Park Week 11/3/23

Planting Day Tomorrow

Cal Student Volunteers at a Native Plant Area orientation on April 15 this year; Bob Huttar leading.

Tomorrow, Saturday Nov. 4, starting at 9:30, a group of Cal student volunteers will join experienced Conservancy stewards to set new native plants in the ground in the Native Plant Area. Volunteer Coordinator Bob Huttar and professional botanist Jutta Burger will coordinate the project. Jacob Several, Landscape Garden Supervisor for the City, is supplying hand tools, mulch, and gloves. Bob writes:

“Planting season is here and this Saturday 11/4, 9:30-4:00, with the help of a crew from The Berkeley Project, we will be planting 35 or so new native plants in the park. The plants will be placed to enlarge the successful Pollinator Habitats we created a year ago. We could use a hand. 

“An area around each new plant will need to be cleared of weeds, a small hole dug, the young plant carefully put into the ground and a 2″ soil berm circle about 1 foot across created to form a watering basin. Everyone is going to have fun getting dirty!”

Volunteers will meet at 9:30 at the parking circle on the west end of Spinnaker Way.

A Rare Northern Migrant

Photographer Jack Hayden, who has a sharp eye for the rare and uncommon bird, spotted this Lapland Longspur (Calcarius lapponicus) in an open field in the park. Not that this bird is rare in general. Cornell Bird Lab’s Birds of the World says,

“One of the most abundant terrestrial birds wintering in northern North America, the Lapland Longspur breeds across vast areas of the Arctic, where it is almost invariably the most visible and abundant bird and sometimes the only nesting songbird.”

They breed in the Arctic Circle all around the pole from America to Eurasia. But they are rarely seen here in Northern California in winter. Moreover, it takes a sharp eye to distinguish this bird in its winter plumage from sparrows, notably the Savannah Sparrow. Its streaky brown foliage blends easily into the mottled chaos of our dried-up meadows. The bird forages on the ground and is rarely seen perching on higher points.

It gets the “longspur” name from the unusual length of its rear toe (hallux). The “Lapland” probably comes from its northern breeding habitat. Lapland is the traditional name for the northern region of Sweden, Finland, Norway and Russia, ancestral home of the Sami people, who refer to the region as Sápmi, rejecting the “Lapland” label as pejorative. Most of the Sápmi area lies above the Arctic Circle. Thanks to Jack Hayden for sharing this photograph.

Another Rare Northern Migrant

I met Louis Swain Thursday morning outside the Burrowing Owl Sanctuary where we shared our disappointment at not seeing an owl. That afternoon, Louis sent me this photo. This bird is even rarer than Burrowing Owls. The eBird database shows zero reports of this bird in the Chavez Park hotspot ever. Perched on the fence that runs along the Virginia Street Extension, this is a Harris’s Sparrow (Zonotrichia querula). Harris’s Sparrows are strictly midwestern birds. They breed in central Canada and nowhere else in the world. In winter they’re commonly seen in Kansas and the whole central region. It’s very unusual for one to venture to either coast. Congratulations to Louis for a great observation and as fine a bird photo as anyone could ask for. Thanks for sharing.

Mussel Breakfast

Black Oystercatcher

I felt disappointed Monday morning. Despite a brisk northerly breeze, which would have made a tailwind for an incoming Burrowing Owl, there was no owl in sight at any of its likely settling spots. As if in sympathy with owls, every other bird went into hiding, and I had nothing with feathers on in my camera until I was about three-quarters done with my perimeter walk. Then I saw it on the west side rocks, right down by the water, a big Black Oystercatcher. It had pried a mussel loose and wedged its chisel of a beak between the shells, and moments later the bivalve was a bird’s breakfast. The bird slurped up the mussel innards almost as if using a straw. That done, the bird went looking for more. It impressed me with its casual striding at the edge of the agitated water. I’d only seen this bird on mud or on stones next to calm waters. A wave could have knocked it over. The bird took its chances. Breakfast was worth the risk.

I saw four more Black Oystercatchers on the east shore of the park the next morning.

Finch Flock

House Finches

House Finches are sociable birds. No doubt their habit of togetherness had something to do with their amazing population growth. From a few caged birds released in New York City in the early 1940s, they’ve taken over the East coast and Midwest to the Mississippi. The original population from Mexico has spread northward to Canada. They breed in the park, in the Native Plant Area. In this photo they occupy a dead tree in the southern apron of the Native Plant Area. I counted 62 of them in this picture. Did I miss some, or overcount? After quietly taking in the morning sun, they heard or saw a private alarm and all flew into the air at once, and away.

Anna’s Here

Also up in the same tree, as soon as the finches left, was this Anna’s Hummingbird. It also lives year round in the Native Plant Area. In the picture on the left, you can see little patches of neon pink breaking through its black head covering. When the light is just right, the whole black cover lights up in blazing pink; see “Anna’s Ablaze,” May 12 2020. The photo on the right shows the bird’s iridescent green backside.

Weed Feast

Lesser Goldfinch F (Spinus psaltria)

Like the House Finches, the Lesser Goldfinches are exclusively vegetarian, not counting the occasional aphids or plant lice that slip in with the seeds they eat. This bird is working on a weed at the eastern edge of the Protected Nature Area, directly across the paved perimeter trail from the Burrowing Owl Sanctuary. It pries the seed loose from the plant, then squeezes the seed to flake off the covering, then swallows the seed. They have to drink frequently because of the dryness of their diet at this time of year. When there are fresh berries, they will eat those and get moisture that way. I wonder how these finches handle the overwhelming numbers of the House Finches in the park. Luckily there are plenty of weeds and other seed-bearing plants, enough for everyone and then some.

Sparrows in Conversation

Golden-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia atricapilla)

These two sparrows in a fennel bush on the north side seem to be having a conversation. The one on the left opens its beak while the other listens, most of the time. Once or twice the one on the right opens its beak and says something. Unfortunately neither of their voices pierced the background noises to reach the camera’s microphone. Not that we’d be able to understand it. There’s a lot of AI effort to decipher the language of whales. Sparrows will have to wait. When watching other species of animals, we’re cautioned not to anthropomorphize them and project human motivations on them. But it’s difficult, watching this little video, to avoid thinking that the birds are having a conversation. We know that birds vocalize to attract mates, to warn of danger, etc. etc. We’re not prepared to admit that birds have conversations.

Bufflehead Back

On Monday at mid-morning I saw a line of ducks flying from the southern part of the North Basin northward, but the light was so poor and they departed so quickly that I had only some blurry images suggesting they might be female Bufflehead. The next day, park visitor Joyce Rybandt posted on the EBB listserv that she saw a Surf Scoter among a raft of Bufflehead and Scaup on the same water. That must have been later in the day than my early morning visit. Finally on Wednesday, in good morning sun I saw a raft of at least sixty Bufflehead, both male and female, on the North Basin. They were diving energetically and formed a moving mass. I saw no other ducks in this flock. A few gulls and a Western Grebe hung around their margin. On Thursday, they had broken up into five smaller rafts, each about a dozen or two birds, foraging at various spots on the North Basin.

Bufflehead do their breeding in the boreal forest and aspen parkland of North America. That means these birds have traveled somewhere between 1,000 and 2,300 miles to get here. They’re good divers, foraging for snails, crabs, insects, and similar marine protein.

Scaup Next?

On the north side of the park, a quarter mile or more from land, a raft of Scaup was busy foraging for more or less the same marine protein as the Bufflehead, except that Scaup will eat more seeds and other vegetation if nothing else is as easily available. A few Bufflehead were mixed in with one end of the Scaup raft, not shown in the video above. The number of Scaup I saw this morning (Wednesday) was probably less than 100, although an exact count is hopeless because many were diving. We have seen much larger masses of them in the North Basin; see for example “Scaup City” Dec 12 2017. They come from approximately the same breeding regions as the Bufflehead, except that there are some nearer breeding populations in eastern Washington and Oregon. Greater or Lesser? The only reliable distinction is the width and shape of the nail at the tip of the beak. At a distance, that’s difficult to verify. I give up on this. To me, they’re all Scaup.

Other Feathers of the Week

It’s unusual to see two Horned Grebes together. This morning I saw three of them, just off the western shore about even with the Sky Window sculpture. One of these capable divers came up with something curly that I couldn’t identify, but that the bird defended vigorously against its companions, who wanted a piece.

If you look closely at the underside of the tail of the Spotted Sandpiper, you can see traces of the spots that it shows in its breeding season, where it gets its name. I saw one on the west side several days running, and another on the east side of the park on Wednesday only.

The Wild Turkeys got deeper into the park on Thursday, foraging in the Native Plant Area. That’s the first time I’ve seen them there. Have they given up being an urban nuisance and blocking streets?

A long time park observer told me that Pelagic Cormorants are now much more common than they used to be. I saw this one in the same spot last week. This week it was spreading and flapping its wings in the sunshine, the same way that the Double-crested do.

Bird Names to Change

After years of reflection, the American Ornithological Society announced this week that it will change the common
English names of all bird species named after people. Source. The move comes in response to a campaign by the Bird Names for Birds movement that protested honoring notorious racists and slave owners by having birds carry their names.

The move will also drop some names that don’t have a reprehensible history, but it avoids lengthy biographical trials for each particular bird name.

Unfortunately, the move cleans up only the official English-language common names, not the scientific names. So we get rid of “Bachman’s warbler,” but we are still stuck with “Haematopus bachmani” for the Black Oystercatcher. Bachman was a racist preacher whose writings gave a Christian blessing to slavery. He was also a bird murderer of the kind that provoked the modern conservation movement. His close friend John Audubon describes this outing by Bachman, aimed at getting feathers for ladies’ outfits:

The trees were high, from a hundred to a hundred and thirty feet, and our shot was not of the right size; but we commenced firing at the birds, and soon discovered that we had a prospect of success. Each man took his tree, and loaded and fired as fast as he could. Many of the birds lodged on the highest branches of the cypresses, others fell into the nest, and, in most cases, when shot from a limb, where they had been sitting, they clung to it for some time before they would let go. One thing surprised me: it was the length of time it took for a bird to fall from the place where it was shot, and it fell with a loud noise into the water. Many wounded birds fell some distance off, and we could not conveniently follow them on account of the heavy wading through the place. We brought home with us forty-six of the large White Herons, and three of the great Blues. Many more might have been killed, but we became tired of shooting them.”

I cover this topic at some length in my recent book, Audubon’s Rifle. It’s based on Audubon’s 5-volume autobiography. The matter of scientific names needs to go to the top of agenda at the same time as the common names are rectified. On this website I refer to the Black Oystercatcher as “Haematopus X,” on the analogy of Malcolm X, who substituted X for the name given his enslaved ancestors.

Welcome Sister Website

Berkeley’s Aquatic Park, located less than a mile from Chavez Park and a refuge for many a bird in all seasons, now has its own website: The founding energy for this welcome venture comes from Susan Schwartz, president of Friends of Five Creeks. The site is new and still under development — but then a website, like a garden, tends to be under development perpetually.

Owls: Still Hope

This past week, expectations ran high for Burrowing Owl arrival. That’s based on their arrival schedule in the past two years. However, some owls in earlier years have arrived much later. In the remarkable winter of 2018-19, owls arrived on November 11, 15, 24, and 30, as well as on December 4, 6, 11, and 20. Check out the Owls Came Back movie for details. So, it’s too early to give up hope.

Spotting the owls is a community effort involving every park visitor. They may be sitting in the mowed and chopped area set aside for them, or in the Protected Natural Area on the north side, or in the weedy margin between the north shore and the paved perimeter trail. Any park visitor can win bragging rights to spot the first one. As soon as I get a photo I will post it here, 24/7. If you see an owl, please call or text me at 510-717-2414 or email Thank you.

The two owls that visited in the winter of 2021-2022. Both arrived Nov. 2 2021.

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2 thoughts on “Park Week 11/3/23

  • “Foliage” was poetic license, so as not to repeat “plumage” in two successive sentences.
    It was Marty not “Bob” who wrote that.

  • Looks like a baby/young Wolf eel.

    Bob wrote regarding a horned grebe photo:
    “One of these capable divers came up with something curly that I couldn’t identify, but that the bird defended vigorously against its companions, who wanted a piece.”

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