Night Owls: Bay Area's Nocturnal Animals

Laure Latham - San Francisco Bay Area
March 27, 2017

Hoo hoo, who flies here in the dark? Creatures of the night wake up when we go to bed, and it's no wonder kids are fascinated by them. How unusual is it to rest and sleep during the day and be active at night, right? For a child, the question is twofold: who are these animals and will I ever get to see them? Fortunately, there are ways about to observe the most common owls in Bay Area parks thanks to local programs—or your sense of observation and hearing.

How to Identify Owls

The most common owl is certainly the Barn Owl which lives in parks and agricultural lands, even neighborhood parks, especially those with large palm trees or eucalyptus trees. You will recognize it as a large white owl which screeches (listen to the screech here) or clicks while flying. The second owl kids recognize easily because of its ear "tufts" is the Great Horned Owl. Common in parks with large trees or wooded areas, it has the classic hooting calls (listen to the call here).

The Western Screech Owls are smaller owls whose call is a series of singular hoots with each note getting closer and closer, so it sounds like a series of hoots that keep speeding up, sometimes even sounds like a whinny (listen to the call here). Looking like smaller versions of Great Horned Owls, they also have the "ear tufts" but theirs are not ears at all, just feathers which serve to break up the owl's silhouette and keep it hidden.

In Marin county, the Northern Spotted Owl is an indicator of how healthy the ecosystem is. These medium-sized brown owls nest in cavities or on platforms in large trees (preferably old growth redwoods) and occasionally use abandoned nests of other species (even rats). You can listen to their call here.

Last but not least, two very small owls live in the East Bay: the Pygmy and Saw-Whet owls. Both brown, they are very small with single hoot calls and live in forested areas. Sometimes the saw-whets can also sound like a saw being sharpened on a grinding stone (listen to the call here). You can expect them in most parks that have good wooded areas.

Where to Find Owls in the Wild

Basically you want to keep your ears sharp around wooded areas but some parks are particularly known for their owl population. The East Bay locations of barn owls include Sunol, Del Valle, Coyote Hills, Shadow Cliffs, Alameda, Contra Loma, Black Diamond Mines, Pleasanton Ridge, and Brushy Peak (where you can even spot them during the day). Many of these parks have put up owl boxes for Barn Owls to help control rodent populations. Del Valle has 13 boxes, Shadow Cliffs has 4 boxes, Brushy Peak has at least 2 boxes and some have also set up a nest over the restroom. Great horned owls and western screech owls can be found at Sunol Regional Wilderness, Coyote Hills and Lake Del Valle.

Look for northern spotted owls in evergreen forested habitats in Marin County, including old-growth redwood forests, as well as second growth coast redwood, Douglas fir, bishop pine, and mixed hardwood forests. Muir Woods, the Point Reyes National Seashore, and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area include known habitats for such owls.

In Santa Clara county, look for Barn Owls on the trails in Calero County Park, Harvey Bear-Coyote Lake County Park, Ed Levin County Park, and Joseph D. Grant County Park. Look for Western Screech Owls on the Coyote Creek Trail from Hellyer County Park south to the Malaguerra Ave. entrance off Cochrane Road. Trails in Almaden Quicksilver County Park, Mt Madonna County Park and  Stevens Creek County Park. Look for Great Horned Owls on the trails in Stevens Creek County Park, Almaden Quicksilver County Park, Joseph D. Grant County Park, Mt Madonna County Park, and Stevens Creek County Park.  

Go Owling with Experts

The East Bay Regional Park District offers a series of evening programs at various parks happening all summer—Tuesday Twilights—that take place at a different park on each Tuesday evening. Though they don't focus on owls, participants often spot or hear owls on these hikes. Look for more details on this series in the June, July, and August Regional In Natures and on the website.

Every month, programs such as Evening at Muir Woods or Muir Woods After Hours offer a rare nocturnal glimpse into the life of the iconic redwood forest. As the sun sets below the Dipsea Ridge and Muir Woods transitions from day to night, come see and hear the subtle changes of an ancient redwood forest. 

Good luck finding a night owl!

From the Parents

  • Kelly H

    Thank you so much for this informative and timely article! Thanks to your descriptions and call links, I was able to identify the owl I saw and heard at Fort Mason as a Great Horned Owl. Nice to know that there are some in the city.

    over a year ago

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