Owl Diary: Feb. 1-7

Thursday 2/7

The north owl is missing again this morning. Something is troubling this bird. Formerly you could count on its presence day after day. Recently it’s been an off-again, on-again kind of bird, and nobody so far has found a clue where it goes when it’s not in its spot on the north side of the park.

The east owl this morning stood on its pyramid rock. While I filmed it for six minutes from the Open Circle viewpoint, the bird did nothing but swivel its head this way and that, and experienced no encounters with other creatures. When the bird stands on that rock, its head is visible from the paved perimeter pathway.

East owl standing on pyramid rock at 8:24 a.m., seen from Open Circle viewpoint
East owl seen from paved perimeter path at 9:05 a.m.

Wednesday 2/6

Good news: the north owl is back again. As I was standing at the owl preserve looking at the top of the east owl’s head, no fewer than three park visitors approached and told me that another owl was plainly visible over there — pointing west. And so it was. The north owl stood in its habitual spot down by the water’s edge, looking no worse for whatever kept it away the past two days.

North owl back in its spot at 10:45 a.m.

The east owl, for its part, kept to its hideaway in the rip-rap. Sometimes it stood low, other times it stretched up so that it could peek out over the edge of the rocks onto the grassy plateau. In those moments, the top of its head became visible from the perimeter trail. Once again it had to deal with ground squirrels up close; in this instance, it chose to ignore them without a glance.

The ground squirrels weren’t the only warm-blooded furry creatures in the owl’s neighborhood. A Black-tailed Jackrabbit (Lepus californicus) emerged somehow in the middle of a lush grassy patch and busily groomed itself.

Black-tailed Jackrabbit grooming

Minutes later, when there was a disturbance on the path, the one hare turned into two. One bounded across the path into the Natural Area, and the other went to hide in the rip-rap not far from the owl’s location.

Tuesday 2/5

The east owl had yet another showdown with a ground squirrel while I was filming shortly after 9 this morning. This one ended differently. In all the previous confrontations, once the owl spread its wings and made itself big and fearsome looking, the squirrel turned aside and left the scene. Not this time. Two successive threatening displays by the owl left the squirrel unimpressed. The rodent not only didn’t turn aside, it actually crept forward. Then, after a brief pause, it dashed ahead, forcing the owl to back up. The squirrel passed unharmed under the beak of the owl’s maximum display of ferocity. The owl has lost its dominance over at least this particular ground squirrel, and no doubt the news will travel fast in the rodent community. The rodents are vegetarians, and they’re too big for the owl to attack, so bloodshed is unlikely. But the owl is a homeless bird squatting in the rodents’ self-made burrows, in their turf, so some tension between the species is built into the situation. Here is a video of the avian v. mammal encounter:

Meanwhile, the north owl once again stayed away from its usual spot and hid out in parts unknown. Its repeated absences are a troublesome contrast to the owl’s prior record of regularity. If anyone sees this owl in some location other than its usual spot below the bench on the north side, please text or phone me at 510-717-2414.

Monday 2/4

Once again the north owl was AWOL at midday. When the east owl goes missing from its favorite spot, I can almost always find it elsewhere. It has developed a repertoire of about five places, I know them all, and if it isn’t in one, it’s in another. With the north owl, I only know that one place where, when it’s present, it’s always there. Thinking that with the stiff north breeze blowing, the north owl might have decided to go inland, I walked the Nature Area, slowly surveying hither and yon, but did not find the owl. I scanned the whole rip-rap on the north side with high zoom, and did not find it. Of course, there are plenty of cracks between the rocks where a little bird could disappear. But these owls like to be out in daylight, not hiding in a cave. So, I’m baffled.

The east owl opted for its pyramid rock today on my first pass at about noon. In that spot, it can be seen full body from the Open Circle viewpoint, and its head is visible from outside the fence along the perimeter path. About an hour later I saw a Northern Harrier swoop low over the flat part of the Burrowing Owl preserve. Minutes later I looked for the east owl again, and, no surprise, it was no longer standing fully exposed on its pyramid rock but had retreated to its hideaway under its brush awning.

East owl fully exposed on its pyramid rock at noon
East owl under its brush awning after Harrier pass

Sunday 2/3

Good news! The north owl is back. It stood on its habitual rock in defiance of a cold and windy shower shortly before 9 in the morning. The bird showed a high state of alertness, with its head snapping from one angle to another at short intervals.

Photographer Phil Rowntree says he saw the bird within the past couple of days early in the morning. My visits were in the afternoon. Possibly the bird is spending the afternoons elsewhere. With that caution, if you want to watch the Superb Owl today, go to the north side of the park.

The east owl this morning stood on its pyramid stone in the rip-rap, rather than in its rain spot where I saw it yesterday. When it stands on the pyramid stone, its head is visible from outside the fence.

The east owl on its pyramid rock seen from Open Circle viewpoint (left) and seen from paved perimeter trail (right)

I may have been overbroad in my surmise of the other day to the effect that heavy raptors don’t hunt in the rain. That may be technically true but during a very short break in the rain, I saw a Northern Harrier male flying low over the Nature Area as I walked between the north owl and the east owl. The big raptor did not approach the position of either owl while I watched. Still, I can see why they were on alert, as the day switched between storm and sunshine minute by minute.

Saturday 2/2

Rain on and off. When I arrived in mid afternoon, I found the east owl in its rain position, same spot as yesterday. Its head barely stuck out over the edge of the pavement, and without my lens I would not have noticed it. As I was watching, a rain squall came in from the southwest. The owl reacted by rising higher out of its hole, exposing most of its body minus the feet. I could not tell what moved it to rise up into the rain. Was it enjoying the shower? This was a solid downpour, as you can see from the video. After the squall calmed a bit, suddenly the owl saw something threatening, probably up in the sky, and ducked into its hole with only its eyes above the edge. Then it calmed down, and I moved on.

The north owl was absent for the second day in a row. This is cause for concern. Possibly the bird is simply hiding out due to the weather. However, it has demonstrated the same resilience in the face of rain as the east owl. A park visitor told me that the incident with a pack of loose dogs charging into the fennel and the rip-rap that I filmed on Monday 1/28 was one of a series of such invasions that he saw.

I had hopes of being able to invite park visitors in jest to come tomorrow afternoon to watch the Superb Owl. (See today’s New York Times front page for an article about the typo that led to an owl becoming the avatar of the football game.) Now that the north owl, formerly the most reliable and visible of the birds, has been missing two days in a row, there’s no cause for humor.

Friday 2/1

By the time I was able to get to the park, it had begun to rain. Not hard, but not just a drizzle, either. The east owl was not in its usual hideaway in the rip-rap under its brush awning. With a little scanning from my Open Circle viewpoint, I found it half sunk in a hole up on the plateau. Moving onto the paved path outside the fence, I was able to see and to photograph the bird’s head. It definitely had me in its eyes for a while, and then turned left and right for other points of interest.

The east owl in the rain

This location was the same, within a few inches, as the spot where the bird stood the last time I was able to photograph it in the rain, on Tuesday, January 15. It’s this owl’s rain spot. There is no overhead shelter whatever in this location.

It seems fair to conclude that the brush awning in its rip-rap hideaway serves the owl as a visual screen against overhead threats, and not as a rain barrier. On rainy days there is little human or canine traffic on the paved perimeter traill. Probably the heavy raptors like kites, hawks, and harriers don’t fly in bad weather. Consequently, the owl feels relatively safe in this unsheltered position. It sits in the mouth of a squirrel burrow, just in case it needs to duck out of the way in a hurry. This is a cautious, prudent bird.

The north owl, which normally occupies a spot where human traffic passing on the perimeter trail can easily see it, chose to stay out of sight at the time of my visit. I waited and made side trips and returned, hoping that the bird would come back, but it did not. It usual spot between the fennel stalks at the water’s edge stood empty.

The usual location of the north owl, now empty

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