How I became a docent for burrowing owls. What a hoot!

Burrowing owl at Cesar Chavez Park in Feb. 2016. Photo: Doug Donaldson
Burrowing owl at Berkeley’s Cesar Chavez Park in February. Photo: Doug Donaldson

By Rubi Abrams

Newly retired from a fulfilling career as a community college librarian last year, I was ready to plunge into as many birding activities as I could schedule. Birding-related travel, classes, meetups, speaker series, feeder watch, bird counts – the more the better, and most sponsored by Golden Gate Audubon Society. But I was also eager to use my professional skills. I was itching to be a citizen scientist, to have a “conservation conversation” in my community.

Read more (and see photos) on burrowing owls.

Remembering the delightful young adult novel Hoot by Carl Hiaasen, I was inspired to get involved with the GGAS Burrowing Owl docent project. In the novel two young boys embark on a campaign to save the burrowing owl colony in their Florida town from real-estate developers. Although not threatened by local developers, our local burrowing owl populations have declined steeply, and they are currently a federally listed Species of Management Concern and Species of Special Concern in California due to habitat disruption. Though protected, there is still plenty to do in educating the public about these delightful creatures.


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Burrowing owl. Photo: Doug Donaldson

Enthusiasm abounds

I quickly registered online for the annual docent training last September. I had recently returned from a thrilling birding trip to Newfoundland where I had observed gannet and puffin rookeries with thousands of birds roosting, eating, and socializing. It was astonishing! I reasoned that surely something of the sort could be viewed at our burrowing owl colony. I imagined lively interactions with walkers, joggers, parents, and kids all eager to check out our very own colony of burrowing owls at Berkeley’s Cesar Chavez Park.

I was stoked when the training day rolled around. We met at the excellent Shorebird Nature Center at the Berkeley Marina. A dynamic group of enthusiastic newbies and seasoned docents listened attentively to expert presenters. We saw an informative video on habitat restoration work undertaken by a partnership of farmers and naturalists, enjoyed a working lunch, and learned that, through cooperation between GGAS and the city of Berkeley, volunteer docents have been gathering data and educating the public for last past eight years. Finally we trooped out to view the owl colony.

Just the facts… did you know:

  • Our burrowing owls overwinter here in vacant ground squirrel dens. These owls may migrate from as far away as Idaho, arriving in late September-October and departing in late March-April.
  • They are small (8-10 inches tall) with long legs, short tail, spotted feathers, and yellow eyes and bill, and weigh about half a pound.
  • Their dens are located along the shoreline in Cesar Chavez Park and are generally safe from predators – though unleashed dogs are a threat.
  • They mostly hunt insects and small rodents, not the ground squirrels with whom they live compatibly.
  • The owls are most active in early morning and evening, but can be seen during other times of day.
  • To my ear, California burrowing owls have a high-pitched screechy, clucking pigeon-sounding call rather than a sonorous owl hoot. They may also vocalize with a very scary, convincingly rattlesnake-like hiss.
  • There is a year-round resident breeding population in Mountain View, California.
Burrowing owl in Cesar Chavez Park in Feb. 2016. Photo: Miya Lucas
Burrowing owl in Cesar Chavez Park in February. Photo: Miya Lucas

The thrill

There we were, armed with our adorable burrowing owl tote bags, data collection and monitoring forms, and our very own docent owl Yahoo Group – ready, willing, and able to educate, protect and defend. We docents new and experienced walked our beat, checked our email, and waited. Finally the first sighting was reported – a burrowing owl near the Art Installation at Cesar Chavez Park. A cheer went up, at least inside my own heart. I was grateful, as I had begun to wonder if I would ever see a single owl, much less a whole colony.

Showtime

Since the owl was observed on a morning round, folks steadfastly hiked out in the mornings to catch sight and raise public awareness. A few of us saw the little guy, but there were not always people around to whom we could point him out. I made many copies of a very informative brochure to hand out to interested folks. I brought cute coloring sheets and crayons as educational aides for kids. Heck, I even wore owl earrings to get conversations going! All we needed were more owls at the same time the people were around. After all, this little bird was enormously fun to watch.

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Why a docent with a scope is helpful in spotting the owls! Photo: Karen McLellan

As the weeks passed from Halloween to Thanksgiving, the sightings of “the owl” shifted to late afternoon and sunset hours. Sigh… not many kids and families out then. Hope began to dwindle: my visions of a colony of tens of owls were clearly unrealistic.


One late afternoon as sunset approached and hope receded of spotting “the owl,” I was granted an indulgence from the god of owls – or at least I think of it that way. With moonlight glistening on the bay, a gorgeous cadre of brown pelicans in flight overhead, and the iconic silhouette of the Golden Gate Bridge in the background, who decided to pop up but our totem owl? Slowly the sun dipped below the horizon leaving a pinkish misty twilight, and, though it was just the two of us, I was careful not to stare directly into his eyes lest I startle him. In reciprocation I felt a connection to this beautiful animal. Just the two of us at ease in this stunning planet.

Then, as if to underscore the miracle, he took flight – slowly, gracefully, gliding across the path no more than ten feet above me – hunting for his dinner no doubt, a vision at once a balm and solace.

Burrowing owl in Cesar Chavez Park in Feb. 2016. Photo: Miya Lucas
Burrowing owl in Cesar Chavez Park in February. Photo: Miya Lucas

Holiday gift

The day after Christmas, docent Eric Jaeger gathered his tripod, camera, binoculars, and burrowing owl tote and trekked out to the colony. Happily Eric was able to “introduce” the owl to more than 40 curious onlookers. Eric reported that folks really appreciated viewing this fascinating, at times perplexing, creature. Viewing led to teachable moments about unleashed dogs and feral cats who prey on the owls. Eric also confirmed a second owl in the colony, inspiring other docents to stay the course. Who could ask for a better holiday gift?

Spring migration

Over the late winter and early spring, doggedly devoted docents (ha!!) defied heavy rains and windy weather to observe, report, and educate the public about the status of our now beloved burrowing owls. The colony consisted of two individuals and possibly a third. They are excellent at camouflage, so a third owl seems entirely feasible.

Many days were excellent for observation and conversation with folks about these uniquely fascinating creatures. I enjoyed a particularly fun encounter with a young mother and her preschool daughters eager to see the storied owls. Though not visible at the moment, I was able to point out ducks and other birds, give the girls a turn with my binocs, and send them on their way with a burrowing owl sheet to color – budding citizen scientists.


Disappointingly, there were days docents found unleashed dogs and people who did not obey the fences and signs restricting access to areas inhabited by the owls. These are, of course, teachable moments, but also frustrating as we try to grapple with the ongoing challenges of a declining owl population. Once nearly ubiquitous, the California population has declined by an estimated 60% since the 1980s.

Our owls have departed now from their wintering habitat for summer breeding grounds. We hope to see them again next fall. More than ever, we need to continue our efforts protecting and restoring their habitat and educating the public about these marvelous animals. Together as a community we can overcome challenges so that once again a flourishing population of burrowing owls will be a common sight for present and future generations.

Want to become a burrowing owl docent? GGAS will hold a training in September for the 2016-17 winter season. Email Noreen at nweeden@goldengateaudubon.org if you would like to be notified when the training is scheduled.

In addition to being a burrowing owl docent, Rubi Abrams is a coordinator of the Travel With GGAS program, which sponsors expert-led trips to top birding destinations from Oregon to South Africa. A Piedmont resident, she is an avid birder, literacy volunteer, nature journaler, hiker, knitter, and doting grandma.

This story was first published on the Golden Gate Audubon’s Golden Gate Birder website on April 25.

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