First Person: A Two Owl Day

By Martha Dickey
Tuesday March 11, 2008

On the shortest day of the year, a sunny day sandwiched between rainy ones enticed me out of the house. In spite of the arthritis pain gnawing my left hip, I decided to go to the Berkeley Marina for a few power laps around Cesar Chavez Park. With each step the joint grated like metal on metal, but I was determined to overwhelm it with exercise.  

I found out this was possible on a warm day last August. I was brisk-walking around the park path when suddenly my body said, “Go ahead, run.”  

Without thinking, I did. Suddenly, all pain switched off as if Dorothy had taken the oil can to the tin man. I was fluid, my stretched shadow looking long and lean as I passed a licorice-scented stand of wild fennel on the left, glittering San Francisco Bay on the right.  

From then on, the daily “runs” became an instant priority. When rainy season arrived, the pain-free moments didn’t materialize as often in the cold and damp. But still I chased them around the perimeter of the park as the gray clouds punched in, threatening the next outburst.  

On winter solstice morning I saw a man I knew by his white soft-brim hat. I had noticed him on other days, scanning the ground closely, walking loosely as if he were making rounds. He was walking toward me, trying to catch my eye. He wanted to tell me something.  

He was pointing toward the strip of dirt between the path and the flickering water. “Look!” he said pointing. I bent down and squinted, but saw nothing remarkable. I looked at him questioningly. “See? There!” he said. I looked again, hard. A small neat shape seemed to materialize as I watched. “It’s a Burrowing Owl!” he said.  

The creature then came into sharp focus. It blended so successfully with its surroundings that, had it not been pointed out to me, I would have seen it only as shadows and light. With its alternating brown and cream rows of feathers, the owl sat in the entrance to its burrow blinking in the pale winter sun. I marveled at how kempt it was even though it had just emerged from a dugout of dirt. The owl looked dapper in its impeccable herringbone jacket.  

Its head rotated 180 degrees scanning the horizon like a small lighthouse then focused calmly back upon me. I stood there for as long as I could, waiting to be released from its frank stare. I didn’t want to turn my back, didn’t want to be rude.  

The man in the white hat said, “I know it’s going to be a good day when I see this owl! It gives me hope!” Indeed, there was hope in the presence of this rare wild creature observing us from the edge of all this human activity.  

The next Saturday I took my husband David, a beginning birder, to see the owl. We walked slowly, scanning the ground for its elusive shape. We finally spotted him, sunning on his front porch. We stood at a respectful distance. Though we were only about five feet away, David tipped his binoculars to his eyes.  

Some children came rollicking through, veering off the path between the owl and us. David tried to quiet them by corralling their attention, “Look!” he shouted, pointing. “A Burrowing Owl!” The children paused briefly before resuming their shrieking and tumbling. A small group of adults collected as David continued to aim his binoculars and point. I felt myself growing angry. “What a treat!” someone in the small crowd shouted. A dog barked. The owl’s head pivoted rapidly as it stood its ground.  

“Let's go. He looks frightened," I said as I pulled David and his binoculars away hoping the crowd might then disperse. I huffed off ahead of him, my anger masking the knowledge that I might have betrayed the owl and exposed it to danger. After that I looked in vain for the owl each time I went to the Marina. Finally, I stopped expecting to see him. I hoped he had simply vacated to more private digs. I tried not to imagine that an unleashed dog might have found him.  

According to “A Field Guide to Owls of California and the West” though not yet on the endangered species list, the Burrowing Owl’s grassland habitat has been shrunk by industrial agriculture and 75 percent of its population now lives in two percent of its range. Its numbers have declined by half since the 1940s due to the increased land-use and hunting by dogs and coyotes. Fortunately, the Burrowing Owl is reported to adapt well to human-engineered landscapes with strips of land between water and open grassland. Apparently, they appreciate environments like the Marina’s Cesar Chavez Park where they have protection from predators and machinery. As an added bonus, throngs of resident California Ground Squirrels contribute an abundance of burrows in move-in condition and an unlimited food supply.  

The rainy season seems to be tapering off, and I am again able to go to the Marina almost daily. Today, I notice a new shape in a tumble of rocks on the bank of the inlet that faces the UC Berkeley Campanile, I-80 and Target. On closer inspection, I see it is the Burrowing Owl. It looks smaller than I remember, perhaps because it is perched inside a screen of freshly bloomed branches like a demure Geisha looking out to sea. Relieved and overjoyed, I continue along the path. Then I see the larger owl, very close to where we were originally introduced last December. The smaller one inside the cascade of blossoms must be a female, I realize. Perhaps they are a pair.  

The pain in my hip suddenly releases as I jog past the fog-smudged backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge and the city across the bay. Today is a Two-Owl Day. It is an auspicious sign.