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New hope for city's burrowing owls

 

Burrowing owls being driven close to extinction by development pressures may have a chance of survival under a new plan that aims to preserve 300 acres of owl habitat inside Mountain View's Shoreline Park.

In a study session last week, five city council members expressed support for the plan, which was also lauded by members of the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society.

Last year three pairs of owls hatched 10 chicks, which is lower than good years, such as the 22 chicks hatched in 2003. Under the new plan, the city has now proposed goals for increasing the number of breeding pairs to 10.

Shoreline Park hosts one of the largest groups of the owls in the region, where their numbers overall have been declining since the 1980s. But city staff say they have found the key to increasing their numbers.

"Mountain View hates to underachieve and I hate the fact we are underachieving with the burrowing owls," said council member Laura Macias. "It is easy to make fun of the goofy little creatures, but we really do want to save them."

Hunting grounds are the key

City staff members say that until recently, preservation efforts focused on nesting habitat for the owls, including the construction of artificial burrows. But biologists have determined that a lack of decent hunting grounds is the real key to their decline.

City biologist Phil Higgins told the council that the owls are currently subsisting too much on insects and the area needs to be attractive to owl prey, such as mice and voles, and ground squirrels, which dig the burrows that the owls live in. City staff has been surprised to see that piles of buildings materials such as stacks of pipes, have created great foraging grounds for the owls.

"If you want quality habitat you need taller vegetation," to allow rodents, Higgins told the council.

But once vegetation grows around their nests past nine inches, the owls can no longer see predators and will abandon their burrows, Higgins added. The danger of tall grass is why many owls prefer to live on the manicured golf course, although "golf balls have killed at least one owl," said Public Works Director Mike Fuller.

To address their habitat needs, city staff proposed fencing in certain areas where informal trails have allowed burrows and foraging grounds to be disturbed. Vegetation would also be planted to encourage rodents, mowing would be done around their burrows and signs would be placed in key areas to keep people at a distance. City workers and contractors will continue to be trained in how to deal with the owls, which may be crucial as areas that are damaged can take up to two years to recover, said Fuller.

The proposal would preserve 100 acres of Shoreline Park's 750 acres as high-quality nesting habitat, another 100 acres as high-quality foraging habitat and another 100 acres as medium-quality foraging and nesting habitat.

City staff members say that under the new plan they aim to see 10 breeding pairs a year, each producing at least three chicks. They also want to see an increase in the number of pairs which are breeding successfully to between 50 and 75 percent.

The expense for the entire project would be $15,000, and come from the Shoreline Community Fund. The only critic of the expense was council member John Inks, while other members described it as a good value. Member Tom Means was absent.

"Mountain View has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into mitigation" for the owls, Inks said. "It's a little hard to tell how effective that has been or how effective additional steps will be."

New preserves

To ensure that there will be plenty of space for the owls, the city has proposed large new preserve areas, including much of Shoreline Park's northeastern meadows and Crittenden Hill, which is near Google's Crittenden campus. That is in addition to filling in two ponds at Shoreline Golf Links to provide less habitat for nuisance waterfowl and more foraging grounds for the owls.

There's also the "whale pit," a nine-acre lot along Shoreline Boulevard just north of the kite flying area, which is currently used to store piles of gravel, sand and other materials. One of the few potential building sites in the park, it was a potential site for the city's failed attempts to build a convention center. Council members seemed happy giving it to the owls.

"Inside the park I have no interest in building anything," said council member Ronit Bryant.

The whale pit is one of the few parts of the park not filled with landfill, which means the owls won't be disturbed by maintenance crews who go around patching methane gas leaks in the landfill's clay cap or filling in settled areas with dirt to prevent puddles from forming on parts of the landfill.

A sign and owl viewing area near the "whale pit" has also been discussed, Fuller said, allowing visitors to take a trail from the parking lot in the kite-flying area to see the owls. The owls could be Mountain View's version of "Old Faithful" for tourists, joked Mayor Mike Kasperzak.

Conservationists approve

Wildlife conservationists turned out to support the plan, which some said could reverse the trend of a declining owl population.

"As a person who spent their entire life dedicated to bird conservation I think this plan is outstanding," said Stephanie Ellis of the San Francisco Bay Area Bird Observatory. "It is putting Mountain View on the map. It could reverse the trend."

"Having a full time biologist on staff will make this a success," said the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society's Shani Kleinhaus, who has worked with the city on the plan for over a year. Kleinhaus said a dedicated mower was also a necessity for the biologist, who must pay "a lot of attention to details."

City staff members say a full-time biologist is a possibility, but for now they are proposing to train another wildlife biologist on staff to help Higgins with the owls.

Comments

Like this comment
Posted by Martin Omander
a resident of Rex Manor
on Apr 6, 2012 at 2:54 pm

Good to hear we can preserve the owls, and at a relatively low cost. Let's hope this project works out, so we leave some nature around for coming generations to enjoy.


Like this comment
Posted by Kitty Trejo
a resident of Martens-Carmelita
on Apr 6, 2012 at 5:10 pm

I want to thank the Mountain View City Council and Mayor Kasperzak again for supporting the preservation and habitat improvements for the Burrowing Owl. The land dedicated to this cause is a tiny fraction of the habitat once available to these beautiful and unique creatures. I feel proud to live in a city where the needs of all creatures are considered and the future of their world is nurtured, even if it means some human amenities have to be sacrificed. The City has worked closely with Audubon, other environmental organizations and many city businesses to bring about these plans. This is a great example of how City government should work!


Like this comment
Posted by Scottie Zimmerman
a resident of another community
on Apr 6, 2012 at 8:46 pm

Congratulations to the enlightened Mountain View City Council. A good decision, a resolution that should meet everybody's expectations. Nice to see divergent interests in a city able to use common sense and agree on a mutually satisfying solution. Thank you for appreciating the owls.


Like this comment
Posted by Otto Bahn
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Apr 7, 2012 at 7:23 am

Love it! Nice work Mtn. View!


Like this comment
Posted by curious
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Apr 7, 2012 at 2:05 pm

Color me cynical but it seems like an enviro-wacko group is astro-turfing some cover for the politicos on the Mt. View council.

You could at least modify the words on the email to make these endorsements seem more authentic.


Like this comment
Posted by OR
a resident of Castro City
on Apr 8, 2012 at 12:29 pm

I love burrowing owls and I love goofy little creatures. They are fun to watch, read about and appreciate especially when they reside in our backyards, not in some far off, distant island off the coast of India. What is the point of having fancy, overpriced homes and offices populated by boring engineers but no cute, fluffy animals except pesky rodents to share with? I love animals. The pests then get doused with irritable chemicals which increases the risk of cancer in all of us. The developers applying the pressure live in some other controlled, far-away oasis oblivious to the damages they are causing. Thank you Mountain View staff.


Like this comment
Posted by Espe
a resident of another community
on Apr 9, 2012 at 8:19 am

Looking forward to a long-time-battled preserve for the lil owls....


Like this comment
Posted by kman
a resident of Monta Loma
on Apr 9, 2012 at 3:36 pm

This is why we should not be building new apartments and buildings, so we can save the lovely owls. 300 acres is surely not enough.


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