Park Week 2/16/2024

More Mulch

Conservancy volunteer stewards: Lee Tempkin, Carlene Chang, Marty Nicolaus, Carol Denney, Virginia Altoe. Camera: Jutta Burger.

There never seems to be enough mulch. The rain has boosted the native plants in the new pollinator habitat, but it also boosted the weeds all around them. We’d devoted several stewardship work days to adding mulch — just recently with help from the Berkeley School — but the weeds advanced nevertheless. Parks Landscape Supervisor Jacob Several delivered two piles of fresh wood chips to the area. A core crew of six Conservancy regulars on Saturday February 10 chopped invading weeds and thickened and widened the protective mulch blanket around most of the 200+ native plants that we put in the ground last year and the year before. As Spring advances, the new plantings will give the historic Native Plant Area a fresh bloom.

The Flower and the Gas Well

One of the earliest native bloomers is the Flowering Currant (Ribes sanguineum). It was already in full display last Saturday when we weeded and mulched around it. This beautiful plant, now more than four feet tall, stands inches away from Extraction Well No. 7 belonging to the landfill gas extraction system that terminates at the Flare Station, the big smokestack on the east side of the park. At last week’s hearings in San Francisco, the Bay Area Air Quality District (BAAQMD, “back-mud”) ordered the City to dig up and replace most of the extraction wells and the thousands of feet of buried plastic pipe that connects them. See “BAAQMD Beats Up on Berkeley” Feb 7 2024. If that happens, the Flowering Currant plant is in danger. If and when Well No. 7 is on the work schedule, volunteer monitors will need to be on the scene to make sure that this plant is not harmed.

Also Showing

The Cape Honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis) is famous for producing its flowers just about any time of year. It’s an import from South Africa, and not closely related to the domestic honeysuckle, but it has little founts of sweetness at the bottom of its long-tubed flowers just the same. Local hummingbirds seek it out.

Lee Tempkin found these fungi while reducing weeds (see above). They are Chip Cherry (Leratiomyces ceres), also known as Redlead Roundhead. Their native habitat is wood chips. They are commonly found wherever wood chips have a chance to settle in and absorb rain. They are said to resemble a species of psilocybin mushrooms, but have no neurostimulant properties. They cause digestive upset if eaten.

The Ornamental Cherry (Prunus cerasifera) tree on the south side has burst into bloom around this time every year for a decade. This year it’s a little later than usual to fill out, so I’m posting some closeups of the earliest blossoms during moments of sunshine. With luck I’ll have the full tree in all its glory next week.

Oystercatcher Chat

I saw a solo Oystercatcher at the water’s edge on the east side of the park. It stood on a stone, not foraging. It seemed to be looking out at the water, and occasionally issued a peep. It did not seem to me that the peep was loud enough to be heard across the water of the North Basin. Yet minutes later, a chorus of answering peeps approached and a trio of other Oystercatchers flew in and settled next to No. 1. There followed a noisy session of peeping and bowing, their meaning totally lost on this human. There must have been a message, though. Probably the new arrivals described a better spot, because when all was said and done, the whole group of birds leaped into the air and flew eastward.

There’s been much research into bird communication. It’s clear that we don’t hear the essentials at all. To us it seems like a string of peeps with no discernible articulation. The birds have a much finer vocal apparatus and hearing equipment than we do. In each peep there are microvariations of pitch, volume, and timing that convey meaning. This has been demonstrated for some songbirds. I don’t know that the Oystercatchers have also been studied. But the encounter I had the luck to film suggests to me that they communicate.

Homeless Sparrow

This male Savannah Sparrow perched on a short post at the edge of the southeast grassland and sang his heart out. His people have been building their nests in knee-high grass in this area for at least two decades. This year, as in some other recent years, the Parks administration has butchered the natural grassland in an effort to make it look like a golf course. Result: the Savannah Sparrow breeding habitat, the home where it raises its family, is destroyed.

There was too much distance and background noise to pick up the bird’s song this time, but the message is clear. The bird is distraught and angry. What have you done, you evil featherless bipeds? What mental sickness makes you think a fake golf course is more beautiful than a real natural grassland?

Worldwide, grassland birds have suffered a greater loss of population than any other bird family. This sad and totally preventable destruction is happening right here on the Berkeley waterfront. Email Bruce Pratt, Parks Superintendent,

P.S. Thursday’s New York Times has a feature story, “After Shutting Down, These Golf Courses Went Wild.” It reports that developers built far more golf courses than demand, and now a growing number is being rewilded — turned into ecological life rafts for wildlife, plants, and people. Get with it, Berkeley!

Heron Settling In?

The big Great Blue Heron that has been roaming different corners of the park over the last ten days or so is still very much here and may be settling in. On Wednesday as I passed by it squatted in the grass on the north side, and on Thursday it paced along the water’s edge and then in the grassland on the east side. From there it seemed to follow me as I headed north, landing with a flourish on top of the sole remaining original Barn Owl box. There it scraped its beak clean and surveyed the landscape, ignoring the people and their pets and cameras passing below. Ten years ago, a Great Blue became such a fixture in the park that it acquired the name Oscar. If this one stays, it may well become Oscar II.

Uncommon Loon

I haven’t photographed one here since November 2020. That makes it uncommon in my book. But Merlin, the wonderful bird ID app from the Cornell Bird Lab, together with comparison photos from other sources, leave little doubt that this is your basic Common Loon (Gavia immer). I thought at first it was the Red-necked Loon in winter plumage, but the patterns of light and dark didn’t match up. When I first saw it, it had a mussel shell in its beak and was chomping down hard on it, but unfortunately facing away and out of sight. My best guess was that it broke the shell and ate the contents. But possibly it swallowed the shell whole and let its powerful gizzard muscles do the rest. They breed in lakes north of the contiguous US border, where their loony serenades are the stuff of legend. In winter they may be seen as far south as Baja California, and tend to be quiet.

Birds You Already Know, Or?

If you’ve been following this newsletter, you’ll already be familiar with most of the birds in the photos below. Surely by this time you can quickly tell the difference between Clark’s and Western Grebes?

Special this week are the Eurasian Wigeons. They breed across the Pacific in northeastern Russia and manage to find their way here to hang out with their American cousins from time to time. Sometimes there’s hanky-panky and hybrids emerge.

A common bird doing an uncommon thing is the Willet swimming. I hadn’t seen it do that before. It’s a good skill to have if you make your living at the water’s edge. Just in case.

Special also are the Northern Shovelers. I saw three of them in the North Basin near the Schoolhouse Creek outfall. That got me curious whether big rain ponds had formed in the Berkeley Meadow (Sylvia McLaughlin Eastshore State Park), and sure enough I saw more Shovelers and a few Bufflehead there.

Of the 18 photos below, how many can you identify without peeking at the captions?

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