Does city give a hoot about owls?
Audubon Society calls for preserve at Shoreline site slated for ball fields
With the burrowing owl as its poster child, the Audubon Society has started a campaign to make Shoreline Park into an owl preserve, and hopes to halt development of two playing fields planned to go on 12 acres of owl foraging grounds there.
The campaign comes as a surprise to the city's youth sports leagues, which have been waiting hopefully for the long-sought-after Shoreline ball fields ever since the City Council signaled its support for them in January of last year.
As of press time, 150 people had signed an Audubon Society petition calling for a "large and contiguous burrowing owl preserve to protect and enhance (the) burrowing owl's natural habitats" at Shoreline. The local Audubon chapter is advertising the campaign on its Web site (www.scvas.org), and members have been writing letters to City Council members, posting on the Voice's Town Square forum and advocating for a preserve during General Plan hearings.
"We want more than policies, we want a dedicated preserve," said Shani Kleinhaus, environmental advocate for the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, a local chapter of 3,000 bird lovers and bird watchers. "It's time Mountain View, in its 2030 General Plan, looks at nature preservation as a high priority."
The owls are a California "species of concern" that live in squirrel holes at Shoreline Park. There were once hundreds of the owls on the Bay's shoreline, Kleinhaus said, but she now believes there are now fewer than 40 pairs in Santa Clara County.
The 500-acre landfill turned regional park was home to about 14 owls on Monday, according to a count by Phil Higgins, a city-employed biologist who counts the owls every week. Higgins pays particular attention to their numbers during the spring breeding season. This year, he said, there were three mating pairs and 10 chicks; the highest number counted was during the spring of 2003, when the city counted 13 pairs and 22 chicks. Records go back as far as spring 1998, when three pairs and four chicks were counted.
The ball field plan would put a 90-foot baseball diamond and a soccer field on the eastern edge of Garcia Avenue north of the Googleplex and south of the Shoreline Golf Links. Though no owls have been seen nesting there, owls have been seen using the area for foraging of mice, voles and insects.
Elaine Spence, president of Mountain View Babe Ruth baseball league, was shocked upon hearing news of the burrowing owl campaign.
"I can't believe it," she said. "Where are we supposed to put our ball fields? It's a perfect spot. The youth need to have baseball somewhere in this town."
Spence noted that the site is a small portion of the 500-acre park and no one complained when Google built a soccer field next to the site on property it plans to develop someday.
She says local youth baseball leagues are outgrowing the one 90-foot baseball diamond in the city at McKelvey Park, which is shared by several Little League teams, the Mountain View Marauders football team and Saint Frances High School. And McKelvey may soon be closed for a year for construction if a proposal by the Santa Clara Valley Water District for a flood basin there is approved.
Earlier this year the city budgeted $9 million for the Shoreline ball fields and has conducted feasibility studies for the project, which should have a preliminary design for the City Council to examine early next year.
"The assumption at this point is that we will move forward unless something goes really massively wrong," said City Council member Ronit Bryant during a study session on the ball fields in January of last year.
On Monday, Bryant didn't appear to think anything had gone massively wrong yet.
"I met with the Audubon Society and I'm actually very optimistic we can work together on something very great for the owls," she said. "Mountain View is really good at coming up with all kinds of creative and out-of-the-box solutions. I bet there is a solution out there."
Environmentalists say development of the area, including at neighboring Moffett Field, has been steadily encroaching on the habitat of burrowing owls and other birds, including raptors, ducks and shorebirds. The usual mitigation measure, which involves the city purchasing land for an owl preserve elsewhere, is not good enough, Kleinhaus said.
Mountain View's burrowing owls lost some of their habitat last year when the city began leasing nine acres of what is known as "Charleston East" to Google for a new office building at Shoreline Boulevard and Amphitheatre Parkway. Owls there were removed by placing one-way doors over their burrows, which were plowed under once the owls left. The office building — and a hotel planned on nine acres next door — has yet to be built.
Mike Fuller, assistant public works director, said a possible mitigation measure is to create a new foraging area at Shoreline to replace the one lost to ball fields. That involves landscaping existing park areas to attract the owl's prey.
Parks section manager Jack Smith said the city already maintains owl habitat under a "burrowing owl management plan." Among other measures, Higgins, the city biologist and owl expert, cuts vegetation around the owls' burrows because they like to see what's around them.