As Mountain View's population of burrowing owls is dwindling, authorities are being prodded to approve a new plan to save them.
Despite a successful breeding season this year, it appears that the owls are barely hanging on. Every breeding pair was successful for the first time since the city began to keep track in the 1980s -- just three pairs of owls hatched a total of 10 eggs.
The number of young this year at Shoreline Park is less than half the 22 chicks that hatched in 2003, said Phil Higgins, a city-employed biologist who manages the owls' habitat. There were hundreds of owls in Santa Clara County in the 1980s, but their numbers are now estimated at 35. The owls have experienced a similar decline in other parts of the state.
In response to the decline, a local owl expert supported by the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society has drafted a study of one method for saving the owls, which involves taking two pairs from the county to a special raptor breeding facility in Idaho, then introducing their eggs to nests in Shoreline Park and other grasslands in the region where the birds live, including Moffett Field and the Alviso area. Thankfully, the owls are not particular about what eggs they raise, said Shani Kleinhaus, an environmental advocate with the Audubon Society.
But the study needs approval by the Sacramento staff of the California Fish and Game department, and local environmental advocates say they have been unable to get their attention since the study proposal was submitted a year ago.
"We didn't hear anything, which is why we asked Assembly member (Paul) Fong to get involved," Kleinhaus said. "We have to do something quickly. We have to be proactive at this point."
The Audubon Society recently gave Assemblyman Fong a tour of the burrowing owl nests at Shoreline in late August in hopes that he could be of some help in getting the study approved.
Fong expressed support for the owls in a statement.
"During my recent tour of the Shoreline, the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society provided me with tremendous insight of their efforts to preserve the burrowing owls habitat in Mountain View and other parts of Santa Clara County," Fong said. "At this point, my office is assessing the situation and is looking into what can be done to keep the burrowing owl population strong at Shoreline and other parts of Santa Clara County."
If the study is proven successful, the Department of Fish and Game could implement augmentation as a policy. There are other possibilities though, such as supplemental feeding of the owls, which are struggling to get enough rodent meat in their diets.
"We would consider other studies as well, we just want to see something moving forward," Kleinhaus said.
Owls face threats
Protecting the owls from humans and predators has become more important as their numbers decline. Higgins, the city-employed biologist, is known to patrol the owls' burrows if humans are seen getting too close. He lets people know that they should keep 250 feet from the owls, and that harassing them or killing them is punishable under state law with a fine of up to $15,000 and up to six months in jail.
Higgins says he's seen the owls abandon their eggs during nesting season after being harassed by humans, often photographers who get too close to the birds for the best shot.
"Because we have so few owls, a lot of people want to see them," Kleinhaus said. "They kind of zero in on the few we have left. When there were more of them it was not an issue."
Kleinhaus said they owl advocates have been telling wildlife photographers on various online message boards to be careful around the owls. At one point a sign was put up around an owl burrow that had become extremely popular with photographers. "It was not a big deal after that," Kleinhaus said.
Getting too close makes the owls move around defensively in front of their burrows, alerting hawks and other predators to their location.
"When an owl gets upset or start jumping around they can attract their own predators and get killed," Kleinhaus said.
Higgins has discovered the remains of owls at Shoreline Park that were killed by hawks, usually a pile of feathers or a leg that's been left behind. Dogs are also a threat to the birds, even though they are not allowed in Shoreline Park for this reason.
Park maintenance workers could also be a threat to the owls if they aren't careful, potentially running over their burrows with a truck, for example. Owl experts recently held a workshop for city employees that was well received. Kleinhaus said many wanted to know how they could help save the birds.
Kleinhaus said that Mountain View's owl management plan, which includes building burrows and cutting vegetation so owls can see predators, is a model for other cities, such as Sunnyvale and Palo Alto, both of which once had the owls in their bay-front parks.
Encroaching development has long been the main threat to the owls, and in Mountain View the development of the Shoreline area has cut into their habitat. The city has plans to build soccer and baseball fields south of the golf course on land the owls use to hunt mice and insects. But to compensate for that, the city plans to create more hunting grounds for the owls on the city's golf course, introducing vegetation, brush and rocks to attract small mice where the city has drained several freshwater ponds. Owls are known to nest on and around the course and have been seen there within the last month.
The city recently called on photographers to submit photos for an exhibit of birds at Shoreline Park, but made photographers promise to keep their distance from birds. The city received 240 photos for the exhibit, which runs from Sept. 4 to November 20 at the Rengstorff House.
An environmental document for the ball field project has been released and a public comment period runs until Sept. 15. Copies can be obtained online or by contacting the Public Works Department at 903-6311.