Park Week 5/26/23

Weed and Water the Plant Babies Sunday Morning

The baby native plants that Conservancy volunteers put in the ground last November had a good soaking a while ago but with the recent dry spell, they’re thirsty, and the weeds around them are inching in. Here’s your chance to step in and do good for the native plant babies and for yourself. The plants get TLC and you get fresh air, exercise, companionship, and a pizza lunch. Bob Huttar, Conservancy Volunteer Coordinator, is calling for volunteers to show up at the Spinnaker Way parking circle this Sunday, May 28, at 9 a.m. We’ll work until noon. Bob writes:

Our primary goal will be to water the plants and trees. We haven’t had a soaking rain in a while and the dry season is getting started. Secondarily we will be making sure they aren’t being crowded out by weeds and will be weeding.

Almost all of the cages have been removed because the plants were growing so well they were getting cramped. When we hand weeded and used the string-trimmer a month or so ago we caught the weeds at the right time. They were vulnerable and haven’t been able to resprout in a big way. Still, we do need to get back out there. The rains certainly have helped but we should take some credit for doing a good job of planting and caring for them.

We will have weeding and pruning tools and gloves if you need them.

Let me know if you plan to come out.


Bob Huttar
949 307-5918

Therapist of the Week

Song Sparrow singing in Native Plant Area

This Song Sparrow held forth loud and clear in the Native Plant Area for fifteen minutes before I finally spotted it. For such a small body it has a big voice. An opera singer on the same scale could probably deafen the audience at La Scala. Another male at a distance answered only in single tones. A House Finch chimed in on its own schedule. I’ve let the video run two minutes instead of the usual one for therapeutic reasons. According to a recent Washington Post article, listening to birdsong is good for your mental health.

That’s not just poetry, it’s the result of two scientific studies where “the researchers found a significant positive association between seeing or hearing birds and improved mental well-being, even when accounting for other possible explanations such as education, occupation, or the presence of greenery and water, which have themselves been associated with positive mental health.” That holds even if you can’t see the bird as it sings but can only hear it. Listening to birdsong is especially therapeutic when suffering from depression, anxiety, or paranoia. Listening to traffic noise had the opposite effect, surprise. The article offers scientific reinforcement for what most of us knew already from our own experience: birds make life better.

Along the same lines comes this article in today’s (5/26) New York Times, by Christian Cooper. Three years ago, he was the target of a white Karen who falsely accused him of threatening her life after he asked her nicely to leash her dog. Cooper’s article is a celebration of birding and a preview of his forthcoming book, “Better Living Through Birding: Notes From a Black Man in the Natural World.”

Wet Birds of Note

They say that a duck remains alert even when asleep. That was the case with these Northern Shovelers. I saw them from a distance laying on a rock at the water’s edge on the east side of the seasonal Burrowing Owl Sanctuary, apparently sound asleep. But as I tried to sneak up on them overhead, I stepped on a branch and snapped it, and both birds immediately woke and took to the water. I initially thought they were Mallards, but look at those monster beaks! I had seen numbers of them in the rain ponds in the Berkeley Meadow (aka Sylvia McLaughlin Eastshore State Park), on fresh water, weeks ago. I was surprised to see them here on the outer reaches of the salty North Basin. I saw them again the following two days in the same area, dabbling and noshing on the wet greenery.

Very much at home on salt water was this little flock of Surf Scoters, two males and two females, out in the middle of the North Basin, near a flock of more than 50 big grebes, mostly Clark’s. Tuesday was the first day this year to my knowledge that the grebes outnumbered the Scaup, who look to be mostly done with their spring migration now, leaving just a couple of dozen stragglers here at midweek. The scoters have visited here before, but these are the first I can recall seeing this year. You can see them often out in the rough surf at Pt. Reyes National Seashore. They think nothing of plunging head-first into a six-foot breaker. The North Basin water seemed like a quiet pond by comparison.

I’ve published pictures of the big grebes — Clark’s and Western — twice already in recent weeks so I’m going to skip them this time. I did not hear the come-hither courtship calls or any of their dramatic foreplay rituals, but that may be coming.

More Dry Birds

The Western Bluebird (Sialia mexicana) female waited warily as I approached, and then I took one step too close, and she was off. At this time of year, the female would ordinarily have a nest built and would have laid or be laying eggs. The nest would be in a dead tree or a crevice in a structure. I’ve seen no signs of a nest. I saw the bird on the east side of the park, far away from the trees in the Native Plant Area. These birds readily adopt human-made nest boxes. I wonder if we should build a few to attract these birds and encourage them to live here all year, instead of just visiting.

Last week I published a 2019 picture of a Savannah Sparrow in the meadow below the Flare Station. This week one of the current residents posed briefly on a tall weed in the same area and allowed me to get this snapshot. Savannah Sparrows (Passerculus sandwichensis) display strong site fidelity, meaning they feel an attachment to the place where they were hatched and prefer to return there. If they could speak human, they would say how grateful they are to Park management for not mowing this patch of grass recently. They would like the grass to be even higher, but they’re making do, and by the time that Summer Solstice rolls around, their baby birds will have left the nest and taken to the sky.

These two Lesser Goldfinch had a spat up in a tree in the Native Plant Area. It involved a fat bit of protein, probably a grub, that they both wanted a piece of. It looks like the bird on the right got a bite, but the bird on the left got most of it. The whole contest took just a few seconds. Then they were off. These finches are mostly seed eaters but go big for protein in the breeding season.

Waves in the Grass

The wind whips tall grasses as if they were water, tossing them in chaotic turbulence and rolling them in waves. I was standing in the middle of the traditional Red-winged Blackbird breeding area. The dancing grasses were the only action and the wind the only sound. That was Tuesday. Friday morning there was a rebound in red-wing activity. I saw and heard maybe eight males, a few of them diving into bushes of fresh fennel as if to check out a nest. Didn’t see any females but they spend a lot of time on the nest and only come up for breaks occasionally. We could be having a bit of a breeding season after all.

Pier Review and Ferry Tale

Sustained lack of maintenance over more than a dozen years required the closure of the Berkeley Pier in 2015. In a responsible and competent city government, heads would roll for this negligence. Instead, we sit for eight years with a dead pier and a dying Marina and the same people in charge, essentially doing nothing. Instead of urgently focusing on pier repair and restoration, which would have the aching support of just about all of Berkeley and residents nearby, and would be done by now, we are being prodded toward a highly controversial digression, a commuter ferry. There is an extremely slim wedge of support for this fantasy, and a broad list of reasons for saying no. The ferry would serve a tiny number of people at a huge public expense. It would take riders away from BART. It would create a massive parking problem in the Marina, and interfere with long-established recreational activities. And it would permanently kill the long pier, an icon of Berkeley, where so many local people have taken romantic walks or gone fishing.

No one anticipated that the pier would be shut down, and so nobody thought to organize a Pier Lovers’ Association ahead of time. It’s only now, when pier users have scattered widely, that such a group is coming together. They’ve started a website, and are circulating a petition. You can download the petition here. Here’s some further reading:

Dog Park Caution

f you thought that foxtails were the only danger to your dog in the park, a distressing article in the current Scientific American points to the danger of drug-resistant hookworm infections. The source lies in greyhound racing, a sport now banned in most states including California, but supplied by greyhound breeder operations that fed their animals anti-parasitic drugs without restrictions, thus fostering strains of the parasites immune to drug treatments. From greyhounds, via adoptions, the drug-resistant parasites spread to the general dog population. It’s estimated that 50 percent of dogs with hookworm infections now carry the drug-resistant strain. This poses a problem for dog parks, the article says:

These spaces provide the perfect environment for the spread of parasites. As many as 500,000 hookworm eggs can be left in a single dropping from an adult canine, and once eggs and larvae are present in a park, it is nearly impossible to get rid of them. Two studies from 2020 and 2021 found that dogs visiting dog parks had a 70 percent higher prevalence of hookworm infections compared with the overall population.

There’s also a risk of the parasite crossing over to humans. A veterinarian specializing in parasitic diseases counsels dog owners not to be afraid of dog parks but to pick up their poop promptly and have their pet checked by a veterinarian four times a year. But, he says,

owners need to understand the risk and stay on top of checkups with the vet. Unfortunately, there is little that cities can do to eliminate hookworm in parks. Once larvae have made it to the grass and soil, they are impossible to find and kill.

Marina Politics Continued

At the most recent meeting of the Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Commission, a subcommittee presented a draft of a report and recommendations to the City Council about the Waterfront Area Specific Plan. I discussed this in my post of May 12. Yesterday (5/25) the subcommittee met to discuss a new draft dated May 19 and posted 5/24. Thanks to wakeup calls from friends, I learned about it and was able to attend via Zoom and make a two-minute statement. Here I’m going to go into more detail. You can view the subcommittee’s 5/19 draft at this link.

First some minor stuff.

Native Plant Area in park, established in 1980s

The document is rough in places and needs copy editing.  

The document lacks historic references.  Neither the 2003 Specific Plan nor the earlier plans are acknowledged. The document proceeds as if each of the issues it raises were new and being discussed here for the first time, when in fact most are quite old and have been discussed many times. 

The document in places reveals lack of familiarity with the area.  For example, it proposes creation of a kayak rental place and a windsurfing launch area, both of which already exist and have existed for years. It proposes a cafe near the park, unaware that such a cafe already exists in the Doubletree hotel next door to the park. It proposes creation of native plant areas in Chavez Park, when at least one such area exists and has existed since the 1980s. It calls for developing a list of species in the park, when a list of bird, plant, insect, and herps species has already been compiled and published on the website.  

Passing to the main content areas, I have the following:

The Fiscal Recommendations on P. 2 are meritorious.  The document points out that the official spreadsheet of the Marina’s fiscal status is profoundly misleading and it calls for a reset from scratch.  This is to be welcomed.  However, this analysis begs the question of where, pending development of a new and more truthful analysis of Marina finances, the funding for the many proposals in the document is to come from. Until funding is identified, the document describes castles in the air.

About Cesar Chavez Park: The document would benefit from review of the 2003 and earlier plans for the park.  

The Off-Leash Area is historically a new park use that serves only a minority of park users.  An early BMASP survey found fewer than a third of park users came for their dogs.  The great majority came for nature.  A comprehensive analysis of the OLA needs to focus on whether and how the OLA integrates with the park’s natural and ecological features. The only pertinent reference in the document is that “its boundaries should be appropriately fenced to protect sensitive ecological areas.” Since all areas of the park are sensitive ecological areas, the whole OLA should be fenced.  Enforcement of the existing city dog laws in the park is urgently required to minimize damage from owners in violation. No amount of artwork, seating, or other items on the dog owner’s wish list will substitute for effective enforcement.  

The document is silent on the Chavez/Huerta Solar Calendar, a park landmark that merits support and investment for its development.

On mowing, the document seems unaware of the different park areas and their different mowing needs, and the mowing plans and schedules that already exist.  The key point about mowing is that attention to wildlife habitat outside the dog area requires less mowing rather than more.

The document is right to call attention to declining bird populations, but remains silent on the substandard fence surrounding the seasonal Burrowing Owl Sanctuary, which has claimed owl lives.  

The document calls the current picnicking areas “not inviting,” even though they are used frequently in good weather.  

A new kayak launch facility cannot be built on on the east side of the park because those waters are under East Bay Regional Park jurisdiction and are protected bird habitat.  It cannot be built on the north or west sides because the wind and water are usually too rough.  

The document is vague on the kinds of new food, retail, and recreational uses it proposes for the park. If the Master Plan is to mean anything, specific criteria for what is appropriate need to be spelled out. A proposal such as the SuperBloom festival, for example, if based on the Munich original, would destroy the park and obliterate the wildlife habitat. The plan must translate its priority on ecological value into specific and clear criteria. Just leaving things to a “case-by-case” evaluation is a loophole for abuse.

Nothing in the document addresses park visitors’ concern with noisy drones and motorized model airplanes. The document is blind to habitat abuse by off-road bicyclists, particularly during wet weather.

The document is also silent on the ferry issue and on other key projects that are part of the City’s waterfront proposals. Without these matters nailed down, planning for the Marina drifts within a broad bay of fuzziness.  The document would benefit from pointing out these uncertainties.  

As I emphasized in my May 12 comments, the document also assumes that the Parks commission has or will have power to decide on park developments. The City Manager years ago removed those powers from commissions. The commissions are useful as sounding boards, but they decide nothing of substance.

Squirrel of the Week

This Ground Squirrel stood in the middle of a little forest of Wild Mustard on the south side of the park, facing Spinnaker Way. There was something about the alertness yet serenity of its attitude that drew my attention. Not a pup yet not a senior, this squirrel exuded a mature confidence. It could see perfectly well in all directions, but the surrounding tall wildflowers and their stems gave it fair cover. I had to maneuver quite a bit to get a clear photo. Seeing the thereness of this smart little mammal underlined for me the truth that this is their home. They are the hosts here. We are the guests.

California Ground Squirrels are deeply adapted to this habitat. They can tunnel for long distances, creating safe caves for raising their families. Their burrows do not flood even in the heaviest sky rivers. They survive and thrive on the local vegetation, and like nothing better than to eat the seeds of plants we consider weeds, such as foxtails — foxtails are barley, a nutritious grain. They can deal expertly with snakes and most other predators. We humans would be lucky to be so in tune with our environment. Ground Squirrels deserve our respect. In their small furry way they are an inspiration.

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