By Ilana DeBare
Most people go to Cesar Chavez Park at the Berkeley Marina to walk dogs, fly kites or stroll kids.
Karen Smith goes to monitor owls.
Smith is one of about a dozen volunteer docents from Golden Gate Audubon Society who help passersby spot and learn about the small population of Western burrowing owls who spend each winter at the marina.
This year, five owls have been documented – two in the area set off from pedestrians by a new owl-friendly art installation and three in other parts of the marina. The small ground-dwelling birds spend much of the day sitting alertly near their burrows, astonishingly close to all those humans with dogs, kites and strollers.
“Everyone has the same gasp – ‘Oh, they are so wonderful!’ – when they see them for the first time,” said Smith, a retired lawyer and librarian who docents once a week. “They’re so accessible and unusual, in that they hang out in the daytime in places that are really easy for people to see them. And they’re beautiful. I love the camouflage, the way they can be sitting in the middle of an area and you can still miss them.”
Western burrowing owls have been designated a “species of special concern” by the state of California, their population declining for reasons that likely include loss of habitat. Local residents reported seeing as many as 15 owls at the Berkeley Marina a decade ago; the number plummeted in the early 2000s but seems to have leveled off at four or five in the past several years.
Local efforts to protect the owls may have helped maintain their presence at the Marina. Spurred by Golden Gate Audubon activists, the city of Berkeley erected temporary fencing in 2009 to keep dogs and people out of the owls’ preferred roosting area along the rip-rapped shore. And in 2011, the city completed an art installation that serves as a kind of boundary during months when the owls are in residence.
Those months typically run from October until early April. So right now remains prime owl-viewing season – with crowds of people surrounding the docents on weekends, borrowing their binoculars or birding scopes to find the brown birds in the grass and dirt.
“He really blends in this year,” said Berkeley resident Nancy Sabin, as docent Doug Donaldson directed her gaze to a tiny owl, its head barely visible over a clump of grass. “Most years they’re in plain view just sitting there. I’m so glad they’re here.”
What is it about the owls that so captivates people, even those who have never been bird-watching? Their size, for starters – at 10 inches long and six ounces in weight, burrowing owls are not much larger than a Beanie Baby.
Then there are the eyes – big, round, and almost humanly expressive. “Sometimes they come out and look like they haven’t had their coffee yet,” said GGAS docent Bei Brown.
For all that anthropomorphic cuteness, though, the owls remain wild creatures. It’s not known where the Berkeley birds go to breed in the summer, but several years ago one was found to have been banded in southern Idaho – evidence of an 800-mile migration.
During their winters here, the owls forage for insects, mice and voles. They take over abandoned ground squirrel burrows, and spend much of the day sitting on the ground near their burrow. They take flight when frightened by humans or dogs who come too close.
Dog/owl relations remain a touchy topic. The owl burrows are just downhill from an off-leash dog area. The city requires dogs to be leashed near the burrows and in other wildlife areas at the Marina, but not all dog owners know or follow the rules. One owl was killed or driven away by a dog digging in its burrow in 2008.
“It does seem like we’re getting a lot more dogs off-leash these days,” said John Mann, waterfront manager for the city of Berkeley. “It’s a constant struggle. I don’t know why they put a dog park next to a nature area.”
So the docents sometimes find themselves monitoring dogs as much as monitoring owls – a role that can be uncomfortable.
“I like seeing the owls and talking to people about them, but I don’t like being a policeman,” said Karen Smith. “People can get defensive or irritated. If you try to talk to every single owner with a dog off-leash, it can be daunting, so I pick and choose.”
Golden Gate Audubon activists praise the city’s sensitivity to the owls, and offer a variety of ideas for further protection: more signs about leashing dogs. A fence around the off-leash area. Patrols of the park by city animal control officers.
Meanwhile, the docents continue to track both the number of owls and number of incidents disturbing them, and continue greeting passersby with binoculars, birding scopes and owl lore.
“Everyone loves to look through the scope,” said Frances Dupont, a retired scientist who coordinates the volunteer docents. “One of the hardest thing about docenting is finding a moment when you can fold up the scope and go home.”
“The docents are great,” Mann said. “No one even knew there were burrowing owls out there before. Now we are becoming fairly well known for the owls. More and more people talk about them ‘overwintering’ here rather than ‘nesting,’ which shows people are learning more. The art project did a lot to focus people on that area, and the docents have done a lot to help people understand the owls.”
Viewing the owls: Volunteer docents from Golden Gate Audubon Society are in Cesar Chavez Park on most weekends and on some weekdays. GGAS welcomes new volunteers and will provide docent training – no experience necessary! To learn more about becoming an owl docent, please email firstname.lastname@example.org .
Ilana DeBare, a former San Francisco Chronicle reporter, is communications director for Golden Gate Audubon Society.