Park Week 5/5/23

Painting Birds Alive

Rex Brasher: Snowy Owl (Detail)

A story in the Washington Post last week features Rex Brasher, “the greatest bird artist you’ve never heard of.” Born in 1869, he painted more than 1200 American birds in almost 900 big watercolors. He painted every bird on the American Ornithologists Union list of American species. Brasher (pronounced BRAY-sher) never owned slaves, and he painted birds alive, not after shooting them, the way Audubon did. Naturalists who knew his work celebrated him as “the greatest bird painter of all time” (John Burroughs). Last week, Brasher received a bit of posthumous recognition in a story by Phillip Kennecott, senior art critic of the Washington Post.

Rex Brasher’s father was an amateur ornithologist who formed a deep loathing for Audubon. He noted, contemptuously and accurately, that Audubon did not paint birds from life as he claimed, but from their cadavers after shooting them. “He was a faker!”

Kennecott himself opines that Audubon’s images are “stagy and contrived.” Audubon used birds as a proxy for an American nationalist agenda, Kennecott writes. During much of Brasher’s lifetime, the art market devalued nature. But tastes in art today, he says, are returning from infatuation with abstractions to appreciation of fine representation, including fresh and vigorous representations of birds. If birds had a say in it, Kennecott concludes, they would almost certainly prefer Brasher.

More about Rex Brasher: Video about his life | Rex Brasher Foundation website | Brasher’s book read aloud | Wikipedia article .

Bathroom Breakthrough – But Not Here Yet

Emeryville’s Portland Loo, May 2017

The East Bay Times reported last Sunday that Berkeley City Council has voted to spend $263K to install a Portland Loo at Telegraph Avenue and Channing Way. The Portland Loo, as long-time readers of this blog know, is a tough but friendly public restroom with flush toilet and handwashing built in. Emeryville installed one in 2016 at the south end of Joseph Kenney Park at a cost of $102,000 including sewer hookups. See “Emeryville Gets Portland Loo,” May 22 2017.

Berkeley staff is to be congratulated for catching on (better late than never) that good public restrooms can be had for much less than the $800K estimated five years ago or even the $450K estimated two weeks ago. City council member Rigel Robinson is taking credit for the installation in his district. Perhaps his colleague Rashi Kesarwani can prevail on council to do the same for Cesar Chavez Park. We need, actually, at least three of these in the park, but one would be a good start. The East Bay Times article includes a good overview of the need for public toilets generally and the research done on the topic in Berkeley in particular.

Tree Backlog

The March 21 windstorm knocked down more Berkeley trees than any other single event in memory, according to a May 2 article in Berkeleyside. Many of the fallen trees were on the Marina. The writeup specifically mentions the majestic Guadalupe Cypress that crashed in the Native Plant Area in our park. Conservancy volunteers with help from City landscaping staff were able to restore a path through the fallen Cypress on April 15. City arborists are far behind regular schedule in cleaning up the damage, Berkeleyside reported.

Favorite Birds

No rare birds this week. Last week, with the Ruddy Turnstone and the Red Knot, was very special. But I was witness to a rarely seen display by a very common bird, the Double-crested Cormorant. A solo bird perched on a rock at the base of the Open Circle Viewpoint and demonstrated how it got its name: two lines of feathers standing up on each side of its crown. Did you know that this cormorant’s eyes are a brilliant blue? And that its gape (inside of its bill) is also blue? Here’s the proof:

Double-crested Cormorant (Nannopterum auritum)

Both varieties of the large (Aechmophorus) grebes, the Western and the Clark’s, paddled on the North Basin at the same time. The photos allow a textbook comparison. The Clark’s eye is clear of its black cap, and its beak is a clear yellow. The Western has its cap pulled down below its eye, and its beak is a muddy yellowish gray. Other than that, they are identical, and scientists for decades thought they were the same species.

The Horned Grebe is in its breeding plumage, displaying the golden streak across its head. Not seen at the moment is the dramatic set of head feathers that it can raise if aroused. At the moment the bird is sleepy and soon stowed its beak in its wing feathers. The Common Goldeneye female had the same idea. The weather was overcast and chilly and it seemed a good time for a nap.

The most unusual feathered creature I saw was this Brown-headed Cowbird female (Molothrus ater). It pecked in the grass much like a sparrow, but that heavy black or almost blue beak, the black legs, and the scarce decorations on the wings mark it as something else entirely. It’s a small member of the blackbird (icterid) family. Its presence may be bad news for other breeding birds, as this female does not build nests, but may lay up to 40 eggs per season in the nests of other bird species. The Red-winged Blackbirds are particularly vulnerable, when they breed and nest in the northwest quadrant of the park. See “Bird Con” Jun 18 2020.

The Song Sparrow perched on a post very near Picnic Area No. 1, within range of a noisy crowd of college students. That didn’t deter it from singing, but it deterred me from trying to record it.

Seagulls may take four years to grow the mostly white coat that we usually see them in. As juveniles they look grey or mottled, like this young Western on the left, below. The one on the right is, I’m guessing, a third year or almost adult. Its feathers are mostly adult but it still has the black on the tip of its beak. When fully adult, that will change to a red spot.

Favorite Botanicals

A lot is starting to bloom now. The ones that caught my lens this week are familiar park denizens. Two are California natives. The other four are natives of elsewhere.

The Purple Sage (Salvia leucophylla) grows in the Native Plant Area and on its border. Very likely set in the ground almost 40 years ago, it’s thriving today, in part due to the work that Conservancy volunteers have put in freeing it of the invasive Kikuyu grass that was eating it up. See “Saving Sage,” Sep 10 2020.

This particular patch of California Poppy has sentimental value for fans of the Burrowing Owl that spent the past winter here. This plant, in its winter mode, brown and flowerless, was the background of Perch A, the spot where the owl spent about half its time here.

Of the four non-natives, the prettiest, in my view, is the Rock Rose (Cistus probably incanus) that’s growing behind the scenic bench on the north side.

The Red Valerian (Centranthus ruber) is a Mediterranean native that can occupy a lot of territory elsewhere, but only a few survive in the park, including this one next to the path that leads to the Open Circle Viewpoint. Also known as Jupiter’s Beard and other names, it’s some people’s garden favorite because its blooms usually last a long time. But it’s also aggressively invasive and needs a lot of maintenance to keep it in bounds.

On the east side, roughly north of the Flare Station and also inside the still-locked Burrowing Owl Sanctuary next to the Open Circle Viewpoint you’ll find this Oblong Spurge (Euphorbia oblongata). Be very careful, its sap can cause temporary and painful blindness if it gets in the eyes. It’s poisonous to cattle, and has a place on the California Invasive Plant Council’s list as a dangerous weed.

Pretty but noxious is this Iceplant (Carpobrotus edulis) growing on the west side. This South African native won the favor of Caltrans decades ago for roadside plantings but now is considered a major native plant killer in shoreline and dune habitats. The Cal Department of Fish and Game has a web page dedicated to it, and it has a “High” rating on the Cal Invasive Plant Council’s list.

At Home Here

I wasn’t going to post this little video, because it’s a sight often seen. But then I had a chat with a dog owner whose dog was off leash on the rocks on the west side, sniffing around for Ground Squirrels. I explained that the Ground Squirrels are at home here, raising their families, and that his dog was a guest. How would he feel I were I guest at his house and started hunting his family members? Other park visitors have understood and leashed their pets, but not this individual. He ended the conversation and walked on. I made a note not to invite him to my house.

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3 thoughts on “Park Week 5/5/23

  • Pingback: Park Week 5/12

  • Thanks for the spectacular documentation of the “common” Double-crested Cormorant yesterday. Wow.

  • Your bird pictures are simply fabulous, I loved seeing the eye colors especially and the set of cormorant pictures with the descriptions, gives me a lot to look for more closely next time!

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