Park Week 3/1/2024

Conservancy Wins Grant

The Chavez Park Conservancy has won a $5000 grant from the Alameda County Fish and Game Commission toward putting up educational signage in the Native Pollinator Habitat that we established and developed in the past three years. Conservancy volunteers have put more than 200 native plant starters into the ground in the Native Plant Area. Little flags of blue, white, or orange mark the new plantings, but the park visitor who is not a botanist can’t know what the plants are nor, for that matter, what this collection of plants means for the park and for the larger environment.

Jutta Burger, Bob Huttar

Conservancy Board Chair Jutta Burger and Volunteer Coordinator Bob Huttar wrote the application and made an oral presentation before the Commission.

While very helpful, the amount of this grant is not sufficient to cover the cost of the signage project, Bob commented. The Conservancy also has filed an application with the UC Chancellor’s Office for a grant in the amount of $10,000, the major cost of the signage project. This remains pending.

This award follows a similar award from the Fish and Game Commission that we won two years ago. See “Pollinator Garden Gets Green Light” Mar 17 2022. As in the past, the full County Board of Supervisors needs to meet and ratify the Commission’s award before a check is issued. This is considered routine and expected in a few weeks.

Heron’s Sunday

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)

Sunday is the busiest day at the park. For the Great Blue Heron that has been visiting different corners of the park for the past two weeks, last Sunday (2/25) was the time to hunt for gophers along the newly mowed grass strip on the southeast side. Here the bird paced along picnic areas and stalked prey sometimes as close as three feet from the paved perimeter trail. I and other park visitors had an exceptional opportunity to follow the bird up close and watch what it did. I took nearly 40 minutes of video, and boiled that down into the seven-minute YouTube above.

The bird was unafraid of people. Walkers, singly or in groups, runners, bicyclists, even this photographer with a big black tripod did not alarm this heron. At a couple of points, the bird walked directly toward me, and in one case walked past less than ten feet from my tripod.

The bird distinguished between dogs on leash and loose dogs. You’ll see and hear the bird stalking a gopher hole a few feet from the trail and holding its position even though two medium-size dogs barked furiously at it. Their owner held them on leash. Most of the passing dog owners followed the rules and kept their pets on leash. They did not disturb the bird. But when irresponsible dog owners passed with dogs off leash, the bird retreated to the land’s edge. You’ll see one dog owner who seemed to point her loose yellow Lab at the bird. The dog charged. The heron took flight and saved itself. Her dog’s attack didn’t motivate the owner to leash the animal. She had a leash in her hand but just kept walking as if hunting wildlife in the park with her dog was her privilege, instead of the crime that it is.

The heron, on the other hand, does have the right to hunt wildlife. As I watched, it tried four times, and struck out three. Each of its failed efforts came after prolonged stalking and freezing in position, most of which I edited out for brevity. Its success came almost casually, as if a careless gopher had dawdled on the grass. The bird retreated down the slope and out of my view to swallow its catch. It then dipped its beak into the water as if to clear its palate.

The heron opened its beak several times as if to make a sound, but nothing audible by my microphone came out. I recorded the heron’s croak once some time ago. There are several videos here of the Great Blue catching gophers, such as “Heron, Gopher, Dog,” May 7 2022, “Hotel Breakfast” May 11 2021, “Gopher Gone,” May 22 2020, and “Heron Flees, Scores,” Jul 23 2019. If you have a garden plagued by gophers, you might try to invite a Great Blue.

Speaking of Gophers

Gophers don’t have a lot of friends. They’re antisocial, destroy gardens and fields, and aggressively attack anything that comes close, including dogs, cats, and human hands, with razor sharp teeth. Still, we might feel a little compassion for them considering that Great Blue Herons aren’t the only vertebrates hunting them. Park visitor and photographer Peter Beeler spotted a formidable Gopher Snake (Pituophis catenifer) the same day I filmed the heron. This one was probably five feet long, one of the biggest seen in the park. Not only long, it was thick, muscular. Small mammals need worry, but humans are safe. Gopher Snakes are not poisonous and don’t bite unless badly mishandled. Between the heron and this snake, the gopher population in the park will probably remain under control.

Grebe Family

Clark’s Grebes (Aechmophorous clarkii)

I was chatting with Peter, who had photographed the Gopher Snake, and was paying no attention to the north side water, when another park visitor interrupted. Look, she said, a pair of grebes! Yes, not only a pair of grownup Clark’s Grebes keeping company, but a young one as well, safely flanked by dad and mom. I’ve seen pairs of grebes doing various courtship rituals, see for example “Park Week 12/29/23” but I’ve never seen them together with the ultimate product of those rituals. If grebes sent out holiday family postcards, this picture would be a good one.

Flock of Wigeon

American Wigeon (Mareca americana)

You may think that my title here should read, “Flock of Wigeons,” plural. But I have it on good authority that the plural of wigeon is wigeon, as in “a raft of wigeon” etc. On Tuesday I spotted these bird near the Schoolhouse Creek outfall, and walked east along the Virginia Street Extension to get a closer look. I saw perhaps 18 of them, all of the American variety. The Eurasians I saw two weeks ago had apparently departed.

These ducks looked well fed. They made an effort to forage on the mudflats near the so-called glass beach north of the creek’s pipe, but repeatedly fled back to the water as park visitors ambled on the shoreline. These birds were mostly adults, with a few youngsters among them. They’ve all come more than a thousand miles from breeding territories up in the tundra and boreal forests of Alaska and northwest Canada. They mostly eat vegetation except during the breeding season when they take protein to feed the chicks. They’re dabblers, not divers, and are infamous for poaching vegetation from diving ducks and coots. That wasn’t an issue here, as the low tide exposed the greenery at or very near the surface.

Other Birds Seen this Week

This set contains only the usual suspects. If you’ve been following this blog for a few weeks, you’ll already know all of them. Rate yourself. How many images out of the 18 below can you identify without peeking at the captions?

Conifer Habitat

High up in an old Monterey Cypress in the Native Plant Area, this tree squirrel held very still, possibly hoping to escape notice as I passed beneath it. I’m guessing this is a Douglas Squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii) based on its small size, light brown/reddish face and on the dominance of this species in Pacific Coast pine forests. See Wikipedia.

Meanwhile, at the base of this conifer, partly concealed in the grass, I saw this big mushroom. It was easily six inches across. The iNaturalist app could not give me the exact species but held at the Chlorophyllum genus. Reading further, I’m pointing the finger at Chlorophyllum rhacodes, based on a note in the Mushroom Expert website to the effect that this fungus likes to grow at the base of conifers.

Trees not only require a habitat to thrive, when mature they create their own habitat, both high and low, for a diversity of species. In the neighborhood of this old Monterey Cypress, Chavez Park Conservancy volunteers have planted half a dozen new ones, along with new Torrey Pines. In twenty years, when the old conifers are done, a cohort of new ones will create a broad canopy in this area, continuing a habitat where other life forms can thrive.

Cherry Recovering

Last week I wrote that the big Ornamental Cherry tree on the south edge of the park was having an off year, due to long rain and short sun. This week, with more sunshine, the tree made a good recovery and showed something closer to the full glory we saw in the past.

That Yellow Carpet

Having just spent an hour pulling these plants up and tossing them in the green recycling bin at home, I’m not inclined to wax lyrical about the blankets of bright yellow Oxalis now blooming in various spots in the park. Known as sourgrass or Bermuda buttercup, Oxalis pes-caprae is a native of South Africa. In California, among many other places, it’s considered an invasive weed and a mass of it is termed an infestation. As many a gardener has discovered, once established it’s next to impossible to get rid of. Pulling up the plant including the root is an illusory cure. The root detaches from a bulb about the size of a peanut that remains in the ground. After several seasons, the ground is thick with these tiny bulbs and the weed comes back more dense and numerous after the rains in the following year. In our gardens we can only cure the symptoms, not the cause. Here in the park we might as well just resign to the inevitable and enjoy the color while it lasts. Oxalis, Wild Radish, Wild Mustard, Birdsfoot Trefoil and Fennel make up the bulk of our legacy wildflower inventory, none of them native. We’re changing that in a modest way by building an oasis of native bloomers in the Native Plant Area, see above.

Sunset Monday February 26 2024

Photographer Susan Black, whose images have appeared here multiple times, captured this sunset on Monday, a day with disturbed weather patterns. Happily, clouds make for dramatic sunsets. Can’t take interesting sunset pictures without them.

Sunset February 24 2024. Photo Susan Black.

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