Park Week 6/21/24

Singing in the Chill

Hali Hammer leads bundled-up early arrivals in “You Are My Sunshine”

Mark Twain’s wisecrack about never seeing a winter so cold as summer in San Francisco came to mind Thursday evening as a brave band of about two dozen huddled to celebrate the Summer Solstice at the Chavez/Huerta Tribute Site and Solar Calendar. Berkeley songster Hali Hammer, appropriately bundled up in a heavy parka, led the group in renditions of You Are My Sunshine, Here Comes the Sun, and other “sun” songs (lyrics here) by the Beatles, the Animals, Jimmy Cliff, Stevie Wonder, and others. In the absence of the regular astronomy teachers at the event, Site founder and curator Santiago Casal — himself in Los Angeles visiting family — delegated Chavez Park Conservancy CEO Martin Nicolaus (this writer) to MC the leaderless affair. Brief introductory remarks touched on the tilt of the earth, the Chavez virtue of Determination (“I am determined to keep walking as long as my legs hold out,” one participant testified), the online audio program available at the site via QR codes, and the scan for abnormal radioactivity in the park (absent). During the choral concert, the sun descended behind a thick bank of fog, then blazed brilliantly for a few minutes before diving out of sight behind the coastal hills.

Blue Strikes Again

Three weeks ago I had the good fortune to video a Great Blue Heron capturing a sizable fish. See “Park Week 5/31/24.” This morning i witnessed another one. This time, the bird found its prey in the green rocks on the north side of the Open Circle Viewpoint. The heron had just flown in. I missed the instant of capture, but filmed the proceedings a moment later. This time the bird made short work of the preparations. It dipped the fish in shallow water just twice, and then repeated the same surgery I had seen the first time. That is, the bird drove its spearpoint beak into the struggling fish’s throat area and twisted it around a few times. Very shortly, the fish stopped moving, and moments later the bird swallowed it.

I’ve witnessed herons take a number of fish but never saw this throat puncture operation with other fish species. I have to speculate that the bird knows that this species of fish, the Plainfin Midshipman (Porichthys notatus), is exceptional: it can breathe in air as well as in water. Ordinary fish will succumb in short order when taken out of water, but the midshipman can survive in air for hours. So the bird, apparently knowing this, takes extreme measures to stop the fish from breathing. How the bird learned to do this, and whether this knowledge is passed down the heron generations, is a challenge for ornithologists.

Guardian Gull

I’ve seen Double-crested Cormorants dry their wings in the sun before. It’s a regular thing they have to do because their feathers aren’t as oily as duck feathers and they get waterlogged from diving. What I haven’t seen is a Western Gull posting itself behind the cormorant, seemingly as a guard, making the occasional comment. Actually, in this case the gull drew my attention to the cormorant. The cormorant, dark against the dark blue water, kind of blended in and escaped my eye, but the gull drew me there. Was there some kind of friendship bond between these two birds, or did they happen to end up on neighboring rocks by sheer coincidence? It’s a case for my MATWOB file (Mysterious Are The Ways Of Birds).

Other Birds of the Week

Red-winged Blackbird Female

The Red-winged Blackbird breeding season usually ends around the Summer Solstice. This week I saw male blackbirds rising in the air to attack passing American Crows on two occasions. The crows traditionally raid blackbird nests, taking eggs and new hatchlings if they can. The male blackbirds fearlessly attack and harass the much larger raiders. However, the crows I saw didn’t seem to be on the hunt. They were just passing through.

The blackbird females I saw weren’t carrying insects. They were done with that chore. The hatchlings normally are fledged by now.

I saw a half dozen blackbirds foraging on the ground that looked like first generation youngsters. It was a quieter, smaller breeding season than in some years past, but breeding did take place and new blackbirds are rising to the sky.

The most extraordinary bird I saw this week was on Tuesday, when a little sparrow flushed out of the weeds on the eastern border and swept across the path into the southeast meadow. It landed on a heap of dead grass discarded by a mowing machine, and there I managed to catch a snapshot of it, before it dove into the grass pile. This was a Savannah Sparrow. This native species has been breeding in the east side meadow from the earliest days of the park, before the mania for mowing took hold. They nest on the ground in low vegetation, needing only knee-high growth for concealment. They are strongly philopatric, meaning that they are driven to return and breed at the exact site where they were hatched. Ever since Parks management has dedicated itself to the folly of trying to make nature look like a golf course, the Savannahs have had a hard time. They can’t breed in a mowed meadow. I’ve watched them this Spring singing and surveying on the east side, looking vainly for a safe patch of vegetation to nest in. This week I wondered whether in desperation this Savannah managed to build a nest in the mower’s discarded cut grass pile. I looked at the spot all week but did not see it again.

Pelicans have been in the news these past few weeks. For reasons not well understood, numbers of Brown Pelicans have suffered starvation and the lucky ones have ended up in treatment centers where they got TLC and were released back into Nature. Here in and around the park, Brown Pelicans have seemed to be doing OK. On Monday I watched a small flock, eight birds strong, foraging on the North Basin. They were gobbling up fish with some regularity. They looked strong and acted like normal, healthy birds.

Also seen and photographed:

Lunch With a View

Who doesn’t like to take lunch with a view? This Ground Squirrel took advantage of a dense Ceanothus bush on the north side of the park to munch its food, and it wasn’t bothered by humans passing on the paved trail a few feet in front of it.

Words to Ponder

From “Notes on a Last-Minute Safari” to Kenya and Tanzania by David Sedaris in the June 17 2024 issue of The New Yorker:

The world can be a savage place, but that’s not the lesson you want to carry home with you. Yes, we humans are cruel and often dangerous, but there’s still nature, and before it’s too late we need to appreciate it. Of course, not everyone can hang out with elephants, but look at that bird perched on your feeder, and at that squirrel chasing the bird away from said feeder. Look at the rats scuttering before you on a New York street, at the spider that somehow got trapped in your elevator. We’re all on a safari of one kind or another—it’s just that some of us aren’t returning with two brilliant rectangles of Maasai plaid fabric and a bacterial infection. 

Symbol of Pride

The Nazi regime in Germany forced homosexuals to wear a pink triangle, as a prelude to their extermination in concentration camps. Today, LGBTQ activists wear the pink triangle as a symbol of pride. Every year since 1995, gay activists have mounted a big pink triangle on the side of Sutro Hill in San Francisco. Photographer Susan Black took this photo from our park. Read more about it here and here and here.

Summer Schedule

After today, this blog switches to summer schedule. The regular Friday 5 pm deadline is suspended. Publication will happen whenever content, opportunity, and urge to publish come together. Publication may occur less or more often than weekly. Important happenings will be covered in a timely fashion. If you send in great photos, they’ll get published promptly. Because of vacation plans, regular weekly publication may not resume until late September. Thank you for your loyalty and patience.

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3 thoughts on “Park Week 6/21/24

  • Anonymous: The only raptors with a record of taking ground squirrels are the Red-tailed Hawks. They kill and eat. We rarely see them. Loose dogs also kill squirrels but don’t eat them.

  • I wonder when some other predator birds will discover the abundance of ground squirrels that seem to be so abundant .

  • Thank you for including the David Sedaris quote; he always brings a good laugh. Have a lovely summer without publishing deadlines!

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