Park Week 6/23/23

Water & Weed Natives on Sunday

With all the dry and often sunny weather we’ve been having, it’s time to give the Native Plant starters some water and some more breathing room from encroaching weeds. Chavez Park Conservancy Volunteer Coordinator Bob Huttar is calling on volunteers to meet this Sunday, June 25, at 9 am at the parking circle on the bayside end of Spinnaker Way. We’ll water the plants that need it and clear space around them, as well as open up some of the clogged paths. Bob suggests wearing long pants, long sleeves, and boots. Feel free to bring favorite hand tools like clippers and diggers, but no shovels. We’ll have some hand tools and lots of gloves. We expect to work till about noon, followed by a pizza lunch either onsite or at a volunteer’s backyard in Berkeley. Questions? Call Bob at 949 307-5918.

Chilled Summer Solstice

To paraphrase Mark Twain, I never saw a Winter Solstice so chilly as Summer Solstice in Berkeley. Blasts of a frosty west wind, very common for this season here, tamped down attendance at the Wednesday night gathering to mark the longest day of the year in the Northern hemisphere.

David Cooper, a veteran leader of these events, brought a globe pinpointing our location and showing the cast of the sun on our blue ball at this time. Vivian White of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific brought a telescope aimed at the setting sun. Looking carefully, you could see sunspots. Tory Brady of the Exploratorium explained how the earth’s tilt created the seasons and why the Northern and Southern hemispheres warmed and cooled in contrast to one another.

Santiago Casal, founder and curator of the Chavez/Huerta Homage Solar Calendar, who was traveling on the date, explained in an email that organization of the solar calendar events had been handed to a committee composed of Cooper, White, Brady and others who have spoken at these events in the past.

Joell Jones’ Park Gallery

My favorite among these four photos by park visitor Joell Jones is the rabbit. It’s a Blacktailed Jackrabbit, Lepus californicus. I used to see them more often in the park. We have a dozen posts about them dating from 2018-2020. The most recent one that I saw was running for its life from an off-leash dog. “Park Week 4/21” Apr 21 2023. So happy to see one just sitting quietly for a moment, the way Joell caught it with his camera.

The Turkey Vulture (above right) and the Great Blue Heron (left) are among the biggest birds seen in the park. The vulture cleans up dead things, very useful. The heron takes fish in the water and gophers on land. The Gopher Snake (right) probably can’t handle grown-up gophers but will feast on the young ones. It’s harmless for people.

Joell writes: “I started walking at the Chavez Park about a year ago and I’m so happy I did.  The park is amazing; the wildlife, the people, the dogs and the salty mist of the bay.  When I started taking picture of the birds I soon realized how lucky we all are to have access to such a healthy ecosystem.  Chavez Park is a place of health, beauty and diverse creatures.  Now, I do all that I can to keep it healthy.”

Scoter Stressing

Surf Scoter (Melanitta pespicillata)

Last week a little flock of more than a dozen Surf Scoters snoozed near the Open Circle Viewpoint in the park. Monday morning I saw only one, a male, who seemed to be in some distress. He perched on a rock at the extreme northeast corner of the park, watched over by half a dozen Western Gulls. I’ve never seen a scoter out of the water before. He stretched his neck this way and that, and gave out what must have been calls. He was too far away and there was too much wind for me to pick up his sound. I imaged he was calling to his flock. They were not to be seen. But whatever he did, it worked. The next day, more scoters were out than before. I counted maybe two dozen. Almost all were snoozing and a few scaup floated nearby, also asleep, so my count is approximate. The gulls also were out in greater numbers the next day.

Beautiful Snowies

A day without a Snowy Egret is like a day without sunshine. In a color scheme dominated by mud, the Snowy Egret stands out like a sparkling diamond. Their beauty was almost their undoing. In the decades before World War I, they were hunted to extermination in many regions for their feathers, in so much demand for ladies’ hats that the feathers were worth more than their weight in gold. Conservation movements and passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act among other legislation saved them, and they have come back abundantly. They nest in the San Francisco Bay Area and visit the North Basin regularly, though not always. The three shown in the leftmost picture above happened to be feeding in the same area; there wasn’t any courtship vibe between them, and one of them shortly took off for parts nearby. It’s easy to tell them apart from the Great Egrets, which are also all white. Apart from size, the easy tell is bill color. Bill black = Snowy. Bill yellow = Great.

Fishing Together

Brown Pelicans and Double-crested Cormorants

Brown Pelicans are a peaceful lot. Here they are on a fishing party in the North Basin, and a little gang of Double-crested Cormorants horns in. The big birds let it happen just like they were parents out on a frolic with their kids. The cormorants sometimes form bigger gangs that cruise the water on their own, and make a formidable show. See for example “Cormorant Commandos” Sep 10 2021. Here they trust the pelicans to find the prey, and nose in on the action.

Other Wet Birds

Big grebes, such as the two Clark’s Grebes in the pic on the left, engage in dramatic courtship displays, when they want to. See for example “Walking on Water,” May 19 2022. But the mood can come and go in a blink. These two did a couple of neck dips and paddled in formation, as shown, for maybe fifteen seconds, and then the one in the front lost it and peeled off, and that was the end of it. Males and females look the same, with males a bit bigger, and females having a slightly shorter, thinner bill with a slight upward bend. By those markers, the bird in the rear was probably the female. I keep hoping to see extended courtship displays; fingers crossed.

There are birders and then there are gullers. A guller would know immediately what kind of gull this was (center photo above). I have to rely on the Merlin app. Merlin is usually right but not infallible. Merlin said this was a Glaucous Gull, not commonly seen here. They usually hang out much further north. They’re big, which this bird definitely was. They’re light colored, check. There were two of them. Comparing photos, this could be a Glaucous in its first winter. But no guarantees. ID with a question mark.

There’s no doubt about the ID of the Black-crowned Night-Heron, photo above right. They nest nearby and in recent weeks have been foraging on the North Basin with every low tide. I could publish an album. I include this individual because it’s a very handsome bird. Looks like it just took a shower, combed its hair, brushed its beak, etc.

Savannah’s Sad Song

At least one Savannah Sparrow was still present in the mowed meadow at midweek. It was a male, and it allowed me to film it while it delivered its mating call from a rock and then from a post at the edge of the area. There was no sign of a female. Males and females of many bird species travel separately. It looks like the female that he was paired with when she was nesting gave up after the nest was mowed over, and departed the scene without trying to build a second nest in this decapitated grassland habitat. It looks like the mowing machines have terminated this season’s reproduction for the Savannah Sparrows in the park.

Some Other Dry Birds

This particular Brown-headed Cowbird male (above left) perched near the Schoolhouse Creek outfall, a long way from the few Red-winged Blackbird nests in the northwest corner of the park. Its mate was probably busy dropping its eggs in the nests of other songbirds in the nearby McLaughlin park or the North Basin strip. Judging by their song, that’s primarily House Finches. Cowbird eggs may hatch in finch nests, but the chicks will starve. They need a heavy diet of bugs for proteins, but these finches are unique in raising their young on an almost exclusively vegetarian diet.

This dove was one of a pair that perched initially on the electrical wires along the Virginia Street Extension. Middle photo above. They looked so much bigger than your common pigeons that I thought they must be something special. But Merlin was unpersuaded. Nope. Rock Pigeon, Columba livia. They’ve been studied so much and so long that you could fill a library with the print literature. They show an extraordinary variation in color patterns, all the way from almost all black (like these) to almost all white, with an endless variety of color mixes inbetween. This pair soon abandoned their high perch and settled on the dirt for some gleaning. Later I spotted a few others elsewhere in the park. We’ve had flocks of 16, sometimes more, hanging together like a family. See “Pretty Pigeons” Nov 26 2019.

I saw this hummingbird in the Native Plant Area on a twig where the resident Anna’s Hummingbird also visits. But the shape and coloration lean differently, and I’m going to go with Merlin’s ID of Allen’s Hummingbird. This would be an immature male or a female. Still, they look so similar to the Rufous Hummingbird that I have to put a question mark on the ID. Without seeing the tail feathers spread out, it’s a tossup. See details about this issue at “Different Hummer (Updated)” Mar 30 2021.

P.S. Last week I wondered whether the White-crowned Sparrow was here to stay or just passing through. It looks like it’s settled in. I saw and heard it singing at length in a tree on the south border of the Native Plant Area. I have not seen the Northern Mockingbird again.

Featured Plant: Santa Cruz Island Ironwood

The Santa Cruz Island Ironwood (Lyonothamnus floribundus ssp. aspleniifolius) growing on the east side of the Native Plant Area is in peak bloom this week. It’s a spectacular plant not only for its flowers but also for its bark. Its home is Santa Cruz Island off the coast of Santa Barbara. The pioneers who established the Native Plant Area in the 1980s took a chance on planting it here in this northerly climate. It is doing beautifully. The flowers attract a wide range of hummingbirds and pollinator insects.

Other Plants of Note

The California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica) comes in different shades. Here the most common orange hue bumps petals with one that’s almost deep red. Were they growing from the same root? I didn’t check. I saw them just off the paved trail a bit south of the Open Circle Viewpoint.

The Lemonadeberry (Rhus integrifolia) looks like it’s nearly ripe. The birds of the Native Plant Area are the judges of that. When they deem it ready, they’ll pounce on it and strip the tree, or nearly so. Many birds and bugs love this tree. For humans, the berries are an acquired taste, translation: yuck. But the sticky sap on the outside is good for licking or dipping in water to make “lemonade.” Hence the name.

The Wild Radish (Raphanus raphanistrum) grows almost everywhere in the park, or did until Park management mowed down acres of this pretty wildflower two weeks ago. This little bush with its dark red stems and its bright pink flowers blazing against a straw colored background caught my eye in the Native Plant Area.

Blackberries (Rubus armeniacus) are blooming again in the park, and a Ladybug is checking out one of them.

Bugs love to pollinate the big yellow center of the Oregon Gumplant (Grindelia stricta) but most of them know better than to land on the bud. Its white sticky crown, used for glue by Native Americans, will trap ignorant bugs and won’t let them go. Check out “Flora Friday: Plants Revisited” Jul 26 2019. This one grows on the west side not far south of the Peace Symbol hill. We also planted some in the Native Plant Area last November.

The Birdsfoot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) is too small for birds to land on it. It gets its name from the seed, which resembles a birds foot. It is a magnet for bumblebees. They’ll buzz on it once the days warm up a bit. See “Birdsfoot Bumblebee” May 16 2020.

The California Poppy, the Lemonadeberry, and the Oregon Gumplant are California natives. The rest are native somewhere else. The Wild Radish has been around long enough to host a variety of native pollinator insects.

What Goes Around …

Just at the start of the pandemic, the City published a spreadsheet showing that the Marina was in terrible financial condition. Its expenses were outracing its revenues. Closer examination by skeptics revealed that the “expenses” included a number of costs, such as paving and maintenance, that properly belonged to the City’s account, not to the Marina’s, and that the Marina’s bulkiest revenue source, the hotel tax, had been left out of the picture. Cynics speculated that the spreadsheet had been concocted to promote commercialization and privatization, including in Chavez Park. With this background, insiders took the Marina spreadsheet with more than a grain of salt. But outsiders took it at face value. Thus the state Division of Boating and Waterways (DBW) six weeks ago announced that it was inclined to cancel the $5.5 million loan it had authorized in 2021, but had not yet disbursed, on the grounds that the Marina was in too poor a financial condition to repay it. If the loan is cancelled, the D and E docks in the boat basin won’t be rebuilt to accommodate the larger boats that the City urgently wants to attract. So now the City is doing pretzels to prove to the DBW that actually the Marina is plenty flush, and it’s asking people to speak at the DBW meeting on 6/23 to show popular support for larger boat accommodations. The meeting will be over by the time you read this. Stay tuned.

Park Politics, Ongoing

Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Commission Meeting Wednesday June 21

The Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Commission has been gestating a memo by a subcommittee commenting on the City’s draft Specific Master Plan for the Waterfront, including Chavez Park. I posted comments on the first draft of the memo on May 12 and on the second draft on May 26. I submitted an updated comment to the second draft at this week’s meeting of the Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Commission on Wednesday night. View it here. (I also spoke briefly to protest the destruction of Savannah Sparrow grassland habitat by mowing.)

Also before the commissioners was an excellent letter dated June 20 from Norman La Force on behalf of the Sierra Club. View it here. Full disclosure: Norman is also Chair of the Board of Directors of the Chavez Park Conservancy.

Also before the commission was a letter by long-time Marina visitor Emilie Strauss, expressing disappointment with the lack of concern for nature in the City’s planning. View it here.

Meanwhile the Commission subcommittee has launched a third draft of its memo. I plan to review it in next week’s issue of this blog.

Pink Pride Sign

Photographer Susan Black spotted this pink triangle on Twin Peaks in San Francisco, framed by the dark Bank of America building and the Transamerica Pyramid. That’s about eight miles away as the crow flies. Accused homosexuals were forced to wear the insignia during the Nazi period in Germany, and thousands were murdered in concentration camps. Now gay activists and friends have reclaimed it and owned it as a point of pride. Hundreds of volunteers constructed the acre-sized triangle in celebration of Pride Week. Details.

Squirrels of the Week

It’s the season for the pups of California Ground Squirrels to come out and play. These two siblings were making the dust fly with an acrobatic tussle. I was lucky to catch the last few seconds of it. Just then the mom came out and was not amused. The kids scrambled away. California Ground Squirrels are California natives. They have one mating season, in early spring. The mom carries for about one month and then gives birth to anywhere from five to eleven pups, which may have a number of different fathers. The pups are blind for about five weeks, and leave the burrows at about eight weeks. They may live for about five years, more or less. Generally the females stay with their home burrows or in burrows overlapping with that of their mothers, while young males typically move some distance away. Depending on the soil, squirrel burrows may be from a few feet up to 200 feet or more in length, and are typically interconnected with multiple openings to the surface. Their burrows also serve as shelter to Burrowing Owls, snakes, gophers, rats, mice, lizards, toads, and frogs. The most comprehensive source of information about them is here.

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4 thoughts on “Park Week 6/23/23

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  • Thank you for your concern for the grassland birds. Since mowing is a high level policy decision, the best person to contact would probably be Rashi Kesarwani, the City Council member whose district includes Chavez Park. Please cc on any communication about this. Thank you.

  • The squirrel pups are so adorable! Fascinating that they can have different fathers.

    So sad/infuriating about the poor Savannah Sparrow and the decapitation of its grassland habitat. I know it’s too late to do anything now, but who does one write a letter to?

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