Park Week 3/15/2024

Saving the Baby Natives

Clyde Crosswhite, Carol Danney, Bob Huttar, Carlene Chang, Helen Canin, Juitta Burger on March 9. Photo Marty Nicolaus.

The young native plants that Conservancy volunteers started last season got some important TLC last Saturday and the people that provided the love had a good time, as the photo shows. The basic math was to subtract weeds and add mulch. We got a lot done, but the weeds are relentless, so please stay loose for another call from Volunteer Coordinator Bob Huttar.

Bob Huttar, Jutta Burger, Scott Ferris, Roger Miller. Photo Marty Nicolaus.

We had the pleasure of a visit during the morning from Parks Director Scott Ferris and Parks Commission Secretary Roger Miller. We mainly talked about how to implement signage for the pollinator habitat, in view of the $5,000 grant the Conservancy just won from the County of Alameda for that purpose. (See “Park Week 3-1-2024”) There appear to be questions about ADA compliance because the interior of the Native Plant Area is not wheelchair accessible. Scott and Roger also checked out a portion of our pollinator habitat stewardship work, and we heard, “You guys are doing a terrific job here!”

Reminder: Spring Equinox Tuesday Eve

The Spring Equinox happens this coming Tuesday March 19, and there’ll be a gathering to celebrate it starting at 6:30 pm at the Solar Calendar. Alan Gould of the Lawrence Hall of Science will lead the event, which usually blends the atmosphere of a classroom and a sunset watching party. Catch the details in last week’s blog post. See you there on Tuesday evening; sun sets at 7:20 pm, weather forecast is a balmy 64 degrees and partly cloudy.

A Thought

The gift we are given

is never quite knowing

when something beautiful

will begin or end.

— from a poem by Johanna Ely in Postcards From a Dream

Singing Season

White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys)

When a sparrow sings a repeated chorus like this, it generally means it’s interested in a mate. And if it’s interested in breeding, that suggests it feels at home. And that, in turn, suggests that this bird is a member of the nuttalli subspecies (Zonotrichia leucophrys nuttalli). Unlike the main species and several other subspecies, the “nutties” don’t migrate north and east in the summertime. They live year round on the California coast, anywhere from Mendocino in the north to Pt. Conception in the south. Will this bird find a mate? Keen human observers will have spotted several little flocks of White-crowned Sparrows in the park. This one broadcast its song in the Native Plant Area. There are others along the north side and on the east shore of the park. So, chances are good.

How Windy Was It?

Female Scaup defies stiff northerly breeze Thursday morning

Bay waters turned brown Thursday morning. The northerly wind stirred the water deep enough to raise the mud from the bottom. At the extreme low tide at mid-morning, wide strips of mudflats lay exposed, but Willets and a few gulls were the only birds stubborn enough, or hungry enough, to forage there. A handful of American Coots paddled on the north side and fished seaweed out of the tossing bay as if it were just an ordinary day. The female Scaup in the video paddled hard and straight against the wind, maybe just to show that she could. A few gulls rode the wind effortlessly, hardly moving their wings.

Old Ceanothus and New

This Ceanothus shrub in the Native Plant Area is near the end of its life span. A small fraction still has juice and pops out beautiful, beloved blue-purple blooms. The rest is dead. Also called “California Lilac,” this California native grows fast but has a limited life expectancy. Nursery and gardening websites rate it at 10 to 25 years. The one in the photo, along with most of the others in the park, were planted in the early 1980s and are well past their rating, although a few are still going strong. As part of the Conservancy’s Native Pollinator Habitat project, we’ve planted a dozen new Ceanothus, and some of them are already putting up modest blooms, like this one below.

Ceanothus are not only pleasant to look at, with a gentle perfume, they’re highly popular pollinator magnets. The Calscape website says, “Insects, especially bees and butterflies, are attracted to the flowers. Plants in the Ceanothus genus are host plants to the Spring Azure, Echo Blue, Pacuvius Duskywing, California Tortoiseshell, Pale Swallowtail, and Hedgerow Hairstreak butterflies.” At least 14 butterflies are confirmed and another 79 are probable visitors to Ceanothus flowers, and a variety of birds and small mammals depend on the seeds.

Not a Grass!

Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium bellum)

Somehow this lovely plant got the name “Blue-eyed Grass.” It’s more purple than blue, and it’s not a grass at all. It’s a member of the iris family. It does look like a grass when it starts growing, with thin, narrow leaves. But when those flowers pop open, we’re clearly no longer in the grass universe.

This is a perennial that readily spreads its seeds as each flower wilts. When summer heat hits, the plant dies back and seems to be gone. But those many dozens of seeds are hiding in the soil, just waiting for winter moisture and springtime sun. It spreads not only from seeds, but also from rhizomes underground.

Conservancy volunteers planted just this one in the southern apron of the Native Plant Area, but chances are that this one will grow into a bunch, and the bunch into a ground cover, with luck.

The flowers are about half an inch in diameter. They last just one or two days, but new ones open up to replace them, especially when the sun shines and the mercury rises into the balmy range. Like around now. It’s worth a visit to the Native Plant Area just to see this modest princess among flowers.

Now Thriving: Purple Sage

There doesn’t seem to be a time limit on the life of Purple Sage (Salvia leucophylla). The bushes planted in the early 1980s show no sign of fatigue today. They’re now bursting out with rings of pink to light purple flowers at several different spots in the Native Plant Area.

Calscape, the California native plant website, points out that this plant, when it grows wild, is most at home in the southern part of the state, and grows as far south as Baja California. Wherever it grows, it likes to hug the coast. It’s here in the park because the pioneers who created the Native Plant Area, or at least some of them, believed that a plant native to any part of California belonged here. (Others in the group felt more comfortable with plants endemic to the Bay Area.)

Growing Southern California plants up here may have seemed a stretch 40 years ago. Today, with global warming, putting in southern plants in Northern California is becoming an ecological strategy. We’re getting a SoCal climate, the reasoning goes, so we should get SoCal plants. Maybe that’s overbroad, but in the case of this aromatic, pollinator-friendly sage, it’s clearly working.

Birds: Usual Suspects, Plus

Most of the birds that fell into my lens last week were the season’s regulars, and you’ll know them instantly if you’ve studied your park birds at all. Added to that mix was a Black-crowned Night-Heron, formerly a regular but missing in recent months. It was good to see it again, motionless in plain sight from the Open Circle Viewpoint. Then there was a loon. When I showed the Merlin app the full body, the app wasn’t sure whether it was a Red-throated Loon or a Common Loon. When presented with a close-up of the head and neck, Merlin zeroed in on the Red-throated species, so I’m going with that. In winter plumage, of course, there’s no red. (To see it in full regalia in the park, check out “Red-throated Loon,” Aug 11 2016.) Then on Wednesday I saw a pair of Caspian Terns. I’ve seen them here before, but each visit feels special. Also special was seeing a Long-billed Curlew go to sleep. It had been busy foraging on the mudflats over by the Schoolhouse Creek outfall, but apparently wanted a nap. It made its long curved beak disappear by burying it between its wings along its back. A rare sight.

A Green Scene

A glimpse into the Native Plant Area from the north

Three paths thread through the Native Plant Area from north to south. This is the lowest one seen from the north. There’s a Bewick’s Wren that lives here. I’ve heard it on the Merlin audio app several times, but only seen it once. The White-crowned Sparrow that sang in the video near the top of this post perched on the bush near the top left of the picture. This path is as close to wild nature as you can experience in the park.

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