In the past few days an unauthorized person or persons have been cutting down the vegetation along the north shore of the park, in an area where Burrowing Owls like to roost when they migrate here.
More than a dozen tall fennel bushes next to the water’s edge have been cut short and the cuttings left spread on the ground. It is a scene of destruction and mayhem that goes far beyond the occasional broken stalk that over-eager fishers sometimes leave behind.
The cutting is not the work of Parks management. I spoke with the Gardener Supervisor when I first saw the damage, and he confirmed that this was not management’s work. When Parks management cuts fennel, their practice is to remove the cuttings, leaving a clean scene.
Particularly troublesome is the clearcutting in the exact spot where the North Owl roosted this past winter season. This owl’s regular spot was on a rock flanked by two fennel bushes, with further bushes both east and west. This owl stayed in that spot until early March, when it migrated back north. It was the Burrowing Owl most seen and most photographed by park visitors. The owl relied on the nearby vegetation for cover when large flying raptors like Red-tailed Hawks, Northern Harriers, and White-tailed Kites passed overhead, which they did with some frequency.
Vegetation along parts of the north shore where owls have not been observed in recent years has not been touched. The vandals also cut some fennel bushes inside the Burrowing Owl sanctuary.
Burrowing Owls prefer open range with clear sight lines when they are breeding. They need to keep track of their numerous babies. Every mother can relate. Even there, researchers have found, a border of taller vegetation is fine with them. But during their winter migration they are not breeding and there are no babies to keep track of. What they worry about is dogs on the ground and big raptors in the air. The vegetation provides a natural umbrella that makes it difficult for the sharp-eyed predators to spot the owls, and to dive down on them if they do see them.
With that cover gone, the owls, if they come to such a spot at all, will be exposed to aerial predation as never before. Last winter not a single owl was seen to land or spend any time on the then clearcut northern border of the Burrowing Owl sanctuary. The one owl that came and settled in the area rarely came out of its shelter in the rocks on the east side, covered by a canopy of vegetation. When it did venture out, it sheltered near rocks. It came out onto the flat part of the preserve only on days of heavy fog, when raptors were not flying.