Preening for the Owls

Matt Shogren, Landscape Supervisor, pitches cut Fennel onto a pile as part of grooming the Burrowing Owl preserve

Parks landscape workers have been busy this past week grooming the Burrowing Owl preserve for the much-loved and much-missed feathered visitors.  No owls were seen in this area during the winter of 2017-2018, for the first time since the area was created in the late nineties.

These birds can fly, but do most of their hunting by chasing down small prey on foot.  Where they breed, they prefer terrain where they have an open view in all directions, without tall grass or weeds.  In this way they can keep track of their rambunctious chicks. They love to breed in territory like golf courses, greens along airplane runways, and mowed strips alongside irrigation canals.  But where they spend the winter, like here, they’re not breeding and not raising chicks.  Their main concern is protection from predators.  This is why the wintering owls here like to roost in tall grass and often next to bushes that provide shelter from raptors like hawks and big owls.  These habitat choices often make our wintering owls a challenge to spot and observe.  Read more about them here.

To make the territory as inviting as possible, park staff this past week have mowed it twice, chopped down all the fennel along the outside, and weed-whacked the downslope to the rip-rap on the east side.  To my human eyes, it looks butchered; a lush wilderness oasis has been turned into a desert.  I saw an owl last year over on the east side of the North Basin, below Gilman Street, camped out quite comfortably next to a stand of fennel.  But Parks isn’t taking any chances.  According to the book, the birds like it flat, so everything except some native shrubs gets flattened.  The trouble is, the books only cover birds in their breeding territory and have next to nothing to say about what birds like where they’re spending the winter.  

The birds also don’t like being chased by dogs.  Because the birds perch on the ground, in or near a ground squirrel burrow, dogs passing on the paved path nearby are liable to see them as prey.  Unfortunately, the Art Deco fence that separates the paved path from the bird preserve is more ornamental than functional.   Even when it’s in good repair, which currently it is not, it presents no obstacle at all to a loose dog of any size.  Any canine can get over it, under it, or through it with the greatest of ease.  In December 2016, a Burrowing Owl was killed and carried away, almost certainly by a dog.  Very likely this killing had something to do with the birds’ absence the following winter season.

I mean, would YOU go back to a place where your kin was murdered?

To render the preserve both inviting and safe, it must have an effective enclosure.  A decade ago, Audubon Society volunteers set up a temporary fence consisting of four-foot-high orange plastic construction fence supported by steel stakes driven into the ground.  This material is also readily available in green.  Such a fence will deter practically all kinds of dogs.  It is easy to put up, cheap, and easy to take down again.  Two or three volunteers could fence the whole area in half a day.  I don’t know why this effort was abandoned.  It’s time to bring it back.  Another season without owls would be severely demoralizing and would raise serious questions about the utility of the preserve.

While I’m on the subject, I want to urge again that the temporary fence be run to the water’s edge just north of the Open Circle viewpoint, so that the viewpoint can be kept open to the public year round.  This viewpoint is the only place from which you can see the rip-rap border on the east side of the owl  preserve.  Last year we might have had a dozen Burrowing Owls on the rip-rap — a place they love to hide — and never seen them because the Open Circle viewpoint was blocked off.

Parks landscape worker uses gas weed whacker on east slope of area
Open Circle Viewpoint after a severe crewcut
The Burrowing Owl area from the north after mowing but before Fennel removal

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