Burrowing Owl docents start their 11th season

By Della Dash

Everyone loves Burrowing Owls… once they actually see one.

As Burrowing Owl docents with Golden Gate Bird Alliance, we get the added thrill of helping people see their first owl and learn more about them. We’re monitoring owls, and creating owl allies!

GGBA will hold its annual training for Burrowing Owl docent volunteers this month, on Saturday, September 23. You’re invited to join us! (Details below.) But first, I’d like to share an update on our East Bay Burrowing Owl population.

Species of Special Concern

Once abundant throughout California, Burrowing Owls were a ubiquitous part of the Bay Area landscape. But as their habitat of open fields dwindled, so did their numbers. The Burrowing Owl is currently a federal and state “Species of Special Concern” and considered a likely candidate to be listed under the State of California’s Endangered Species Act.

Burrowing Owls are the only ground-dwelling owl in North America, and are typically the only owls likely to be seen roosting during daylight and hunting in the early morning and evening. Just 8-10 inches tall, they live in ground squirrel burrows or rocky outcroppings and hunt insects, rodents, and other small prey. They favor grasslands, open fields, and areas with low vegetation.

Burrowing Owl at Cesar Chavez Park by Mary Malec

For the population to recover, Burrowing Owls need safe breeding, foraging, and over-wintering sites. Although historically there were ample breeding populations throughout the Bay Area, the area around the Bay has now become primarily an over-wintering site. “Our” owls have been documented at summer breeding spots as far away as Idaho.

Local over-wintering sites include Cesar Chavez Park in Berkeley, Martin Luther King Jr. Regional Shoreline in Oakland, Coyote Hills Regional Park in Fremont, Shoreline Park in Mountain View, and Santa Clara County, where Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society manages property that holds a breeding population.


GGBA Docent Program

The East Bay Shoreline Burrowing Owl Docent Program, co-sponsored by Golden Gate Bird Alliance and the City of Berkeley, is intended to make parks and open spaces more welcoming and safer places for over-wintering Burrowing Owls. GGBA docents invite all park visitors, with a special focus on dog walkers, to look through a viewing scope or binoculars to see the owl(s). We focus on three main messages:

1) Keep all dogs leashed, except in the designated off-leash areas.

2) Don’t allow dogs to approach the owls or chase any other wildlife in the park.

3) Watch quietly, don’t point at them, and limit the amount of time you spend observing the owls. Crowds and noise may stress them.

Docent Doug Donaldson helps a Cesar Chavez Park visitor spot an owl / Photo by Ilana DeBare
Burrowing Owl at Cesar Chavez Park by Miya Lucas

Docents also participate in citizen science by collecting data on the number, location and condition of the owls, along with information on the environment (e.g. weather, presence of other wildlife), and the number of visitors (human and canine) to the park.

The program seems to be succeeding in increasing dog leashing in the park, and there is anecdotal evidence of visitors “policing” each other. But despite these efforts to protect them, the number of owls has fluctuated considerably since the program began counting ten years ago.

Burrowing Owls in Berkeley/Albany

It’s unclear exactly what is happening to the population, but the recent decline coincided with the drought, so it’s possible that there is a correlation. If the population continues to increase  over the next few years, we may be able to infer that the drought was responsible. However, loss of habitat and predation remain the primary reasons for the species’ broader decline.

The 2016-17 Season

Last year’s Burrowing Owl season brought both high and low moments. The low point was the death of an owl at Cesar Chavez Park. An owl was found dead last Thanksgiving weekend, placed on a park bench on the opposite end of the park from where it had been roosting. Blood on the neck and displaced feathers suggested an attack by another animal, but we don’t know what kind. Since we only have photos and the carcass was never recovered, we couldn’t order a necropsy to determine the cause of death.

The high point of the 2016-17 season was the discovery of an over-wintering owl in the mitigation enclosure on Albany Plateau, an area that had been identified and set aside for Burrowing Owls when the Tom Bates Sports Complex was built several years ago. Until this sighting, no owls had been seen there, so this is exciting news that raises our hopes for the future of the mitigation site.

Owl in the Albany Plateau mitigation area in early 2017 (to the front and left of the white sign) / Photo by Doug Donaldson
Burrowing Owl in early 2016 at Cesar Chavez Park, by Doug Donaldson

Become a Docent!

With our upcoming training on September 23, now is the time to sign up for the 2017-18 season! No prior experience is necessary, but advance registration is required. Docenting is a great way to enjoy both the owls and the beautiful Bay shoreline, which is still lovely even on days when you don’t spot an owl!

Docenting is also a fun way to meet and interact with people, most of whom are thrilled to see and learn about the owls. Finally, you’ll feel the satisfaction of helping a threatened species – both by providing data on its population and educating the public to protect it.

The 2017 Burrowing Owl training will take place on Saturday, September 23, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Shorebird Nature Center. Burrowing Owl docents commit to shifts of one to two hours, at least two times a month, from late September through early April. To sign up for the training or get more information, contact Noreen Weeden at nweeden@goldengatebirdalliance.org or call (510) 843-2222,.

We also have another docent program along the Bay Trail in the East Bay! Help passersby spot the egrets, ducks, and other birds of the shoreline. We provide training and spotting scopes. This training will be on Thursday, September 28, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the GGBA office in Berkeley. Contact Noreen to sign up for this training as well.

Della Dash, who works in public health both domestically and globally, is a Golden Gate Bird Alliance volunteer who manages the Burrowing Owl Docent Program. Her interest in birding began more than 25 years ago while living and working in Africa for the United Nations.

Volunteer Jan Sutcher prepares materials for the 2017 Burrowing Owl docent training / Photo by Noreen Weeden
Great camouflage! Burrowing Owl in December 2015 by Peggy Loper