The first Burrowing Owl seen in Cesar Chavez Park in more than 18 months visited and allowed itself to be filmed this morning on the north side, tens of yards outside of the area painstakingly prepared for it.
The bird stood on one foot on a rock at the edge of the water. It faced north, but frequently rotated its head in both directions, showing its eyes in various states of alertness — closed, squinting, and wide open. It could instantly swivel its head 180 degrees.
Had the bird chosen a perch two feet east or west, it would have been hidden by vegetation, and human eyes would probably not have seen it.
A ground squirrel watched the bird carefully from a rock inches over the bird’s head. The birds are too small to attack ground squirrels, but they are big and scary enough to evict ground squirrels from their burrows, and take them over as their seasonal homes for the winter, if they intend to stay. The owl seen this morning rested on a rock and showed no interest in a burrow.
Earlier, I had spent fifteen minutes carefully scanning the interior of the fenced area set aside for the birds on the northeast corner of the park. Parks Department workers had spent many hours mowing, chopping fennel and whacking weeds to get the area into the kind of shape that these birds prefer, according to the books. I saw Rock Pigeons and White-crowned Sparrows, but no owls.
Then an older couple walking by told me that they had seen what they thought was an owl about a week ago on a rock at the water’s edge a bit south of the northern shore. I walked with them to the spot where they remembered seeing the bird. Nothing there. I stepped over the fence to the Open Circle spiral artwork, which offers the only viewpoint of the rocks that form the eastern boundary of the protected area. I carefully scanned the whole rip-rap border. Nothing. I gave up and was about to file my Burrowing Owl Docent’s report to the Audubon Society’s Google Docs form via my cellphone. However, I couldn’t get a connection, and gave that up. I walked north and then west, intending to walk around the park. And then I saw the owl.
The next minute was a photographer’s nightmare. I set up the tripod and turned on the camera. Nothing happened. An error message flashed on the screen: No Battery Power Remains. Four letter word! I had spare batteries in my pocket, but installing one meant dismounting the camera from the tripod, unscrewing the base plate, opening the bottom of the camera, and removing the empty. As it happened — Murphy’s Law — the empty battery was a bit swollen and wouldn’t just slide out. I had to smack the camera against my hand repeatedly. Doing that, I broke off the cover on the battery compartment. Never mind! I finally got the old battery out, the new battery in, the camera remounted, and the bird hadn’t flown. Big sigh of relief. After that, it was all gravy.
The bird stood on one foot and never took a step. It must have seen me, standing about ten yards away at the edge of the paved pathway, but it paid no attention. Runners crunched by on the gravel, and the bird usually didn’t turn around.
It did turn and look with eyes wide open when a cargo bicycle passed, and again when a woman with a large black dog on leash walked by. The owl’s head instantly pivoted upward when other birds flew overhead. When a group of six women stopped at my invitation to look at the bird, it paid no attention. They were quiet and made no sudden movements.
After an hour during which the bird did not take a step, I left. The bird remained in place as I slowly walked away. I checked the rocks for quite a distance both east and west, and saw no other owls.
It remains to be seen whether this owl is just resting on its way elsewhere, or whether it intends to take up residence here for the winter. The last time an owl was seen in the park was March 17, 2017. Four months earlier, one owl was killed and carried off, almost certainly by a dog. Three owls visited the Albany Plateau during the 2017-2018 winter season, but none came to Cesar Chavez Park.
There are two videos below. The first is a long sequence (18:45) of the bird as it stood. The bird’s only movement is the quick swiveling of its head. If you watch the first minute, you’ve basically seen the whole thing. But the birds are so rare, so unique and so beloved that there are people who want the whole sequence and will find it too short.
The second video is an experiment. It’s a 34-second timelapse closeup of the bird’s head, showing the range of its rotation and the variety of its eye expressions. It’s a little weird, but it’s fast.
P.S. On a return visit at 5:30 in the afternoon, the owl had moved up onto a ledge in the rock, approximately where the ground squirrel had posted itself in the morning. The rock gave the bird some shelter from the wind, which had turned northwesterly and chilly. Here the owl squatted at first. In this position it blended so well into the rock that I did not see it at first, and thought it had left. But a little flicker of its head gave it away. A bit later it stood up and became easier to see. I soon had the camera focused on it, and over the next half hour took another six minutes of video, below. Nearly a dozen people walking by stopped, at my invitation, to look at the bird. One said that seeing a Burrowing Owl was on her bucket list. Several said that they had long wanted to see one but never had. Some had questions: Why isn’t it burrowing? Why is it standing on a rock? Is it sick? Is there a pair? Will they breed here? How come it isn’t in the fenced area? I answered as best I could. I had a lot of thanks from park visitors for “sharing the owl” with them.
P.P.S. Oct 10, 8:45 a.m. The owl has relocated to parts unknown. But see new owl sighting posted October 16.
A version of this article was published in Berkeleyside on October 10, 2018.