Ready for the Owls (Not)

Updated Sept. 30

The earliest Burrowing Owl ever to visit the park came on September 29. That was some years ago. Last year, the first owl was spotted on October 3. As of today, September 30, the area designated as a protected area for them on the northeast corner of the park is partly ready, partly not.

Parks management did a great job this year clearing the weedy patch in the center of the area. Staff wisely left the taller vegetation on the borders standing. As we saw last winter, the owls take shelter under the vegetation for cover against the bigger raptors that patrol the sky.

This year, as in the past, Parks staff has closed the paved trails that give access to the main portion of the area on the north side. The ornamental fence that was installed as part of the art project in 2011 now extends over these trails.

On the south end, unwisely, Parks has decided to block public access to the popular Open Circle seating area (aka the Spiral) again this year, despite strong blowback from park visitors who love this artful and comfortable facility. Birders also prize this observatory; it is the best spot to see shorebirds and waterfowl on the North Basin. It was also the best spot — often the only spot — last winter for observing the resident East Owl that lived in the rip-rap. Without access to the Spiral, Burrowing Owls inhabiting the rip-rap would rarely if ever be observed.

Parks management has summarily removed a demonstration project, a temporary green fence just north of the Spiral. The demonstration fence gave superior protection to the owl area, while preserving year-round public access to the Spiral. It looks like protection for the owls and public access to the Open Circle bird viewing area are not high on management’s priority list.

Demonstration fence just north of Open Circle Viewpoint, destroyed by Parks management

In its place, management has reinstalled the functionally useless Art Deco wire fence to block public access to the Spiral. This fence does nothing to protect the owls, as no owls have come anywhere near the Spiral in more than a decade. Worse, this almost invisible fence provides scant protection against off-leash dogs invading the owl sanctuary. It’s also a collision hazard for bicyclists.

Useless and almost invisible decorative wire fence blocking public access to the Spiral

Another unresolved issue is better protection for the Burrowing Owls that perch along the north shore, outside the sanctuary set aside for them. As the recent Burrowing Owl video shows, most of the visiting owls chose perches outside the sanctuary fence. Waterfront Manager Alexandra Endress told Conservancy members last week that a contract for a fence along the north edge of the dog park (“off-leash area”) is in the works, but “the works” move very slowly and she did not anticipate the fence going up until well into the rainy season. We may have to put up more temporary fencing, as Golden Gate Audubon Society volunteers did a decade ago.

And, of course, in all this, nature bats last. Will the owls come? Will the warming climate persuade them to stay in their northern breeding grounds longer, or perhaps all winter, instead of migrating to our balmier climes? Time will tell. It would be wonderful if we could do such a good job making them feel at home that they will pair up and breed here.

Here for the record is a memorandum I hand-delivered to Waterfront Manager Alexandra Endress on September 12 about the problem of public access to the Spiral and protection of the Burrowing Owls: Protecting Owls and Promoting Public Access.

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