Park Week 4/12/2024

Conservancy Wins UC Grant

“On behalf of Chancellor Carol Christ and the Advisory Board of the UC Berkeley Chancellor’s Community Partnership Fund, I am pleased to let you know that your proposal, Educational Signs for Pollinator Habitats at Cesar Chavez Park has been awarded a grant in the amount of $15,525.” So begins an email received by the Chavez Park Conservancy yesterday.

Some of the volunteers who established and maintain the Native Pollinator Habitat

Conservancy Board Chair Jutta Burger and Volunteer Coordinator Bob Huttar did the heavy lifting for filing the application. Conservancy Director Richard Walker, emeritus UC Berkeley geography professor, serves as Faculty Advisor for the project.

The grant joins a smaller grant received from the County Board of Supervisors on motion of the Fish and Wildlife Commission at the end of February. With the two grants combined, the Conservancy can move forward to design and install the educational signage at the Native Pollinator Habitat that Conservancy volunteers have been establishing and maintaining over the past three years.

The signage will identify the area where the native pollinator plants are established, will identify individual plant species, and will explain why this kind of planting is important to nature, including human beings.

Promising Start to Gas System Rework

Three staffers heading the landfill gas collection system rework project met with a Conservancy activist on Monday April 8 to discuss how to avoid damage to sensitive habitat. Mary Skramstad, City of Berkeley Environmental Compliance Specialist, Srinivas Muktevi, Supervising Civil Engineer in the City’s Public Works Department, and Michael Flanagan, Project Manage for SCS Engineering Inc., met at the park with Martin Nicolaus, Conservancy CEO.

The group viewed Extraction Well 7, located on the south side of the Native Plant Area, and agreed that the Conservancy would move the Flowering Currant (Ribes sanguineum) plant that grows inches away from that wellhead. The engineers would give advance notice of their plans to begin excavation so that the plant could be moved in time.

Conservancy volunteer Carol Denney weeding around Flowering Currant last month. White pipe marks Extraction Well No. 7

The group then inspected Extraction Well No. 8, located near the northern side of the Native Plant Area. Agreement was reached that cones would be placed around a California Buckeye (Aesculus californica) seedling that grows in the access path to that well, but that this plant would not have to be moved and no plants would be permanently damaged during the excavation of this extraction well.

The group then walked north to the fence dividing the Off-Leash Area from the Protected Nature Area. Extraction Well No. 34 is located a few feet from that fence, and will need to be excavated. The engineers agreed that the excavation machinery would access the well through the fence, rather than carving a track across the Protected Nature Area.

The meeting demonstrated that the engineers leading the project were concerned with sensitive habitat. The Conservancy demonstrated cooperation with the project by relocating the Flowering Currant plant. The parties’ discussion was amicable and there was agreement to keep channels of communication open.

Park Visitor’s Album

There are park visitors who have wonderful photos and videos of nature in the park on their cellphones or cameras, but never thought to share them. I ran into one such park visitor on Thursday morning. Seeing my camera and tripod, she stopped me to inquire what I had seen. As we chatted, it turned out that she had a cellphone half filled with images that a lot of people would enjoy. She is Nathalie Schumann, and has been taking pictures in the park for quite a while. Here I’m publishing two of her recent bird images and a short video she took of a Great Blue Heron capturing a gopher.

Great Blue Heron with captured gopher. Nathalie Schumann video.

If YOU have nature photos of Chavez Park on your phone or camera, why not share them? Email them to Be sure to include your name so that your copyright can be embossed on the image.

Beautiful Butterfly

Another park visitor with a beautiful image on the phone is Caskey Weston. Here is an Anise Swallowtail photographed near the Chavez-Huerta Solar Calendar this past Monday. Thank you Caskey for sharing!

The Anise Swallowtail (Papilio zelicaon) feeds mostly on plants in the carrot family, which includes the local Fennel. Although the Fennel is not native to California, it has managed to come to terms with this and a number of other native pollinators, as if it were a native plant. The Fennel is also an important host to several native bird species, notably the Red-winged Blackbirds, who may build their nests among its fresh new foliage in late Spring.

The Anise Swallowtail develops from an egg to a full grown butterfly in 30-60 days depending on conditions. Once grown, the butterfly’s main business is reproduction. The average lifespan is only one to two weeks, with females living a few days longer.

Familiar Feathers of the Week

The birds that my lens captured last week were all familiar. If you’ve been paying even slight attention to this blog, you’ll recognize all of them immediately. Well, almost …

Marbled Godwit spreading its wings

Crows Being Shorebirds

The morning low tide at midweek reached the minus levels, with acres of North Basin mud exposed. As sometimes happens, very few birds arrived to take advantage of the foraging opportunities. Not counting a scattered dozen or so Least Sandpipers, the most numerous — and certainly the noisiest — birds working the exposed bay bottom were American Crows. They clustered together as if they were sandpipers. They pulled and pushed small debris as if they were turnstones. They cracked open crab legs as if they were oystercatchers. I particularly liked one of the crows that picked up a twig lying on the ground and tossed it aside. They didn’t get much but they worked hard at it and demonstrated their intelligence and adaptability. Now if only they could sing sweet melodies.

American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos)

A Solo Dunlin

The Dunlin usually keeps company with others, often with other kinds of sandpipers. It was unusual to see a solo Dunlin. They breed up on the western and northern shores of Alaska and in other arctic and near-arctic zones around the globe. Like other small sandpipers, it appears to be a random forager, pecking in the mud at high speed without any apparent selectivity, just counting on random luck for nutrition. The bird seems in good shape, so it’s working.

Eye Candy

I took this video solely for the pleasure of seeing the bird reflected in the undulating water. The reflection seemed more alive than the bird.

Snowy Egret (Egretta thula)

Now in Flower

The Salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius) grows wild here in a few spots on the north side and elsewhere. It’s grown commercially as a vegetable for its root, which is said to taste of oyster, but a bit sweeter. The Catalina Island Cherry (Prunus ilicifolia) grows on the southern meadow of the Native Plant Area. Its cherries have a thin layer of mildly sweet flesh over a big stone. Birds like them. This is the only native plant in this gallery. The Oblong Spurge, also known as Eggleaf Spurge (Euphorbia oblongata) is an unlovable weed that I saw on the north shore. It’s toxic to humans, inedible to wildlife, and it inhibits the growth of surrounding plants, or some of them. I saw two clusters of Statice (Limonium sinuatum), one that I’ve seen before, on the northeast side, and another along the Virginia Street Extension. These flowers last a long time, making them a favorite among florists for blending with bouquets of more showy flower species. The Birdsfoot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) is now in bloom on the north side and elsewhere. It’s one of the few non-native plants that has adapted to please native pollinators, in particular bumblebees, who love it madly. Question: What kind of plant would grow in a mud puddle that’s occasionally swamped by sea water? Answer: the Brass Buttons (Leptinella squalida). On the dirt path leading from the southeast park entrance to the Virginia Street Extension, in a patch of mud where rainwater mixes with flooding Bay water, these plants have found their little heaven. It’s a New Zealand native that would spread invasively if given more of that muddy brackish habitat.

Fear Itself

The head of Extraction Well No. 1

I spent an hour on the phone with a Los Angeles Times reporter early this week. He had already written the headline, something about methane explosions in the park, and was looking for material to back it up.

The photo on the left is the open top of landfill gas Extraction Well No. 1, located near the southeast corner of the park. Engineers were working on it at the time. If you believe some of the alarmist rumors, methane would be gushing skyward here, and one spark would set off an Oppenheimer blast. In reality, the garbage under the south side of the park is around 60 years old, twice as long as the EPA lifespan for landfill gas generation. If you dropped a lit cigarette into this well, it would go out with a hiss when it hit the water at the bottom. The youngest garbage under the park, on the north end, is about 40 years old, also past its gas-making life span. Already in 2011 the gas being generated under the park was so anemic that the whole system under the park could have been shut down. Repeated surface emission measurements over the years, including the most recent one a few weeks ago, have found no trace of landfill gas leaking to the park surface. To paraphrase Franklin D. Roosevelt, there is nothing to fear about gas in the park, other than the fear which might keep you from coming and benefiting from this beautiful and healthful environment.

A New Witch Hunt on Squirrels

A decade ago, another regulatory agency, the Water Board, speculated that Ground Squirrels (Otospermophilus beecheyi) might be digging deep through the clay cap over the garbage and through the garbage out to the Bay, possibly polluting the water. There was never a single instance brought forward where this had actually happened, but the fear of water pollution was so alarming that the agency pressured the City to poison or trap or sterilize the squirrels or get rid of them some other way. We know what happened: More than 40,000 emails poured into City government in support of the squirrels, and the City backed off and installed four Barn Owl nest boxes instead, on the theory that the Barn Owls would reduce the squirrel population.

All of this was scientific nonsense. Ground Squirrels aren’t rats, they don’t eat garbage. They eat fresh young green vegetation. They burrow in loamy soil but avoid clay soil, it’s too hard. And they are diurnal, having little to fear from Barn Owls, which mostly hunt at night. Politicians do really stupid things sometimes.

Now a new witch hunt against the squirrels is gathering. They’re being blamed for the problems of the landfill gas collection system in the park. They were seen years ago running along the tops of the plastic landfill gas collection pipes when these were briefly exposed during construction. They are known to have burrows in the vicinity of the Flare Station. So they must bear the blame somehow for the gas rework project that the Air District is forcing the City to undertake. This indictment would be laughable if it didn’t carry the threat of so much cruelty to these animals. The Ground Squirrels don’t chew into plastic pipe, don’t make modifications to the Flare Station burner assembly, and don’t throw the switches that turn the Flare Station compressors on or off. We know that there are parties who would like to exterminate the squirrels and all the other wildlife that lives in symbiosis with them, such as Burrowing Owls, gopher snakes, jackrabbits, and fence lizards. Then the park would belong exclusively to dogs, gulls, rats, and crows, as in the days when it was an active dump. We can’t let the gas issue be used as a cover to resurrect this nature-hating agenda.

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