Sunday, December 24, 2017

A First Glimpse of Burrowing Owls @ Albany Plateau

At the edge of San Francisco Bay, a nondescript parcel of land has been reclaimed and set aside as protected habitat for a "species of special concern." Today, I'm hoping for my first ever glimpse of the elusive Burrowing Owl.

A frequent visitor to these parts, I'm attracted by the bounty of natural beauty and potential bonanza of bird sightings to be had. Say's and Black Phoebes, ground-feeding Sparrows, Finches, low-flying Raptors, Egrets and Herons, Gulls, Vultures, Crows, Starlings, Hummingbirds, and an amazing proliferation of shore and wading birds. But I've yet to spot a resident owl . . . until the other day.

Circling the perimeter of the 8.1 acre fenced off meadow, I stop to observe an area around one of the three artificial burrows installed by biologists, when I become aware of subtle bobbing movement and swiveling action. Sure enough, a Burrowing Owl signaling his presence, albeit barely noticeable, with only the top half of his head visible above the grassy rise of ground.

I'm unable to capture a good image while keeping a steady bead on the tiny raptor, hard to discern in the wavy grass. I relocate up and down the length of the protective fence for a better vantage point, snapping a hundred useless photos, never once getting a full monty snap of the long-legged and indubitably wise owl.

At one point, I concoct a hare-brained scheme to man-handle a heavy garbage can from fifty feet away. I drag it over and maneuver it in position to get up on the rim for higher viewing. I hoist myself up in a delicate dance but at the last second the can tilts and I slip awkwardly into its fetid contents. Chagrined, and thankful I’m not injured while birdwatching, I abandon that idea, and return to eye level observation, hoping my silly, unnecessary antics didn’t disturb the owl. But there he remains, resolutely perched on the ground, well concealed, silent and patient, and, I swear, grinning like a Cheshire Cat.

Once a dumping ground for 1960s-era construction detritus, more recently a homeless encampment of some seventy permanent dwellers, now cleared out, the Albany Bulb has blessedly transformed into a protected wildlife refuge and shore bird sanctuary, as well as haven for nature lovers and dog companions.

This gem of open space is the result of the City of Albany and State Park and East Bay Regional Park District agencies working in unison to preserve and protect the last remnants of upland meadows, marshes, and bay / riparian zones in the heavily populated and industrial Bay Area.

Every day of the year, rain or shine, free of charge, people come to McLaughlin Eastshore State Park / Albany Bulb to escape the urban pressure cooker, to hike and take in unobstructed million dollar views of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, Mount Tamalpais, Angel Island, and the Marin Headlands.

It doesn't get much better than this . . . for humans . . . or owls, both I daresay, species of special concern.

The owl refuge - officially known as the Albany Plateau Burrowing Owl Mitigation Project - resulted from construction a decade ago of the Gilman Street Playing Fields - disruptive activity that spooked the owls enough to flee for years from nearby nesting grounds.

Threatened worldwide, Burrowing Owls face long odds of survival against degraded quality / disappearing habitat. In the Bay Area, where they once were common enough denizens, their numbers have significantly diminished as coastal dune / marsh / bay shore habitat has been reduced to tiny, fragmented parcels on the ragged edges of sprawling development.

Sadly, the owls have been driven from their native land, forced to seek a new home. They face a constant threat of becoming irreparably endangered. California's population of Burrowing Owls continues to decline at 8% a year.

For years, I've been on the lookout hoping to spot a Burrowing Owl, whose current residency is largely overlooked by most visitors hiking and exploring twenty acres of trails, in unique environs encompassing 2,262 acres of land and water, along 8.5 miles of shoreline. 

But even if people are aware of the Burrowing Owl's presence, like me, chances are rare of ever spotting one, because of their reclusive nature and camouflaged makeup, and generally inadequate to poor observational skills of most humans.

I'm no exception.
In an ongoing quest to pad my ornithological "Life List", it's somewhat gratifying to learn that coming up empty visit after visit hasn’t been a question of bad timing but a matter of time . . . the time it's taken for the owls to zero in, after years of no-shows, on the Albany Plateau as a desirable place to settle in for a few months and (re)establish once regular patterns of winter overing. The hope is that the owls will return here, year after year, like homing trout or other wild creatures who find their way back to familiar places.

The presence of resident Burrowing Owls on the Albany Plateau  denotes a healthy inter-relationship of several keystone species able to thrive in a balanced competition of survival in limited range. After years of unsuccessful attempts to attract the fastidious birds, as of several days ago the Burrowing Owl community numbers, pitifully, but hopefully, just three individuals.

Three vulnerable owls who have to fend off sneak attacks from Red-tailed Hawks, White-tailed Kites, and kamikaze Great Horned Owls; perhaps coyotes and feral cats; and, not least, endure the indignities of Great White Herons competing with impunity for scarce meals within spitting range of their burrows.

Continuing around the perimeter of the fenced-off meadow, I encounter a woman strolling by, laden with binoculars and a big zoom lens camera. We exchange pleasantries and begin chatting immediately about the obvious.

Her name's Mary and she's a docent with the park system, spending hours a week monitoring owl habitat and educating people about the history of the owl breeding project and off-leash dog dangers. She points across to the south section of the meadow, saying she's spotted an owl there a few times recently, once flying up and around, in pursuit of insects, or maybe just to do something, be active, who knows, inject a jolt of fun in their otherwise stolid days of zen patient stillness.
I agree to meet Mary over there shortly. Ten minutes later, with my original owl still fixed in place – nary a look at the torso and legs - I see Mary signaling me from across the meadow - her cue that she's spotted an owl! I race over and position myself up against the fence, my silly little point and click camera at the ready.

Despite Mary's instructions on where to look, I'm having trouble spotting him. I put down my binos but still can’t zero in on the bird, confounded by his uncanny ability to blend in and disappear into tall golden grass, a huge survival strategy to thwart his pecking order predators - and me from seeing him!

Patiently, Mary points out again where to train my binos, and finally I hone in on the sandy fellow, perched on the ground in calm repose about twenty feet distant, looking contentedly around in seeming nonchalance, yawning, even. No doubt aware of our presence, wonder what he thinks of all the human hubbub. Well, probably nothing, he's a wild animal in his restored native habitat, intuiting a sense of security and unstressed comfort level, waiting for nothing, but also possessed of a look that would strike, asplike, if need be, or in a whir of a flash duck down his long burrow to escape a dive-bombing Cooper’s Hawk.

I praise Mary's owl-spotting ability, a masterful sighting, I tell her, adding ninety-nine percent of people would never have espied the owl who is now, of course, ground perched quite visibly. I say it's like hunting for chanterelles, and  Mary nods and laughs knowingly.

With such a knowledgeable person at my behest, I have a million questions for her while we delight and observe the owl for another fifteen minutes. Here is what I learn from Mary.

Do Burrowing Owls nest together?

Normally, they nest colonially in burrows, but here they seem to be solitary dwellers.

Are Burrowing Owls here year round?

They winter over here before heading up to the Rockies and Montana and Idaho for summer breeding time.

Where else do Burrowing Owls nest?

The owls were once wide-spread in California. The Bay Area today is one of four primary Burrowing Owl nesting areas. Locally, they can be spotted at Cesar Chavez Park (nearby, where a year ago one was found, shockingly, dead on a park bench), Martin Luther King, Jr. Regional Shoreline, and a few other surprising places, such as Shoreline Park at Mountain View and North San Jose, San Jose-Santa Clara Regional Wastewater Facility.

When did Burrowing Owls first arrive at the Albany Plateau?

After a decade of futility, with perhaps a single solitary sighting a few years ago, Burrowing Owls have been spotted since January 2017.

How safe is the Burrowing Owl enclosure?

The protective membrane of a hole-ridden fence has been reinforced to prevent off-leash dogs from getting in, but this is mere mitigation against other existential hazards - hungry coyotes and feral cats, disease, pollution, and being prey of bigger, badder raptors on the hunt.

Do Burrowing Owls dig their own tunnels?
Not unless they don't have to! Smartly, they prefer to let groundhogs (prairie dogs) and squirrels (and the Park Service) do the work for them! Partly why populations are in decline is because of exterminations of groundhogs and squirrels, loss of habitat, and persistent drought.

What is the future of the Burrowing Owl population at the Albany Plateau?

The significance of their appearance is a landmark victory of conservation efforts. We have every reason to believe the owls will continue to winter over here. For now, there are just three, but they seem to be hardy individuals, and the area could sustain up to a dozen of the birds . . . but only time will tell if that becomes a reality for Athene cunicularia.

Bonus footage:

Burrowing Owl @ Albany Bulb

Great White Heron Skulking for Meal

Owl in burrow (courtesy of Wiki Commons)