San Diego fireman Ed Cormode knows a lot about burrowing owls — as do the other firefighters who work out of Station 43, at the east end of the Brown Field airport. They have a telescope they set up just to watch the small, leggy owls pop in and out of squirrel burrows north of the fire station.
“That pair, by the pole, they have a young one,” Cormode says as he fine-tunes the telescope view. “The one hunting will bring his catch to the burrow and give it to his mate for the baby.”
Sure enough, one owl runs down the berm and does a flying hop into the stretch of green at the bottom, comes out with something small and gray in its talons, and flies to a hole in the ground where another owl pops out, takes the catch, and disappears back into the burrow.
Under the watchful eyes of the firefighters, the owls go about their lives. They are oblivious to the millions of dollars spent on them, to their impact on the Otay Mesa economy, and to the wishes of habitat managers who have owl habitat and no owls.
On the north and west sides of the fire-station fence, a sweep of yellow-gold grass covers the flat land. The berms sparkle with bits of broken glass. Trash is scattered along the road-ward side of the berms. Jets and planes thunder overhead as they come in to land. The owls tend to their young and stand on the berms looking for prey.
Cormode and the station’s firefighters have watched them long enough that they can spot them without the help of magnification. They recognize individual owls and families and understand the birds’ habits and preferences.
“See where there are rocks around the hole? That keeps the coyotes from digging into the burrow to get the owls,” Cormode says, not explaining how the rocks got placed on the dirt berm. “They come around at night and try.”
The owls stand along the earthen berms that rise six and eight feet above the tall yellow grasslands along the airport edges next to Otay Mesa and La Media roads where huge, noisy semi-trailers roll by almost constantly.
“There’s at least 8 or 10 here, and at least 12 living on the berm above the drainage ditch along the south edge of Brown Field,” he says.
Reason for concern
Burrowing owls, though increasingly rare in Southern California, are not listed as an endangered species. There are plenty of them in other states, enough that the national population numbers are pretty healthy. Instead they are designated as a “species of special concern,” according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
But in Southern California, experts say the owls have been squeezed out of their habitat by development, and they are now protected by the city’s Multi Species Conservation Plan as well as by state and federal Fish & Wildlife agencies.
They earned their name by living in squirrel burrows — sometimes sharing the underground tunnels with the little beasts. They eat rodents, bugs, lizards, and snakes.
The Brown Field owls don’t know it, but they’ve been the subject of a lawsuit, now at the state court of appeals. They’ve been a source of frustration to businesses, real estate developers, and to the managers of the airport. They have precipitated dozens of meetings with elected officials and wildlife conservation agencies and millions of dollars have been spent on them.
“The vacancy rate [for Otay Mesa business properties] is about 4 percent, the lowest it has ever been, and there’s tremendous demand for new space,” says CBRE commercial realtor Rob Hixson. “We are running out of buildings.”
Despite the demand, Hixson knows of only one project underway.
“Construction costs are astronomical, in part because you have to provide mitigation land for burrowing owls at a one-to-one ratio, and half of it has to be in Otay Mesa,” he says.
Hixson’s clients have spent nearly $7 million on mitigation land — on top of the land and construction costs for their projects. And sometimes, the costs for the owls increase after the project is underway when one of the oversight agencies comes up with additional requirements.
“People are really hesitant about even starting a project,” he says. There have been meetings with Otay’s city, county, state, and federal elected officials as well as the wildlife agencies — most of which have come to naught, Hixson says.
Frustration for the people who would protect them
”Brown Field airport is the largest remaining burrowing owl colony in San Diego County,” says Jonathan Evan of the Center for Biodiversity, which sued the city in 2013 over owls allegedly being poisoned at Brown Field. “They’re incredible, cute little creatures.”
The airport was setting up a free-standing solar array, and the owls were in the way. The suit was intended to force the airport to put the panels on the buildings south of the runway, rather than place them where the owls live.
“We kept emphasizing where burrowing owls could co-exist with airports,” Evan said, noting that the San Jose airport has a thriving colony. “What we were saying fell on deaf ears.”
The city prevailed at the trial court, and the suit is now up on appeal.
“There have been mixed results on relocation of the owls,” Evan said. “They stay for a little while and then take off.”
When Caltrans built the 125 Toll Road, the agency created a 52-acre preserve east of the toll road and north of Otay Mesa Road known as Johnson Canyon. The preserve is for the endangered Quino checkerspot butterfly and fairy shrimp as well endangered and threatened plants, according to Caltrans documents.
Caltrans built a version of squirrel burrows and placed them around the site, which had a reported siting of two owls in 2010.
It’s those owls that give hope to the San Diego Habitat Conservancy, which manages the Lonestar Open Space Preserve immediately east of Johnson Canyon. The preserve officially opened in January 2013, created on 59.37 acres to mitigate for land used to build the Corrections Corporation of America’s new prison next to Donovan State Prison — visible from the preserve’s locked gates.
In the three years since the efforts to create a habitat, no burrowing owls have made it their home, according to Don Scoles, the habitat conservancy’s executive director.
“They were on the property to the west,” he said. “They like berms so they can look at their prey and their predators,” he said. “We’re having conversations with state and federal Fish & Wildlife about building berms out here.”
Scoles says that Caltrans brought owls in from other locations to populate Johnson Canyon, which Cormode remembers.
“There were a few owls that were gone for a while,” Cormode says. “I guess they were moved to the preserve north of here. But they came back after a couple of months. They really like the berms.”
Cormode knows about the preserves for the owls to the north of the fire station and he’s been up to look at them. But when he sees owls, he sees them from the fire station.
“I don’t know if they’re territorial or not,” he says. “But we’ve been looking at the same owls for a while and they don’t seem to move around. They’ve got food and some protection here, and they’re raising their young here.”