Park Week 6/2/23

TLC for Native Plant Babies

The native plant babies that Conservancy volunteers put in the ground last November got a dose of Tender Loving Care last Sunday 5/28, with helping hands feeding them water and giving them sunshine and breathing room by trimming back the encroaching weeds. Even though the weeds in places were as tall as a human, all of the plantings were holding their own and not a single one has failed. To call some of them babies at this point is maybe patronizing. Many of them are toddlers, a few are teenagers, and a small number are grown up and doing the things that grown up plants do, like flowering and fostering pollinators.

Notable among the grownups are the California Bee Plants (Scrophularia californica). The new ones are about as tall as their long-established siblings. Among the working crew, headed by Volunteer Coordinator Bob Huttar, were Virginia Altoe, Helen Canin, Carlene Chang, Clyde Crosswhite, and Marty Nicolaus. The weather was on the cool side but we quickly warmed up as we got into the work. A pizza lunch for those who could stay capped the morning’s outing.

Issue of the Week

We can’t see birds in the park if they’re dead. Crashing into windows is a leading cause of bird kills, estimated at up to 1 billion (with a B) per year. An ordinance to require bird-safe glass on new construction comes to Berkeley City Council at its regular meeting on Tuesday June 6 at 6 pm. Let your council person, or the whole council, hear of your support. For more about it, read Kelly Hammargren’s article in the Daily Planet here, and read Erin Diehm’s Bird-Safe Toolkit here.

Plants of the Week

This California Bee Plant (Scrophularia californica) has hidden talents. Its flowers are small, but the fount of nectar inside is deep and quickly refreshed. Not only bees but also hummingbirds take advantage. It also has a visual trick up its sleeve. Bees can’t see red, so the flowers also have ultraviolet coloring. The bees can see that (while we can’t). The Bee Plant is also a host for the Variable Checkerspot butterfly, among others. Both the plant and the butterfly are California natives. This one is a new planting on the west side of the Native Plant Area. Older plants of the same kind are also thriving this year near the picnic area.

I almost missed the Nightshade (Solanum americanum?), and I have to add a question mark to the identification. There are several very similar varieties, and each species has variable forms, so that even professional botanists aren’t totally sure what’s what. In any event, the flower is smaller than a dime. It grew at about knee height in a shady spot. It’s believed native to the Americas. It plays host to more than 30 different butterflies and moths, depending on location. I saw it on the densely overgrown low passage in the Native Plant Area. It may have been planted by the creators of the area in the early 1980s, and reseeded itself every year. Caution: don’t eat it, it’s toxic. Check Wikipedia for details.

The Showy Island Snapdragon (Gambelia speciosa) — sometimes just Island Snapdragon — grows at the edges of the upper path in the Native Plant Area. It’s a California native and a magnet for hummingbirds and other birds and for a variety of insects. The founders of the Native Plant Area established it in the early 1980s, and it has survived nicely since then.

Also Noted

This Salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius) is a volunteer in the Native Plant Area. Originally from Europe and north Africa, Salsify were brought over as a vegetable for the edible root. They escaped cultivation and grow wild almost everywhere in the US. They used to be more common in the park. This is the only one I’ve seen this year so far.

This cluster of mushrooms appeared last week despite a sustained spell without rain. It liked the low passage in the Native Plant Area, a path so overgrown now that it has almost zero human traffic. Based on web searches, this is probably Chlorophyllum molybdites, known as False Parasol, Green-spored Lepiota, or Vomiter — a clue to its action on the human digestive system. If you eat it raw, you’ll experience heavy vomiting and diarrhea. It’s said to be the most commonly misidentified and eaten poisonous mushroom in the U.S. But no deaths have been recorded, yet. I left it untouched.

Amidst a spiny thicket of thistles on the east shore of the park, this European poppy stood out. Did a bird drop the seed? Did a park visitor discard a poppyseed bagel here? We’ll never know. I’m not even sure of the exact species. It looks like the Opium Poppy (Papaver somniferum), but it could be something similar among the 70-100 species of the papaver genus. Learning about nature often means tolerating uncertainty. If you know your poppies and have a definite ID please post a comment.

Scoter Show

Preening all over and stretching the wings is a morning ritual for many birds. Few perform it with the same eye appeal as this male Surf Scoter. Its complex beak with its orange neon tip steals the show. I saw this bird, or one like it, last week in the company of three others. Now it looked to be by itself, with none but the odd Clark’s Grebe and a plunge-diving Brown Pelican for company. If it was despondent, that didn’t show. It preened and flapped its wings with total energy, ready for whatever the day might bring. I saw it just off the Open Circle Viewpoint in the northeast corner of the park.

Surf Scoter male (Melanitta perspicillata)

One Eye Open

This pair of Mallards perched on the rocks on the west side of the park, fast asleep at 9 in the morning. I walked past less than ten feet from them and they didn’t react. But they certainly saw me! I’d read about ducks keeping one eye open while asleep but had never seen it. Both of them kept the eye facing the path wide open, blinking occasionally. The drake at one point raised his head, looked around very briefly, and stuck his bill back between his wing feathers immediately. Nothing to worry about!

Scientists have studied this phenomenon and noted that when a group of Mallards sleeps together, the birds in the middle close both eyes, and the birds on the edges keep their outside eye open. Scientists have been able to trace the brain circuits and found that the half of the brain that’s connected to the open eye shows patterns of alertness while the other half of the brain is asleep. Source. Some other birds do it also, and the same has been reported for dolphins and other marine mammals. Humans so far have not been able to perfect this look-awake-while-really-asleep state. It would be so useful sometimes in meetings.

Elusive Pelicans

The Brown Pelicans are back in some numbers but seeing them is one thing, photographing them is another. They tend to be most active early in the morning when the world is grey, photons are few and contrast is dim. The best I could do by way of photos is here below. A flock is leaving for points west. A solo plunge diver is taking off for another try.

First Wren

Bewick’s Wren (Thryomanes bewickii)

I’d heard this bird in the park a few times but never saw one here, much less got an image. Thursday morning, while sitting in the Native Plant Area recording birdsong, I panned the camera in a slow semicircle just to pick up the habitat. A Bewick’s Wren sang at top volume nearby but out of my view. Then, halfway through my pan, I saw the bird on a tree trunk directly in front of me. I got almost half a minute of video before it noticed me and scampered off.

The Bewick’s Wren was formerly seen all over the U.S. Now it is almost completely absent east of the Mississippi, and its numbers on the West Coast are in decline, for reasons not fully understood. Much of what is known about its behavior comes from studies done in 1941 in Berkeley by one E.V. Miller, who patiently watched the birds in Strawberry Canyon. They are insect eaters, form more-or-less monogamous pairs, build nests in cavities, and raise two broods per season. They are not thought to migrate. They will accept nest boxes.

Blackbirds Together

The traditional breeding party of the Red-winged Blackbirds got off to a slow and small start this year, but it isn’t totally dead. There’s at least one female active. Photographer Phil Rowntree spotted her on the hilltop in the northwest corner where the Peace Symbol sits (photo left).

As many as half a dozen males were flying, perching, and singing in the area. There may be one or two other females in the dense new-growth Fennel. That’s a lot less than in past peak years but it’s not zero.

Shards of the Past

The beach just north of the Schoolhouse Creek outfall was historically the dumping ground for broken product of a glass and ceramics factory.

I thought that it had been picked clean by collectors over the decades, but a diligent anonymous person found enough items to put together a collage on the foundation of a bench near the entrance to the Berkeley Meadow (Sylvia McLaughlin Eastshore State Park).

Thanks to photographer Phil Rowntree for the photo.

Squirrel of the Week

Ground Squirrel (Otospermophilus beecheyi)

A recent Washington Post article (cited last week) reported that listening to bird song was therapeutic for the mind. Whether this applies also to listening to Ground Squirrel whistles hasn’t been studied, to my knowledge. The main question is, why do they do it? One possibility is that the animal is sending a signal to its fellows. They’re certainly capable of communicating with one another, but if these whistles carry a message, what is it? If it’s alarm, it was ignored by other squirrels nearby that went about their business in the usual way. If it was distress, no one came to the pleader’s aid. The other line of thought is hiccups. All kinds of animals hiccup, so little rodents might also. After watching this one and the others I’ve filmed in the past, I lean toward the hiccup hypothesis. But I’m keeping an open mind to hear scientific evidence that some social communication is happening here. If you have thoughts, please post a comment.

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3 thoughts on “Park Week 6/2/23

  • So happy to see a female Red-winged Blackbird! Let’s hope there are more hiding in the Fennel.

  • You’re probably thinking of the Poison Hemlock. I wrote about it in the 5/19 post, mentioning that I’d removed it. Afterward I discovered several more of them elsewhere in the Native Plant Area, and on 5/28 I removed those as well. There may be a few more tucked away somewhere but the ones growing in trafficked areas are gone now.

  • What a wonderful variety of wild life you photographed this week…the very agitated surf scoter (mites or lice!!!), the chirping squirrel and the lovcely wren’s singing were a nice contrast to the photos of plants. On Sunday you discussed a plant that we should all avoid because it is so poisonuous. It wasn’t Nightshade, but if you know what I am referring to could you please show a picture in your next communication. Thanks for sharing your research.

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