Park Week 5/31/2024

Blue Scores Big

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)

I had no idea what this Blue was doing. The tide was at a minus 0.85 ebb, with plenty of exposed mud, and I had just seen a Snowy work the puddles with its legs, stirring up edibles hiding at the bottom, see below. But the Blue wasn’t looking down. It paced along the green rip-rap on the east edge of the seasonal Burrowing Owl Sanctuary and stuck its neck out horizontally, looking for something in the rocks maybe a foot or higher above the surface. But what? Watching from the Open Circle Viewpoint, I followed with my camera.

Then suddenly I saw it. With a horizontal lunge, the bird snagged a fish out of the rocks, and not a small one. This one was nearly a foot long from nose to tail. Fishers will know what it was. My guess is Plainfin Midshipman (Porichthys notatus), although it might be a Pacific Staghorn Sculpin (Leptocottus armatus). The Midshipman is known to hide in rocks as the tide recedes because it can breathe air. The heron must know that as well. The bird was looking for exactly this fish.

Once in the heron’s long-nose pliers, the fish was doomed. But the bird doesn’t like to swallow a live fish, at least not one this big. By my count, the heron dropped the fish on the mud or in a puddle 21 times. Then it did something I had not seen before. It stabbed the fish in the throat and more or less drilled a hole there. After that bit of field surgery, the bird seemed satisfied that all traces of life had left the fish. Then two more dips in the water, and down the hatch. The bird had no trouble swallowing a fish this size. The bird then dipped its beak in the water seven times. Was it drinking or merely rinsing its beak?

That done, the Blue proceeded with its wet morning walk along the east shore of the park. In surf as on turf, the Great Blue is a formidable hunter.

Both Legs

Snowy Egret (Egretta thula)

Most humans have a major hand. Like baseball pitchers, we’re either righties or lefties. The same goes for legs. The one-sidedness of legs is a big issue for soccer players, who are either left-footed or right-footed shooters. Very rarely is a player equally dangerous on both sides.

If the Snowy Egret played soccer it would be in high demand. It shows no favoritism when it stirs the bottom of a puddle, looking to dislodge edibles that lurk there. It switches from one leg to the other with equal energy. In this set of puddles the rewards were tiny bits of protein. But it all adds up.

A Stay-at-Home Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys)

Seen a couple of months ago this would be just another White-crowned Sparrow. But seen this week, it’s probably unusual. It’s probably a member of the Nuttalli subspecies, Zonotrichia leucophrys nuttalli.

The flocks of White-crowned Sparrows we see in the winter months belong to the migratory subspecies Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii or Z.l. pugetensis. These make long trips to Alaska and Northern Canada for the summer, and breed there. They have extraordinary navigation skills. They take advantage of the earth’s magnetic field, among other clues, to find the exact spot where they hatched and the exact spot thousands of miles away where they spent the previous winter.

The Nuttalls are stay-at-homes. If they travel, it’s for short distances. They live year round along the California coast from Cape Mendocino down to Pt. Conception. They’re long-established at the Point Reyes seashore. They were seen routinely in Berkeley in the early 1900s, but more recently their appearance is noteworthy and arouses birder commentary.

This individual looks like a teenager. It still has the light and dark brown stripes of a youngster on its crown, but they’re beginning to turn white and black like a grownup. It might have been hatched here. Nuttallis tend to hatch early to mid April and can leave the nest ten days later, and forage on their own within two to three weeks.

I have not seen a nest or a spot where bird traffic suggests a nest might be hidden. Adult females can and often do lay a second brood, particularly in seasons with late spring rains such as we have had. Please keep an eye out for these local birds and post a Comment, or better yet, send in a photo, if you see one.

Other Feathers

Gas Well Rework in Native Plant Area

The ongoing work to upgrade the landfill gas extraction wells throughout the park reached the Native Plant Area on Thursday. There are two such wells in the area, Extraction Well (EW) No. 7 and EW8. EW7 is located just downhill from the meadow on the south end of the area. A beautiful Flowering Currant plant grew just inches from the well’s access box. Chavez Park Conservancy volunteers moved and replanted the Currant out of danger three weeks ago.

The SCS crew have been attacking the other wells in the park using a backhoe with tracks about eight feet wide. That tool would have caused major devastation to the Native Plant Area. Mindful of the sensitive area, SCS left the backhoe parked outside and dug out EW7 with hand tools. They dug a rough eight-foot square about a foot and a half deep, then dug a smaller hole around the well shaft an additional foot deeper. They surrounded the well shaft with bentonite clay, a sealer, and then laid an eight-foot square PVC sheet around the well. Unlike most of the other wells, they left undisturbed the existing valve, its shaft, and the lateral connecting the valve to the well shaft four feet or more below the surface. After tamping down and refilling the hole they left the EW7 area in tolerable shape. No native plants were harmed. A nearby short dead tree that has been a favorite bird perch was preserved. As in other work sites, there is now a patch of bare dirt that will attract ruderals. We will try to seed this patch with native grasses, but the season is too dry to expect quick results.

At the close of work on Thursday, the SCS crew moved on to inspect EW8. This well lies toward the north end of the densely overgrown low path traversing the Native Plant Area. They tackled it the next morning. Here too the digging was done by hand. The crew did a beautiful job, leaving the surface smooth, and with only minimal pruning of the dense overhead vegetation.

A major plus in the work has been the cooperation of the City’s Public Works Department. PW’s Environmental Compliance Officer Mary Skramstad, together with PW engineering staff and SCS project management, have gone out of their way to respect and limit harm to sensitive park spots such as the Native Plant Area, and to maintain good communications. The SCS work crew members have shown themselves skillful and conscientious in doing the least damage possible.

Marina Office Reaching Out

In a first, the Berkeley Marina Office is reaching out to Chavez Park visitors, inviting calls about “Restroom, plumbing, or other park issues” to its 510-981-6740 number. Posters, shown in the photo at left, have appeared on porta-potty doors and elsewhere.

The Marina Office is located on pilings offshore on the south side of the boat basin. Its principal function is to serve boat owners in connection with slip rentals.

The office also has jurisdiction over Chavez Park. Its head is Alexandra Endress. She reports to Parks Director Scott Ferris.

Callers after hours can leave a message at 510-649-5892.

New City Manager Memo: Nothing About Nothing

First page of City Manager’s May 24 memo

Last Friday, too late for review for this blog, Berkeley’s outgoing City Manager sent City Council a memo dealing with the issue of possible radioactivity in the waste buried under our park. Here’s a link to the memo.

If you’ll recall, the former Stauffer Chemical Co. in Richmond admitted in a 1980 letter that it had dumped some 11,100 tons of industrial waste in the then Berkeley landfill between 1960 and 1971, or about a thousand tons a year. Included in that waste was a sludge called “alum mud,” which is left over after bauxite ore is processed for its aluminum content. The California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), after sitting on it for 44 years, released the 1980 Stauffer report this year. The state Water Board cited the 1980 letter as basis for a demand that the City of Berkeley investigate and report on the presence of radioactivity in the waste under the park. Read details here.

The issue of radioactivity raised press commentary as far away as the Los Angeles Times and aroused some local public alarm, with people wondering if it was safe to walk in the park, or whether it should be shut down. The City took its sweet time responding, but last Friday, City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley finally did.

The key sentence in the CM’s memo is a previously unknown passage from the DTSC letter transmitting the 1980 Stauffer letter to the Water Board. It goes:

The levels of radioactivity present in the Blair Landfill wastes are low enough that
it is uncertain as to whether the results detected are from natural background
levels or waste disposal.

It was the radioactivity allegedly detected at Blair, believed to originate from Stauffer, that served as foundation for the Water Board’s demand that Berkeley investigate radioactivity here. Now we find that in fact “it is uncertain” whether the radioactivity at Blair was actually from alum mud or was the natural background radiation found everywhere.

\You have to wonder at the seriousness of a State agency that issues decrees on flimsy grounds like this. If it’s uncertain whether there was above-background radioactivity on the surface at Blair, it’s going to be super-uncertain whether there is anything of concern buried under 60 feet of fill here in Berkeley. The end result of the alum mud issue is going to be a big nothingburger.

Electron beam furnace Stauffer used to melt uranium metal in 1960-62, Photo H.M. Eikenberry

The CM’s memo doesn’t reference the other possible source of radioactive material that may have been dumped in the park: barrels containing scraps of metallic uranium left over from machining and smelting work in Stauffer’s Beryllium laboratory. See details here. Stauffer doesn’t admit dumping them here, but may well have been lying. Unlike trace radionuclides in bauxite ore, metallic uranium may well leave a signal distinguishable from background. Because of this possibility, a sweep to detect radioactivity in the park is a necessary precaution.

Regrettably, the CM’s memo says nothing specific about the testing method or schedule, other than that it will happen within 90 days after July 1. A story by Iris Kwok in Berkeleyside this week says that the City’s original plan for the scan met with Water Board rejection. It would be good to have details. We have the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory up in the hills, where they undoubtedly know how to test for radioactivity and have the tools to do it. Has the City contracted with LBL to do a sweep of the park? Or is another contractor being sought? How will it be done and when? It would be reassuring to hear concrete details of the City’s work proposal. And it should be done next week, not in 90 days.

The Water Board’s mention of possible DDT and similar pesticide residues in the Berkeley landfill is also based on nothing more concrete than a finding of traces of these toxics at the Blair landfill. There is no mention of amounts or concentrations. Decades of testing here have found no evidence of organic pesticides present in Chavez Park leachate or leaking into Bay waters. The Water Board looks like it’s posturing.

Oh, and nobody in the City Attorney’s office seems to have noticed that the statute under which the Water Board issued its decree to the City applies to “any person who has discharged, discharges, or who is suspected of having discharged or discharging, or who proposes to discharge waste.” None of that applies to the City. The City is not the discharger here, it is the victim of the discharger. The Water Board needs to address its decree, and the expense of it, to the successors of the Stauffer company. Doesn’t anybody read the damn law?

It’s Buckeye Season

California Buckeye (Aesculus californica)

The California Buckeye, also known as Horse-Chestnut, is endemic to California. In late spring it bursts out in dense white flowers that resemble candles. Many species of butterflies and many native bees and bumblebees visit the blooms. In contrast, honeybees, which are a European import, may suffer illness after visiting chestnut blossoms. Native Americans used the crushed chestnuts in fishing; the toxin in the nuts stunned small fish and made them easier to catch. Native Americans also used the chestnuts as a food supply after leaching out the toxins. The tree may drop most of its leaves in late summer. The California Buckeye may live 250-300 years. This one shown above in the Native Plant Area of our park was planted in the early 1980s.

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3 thoughts on “Park Week 5/31/2024

  • There’s a Great Blue Heron that hangs out at Lake Anza. It dines on gophers. How dull compared to this Blue.

  • I love the story of the buckeye! There’s one at UCB. They are classic and so glad the park is home to one.

  • Martin, Yes, as you guessed, the fish eaten by the Great Blue Heron in the video was a Plainfin Midshipman (Porichthys notatus).

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