Many people hear the great horned owls in Glen Canyon Park. Mark Lipman sees them—and is kind enough to let others in on the view.
On March 23 Lipman sat on the eastern slope of Glen Canyon Park filming a nesting mother whose wings cloaked three 5-week-old chicks.
The Recreation Center was within sight to his left and Alms Road stretched below. For his task Lipman used 4K video camera as the voracious owlets feasted on gopher guts.
A growing chick can consume five to six rodents an evening, a veritable commissary of mice.
“I was up at 5:30 this morning and got here at 7:30,” said Lipman. He stayed at his post for another three hours. It’s a vigil he began at the turn of the new year and plans to continue, as often as twice a day, until the owlets depart in mid-summer.
Great horned owls, also known as hoot owls, are found all across North America and much of South America. They hunt mainly at night.
“I first saw the chicks on February 18,” he told the Glen Park News. He doesn’t necessarily expect to see them leave the canyon for another territory but will follow them as long as he can find them.
“It’s a game of hide and seek after they fledge, they get better and better at hiding,” he said.
The owlets began life in what to visitors to Glen Canyon have dubbed the “owl tree”— an enormous eucalyptus only a few feet from where Islais Creek disappears underground into a City culvert.
Once they leave the nest, they move on to find different places to roost. Since the chicks have fledged they’ve been seen in the pine trees and gum trees on the opposite side of the canyon and will roam there until they leave.
Great-horned owls are territorial and the adults will evict their brood from the canyon in August to fend for themselves.
“Mama’s feeding is tender and nurturing and something to see,” said Lipman. One of his videos documents the adult female guiding gopher innards into the mouths of chicks, each bird staring up hungrily.
When the chicks are nine- to ten-weeks-old they’ll be capable of leaving the nest for parental hunting tutorials.
“Her preening is beautiful to watch,” Mark Lipman added, focusing his lens upon the mature raptor whose Glen Canyon habitat offers generous woodland and grassland. “She takes each feather and runs it through her beak. Each is critical to escape predators.”
In the summer of 2016, however, it wasn’t winged or four-legged predation that laid waste to a previous Great Horned owl in the canyon.
Five years ago, Friends of Glen Canyon Park volunteers came upon a dead adult female lying on the trail that leads to Silver Tree Day Camp. The owl had ingested a rat or mouse that had consumed rat poison.
A necropsy allowed environmentalists with California Fish and Wildlife to confirm the owl’s death was consistent with anticoagulant rodenticide toxicosis. The poison caused her to bleed subcutaneously in the wing and suffer bruising in both chest and abdomen.
It wasn’t until 2019 that the Great Horned owls reappeared in Glen Canyon, a 70-acre natural area that is stewarded by Recreation and Parks Natural Resources Division.
From his perch just below the trail that eventually leads to Franciscan chert outcrops, Lipman pointed past the owl tree to a green refuse container and volunteered that canyon regular, Mary Daly, who lives on Chenery Street had seen the male keeping an eye out on his progeny.
“The father roosts in the tree, not in a nest,” he said. “The owlets make their way to the hillside where they figure out how to fly as he watches them.”
While the owlets are honing their flying skills they’re vulnerable when on the ground.
Born and raised in Connecticut, Lipman moved to Boston where he earned an MFA in film from Massachusetts College of Art and a BA in psychology from Harvard University.
He began with still photography before segueing to film, then digital video and eventually freelancing for Boston’s public television station WGBH.
He filmed “Holding Ground-the Rebirth of Dudley Street (1996),” the story of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative’s successful efforts at revitalizing the most devastated neighborhood in Boston through multicultural and multilingual organizing. That effort became a national model for revitalizing disinvested neighborhoods.
With his wife Helen Cohen he produced “States of Grace” (2014), an inspiring and award-winning film about a woman who survived a life-threatening automobile accident on the Golden Gate Bridge. The film made the rounds of Bay Area theaters, shown locally at the Four Star in the Richmond District.
The couple also collaborated on Arc of Justice,” (2016), which traces the story of the first community land trust that developed out of the Civil Rights movement, in Albany, Georgia in 1970. The late Congressman John Lewis was on the planning committee that created the trust, which brought economic independence to Black farmers.
Lipman’s website, openstudioproductions.com, offers details about other videos he’s produced. One of the more recent is “Refuge” (2020), which details a day in the life of a California Central Valley migratory bird sanctuary.
Lipman is “not fully retired” and continues to shoot and edit films, he says. He’s also attentive to the sounds in his films. In his work, sound is neither ancillary nor peripheral. He’s a believer in cinéma verité, which you can hear in his canyon videos, replete with such ambient sound — breeze, bird songs, children playing.
“Sound is very powerful in conveying place,” he said, of his Glen Canyon fresh air sound-track.
He’s pondering creating a short video compiling his footage in a way that would allow him to contextualize the urban sounds, pulling sound such as kids and runners that surround the canyon.
“Living in Glen Park allows me to live in a city without feeling I’m in a city.”
One thing he’s not is an ornithologist.
“I do this because I enjoy it. I just love watching birds!”