New Owl Day 2

Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) Nov. 5 2022

Overnight showers and morning drizzle didn’t drive this owl to seek shelter. As I saw in previous encounters, Burrowing Owls love a few hours of rain and stand out in it as if taking a shower. See “Owls in Rain” Nov 9 2021 and “The Owls Came Back” movie. Under their outer feathers they have a dense coat of downy feathers that resemble fine fur. Even if their outer feathers get soaked, the birds are toasty inside. If the water gets too heavy, a vigorous shake gets rid of it. If they tire of the downpour, they can always slip into a cavity between the rocks or into a Ground Squirrel burrow. The Ground Squirrels are past masters of burrow architecture and equip their underground homes with ample drainage to keep them dry and snug in the heaviest drenching.

Is this owl the same bird that occupied this spot beginning November 2, 2021? I don’t think so. Here’s a comparison of the two birds, the 2021 owl on the left. Note the generally lighter breast of our new owl on the right. Note particularly the area on the old bird’s right breast (our left) where there is an area with a lot of brown and very few spots. Compare that to the new bird’s breast, which is more crowded with white spots and shows a different pattern.

Some computer graphics whiz needs to invent a system for identifying and comparing Burrowing Owl plumage patterns. The owls seem to have distinct patterns of white dots on their heads and front sides, like fingerprints, and they probably recognize one another as individuals by those patterns. With all the AI wizardry now available it should be possible to break that open code and identify individual owls in a matter of seconds.

When I was trained as a Burrowing Owl docent in 2018, part of our assignment was to set up scopes focused on the owls, if present, and give park visitors a chance to see them live and in person. The idea is that people will come to love the birds if they can see them, and if people love them, people will support measures to protect them. I’ve followed this mandate four years in a row now, setting up my telephoto camera focused on an owl and giving literally hundreds of park visitors a glimpse of the live bird. (That’s why some people in the park call me “The Owl Guy.”) I’m sorry to say that I can’t do that with this owl. Nor could I do it with the owls that perched in this exact spot in 2018 and 2021. This spot can’t be seen from the paved perimeter trail. The only place where you can see it is on the Open Circle Viewpoint. To do that you have to step across the “art” fence. For five years now I’ve been urging the powers that be to relocate the “art” fence slightly to the north so that the birds can still be behind the fence but the public can have access to this beautiful viewpoint year round. While the Park management is sympathetic, the artists who designed the fence show no interest in its impact on the owls or other wildlife. And absurdly, the new head of the Golden Gate Audubon Society, Glenn Phillips — who spent the past 30 years in New York and has probably never seen a Burrowing Owl in his life — won’t discuss changing the fence design or its route. So what if dogs can easily get over or through the fence? So what if people can’t see the Burrowing Owl? So what if the best birding spot in the park is shut to the public during peak birding season? Glenn doesn’t care. See Open Letter to Audubon’s Glenn Phillips for extended discussion. If you’d like to see the Burrowing Owl through a lens live and in person, the main man who’s standing in your way is gphillips@goldengateaudubon.org.

Not only the route, but the design of the fence needs work. Barely 32 inches at the top, with a gap of 9 inches between the top two cables, it’s not a serious boundary for people or dogs. Further proof appeared yesterday afternoon, when a man and his dog stepped across the fence on the northern end, near where the Burrowing Owl is perched. A park visitor texted me and sent these pictures:

“Saw this person with his dog in the owl area and asked him to come back out and that it was closed. He claimed I was stupid and walked back to the point and went down on the rocks anyway. Not sure if there’s anyone I can call?”

The photos show the man inside the northern part of the Burrowing Owl Sanctuary. If he went down the rocks at the point, he came within maybe twenty feet of the owl. In the video above, the owl repeatedly looks to its right, toward the paved path inside the owl area. I wondered why the owl bothered to do that. I now understand. Even in its relatively sheltered and remote location, the owl is not secure. The “art” fence is not a meaningful boundary for the Burrowing Owl Sanctuary. It urgently needs to be replaced.

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5 thoughts on “New Owl Day 2

  • November 8, 2022 at 9:11 pm
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    Peni: The artists who designed it, Jeff Reed and Jennifer Madden, claim that the fence is a work of art and therefore cannot be replaced with something more functional without their consent.

  • November 8, 2022 at 2:09 am
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    What makes it an art fence?

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  • November 5, 2022 at 7:57 pm
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    Thank you so much for the update and your information! I wish we could get those in power to protect them more. Before the “art project” and Audubon’s disastrous incompetent involvement, there were annually 6 owls right near the area you show, and incredibly close. That’s also when people who knew the owls well and fed and loved the Ground Squirrels were allowed to help, before being given tickets and harassed. They seemed to know the most about the owls and their connection with the Ground Squirrels.

  • November 5, 2022 at 7:12 pm
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    Do individual owl’s plumage markings / patterns change from molt to molt? If so, then it may not be possible to use “pattern” as a longterm (year to year) ID characteristic.

    ASIDE:
    From 25 to 30 secs into the video, notice how the owl first closes (lowers) its TOP left eyelid, and then it raises its LOWER left eyelid up, all the while keeping the eye closed.

    I wonder what that sort of movement is meant to accomplish –shifting which lid does the covering of the eye?

    ASIDE 2:
    Also, I notice in this and the previously-posted video that whenever the owl turns its head to look in another direction, it closes its eyes during the momentary turn movement –doesn’t want to dizzy itself with such rapid turning movements? Or, …?

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