In the morning of November 2 2021, a Burrowing Owl landed and perched in the rocks at the east edge of the seasonal Burrowing Owl Sanctuary in the northeast corner of the park.
To see this owl, you had to cross the fence at the southern entrance of the area and enter the Open Circle viewpoint (“the Spiral”). From there, it took a strong telephoto lens to reveal the bird about 105 yards north-north-west.
That same afternoon, a second Burrowing Owl showed up in plain view in the Burrowing Owl Sanctuary, easily visible from the paved perimeter path. It was the first time on record that two Burrowing Owls appeared on the same day, both in the sanctuary set aside for them. Never in recent memory had one owl settled so close to people.
For the first few days, the Second Owl showed considerable alarm when people stopped to watch it. I doubted it would remain in this spot for long. But within a week, it relaxed and went about its daily routine of preening and yawning, paying little attention to the growing numbers of people who came to admire it.
Its perch sat inches from the entrance of a Ground Squirrel burrow, and when it felt alarmed by a hawk or similar raptor flying overhead, it quickly dove into the burrow for safety, emerging some minutes later when the sky was clear.
We don’t know whether these owls were male or female. Researchers can only tell them apart in their breeding habitats, where the females spend most of their days on the nest in the burrow while the males stay outside in the sun. In this way the males’ feathers get bleached, while the females’ stay darker. Here in winter there’s no such difference and we can’t tell males and females apart.
The owls’ initial perches were only about 30 feet apart. We don’t know what happened in the dark. But in the daytime they showed no awareness of each other. Burrowing Owls are very social in their breeding habitat, but solitary in winter. These two birds probably came from different places. The First Owl was a country owl, very shy around people. The Second Owl was more like the urban owls that are seen in parts of Florida and South America.
Both owls were seasonal guests in a permanent Ground Squirrel village, and the squirrels often came within inches of the birds. The squirrels showed no fear of the owls, and the owls showed only occasional annoyance at the pesky mammals.
The owls stayed out and got wet during most of the rain we experienced in December. They seemed to like taking a shower. They only sought shelter when the deluge went on for more than a couple of days.
On December 22, the First Owl moved about 50 yards south and chose a new perch. In this spot you could see it from the perimeter path if you knew where to look. Now large numbers of park visitors had the unique experience of seeing two Burrowing Owls on the same day.
Both owls remained present for the first and then the second monthiversary of their Nov. 2 arrival. But at the beginning of February, there were problems. Both owls had been out of view for four consecutive days. Both arrived back on February 2. But a video review of the Second Owl’s odd behavior on February 3 showed what probably was an injured wing on the left side. The next day, before a rescue effort could be launched, the Second Owl disappeared. It has not been seen since and its fate is unknown.
The First Owl remained in its spot, with a few days off, until February 19. It appeared in good health. On February 20 it was absent and has not been seen since. It almost certainly departed on its spring migration back to its breeding habitat somewhere up north or northeast.
We were very fortunate to have these two owls visiting and staying as long as they did. The Second Owl, in particular, gave numerous park visitors the thrill of seeing a live Burrowing Owl, many for the first time. The kids especially showed wonder and joy at the sight, so close. But there was a downside to the bird’s open and exposed position. Witnesses in January reported an irresponsible dog owner who let his dog invade the bird’s sanctuary and attack the owl. The artistic fence around the area is not an effective barrier. Other parks put up temporary fences to protect the owls before they arrive; the same needs to happen here.
We hope that both owls are well, and that they will return in the fall, and maybe bring some friends. They are very special birds, and bring much joy to us humans who are privileged to see them.
To review all 51 blog posts about the owls during the 2021-2022 winter season, click here. This includes not only full-length videos but also numerous photos, including contributions by photographers Sam Zuckerman, Allison Tom, Anna Klafter, Louis Kruk, Donna Hom, Shawna P., Rick Lewis, Edwin Wu, and Tianxi Zheng.
For a copy of the trifold brochure about Burrowing Owls, click here. More than 700 copies were distributed.
Click here for a paper written just before Covid advocating a protective fence around the Burrowing Owl Sanctuary. More urgent than ever.