Standing in the Open Circle Viewpoint looking north, I spotted a young Black-crowned Night-Heron perched in the shallows just below the rocks with their green coating exposed at low tide. Just then a Great Egret claimed that spot and the much smaller heron yielded. The two kept close together, clambering on the rocks, and then the heron flushed a Mallard drake that was feeding on the seaweed. The next day I saw probably the same Great Egret, joined this time by a Great Blue Heron, plus both a juvenile and an adult Black-crowned Night-Heron, with more Mallards, a Western Gull, a pair of Scaup, and a Black Oystercatcher nearby. That’s seven bird species in the same neighborhood. Not a record, probably, but certainly a sight worth seeing.
As I was filming, a park visitor called out to me from across the fence, “Are you seeing the little owl?” I explained that the Burrowing Owl was last seen February 19. “Then why is the area still closed?” asked the visitor. I explained that Park management lets the Golden Gate Audubon chapter (GGAS) decide on opening and closing the area and defers to GGAS about the fence that surrounds it. “Take it up with GGAS,” I advised the visitor.
Decoy in Motion
Most of the time, the Black-crowned Night Heron hunts by standing frozen in position, waiting for something edible to come by. You might have a hard time telling it apart from a plastic decoy. But this morning at low tide, with acres of mud exposed, a trio of these birds paced actively, almost as if they were Snowy Egrets, and had good results. This individual caught a tiny fish and then a long marine worm within minutes as I filmed it.
Further south on the North Basin, a lone Marbled Godwit alternately napped and preened in the shallows. I usually see small flocks of them, rarely a solo. At the moment it was standing on one foot; many birds do that when resting. Out in deeper water, a Clark’s Grebe and a Western Grebe paddled very near each other, as if they were a pair. Despite great similarities — scientists for decades considered them the same species — hybrids are rare. Confused about which is which? Check last week’s post for details.
It’s almost the middle of May and the Red-winged Blackbird breeding party should be in full swing. What we have instead is a handful of frustrated males showing off their magnificent shoulder flares to nobody other than one another. I have not seen females. The problem is the Fennel. The new Fennel sprouts, the fine, light green, dense growth that starts at the bottom of the dry old stalks, is still only about knee high on the north slope of the park. A few bushes on the west ridge are higher, but probably not enough to form a habitat for a colony of nests, the way that these blackbirds like to breed. The females do all the nest building work, and they make all the decisions about where and when to build. They like the new Fennel to be about shoulder high (on a human) as this gets them off the ground enough while providing a dense green shroud that conceals the nest. The Fennel has been growing fairly rapidly in the past couple of weeks but is much lower than usual. Nobody knows for certain what the problem is, but speculation runs that the heavy rains caused root rot or similar root decay. Fennel is highly resilient to drought, but doesn’t like to be drowned. Now that we’re having a string of sunny days, the new growth may catch up, the females may arrive, and the party may get going later than usual, but that’s more hope than probability. Meanwhile we have some very frustrated males.
Last week I published a photo of a female Brown-headed Cowbird that I saw foraging on the south side along Spinnaker Way. This week I saw her again in the same area, along with the male. The delay or drop of the Red-winged Blackbird breeding season this year is also bad news for the cowbirds. They’re parasitic breeders, meaning that the female lays her eggs in the nests of other species and counts on the other moms to hatch and raise them. That has worked with the blackbirds in the past, see “Bird Con” Jun18 2020. But if the blackbirds aren’t breeding, the cowbirds need to find some other nests to parasitize. The House Finches raise their chicks on an almost entirely vegetarian diet, which isn’t enough for the cowbird chicks, so they starve there. Looks like a bad year for these parasitic breeders.
Among the natives that Conservancy volunteers planted last fall, this Common Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) broke out in bloom last week. Yarrow is an amazing plant deep in history and rich in applications; read up on it in Wikipedia. The California Phacelia isn’t showy from a distance, but up close it reveals a tight cluster of tiny flowers rich in nectar. Here a bumblebee is among the pollinators that are drawn to it. Look for both plants in the Native Plant Area. We planted five of the Yarrow and ten of the Phacelia. See what else we planted here. The City planted these Maritime Pines (Pinus pinaster) along Spinnaker Way some years ago to replace Monterey Pines. As the photo shows, they’re growing vigorously. They’re Mediterranean natives, grown commercially for timber. They’re controversial in South Africa as an aggressively invasive species. Check out this Wikipedia piece.
Tree contractors came to the Native Plant Area Thursday May 11 and removed fallen trees, see “Park Week 4/7.” This included the giant Guadalupe Cypress that fell in late March and the big Monterey Pine toward the south end that fell more than a year ago. This was welcome work. Less welcome was the next step, when the contractors removed two standing and live Monterey Pines near the one that had fallen. These trees were old but had plenty of juice left in them, as shown by a vigorous topping of needles. They also had scenic value as frames for vistas of San Francisco across the Bay. Fortunately, Conservancy volunteers last fall planted a number of new Monterey Cypress and Torrey Pine saplings in the same area. In fifteen years, assuming hard work and good conditions, this southern corner of the Native Plant Area will once again have an evergreen canopy. Here’s a brief video of the last stages of the tree contractors’ work:
Like bumblebees on nectar, Marina politics buzzed last week with various budget honeypots as the attraction. The Parks Department held a pair of “webinars” on Zoom May 1 and 3, unveiling its vision for the south side. The City Council’s Budget and Finance Committee met to consider shortfalls in the T1 budget. The Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Commission held a meeting and submitted a draft report on Marina development, including a lengthy discussion of Cesar Chavez Park.
The City’s Zoom webinars followed the usual formula of long staff presentations (available online here and here) and short, fractured moments for public feedback. The brain behind this exercise is the Hargreaves Jones consulting firm, famous for last year’s brilliant proposals to build an amphitheater and a zip line and ropes course in Chavez Park. Public protest killed that. The park was officially out of bounds for the webinar discussion. Also off topic, unofficially, were the two elephants in the south shore room: the derelict pier and the former Hs Lordships site. The presentation proceeded as if meaningful area design could be done without knowing the fate of these key facilities. Why does the City continue to pay this worthless parasite of a consulting firm?
The May 10 Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Commission meeting heard a protracted rehash of these webinars for the benefit of the commissioners who had not attended. The staff presentation was notable for its omission of any public feedback heard at the events.
Of chief interest at the commission meeting was the draft of a “Report and Recommendations to City Council” penned by a subcommittee of the commission. It was submitted shortly before the meeting, with the result that most panel and audience members had not read it. A copy is attached here (with my highlights), and is worth reading.
The draft begins on a refreshing note: it points out that the “Marina Fund concept is unsustainable as it presently exists.” That’s a polite but pointed way of saying that the whole budget spreadsheet that has framed the discussion of Marina issues is deeply bogus. It contains expense items that properly are the City’s, not the Marina’s, and omits revenue sources that are properly the Marina’s, not the City’s. Good beginning.
Then it fades into Mom-and-apple-pie generalities about the area as a whole, with just a couple of specific points: support the Kite Fest, do dredging, fix the path along Marina Boulevard. OK.
Worth detailed study is section IV, about Cesar Chavez Park. The draft recommends developing “a comprehensive master plan for the Park.” There’s no mention of the previous comprehensive master plans for the park, notably the one in 2003, but never mind.
The first specific topic in the draft is the 17-acre Off Leash Area (OLA). The document calls this “a core use of the park.” True, it’s a core use for people who come to walk their dogs. But, as the original BMASP surveys already showed, that’s a minority of less than one third of the people who visit the park. The great majority come to the park for nature: trees, grasses, birds, wildlife, air, sky, exercise, serenity, scenery. In the next draft, this principal core use needs to be given the proper priority. The draft does take one significant step in that direction by recommending (at IV.B.1) that the OLA “should be appropriately fenced.” Indeed. Absent a fence around the OLA, numerous dog owners treat the whole park as their dog toilet and game preserve. Kudos to the authors of the draft for raising the dog fence issue, at last.
Of merit also is the recommendation for a mowing plan. Mowing outside the OLA is a knee-jerk effort to imitate a golf course. It’s being done to excess. Many parts of the non-OLA area would be more natural and offer habitat for beautiful ground-nesting birds if unmowed. The NoMow movement for private lawns should filter into public greenspace as well.
There is much other language in the draft that shows positive intent. Yes on pollinator gardens, yes on protecting threatened species (but nothing about the substandard fence around the Burrowing Owl Sanctuary). There are some issues also. There is a typo where it finds 151 species of “insects” in the park, when it means to say “plants.” The idea of a playground for kids doesn’t get included, even though it’s needed. There are questionable details such as the proposal for a kayak rental facility and launch ramp, or overnight camping in the park, among others. And the proposal that “well-planned festivals and events should be considered on a case-by-case basis” looks like a loophole for sliding in the zombie cannabis promotion circus again. But we’ll see. All in all, this is a document that Chavez Park Conservancy volunteers and friends can work with.
On the final pages comes the question of implementation. Here the draft urges that new and/or temporary uses of the Marina “should be subject to review and approval” by the Commission. Unless something fundamental changes in Berkeley politics, that’s not going to happen. Today’s commissions, including Parks, have no such power. They’re not cogs in the governmental machinery, they’re decorative ornaments.
To end on good news: The Council’s Budget and Finance Committee reviewing T1 bond cost overruns did not slash the Chavez Park restroom proposal. The proposal now goes to City Council for final approval. Kudos and thanks to Gordon Wozniak for a memo to the Committee supporting the restroom plan. We actually need four real restrooms in the park, but one is a start. No word yet on when construction would begin, if approved.