of September and removed in the last week of March.  Note: an effective fence.  The current ornamental fence is practically meaningless for owl protection purposes.

What has been the practice?  Over the past few years, opening and closing of the ornamental fence has followed neither rhyme nor reason.  As I’ve pointed out here in the past, the fence has been frequently mismanaged.  In some years, the gates were not opened until July, after they had been vandalized.  In one year the gates were not opened at all.  One should not leap to criticize Parks management on this score; Parks relies in part on guidance from Audubon on fence timing.  Mismanagement of the fence does not help the owls nor does it build public appreciation for these threatened birds.

Solution:  Post signs with a firm closure schedule, and (on schedule) put up four-foot high green plastic construction fence to reinforce the ornamental fence along the whole area, with the southern closure running just north of the paved path to the Spiral.

There are, finally, a couple of smaller issues.

The cable fence has low visibility even in good light.  Stretched across the paved path in twilight or on an overcast day, it’s practically invisible.  Absent a reflector or some other obvious material, the fence is a lawsuit waiting to happen.  A bicyclist can easily crash into it and suffer injury.  I have pointed this out in the past, but whoever is in charge of this detail has overlooked it again on the north side pathway.  The other gates across paved entries to the area have at least a plastic-laminated info sheet.  Never mind that some of the info on the sheet is misleading and out of date; at least it is useful as a reflector.   Meanwhile, the East Bay Regional Parks District has developed a new Burrowing Owl sign that has much to recommend it; see photo below.  Cesar Chavez Park is not part of the EBRPD; it belongs to the City of Berkeley.  But it would be good to borrow their design and use it here.

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