Burrowing Owls Eschew Albany Habitat at Waterfront

A city panel is set to learn Wednesday night about Burrowing Owl activity, or lack thereof, in the eight-acre waterfront habitat that was established in 2007 on the plateau east of the Bulb. Click "Keep me posted" for waterfront updates.

Four years after officials set aside part of the Albany plateau as a potential Burrowing Owl habitat, no sign of the animal has been spotted, according to a new city report.

In 2006, the City Council approved the establishment of a Burrowing Owl habitat on eight acres of plateau at the Albany waterfront, according to a staff report prepared for Wednesday night's .

(The staff report is attached to this story as a PDF.)

In October 2007, the city worked with the East Bay Regional Park District to come up with a plan to prepare the space for owls. 

If none of the animals take up residency at the plateau, the land is set to revert to Park District control in August 2013. (The Park District owns the property.)

Consultants have found that, though the habitat is appropriate for the owls, none have been sighted. The only recommendation they made, according to the staff report, was for more frequent mowing of the land.

The city decided, as part of a five-city consortium with neighboring locales, to set aside the area for owls as a result of construction of a sports field at Gilman Street that could have disturbed existing owl habitat.

The Albany plateau consists of a roughly 21-acre portion of Eastshore State Park, which itself is part of 2,200 acres of San Francisco Bay shoreline between Richmond and Oakland.

The Albany site was deemed appropriate because of its "open contiguous grassland."

According to a 2007 "Memorandum of Agreement" between the city and the Park District, Albany agreed to pay $5,000 per year for five years for Park District maintenance of the area.

A May 2012 report by Avocet Research Associates noted that biologists had monitored the fenced site at three-week intervals from mid-March through early-May in both 2011 and 2012.

"Surveys were conducted from two hours before sunset to one-half hour after or from sunrise to two hours after sunrise and only when weather was conducive to observing owls outside their burrows," according to the report.

"No evidence of owl occupancy was found—no individual birds, no pellets, no burrowing owl feathers—in either year of coverage," said the biologists.

Biologists noted a wide range of other birds in the area: "Rock Pigeon (Columbia livia), Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura), Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna), Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus), Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans), Says Phoebe (Sayornis saya), American robin (Turdus migratorius), European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris), Yellowrumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata), American Pipit (Anthus rubescens), Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta), Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia), Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis), House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus), Redwinged Blackbird (Agelius phoenicus), Brewer’s Blackbird (Euphagus cyanocephalus), and American goldfinch (Spinus tristis). Several aerial insectivores (Barn, Tree, Violetgreen, Cliff and Northern Rough-winged swallows) were noted foraging over the site. Avian predators observed in the vicinity include: White-tailed Kite (Elanus leucurus), Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus), Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii), Barn Owl (Tyto alba), Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) and Common Raven (Corvus corax)."

Biologists also noted the presence of feral cats and ground squirrels.

The report said several  each winter since 2008. The birds arrive in the fall (August) and leave in the spring (March-April).

Though the owls once bred along the bay shoreline area, they "have been extirpated from almost all habitat bordering (the San Francisco Bay) over the last three decades."

Recent estimates report 167 pairs remaining in the nine Bay Area counties; most are inland.

The biologists noted that "the fact that individuals still winter locally (Caesar Chavez Park) provides the remote possibility that a prospecting pair of owls may occupy the Albany Bulb nest sites in the future. For this to remain a possibility, it is essential that the burrow system be maintained and that the vegetation be mowed regularly, especially early in the growing season (February through early March) when birds may be prospecting."

The Burrowing Owl is described as "a small owl (19.5-25.0 cm, ~150 g), with long slender tarsi covered with short hair-like feathers that terminate in sparse bristles on the feet. The head is rounded, lacks ear tufts, and is chocolate in color with white streaking or spotting. There are buffy-white margins around the eyes and a white throat patch. Eyes are lemonyellow and the beak is pale horn-colored."

Read more about the Albany waterfront here.

If there's something in this article you think , or if something else is amiss, call editor Emilie Raguso at 510-459-8325 or email her at albany@patch.com.

Betsy Kendall June 06, 2012 at 02:26 PM
I wonder if the feral cats present a deterrent.
katherine cody June 06, 2012 at 04:05 PM
There are very few feral cats left at the bulb area. And only three living as pets with the homeless. I have observed one pair of burrowing owls on the bulb itself. They have been in their home for several years. Where is somethng I think I will keep to myself. I don't want someone to decide that they have a better idea where the birds belong than the birds do. Managing wildlife is a tricky business and no agency has proven perfect or even adequate.
Andy Lincoff June 06, 2012 at 04:47 PM
I was on the Waterfront Committee in the early 90’s. After much input and many, many meetings we came up with a final report and plan dated ’95, I think. We recommended leaving the Bulb wild, and putting baseball and soccer fields on the plateau to help meet the un-served needs of East Bay kids. We punted on the dog issue. One crucial piece, insisted upon by our Audubon Society member, was that the perimeter of the plateau be fenced to keep dogs away from the shrubs and rip rap which provide the best habitat for birds and other wildlife. As expected, our plan was promptly put on a shelf and forgotten so there could be more planning. Imagine my surprise, however, when seeing that the fence creating the potential burrowing owl habitat actually forced dog walkers to the plateau perimeter – causing the most disturbance and harm to birds and wildlife. As no burrowing owls have taken up residence, I have a modest proposal for my descendants on the Waterfront Committee: Erect short fences across the path surrounding the burrowing owl enclosure to keeps dogs away from the plateau perimeter and protect birds and wildlife. Open the owl enclosure to off-leash dogs so they can run free without disturbing other park users. Require them to be on-leash at the bulb, again to protect birds and wildlife. I’ll punt again on dogs at the beach.
Peggy McQuaid June 06, 2012 at 05:38 PM
I like the idea of considering using the plateau as an off-leash dog park. Andy, you didn't really punt on the beach. EBRPD has jurisdiction over the beach, not Albany. By their rules, dogs are not allowed on any beach with or without leash. This rule is not enforced at Albany Beach.
Tom Gandesbery June 06, 2012 at 06:08 PM
Rather than trying to set aside relatively large tracts of land for wildlife in hopes they will use it, at least in urban areas the better approach might be to keep an eye out for rare and shy species and protect them where they choose to land (pun intended). Witness the bald eagles at Lake Chabot or the burrowing owls at Ceaser Chavez. BTW East Bay Parks has a plan to improve the parking area and beach access at Albany Beach / Bulb.
Paul D June 06, 2012 at 06:14 PM
"eschew"... you know, in 61 years I have *never* heard anyone use this word in conversation. It only shows up in limited-space headers and crossword puzzles. Even owls are too smart to hang out at the Bulb.
Andy Lincoff June 06, 2012 at 06:19 PM
Good for you, Katherine, for keeping their location secret. The cover of our '95 plan actually had a picture of a burrowing owl taken at the bulb, so they've been there a while. Our committee's bird expert said that voids in the concrete rubble probably provided habitat for them. Apparently they didn't read the memo telling them they prefer buried plastic boxes in mowed grassland.
Peggy McQuaid June 06, 2012 at 06:29 PM
Part 1 Albany Beach Habitat Restoration and Public Access Feasibility Study The project is located at the western terminus of Buchanan Street and shoreline edge south to Gilman Street, adjacent to Golden Gate Fields and Albany Beach, in Albany, California. The Eastshore State park General Plan (2002) identifies potential restoration and public access improvements for the Albany Beach area. These concepts include restoration and protection of Albany Beach and dune habitats, expansion of dune areas behind the beach, enhancement of water access to San Francisco Bay, closing of a key gap in the San Francisco Bay trail, shoreline stabilization, public access improvements and other park facilities such as picnic areas, interpretive signage and restrooms. A study evaluating the feasibility of implementing these improvements was completed in 2011.
Peggy McQuaid June 06, 2012 at 06:30 PM
Part 2 The District is preparing an Environmental Impact Report (EIR), pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), for the proposed Albany Beach Restoration and Public Access Project in Albany, CA. The project will involve three segments: 1) Albany Neck shoreline and trail restoration, 2) Albany Beach enhancement and recreation improvements, and 3) construction of a segment of the San Francisco Bay Trail between Albany Beach and Gilman Street. Project components include shoreline stabilization/reconstruction, accessibility improvements, vegetation management, beach enhancement, seasonal wetlands enhancement, stormwater management, subtidal and intertidal habitat enhancement, parking and water trail access, restroom and site furnishings, and trails.
Peggy McQuaid June 06, 2012 at 06:31 PM
Part 3 Download: California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) Notice of Preparation and Scoping Meeting (250 KB, 3 pp.) Download: Implementation Approach (1.9 MB, 25 pp.) Download: 2011 Board Executive Committee Meeting Handout (2 MB, 21 pp.) Download: 2011 Workshop #2 Comments - Feb. 17, 2011 (271 KB, 9 pp.) Download: 2011 Workshop #2 Handout - Feb. 17, 2011 (4.9 MB, 25 pp.) Download: 2011 Concept Alternatives Report - March 11, 2011 (4.1 MB, 47 pp.) Download: 2011 Board Executive Committee Meeting Handout – January 27, 2011 (4mb, 32pp.) Download: 2010 Workshop #1 Comments - December 13, 2011 (320 KB, 9 pp.) Download: 2010 Workshop #1 Handout – December 13, 2010 (1 MB, 17 pp.) Download: 2010 Board Executive Committee Meeting Handout – September 23, 2010 (2 MB, 36pp.) Download: Opportunities and Constraints Analysis and Appendices (7.85 MB, 57 pp.) Download: Existing and Future Conditions Report and Appendices (7.98 MB, 253 pp.)
Michael Barnes June 06, 2012 at 07:26 PM
eschew obfuscation
Paul D June 06, 2012 at 07:45 PM
Bumper Sticker of the Month! Thanks Michael..
Emilie Raguso June 07, 2012 at 02:48 AM
Looks like all those documents are available here -- http://www.ebparks.org/planning -- in the Albany Beach Habitat Restoration and Public Access Feasibility Study section.
Paul Kamen June 07, 2012 at 06:09 AM
The Plateau as off-leash dog park won't offer anything not available at Pt. Isabel or Cesar Chavez Park. "It's the BEACH, stupid." Actually, the EBRPD plan for the beach looks mostly reasonable, except for the somewhat cavalier "expand the dunes" proposal that does not appear to be backed up by anything resembling a rigorous analysis of dune dynamics. Dunes are complex aerodynamic artifacts created by unsteady flow and vortex-shedding. Disturb the upwind obstructions (which they plan to do) or build an upwind fence (which seems likely this is classed as sensitive habitat) and the dunes will change in hard-to-predict ways. I'll go on record now as predicting that dune expansion will be as much a failure as the owl habitat. Odds are on my side. Paul Kamen, Naval Architect, P.E. Coalition for Diverse Activities on Water, Grass and Sand (www.CDAWGS.org) p.s. - Anyone up for another screening of "Bums' Paradise" over at Berkeley Yacht Club? The last one was lightly attended, maybe with more notice we'll have a bigger group.
Peggy McQuaid June 07, 2012 at 06:32 AM
@Paul, I know it is the beach. I am not stupid.
montymarket June 08, 2012 at 06:21 PM
If the burrowing owls are truly wintering on the Bulb, then let us know where, please. Or, prove it with a photo: don't want to have traipse about searching for them as eschew disturbing the campers or encountering strange dogs. According to the survey report, other birds and critters are currently occupying the Plateau's fenced area: jack rabbits (that otherwise would surely be hunted down by unleashed dogs), peregrine falcons, barn owls, hawks, etc. The best we can hope for is that the burrowing owls will winter but not nest there (they do winter but also eschew nesting just across the inlet in Cesar Chavez).
Onbeyondzen November 10, 2012 at 06:50 PM
There are no burrowing owls on the Bulb. The whole fencing project was an idiotic, flush-our-tax-dollars-down-the-toilet fantasy from the beginning. What you have there now is a sanctuary for ravens and crows, and no burrowing owl would dare get anywhere near there.
doris November 10, 2012 at 06:57 PM
Oh, finally a lone voice of sanity. Thank you, Onbeyondzen
montymarket November 10, 2012 at 08:18 PM
1) The Bulb: former dump-site that is the westernmost end (and shaped like a light bulb) of the Albany waterfront is in transition to the East Shore Park, and the last remaining portion of the East Shore Park that currently remains under complete Albany control. 2) The Plateau: that portion of the former dump-site that was the overflow parking lot for Golden Gate Fields. Sold by Ladbroke Racing to the East Shore Park (along with Gilman St parcel) for $16 million two decades ago. 3) The burrowing owl habitat. One-fifth of the Plateau that is fenced in area. Originally the ball fields were slotted for the Plateau while the Gilman parcel was open space. 4) The Grand Bargain. Instead of the Plateau, the ballfields for many reasons was switched to the Gilman parcel. The size of the ball fields is greater at Gilman St than was contemplated for the Plateau. More ball fields than originally planned. 5) The Mitigation. Sylvia McLaughlin reported burrowing owls wintering on the Gilman St parcel. In mitigation for taking away their habitat on Gilman, East Shore Parks established the burrowing owl habitat in mitigation. The Joint Powers agreement of five cities pays for the habitat. Next year that agreement expires and the habitat becomes the responsibility of the East Shore Parks. 6. The mudflats next to the Plateau, especially the mud flats, are designated migratory bird protected areas. 7. The East Shore Park is only one of dozens run by EBRPD.
Tod Abbott November 11, 2012 at 06:18 PM
Thanks for posting this. It's invaluable to have everything laid out so clearly so everyone can at least agree on what we're talking about.
Tatter Salad November 11, 2012 at 06:55 PM
We should further agree that no 'real' zoologists/ornithologists were consulted in the planning of the Owl Habitat. The plan was to 'balance' a huge ball park in Berkeley with 'no people' area in Albany. The statement: "The Albany site was deemed appropriate because of its "open contiguous grassland." spells out ALL the logic that was applied. It ignores the fact that Burrowing Owls DON'T burrow; they occupy former ground squirrel holes. Assuming that Burrowing owl would adopt ceramic sewer pipes in lieu of genuine ground squirrel habitat is absurd. Further, as Zoologists learned 30 years ago, you cannot 'push' one species into a niche without being up against competiton already in that niche. As mentioned in the list of species already noted in the area are Great Horned Owl, and Barn Owls- which work the area nightly. Missing from the list is the daily activities of LARGE gopher snakes, and Norway Rats on the plateau, and nightly activities of native skunks. The activites of owls, snakes, large rats combine to make the area very competitive for food,(rodents; esp. microtus; and lizards), and highly dangerous for ground nesting egg and chick survival. Lastly, it should be noted that the Photo Op's of Burrowing Owls in Berkeley are NOT in the huge dedicated 'Nature Area'; but are in areas that were left 'unimproved' - former dumping areas of bay sand; and former off-lease dog running areas, -and are now well populated by gophers and ground squirrels.


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