In the mottled light behind the trunk of a pine tree, four poofs with eyes huddle together. And they’re watching.
Those poofs are in fact baby great horned owls, and for the last few weeks, they’ve been watching — and being watched by — a growing number of birders, gardeners, joggers and the occasional lucky tourist.
The nest is high in a pine tree on Strawberry Hill, the waterfall-laden lump of an island in the middle of Stow Lake, and is hard to spot from the lake level. But the path that ascends Strawberry Hill passes about 100 feet from the nest — at eye level with it.
Although the owlets are so well camouflaged as to be difficult to discover without knowing precisely where they are, the binocular- and camera-wielding spectators who have already found the spot usually offer a clue.
And once spotted, it’s pretty hard to peel your eyes off of them.
“They’re so adorable,” cooed Recreation and Park Department gardener and frequent owl visitor Kendra Armitage, who took a pilgrimage to see the puffballs on a recent lunch break.
The oldest and largest of the four owls is about a month old, she said, and the youngest was born about 10 days after that. The mother is usually hovering around in a nearby tree, keeping an eye on things; the father isn’t far off either.
“He brings her lunch sometimes,” she said.
The nest is one of two that are common knowledge among Golden Gate Park birdwatchers; the second is near the buffalo paddocks.
Golden Gate Audubon Society member Dan Murphy, who leads San Francisco’s annual Christmas bird count, said it’s possible there are a handful of other great horned owls in the park that haven’t been spotted by birders. However, the species is territorial enough that there’s not room for many in the park.
Murphy says all of the babies are unlikely to survive. Many die in their first year, sometimes being pushed out of the nest by their larger siblings or mother if food is scarce.
“As long as there’s plenty of food, the younger ones will probably survive,” he said.
There once were also barn owls and screech owls in the park, he said, but they haven’t been spotted in a long time.
Baby owls aren’t the only ones attracting attention at Stow Lake. Seven great blue herons have made their nest in a small island in the lake, and two baby herons, “looking like dinosaurs,” have been spotted poking their heads out of the nest, said Nancy DeStefanis, founder of San Francisco Nature Education. Her organization sets up scopes near the Stow Lake Boathouse on the weekends, where volunteers show passersby the babies and lead group walks around the lake.
About great horned owls
Description: Distinctive for their large ear tufts, or “horns.”
Calls: The call is a deep hooting. Young make a loud, raspy screech.
Size: About 22 inches high, up to 5-foot wingspan. Females are larger than males. An adult weighs up to 4 pounds.
Nesting: A female owl will typically lay two or three eggs and incubate them for about a month, during which time the male will feed her. Young owls will leave the nest after four to five weeks and will fly well by about nine weeks.
Diet: The owls are carnivores and typically eat small mammals such as mice, rats, rabbits, squirrels and even skunks. They hunt during both day and night, but they see better at night.
Sources: The California NatureMapping Program, University of Washington; www.owlpages.com