Birds: Female Cameo
At least one female showed up in the Red-winged Blackbird breeding area on Sunday May 14. She was the first of the season that I’ve seen. Only four or maybe six males of the species were still present. They inspected her from a respectful distance. She was not giving out mating vibes. She did not engage in courtship behavior and was not seen collecting materials for a nest. The new Fennel plants, the preferred nesting medium in this spot, have made good progress. But apparently not good enough. She may have been here as a scout for the female tribe, tasked with reporting on the habitat. She was still present on Monday 5/15. On Tuesday, there was no sign of her. I was out of town Wednesday and Thursday. Friday morning the whole scene seemed to be over. No sign of a female. Only two or three males still sticking around, singing and showing off their epaulets occasionally, more out of habit than conviction. Unless the females change their mind and return here, it looks like there will be no Red-winged Blackbird breeding season here this year.
The fault probably lies mainly with nature. The wet winter seems to have delayed the new Fennel’s growing spurt. The new Fennel was not high enough at the time when the birds needed it to hold and hide their nests. But human management also contributed. A few years ago, management leveled and crushed the established Fennel in a swath eight feet wide on either side of the concrete V-channel that runs through the area. The outside boundary of the Fennel forest also got slashed, exposing and almost destroying one nest. See “Blackbird Nest: Good News and Bad News,” May 29 2016. These cuts drastically reduced the area of the blackbirds’ breeding habitat, and in the opinion of several observers, the breeding populations have faded ever since. Back then, birds and their habitat weren’t an item on the park management radar screen. Hopefully that’s beginning to change.
Singing His Heart Out
This Song Sparrow male had a song in its heart that just had to come out no matter what. Runners paced by within a few feet of its perch, and this photographer with his big black photo rig parked almost within reach, and the song went on uninterrupted. This Coyote Bush on the north side has offered a home to this sparrow, or its ancestors, for as long as I’ve been walking in the park.
Plants of Note
I can’t title this section “Favorite Plants” as I usually do because two of them aren’t my favorites, at all. The Wild Mustard (Sinapis arvensis) is very pretty and I have no problem with it. It grows all over the park at this time of the year. It’s a Mediterranean native but has been here long enough to be accepted as host and nectar source by a number of beneficial insects.
Can’t say anything very good for the Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum). Conservancy volunteers last year removed those that were growing in the Native Plant Area, but we didn’t get all the roots, which are tough and deep, and some have come back. This is the plant that Socrates took as a suicide potion. It will have been removed by the time you read this.
The Italian Thistle (Carduus pycnocephalus) and several thistly cousins (notably the Milk Thistle and the Slender Thistle) are running rampant all over the park. The Italian is a C-listed weed by the California Department of Agriculture and has a Moderate Invasive Plant rating from the California Invasive Plant Council. There are too many of them to cut down by hand.
The west side of the hill opposite the Native Plant Area is lovely this week with Wild Radish (Raphanus raphanistrum). That’s a wildflower that thrives in many places in the park. Its white and pink blooms create a magical aura that makes the park look like a fairyland. In the past, Parks has sent mowers to massacre it, striving to make the park look like a lawn or a golf course. Boo! How about reining in the mow machine this year, and letting nature work its magic?
On the east side, on the big meadow below the Flare Station, my ears tell me that Savannah Sparrows are breeding there again. Song Sparrows also fill the air with their high pitched trills. (I can hear them now thanks to brand new hearing aids!). I saw one sparrow rise briefly, circle once, and settle in again. There aren’t any high perches for them to sing on, so I can’t see them perform their concerts, but they’re definitely present. The grass, not mowed for several weeks, is tall enough to conceal them and their nests. Here, too, NoMow is the humane policy. Running the mower over this area now would destroy the nests and everything in and on them. Park management took mercy on these birds in 2019. It’s time to show mercy again.
The Other Dog Holes
An undisturbed Ground Squirrel hole is about the size of a tennis ball. See photo left. A number of dog owners permit their dogs to hunt Ground Squirrels by trying to dig them out of their burrows. Digging dogs can quickly enlarge these openings. Dog holes are not only unsightly, they can become trip hazards for humans.
At the May 10 meeting of the Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Commission, Commission chair Claudia Kawczynska thanked a group of UC Berkeley student volunteers, and Parks Landscape Maintenance Superintendent Jacob Several, for their work in filling up dog holes in the 17-acre Off-Leash Area (OLA) on April 15.
That’s a necessary and worthwhile achievement, to be applauded. But the OLA is not the only place where dog holes pose a hazard. Some dog owners let their animals run loose not only in the OLA but everywhere else in the 90-acre park. In about two hours this past Saturday and Sunday mornings, I found and photographed more than 50 dog holes outside the OLA. That’s not all of them, but it’s enough to make the point. Here’s an album of dog hole snapshots from outside the OLA, with a map and some video below.
Here’s a map showing the GPS location of these photographs. Small numbers below the tags indicate the number of holes photographed at that location.
In the video, the first dog is digging on the south side near Spinnaker Way, with an owner nowhere in sight. The next scene, with two shepherds, both dragging leashes, took place on the north side in the area where Red-winged Blackbirds breed in spring. No owner was in sight. The black-and-white dog in the third scene was digging in the Nature Area on the north side, where dogs and people are supposedly excluded. Again, no owner in sight. The final scene is also on the south side near Spinnaker Way. Two people who were probably the owners looked on and could be seen smiling as the dog dug.
Nobody seems to be thinking about what the Ground Squirrels feel when a dog tries to dig into their homes. Or how they like it when their burrow entrances are disfigured.
If a human were to try to dig out a Ground Squirrel or some other wildlife with a pick and a shovel, we would have no difficulty assessing this behavior as vandalism. California Penal Code Sec. 594, titled Malicious Mischief, provides that any person who defaces, damages, or destroys property not their own is guilty of vandalism. If the damage is less than $400, conviction is punishable by up to a year in county jail and a fine of up to $1000, or both.
A dog owner is vicariously liable for the acts of their dog.
It would be lovely if the dog owner’s club were to repair the damage done to the park outside the area of its special interest. It would be even better if the group were also to restrain its members from further vandalism in the future.
Spiral Open at Last
The day after this blog published an item explaining why the area remained closed Parks responded and opened the gates to the Burrowing Owl Sanctuary. The Burrowing Owl that had spent the winter here was last seen on February 19. It took until May 13 for public access to be restored. The Open Circle Viewpoint (aka the Spiral) is the best birding hotspot in Chavez Park. You can now go there without having to climb over the fence. The northeast corner is also open and affords fine views of the inner Bay.
When the stripers are running, the weekend fishers come out of the hills with their boats on trailers and gobble up every parking space around the park. Each rig takes up two or three parking spaces. I’m among the many park visitors who don’t appreciate it. A ready solution is to open up the Virginia Street Extension for trailer parking, and impose meaningful fines for trailer parking on the streets.
Funny Committee Report
Reporting on a budget committee meeting in a way that’s actually funny seems impossible, but Isabelle Gaston pulled it off in this week’s Berkeley Daily Planet.
In an article titled “Budget Committee Mimics Ruddy Turnstone Behavior to Close Measure T-1 Funding Gap,” Gaston compared the committee members’ hunt for additional revenue to the Ruddy Turnstone’s tumbling of rocks to find edibles underneath (citing the video on this site). After several tries that came up dry, Gaston credits council member Kate Harrison for tapping the Workmen’s Compensation Fund as a source to pay for the challenged projects, including the Chavez Park restroom.
The issue now goes to full City Council for ratification at a date TBA.