Park Week 10/27/23

The Little Oak that Could

This little shrub may not look like much, but it’s a dramatic story, in a botanical way, of recovery after a devastating fire.

The oak after the fire

We spotted and identified this oak initially in February 2019 as part of the amazing “Flora Friday” series led by plant mavens Jutta Burger and Bob Huttar. See “Flora Friday: Holly Oak,” Feb 22 2019. Then on July 4 2020, careless kids playing with fireworks started a grass fire in the park near the Flare Station. “Careless Fire,” July 6 2020. The young Holly Oak stood in the middle of the burning acres. After the Berkeley Fire Department put the fire out, what was left of the oak was a charred skeleton. The trunk and branches were burned black and some remaining leaves looked like they had been toasted. “Little Burnt Oak,” Sep 22 2020.

But the little oak was not dead. In October 2020, although there was no sign of life in the trunk and branches, and the leaves had fallen off, new shoots sprang up from the root crown. “Phoenix Oak” Oct 10 2020. The new sprouts survived the attention of bugs, birds, and squirrels, and two years later, the new greenery had reached about halfway up the remaining charred skeleton. “Holly Oak Progress Report,” Oct 2 2022.

This week, the tree’s revival has reached just about the same level as the dead part. In the photo above, the branches on the top right are the burnt branches; the new green growth is on the left. And for a special bonus, as I was photographing this story of botanical hope, a White-crowned Sparrow flew up into a topmost branch and let me take its picture as it basked in the rays of the rising sun.

As I said, the little tree doesn’t look dramatic. You probably walked past it a hundred times without noticing. If you want to give it a closer look, walk north on the east side of the park. About 60 yards after the first Barn Owl box you come to, and almost at the second Barn Owl box, look on your left, about 12 feet off the trail. It stands there all alone. the little oak that survived the fire. In its small quiet way, an inspiration.

Fearless Youngster

Berkeley residents Judd and Sherry Smith walk the paved perimeter trail almost daily. This past Tuesday they were walking it in the counter-clockwise direction when, near the northeast corner, they spotted this young Gopher Snake (Pituophis catenifer) fearlessly — and foolishly — sunning itself on the pavement. It was barely two feet long from nose to tail, probably a teenager.

Judd had his camera and took one shot from above, then a second shot from down low so that you could see the snake from the side. Thank you for sharing your photos, Judd. For other pix of the park’s Gopher Snakes, click this link.

Seed Harvest

The other day I had the privilege of having lunch at one of Berkeley’s famous restaurants. On the menu was a pork roast flavored with, among other things, fennel seeds. Well, in Chavez Park a visitor can now harvest fennel seeds in abundance, and the price is right. I popped a few into my mouth and chewed them as I walked. They’re sweet with a light licorice flavor. I almost accidentally popped this ladybug in my mouth as well, but stopped myself just in time. In evolution they evolved the bright red color to warn predators that they’re toxic, and they’re not bluffing. Their blood contains up to 50 different poisonous alkaloids. When they feel threatened they can exude a drop of that blood from their knee joints to give potential predators a taste, an amuse-bouche in restaurant lingo. I’m not making this up. See the Wikipedia article on this. But what was this mostly beloved little beetle doing on drying fennel seeds? Ladybeetles are carnivores feeding primarily on aphids, and aphids feed on plants when they’re young and juicy. I don’t have an answer. I didn’t see any other ladybugs on fennel seeds or anywhere else this week, so I’m classifying this beetle as a “vagrant,” a term ornithologists use to describe birds in places where the ornithologists didn’t expect them. The fennel seeds, meanwhile, contain energy on which several species of birds will rely through fall and into the winter.

Sugar Bush

Sugar Bush (Rhus ovata)

On the high shoulder of the Native Plant Area, on the south side, there’s a stand of Rhus ovata, commonly known as Sugar Bush. The pioneers who built the area in the early 80s planted these, along with the related Rhus integrifolia, Lemonadeberry, a little lower and closer to the water. The two species, both California natives, are so similar that they often hybridize.

While the Lemonadeberry offers its taste quick as a lick, the Sugar Bush hides its sweet charms. I found the fruits (“drupes”) hard and flavorless. But indigenous people processed them by heating, crushing, and grinding to make beverages and medications. There is evidence that high concentrations of berry extract have some antibacterial properties.

The plant is a tough customer. The foliage is evergreen. Once established, it survives severe droughts. In the right conditions it can grow 30 feet tall and as wide. It can live 100 years. Several kinds of bees pollinate its flowers, and birds and rodents spread its seeds. Wikipedia. Calscape.

Birds in Focus

This week probably more birds eluded my lens than posed for it. Mary Law saw a Dark-eyed Junco in the Burrowing Owl Sanctuary on Thursday morning, but when it saw me arriving with my camera, it flew off and hid. It isn’t a rare bird in the Big Picture but I’ve never photographed one in the park, despite seeing them fly over from time to time. Several of us park goers also saw a handful of unidentifiable songbirds flying over the Protected Nature Area on Tuesday, but I was not able to track them down.

Among the birds that I did manage to “shoot,” my favorite was this very pretty Rock Pigeon (Columba livia) foraging all by itself in the Burrowing Owl Sanctuary. That’s unusual; they normally keep company with others in a flock. This individual had a glowing bronze breast and a white tail. This color pattern probably has a name but I was unable to pin it down. There is an enormous literature on these multi-talented birds; check out this Wikipedia article for starters.

I was also happy to catch a pair of Golden-crowned Sparrows up on the north side in the Live Oak shrubs. A participant in last Sunday’s birdwalk called them out but I was unable to see them until this morning.

Pelagic Cormorants make up a minority in the local cormorant community. The Double-crested are far more numerous. So it was a bit of a birdy thrill to see a big Pelagic perched on a stone at the edge of the Open Circle Viewpoint, preening in the early morning light. A closeup of its head reveals its smooth, glossy blackness, the easiest way to tell this bird apart from its cousins, the Double-crested. Those have bright orange cheeks and beak, visible from a distance. Also bright blue eyes. I don’t know if the Pelagic can raise up their crown feathers when aroused, like the Double-crested do.

Catching a picture of a Brown Pelican in the park has been a challenge. If they were there, the light was bad. If the light was good, they weren’t there. This morning, one and then a second were present, and the low slanting morning sun lit them up nicely. They were hunting by gliding inches off the water and then plunging in. It worked for this one. The sun lit up his transparent gular pouch after the bird had just swallowed a fish.

The solo American Coot that arrived in the first week of October now has company. A second one paddled along with it. The two of them also kept loose company with a pair of newly arrived Ruddy Ducks, the first of the season here. Their usual breeding range is the Prairie Pothole region of the U.S. and Canada.

Seeing two phoebes the same day was a treat. The Say’s Phoebe used the BBQ fixtures along the east side of the park as a perch for spotting insects below, as it has for about a week now. The Black Phoebe liked to hunt around the Burrowing Owl Sanctuary. It posed on one of the fence posts. The fence is useless to protect the owls from dogs but it makes a fancy bird perch. Both phoebes are flycatchers, skilled at snatching flying insects out of the air, or pinching them from the surface of vegetation.

Owls on Schedule?

“North Owl” on January 17 2019

If the past three years carry any weight, the peak time for Burrowing Owls to arrive in the park is this coming week. As I chronicled in last week’s blog, an owl arrived last year on Oct. 30, the year before on Nov. 2, and the year before that on Nov. 9. So I’ll be in the park early every day this next week, if possible, checking on the owl’s previous favorite perching spots.

Several park visitors have raised questions about the stripped condition of the Burrowing Owl Sanctuary. All the Fennel and much of the Coyote Bush has been cut to the ground. I want to make it clear that the Chavez Park Conservancy had no control over this landscaping decision. The City’s landscaping manager this year followed the direction of a Golden Gate Bird Alliance (formerly Audubon) member who was on the committee that in 2010-2011 decided on the layout of the area including the cable fence around it.

As a matter of public record, I recommended four years ago that the Fennel on the outer margin of the area be maintained as overhead cover to protect the owls to some extent from flying raptors. See “Why Do Burrowing Owls Perch ‘Out of Bounds’?” Jul 20 2019. For the next three winters, the Fennel and the Coyote Bushes were allowed to stand. Earlier, in the winter of 2018-2019, a similar slash cut took place as this year; see “Preening for the Owls,” Aug 20 2018. So it goes. This year it’s back to 2018. Note that only one of the owls that came that winter spent any time in the fenced area, and most of that out of sight on the eastside rip-rap.

The owls are unpredictable. If I’ve learned anything about them in the hundreds of hours I’ve spent watching, photographing, and filming them here in the park, it’s that they’re individuals. Different owls have different preferences, and they can change their minds in the course of the season. So we may very well see owls settle in the stripped habitat. Or the owls may select the never-mowed Nature Area or the wild weedy margin on the north side, as they did in past years. Or they may stay away, as they did in the winter of 2017-2018. What’s certain is that all of us park visitors need to keep our eyes peeled and look for them. There is no “official owl spotter.” Any park visitor can have the bragging rights to spot the first owl.

Dog owners can help big time by keeping their pets on leash outside the On Leash Area. The owls can tell the difference between dogs on and off leash, and the off-leash animals stress them out. I emailed Jeff Malmuth, the head of the dog owners’ group, a few weeks ago to ask his cooperation in reminding his members about the leash law. I haven’t had a reply but he’s a good guy and I’m confident he’ll try to help to the extent he is able.

If you see an owl please text or call me at 510-717-2414 or email The minute I get a photo I’ll post it here, 24/7. Thank you.

Want some background? Try the “Owls Came Back” movie (24 mins) or the “Meadow Owl” movie (6 mins) on YouTube.

Fingers crossed.

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One thought on “Park Week 10/27/23

  • Loved this weeks commentary and photos. I like that you often show a bird photo without the name visible. That way we can guess its identity before clicking on it to verify the name. Thank you for the post.

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