Park Week 4/7/23

Kudos to Kamen for April 1 Post

The test of a good April Fool’s joke is that people think it’s real. Paul Kamen’s post, New Master Plan for Berkeley’s Marina in the Daily Planet last week reported that the City planned to convert the Berkeley Pier into a container shipping terminal. Kamen is a long-time boat activist at the Marina and a former member and chair of the Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Commission. Kamen described the container port plan so realistically and added such credible (fake) graphics that I had several readers of this blog email me in panic and outrage even in midweek.

The City’s payout of more than $1 million to the Hargreaves-Jones firm with the mandate to promote commercial development at the Marina has tanked the City’s environmental reputation to the point where a container terminal sounded just like something the City would do. Hey City fathers and mothers: time for a reset. Take Hargreaves-Jones to court for a refund. Stop putting out fake financial reports on Marina revenues and expenses. When people believe a sendup like Paul Kamen’s it means that the City’s own credibility is shot.

Native Plant Babies Thriving; Work Day Set

With weeks of rain now yielding to sunny days, the native plants that Conservancy volunteers put in the ground are thriving. The Torrey Pine that went in more than a year ago is sprouting new branches. The California Aster and the Rock Phacelia have outgrown their protective cages and look almost ready to bloom. Both the Aster and the Phacelia host native pollinator insects. The Phacelia, in particular, is host to the Mission Blue butterfly, an endangered species endemic to San Francisco.

Conservancy Volunteer Coordinator Bob Huttar has been out of town on a family mission but is back and has called a Stewardship Saturday for April 15. Meet at 9:15 at the parking circle at the end of Spinnaker Way. A group of UC student volunteers will join us. Bob says, “The rains have been terrific for our plantings and unfortunately also for weeds. The winds have broken branches and knocked over trees. We will be removing some cages from plants which have outgrown or grown through them, weeding clear spaces around plants and reducing the fallen trees and branches.”  

Ceanothus Time

This is the hour of the Ceanothus, especially the bright blue variety, C. thyrsiflorus, which is endemic to California and Oregon. The founders of the Native Plant Area in the early 1980s planted a number of them. They’re now a decade or two past their usual life expectancy, and many have expired, but some of them are hanging on. Here’s a couple of the original Ceanothus shrubs in the Native Plant Area that are partly or mostly dead but still have some life in them. The bright gray parts, like a long beard, are dead; the green parts with the blue flowers are the surviving parts of the same plant.

There’s another bush of the same plant, probably planted a decade or two later, up on the North side of the park next to a picturesque bench. I happened to pass when the sun was toasty and the wind was quiet, and saw just a small sample of the pollinator insects for which Ceanothus is a powerful magnet. The Tachinid fly looks like an ordinary house fly but don’t be fooled. It’s a beneficial insect that gardeners have learned to love; see for example this glowing review in the Savvy Gardening website.

Strawberries Coming

Beach Strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis)

The City planted these Beach Strawberry plants (Fragaria chiloensis) in the middle of the parking circle at the end of Spinnaker Way as part of the big road rehab project last year. They’re in bloom now. When the weather heats up, they should pop out a passel of tiny beach strawberries, hard to pick but sweet to eat. They’re native to the Pacific Coast. Thank you Jacob Several, Parks landscape supervisor, for choosing them.

Tree Cleanup Done and To Do

The massive storm damage to the Monterey Cypresses along Spinnaker Way got mostly tidied up last week. A contractor crew came, cleared the pedestrian path, and hauled away big chunks of the root and trunk of the biggest tree that fell. Crews initially left a jagged, ragged remnant, but came back midweek and hauled away all signs of this big tree other than scraped ground and a broken irrigation tube. Meanwhile, in the Native Plant Area, where tree rigs can’t enter or operate as easily as along Spinnaker Way, no work has been done to clear the fallen giant Guadalupe Cypress that crashed two weeks ago, not to mention the two Monterey Pines that fell a month ago and a year ago, respectively. On top of that, two more trees fell victim to the winds this past week in the Native Plant Area. One fell across the upper path in the northeast corner. This was a dead tree, species unclear, of minor proportions. Another fell toward the south side just below the Monterey Pine grove. This one was a non-native Myoporum laetum, old and big and mostly dead. It broke off at the root crown, probably killed by the drought. There’s plenty of work now for a forestry crew in the Native Plant Area.

Slow Start for Blackbird Season

In other botanical news, it looks to me like the annual Red-winged Blackbird breeding party may be delayed a while, or be very small. The blackbird females, who do all the work, like to build their nests in the lush, dense foliage of bright green new Fennel plants in the northwest quadrant of the park. Nests built there are practically invisible, and that makes them safer. The problem is that this year, for unknown reasons, the new Fennel is very slow getting started. The old dried plants are plentiful, see photo below, but are not dense enough for safe nesting. The bright green new shoots are just inches tall now, where normally they’d be knee high or more at the beginning of April, and growing fast. In past years, the Red-winged Blackbirds assembled in numbers in the Fennel forest here and engaged in a noisy, joyful courting, mating, and breeding party that produced a new crop of birds by Summer Solstice, when they’d all fly off. A handful of males is on the scene but I saw no females. I fear the party may be late or very small this year.

Last year’s Fennel in the northwest quadrant of the park in early April. New shoots are barely visible.

Favorite Birds of the Week

My favorite birds of the week were the hopeful Red-winged Blackbird males waiting for females to arrive in the northwest corner (but may have a long wait, see previous post), the Golden-Crowned Sparrow perched with its crown hairs raised high at the shoreline, and the majestic Great Blue Heron that’s been pacing the grasslands all over the park practically every day. The photo of the Black Oystercatcher is by park visitor Joell Jones, who caught the bird at the perfect angle where the sun lit up its bright orange beak.

And a special mention to this pair of Mallards who came way outside their usual range to dabble in the rain-soaked marsh near the west side picnic spot below the Native Plant Area trees. This was a big marsh years ago, and a duck magnet then. I’m always curious how birds find good spots like this. Are these Mallards old enough to remember that this area gets swampy after a big rain? Or do they make regular reconnaissance flights? Same question for the Northern Shovelers and Northern Pintail ducks that you could see this week in the big rain ponds in the former Berkeley Meadow (now Sylvia McLaughlin Eastshore State Park). How do they find these spots?

Mallard F and M

Local Chapter Members Vote to Dump “Audubon”

The local chapter of the Audubon Society held a membership poll recently and the results came back last week with a 63 percent majority in favor of dumping the “Audubon” name. At the same time the National Audubon Society’s board of directors voted just the opposite: they’re going to keep the name. The local chapters are independent and can do what they want. As I write this, the local chapter’s leadership has not announced what it will do in response to the membership poll.

Most of the drive for the name change has come from disclosures that John James Audubon bought, used, and sold enslaved people, and was an active racist and white supremacist. In my recently published book, Audubon’s Rifle, I quote many dozen passages from Audubon’s own writings documenting that he was also a bird killer on a large scale. He not only killed the birds he painted, he killed thousands more, and took delight in bird kills. He prided himself, for example, on shooting “hundreds” of Red-winged Blackbirds in an afternoon. He shot so many Canada Geese in one outing that he did not want to admit the number. He shot Pelicans at close range. He thought it was a great experience to massacre seabirds sitting on their eggs. He had trees cut down to get at birds’ nests. He shot birds just for target practice. And he ate a lot of birds, including eagles, woodpeckers, songbirds, herons, sandpipers, and many others. He should never have been adopted as patron saint of a bird conservation group in the first place. I hope the local chapter’s leadership listens to the membership poll and drops Audubon from the name. But what does the local bird group have to do with Chavez Park? See next item.

What This Has to Do With the Park

As regular readers of this blog know, there is a problem with the fence around the seasonal Burrowing Owl Sanctuary in the northeast corner of the park. The fence is too low, and the gaps between its horizontal cables too wide, to keep loose dogs out of the owl area. It has cost two Burrowing Owls their lives, and added to the stress of others. This fence is so unsafe that every year we hold our breaths in late fall wondering whether even one Burrowing Owl will show up to spend the winter there. Well, this sick fence is in part the brainchild of the Golden Gate Audubon Society. The group had one member, Della Dash, on the 7-person committee in 2010-2011 that designed the art project that comprises the fence and the concrete seating areas on the north and south ends of the area. The low fence might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but things have changed. There is a long train of documentation, mainly compiled by the Society’s own staffer Noreen Weeden and by volunteer docents, showing attacks on the owls by loose dogs breaching the fence in mounting numbers year by year. Photos and videos provide graphic evidence of loose dog invasions into the supposedly protected area. (See Open Letter to Audubon’s Glenn Phillips, Sept. 20, 2022 for details.) Every other local fence aimed at owl protection, including fences promoted by the Audubon chapter before Phillips, is at least four feet high. You might think then that the chapter would put owl conservation in Chavez Park foremost and come out in favor of a better fence. But Phillips has set his feet in cement against it. He is kowtowing to a faction of dog owners who see fences, especially good ones, as infringements on canine liberty, including the liberty to harass and kill Burrowing Owls. Park visitors who see the fence and see how poorly it protects the owls cannot understand why anyone, much less a bird organization, would defend this glaring safety hazard. I’m hoping the name discussion will shake up and wake up the chapter to its conservation duties in the park.

Thoughtful Article About Dogs and Shorebirds

And speaking of dogs and the local bird group chapter, the group’s email list today carries this contribution from Chris Okon: a link to a thoughtful article about dogs and shorebirds. The article is called “Gone to the Dogs” in Hakai magazine, a journal of coastal science and societies. The author is Ben Goldfarb, an environmental journalist. He makes the key point that the problem is not dogs, it’s their owners.

Mayor Supports Effective Fence for Owl Habitat

On the positive side, our mayor, Jesse Arreguin, who has been an outspoken defender of the park, has taken a fresh approach and promises to “support a secure effective fence to protect the owl habitat” if elected State Senator in ’24. Park visitor Isabelle Gaston has shared this correspondence:

Dear Mayor Arreguin,

As you may be aware, Berkeley’s last remaining Burrowing Owl in César Chávez Park faces an existential threat because it lacks a secure fence to protect it from off-leash dogs.  This has been amply documented on the Chávez Park Conservancy website and elsewhere.

If elected State Senator on an environmental platform, would you commit to seeking immediate funding and supporting the building of an effective and functional fence within the first 90 days of your tenure?

Hi Isabelle, thanks for your message. I need to look into more about why there isn’t adequate protection of the habitat areas but yes I would support a secure effective fence to protect the owl habitat. 

I am not sure if the constraint is funding or implementation and we would need to work with EBRP who runs the McLaughlin East Shore Park.


Well, everyone knows that candidates for election are sometimes quick with promises, but Jesse, regardless of his other shortcomings, was a staunch supporter of last year’s movement to stop the commercialization of Chavez Park. Check out his writing in the Love Letters to the Park book at page 175. And by the way, during that entire campaign the local Audubon chapter under Phillips issued not a peep.

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