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."
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.
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.