The worst-kept secret at the park this winter was the burrowing owl camouflaged among the granite boulders on North Point Isabel. Sharp-eyed park visitors first spotted the tiny bird near the end of October.
Burrowing owls can stand 10 inches tall, weigh up to six ounces, and live eight years. Until relatively recently, not very much was known about them. Ours was an adult. Then, depending on which theory you subscribe to, it was either a bachelor wintering along the shoreline before flying to the Central Valley to mate or a female killing time for six or seven months before heading to Idaho.
It may have chosen Point Isabel because there are few bigger owls, hawks, or feral cats. Perhaps it appreciated having its choice of gopher holes to commandeer. These cunning birds are known to leave scat lying around to attract dung beetles, and maybe it just felt it had hit the jackpot when it found Point Isabel.
Settling at a big off-leash park may seem unusual, but burrowing owls can be found in surprising places such as golf courses, airports, and strip malls. They aren’t abundant, though. The National Wildlife Federation says they are threatened by pesticides, the poisoning of prairie dog colonies, and being hit by cars. Across North America their grasslands habitat has been decimated (although, ironically, in South America their numbers have increased as the Amazon rainforest has been logged). In California they are a species of concern and are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
At Point Isabel, East Bay Regional Park District put up a temporary fence near the owl to keep people and dogs back. However, any dog who got on the wrong side ran the entire length of the “owl area” to get out, so PIDO members supplemented the fence with a brush barrier of dead branches. The owl seemed to approve; the faux thicket quickly became its favorite spot.
Burrowing owls migrate long distances (from Canada to Texas, from Idaho to Berkeley) and often return to their old haunts year after year. If you see the owl this autumn, be delighted, give it space, and keep your dog away.
Photo by Lew Jacobson