The Burrowing Owl in the Nature Area on the north side of the park held its position all day Tuesday. Photographer David Hauer captured an image of the bird at sunrise, with drops of dew still clinging to the blades of grass all around. I love this photo:
Then in the late afternoon I found the bird in the same position, and had the opportunity to share the view through my tripod-mounted camera with a dozen or so park visitors. The bird faced south and swung its head mostly east and west, but once in a rare while briefly turned its head north where its human admirers stood:
The next morning, Wednesday, I looked for it vainly in the spot where we saw it yesterday. I gave up and was photographing the flowering ornamental cherry tree on the far south side of the park when Jimmy Jimenez, a sharp-eyed frequent park visitor, found me and told me the owl had moved into the fenced enclosure set aside in past years as a Burrowing Owl sanctuary. I hoofed it over there and sure enough, there it was. The owl had chosen a spot next to a ground squirrel burrow not 25 feet inside the fence. Two years ago another owl (or the same one?) had perched here for a few days before moving on. Several park visitors stopped to look, and I had an easy time photographing and filming.
After a while, something to the north spooked the owl, and it flew off, close to the ground, in an arc to the northwest. I followed it. Several other park visitors saw its flight and showed me that the bird had settled. Where? In the exact spot where we had seen it yesterday.
In the trailside conversations with other park visitors, a number of questions came up about the birds. Here are some answers.
The Burrowing Owl is the only species of owl that stays awake and is visible during daytime. This is its normal behavior. These owls hunt at dawn and dusk. Presumably they sleep at night, but lacking night vision cameras we haven’t been able to confirm that. They are also the only species that lives on and under the ground, instead of in trees. The Burrowing Owls we see on the West Coast don’t dig their own burrows. (Their Florida cousins do.) They borrow burrows dug by ground squirrels. The owls dive into the burrows when they feel threatened. The owls we see here are migrants. They nest, lay eggs, hatch and rear their young in breeding grounds up north (may be Canada, Alaska) in summer time. They come down here when their breeding grounds get too cold. They don’t nest or lay eggs while here. There used to be breeding pairs in the Bay Area decades ago but the sprawl of development has destroyed those habitats. They can be very social when breeding, but in winter time they are solitary. While here, they eat beetles, caterpillars, and very small mammals. They do not eat ground squirrels — the squirrels are bigger and heavier than the owls, but the owls puff themselves up to look very big, and scare the ground squirrels off. Usually the owls we see here will migrate back north around the middle of March. There is a 24-minute documentary on the Burrowing Owls in Cesar Chavez Park that has a lot of detail about these fascinating birds; check it out here.