The Number 6 Burrowing Owl sighting in Cesar Chavez Park happened just before noon today, Friday, November 2. I had scanned the fenced Burrowing Owl area in the northeast corner of the park, nothing. I slowly paced along the northside rip-rap, stepping in several fishers’ paths to the water’s edge to scan the rocks. Nothing.
I advanced to the prominent stone below the first Barn Owl box where the Number 4 owl had camped out for more than a week, and where one docent briefly saw a Number 5 owl as well. The ultimate indignity! The owl’s much marked-up stone now harbored a ground squirrel, taking the rays in precisely the spot where the owl had reigned. My heart sank.
Out of sheer piggish stubbornness I proceeded to the little promontory further west, where fishers sometimes sit, and scanned the rip-rap to my east. My eyes said, there’s nothing. But my zoom lens — hello! Is that an owl? Focus! Yesss! Owl sighting Number 6.
This owl was so well camouflaged that I could not see it with my naked eyes even when the camera was running on tripod, filming the bird as it sat. When it first showed up in my viewfinder, the owl was standing with its whole body exposed, all but its feet. But in less than a minute, the owl became aware of me, and hunkered down behind a stone so that only its trunk and head were visible. In the grey and brown mottled color scheme of the surrounding rip-rap, the bird blended almost perfectly into its field.
This, I believe, is a different (new) owl than the familiar Number 4 of last week. I cannot say this on the basis of its appearance. The owl stood at the far end of my camera’s zoom, where sharpness suffered and ruled out detailed comparison of the white dot pattern on its head with that of other owls. My guess is based on its behavior. Number 4 was a secure owl, that paid little attention to humans in its proximity. At one point, owl docent Mary M. sat on a rock about six feet west of the bird and I planted my tripod about twelve feet east, and the bird, after a minute or two, paid neither of us any attention. Similarly, Burrowing Owls No. 3 and No. 2 sat without visible concern while my camera, on tripod, filmed them, while various runners, bicyclists, and walkers passed in near proximity. Owl No. 6, by contrast, appeared super cautious. My camera stood at least forty feet away, but the bird fixed its eyes in my direction almost the entire time that I was there. Seeing this hypervigilance, I took only a couple of minutes of video and then departed.
A sharp-eyed and canny observer could spot Owl No. 4 through the screen of fennel from the paved perimeter trail. In fact, several observers did so, notably Ian Flaherty of Berkeley, who first drew my attention to it. Not so No. 6. It chose a position with so much fennel between it and the path that you’d need x-ray vision to spot it.
I expect that this bird will soon move on. Hyper-cautious as it is, it probably won’t be happy with a site that has so much human and other traffic as Cesar Chavez Park. I’ll check back every day that I’m there and look for it.
P.S. The next day, November 3, the owl was still present. It had moved to the well-used stone previously occupied by Owl No. 4. There was little doubt that this was the No. 6 owl, not the No. 4 on a return visit. When I took a few steps off the paved path toward this bird, it hopped off the stone, and when I took two more steps, it flushed and flew about thirty feet west. Two park visitors, one of them a former but now inactive owl docent, spotted it from the little promontory where I had seen it yesterday. As soon as the owl saw them seeing it, it hopped out of sight between the rocks. I went to the spot and waited for some minutes to see if it would reappear, but it did not.