Park Week 7/7/23

Snowy With a Bad Leg

This Snowy Egret used its wings more than it normally would because its right leg wasn’t functioning with full strength. When pacing, the bird noticeably limped. That’s a serious matter for a bird, since it only has two legs to start with. But it needn’t be a death sentence, since the bird also has wings that will help carry its weight on the ground as well as in the air.

The loss of strength in one leg means the loss of one of this bird’s most important foraging techniques, the ability to stir the mud vigorously with one foot while standing on the other. See for example “Stirring Episode,” Aug 27 2018. Fortunately, Snowies have a range of other foraging methods. Please keep an eye out for a Snowy Egret that appears to be limping and post any sightings here in the Comments. Thank you.

Four years ago I watched a Marbled Godwit survive for several months even though it had lost one leg below the knee (really the ankle); see “Injured Bird Persists, . It could still feed itself, but it apparently declined migration. Its major physical loss was in the ability to scratch its head and neck. Birds are constantly beset by parasites. The ability to scratch is vital to staying healthy.

Diving Low

This flock of Brown Pelicans was fishing in the North Basin using the low-level diving method. That’s a hybrid between plunge diving from height, and scooping with the beak while paddling. Notice that they have the beak closed as they hit the water. They only open it once it’s under. Most of their dives in this sequence looked empty, but enough birds captured enough fish to keep the whole flock motivated. This kind of fishing is very energy intensive. The birds are working hard for their breakfast. Only one cormorant had joined this party, which points to a breakdown in the cormorant communications network — they usually show up in numbers.

Dabbling Together

Usually we see Mallards here traveling in pairs or threes of mixed gender. Here a little flock of seven females cruised together on the North Basin, dabbling for greenery on the bottom. Another group, a quartet, did the same a few hundred yards behind them. These hens have probably finished breeding, nesting, and raising their chicks, and are done molting. They’ll hang around with other hens and young ducks until autumn. The males meanwhile hang out with each other. Then in winter the sexes come together and pairs form. Mallards can dive if they have to but prefer to upend themselves with their bills scraping the bottom and their tails in the air, as here.

Willet is Back

Willet (Tringa semipalmata)

The last time I saw a Willet here was the middle of April. This one has traded its usual plain gray suit for a fancier herringbone outfit. Is it the local breeding season? I only saw this one. The sexes are identical in feather and differ only slightly in mass.

Starling Visit

On June 16 I posted a pic of a solo European Starling and wondered whether it was a stray or a scout. This week the answer flew in. I was able to get a bit of video as a flock of dozens swung between the kite lawn and the big Blackwood Acacia tree on the south edge of the Native Plant Area. Their screeching chorus is among the least pleasant bird sounds I’ve known. One of the flock rested for a moment in the tree while the others flew down. It had an insect in its beak, possibly a wasp. These birds are omnivorous. In the summer of 2019, they nested here and fed their babies, but it’s rather late in their reproductive calendar now. This may be a flock of fledglings from nests established earlier elsewhere. Later in the week I didn’t see them again. Looks like they were just visiting this time.

Known Birds and Another

The bird on the left is a female House Finch. They don’t get as much image play because they don’t have that sexy red head and breast that the males do. But they make the finch world go round, building the nest, laying the eggs, keeping them warm, caring for the hatchlings, and on.

In the middle is a Lesser Goldfinch, probably a male, with its crown feathers raised as if ready to take on a challenger. The goldfinches are far fewer in number in the park than the House Finches. Both the finches were seen in the Native Plant Area.

On the right is a headache bird — a headache to identify. Two of them perched on a Fennel bush on the east side of the park. One was a bit darker than the other, but not black. The beak shape says blackbird, but neither of them closely resembled the female Red-winged Blackbirds we’ve seen regularly (though not often this season) in the northwest corner. They weren’t cowbirds, either. The excellent Merlin bird ID app struck out. Comparing them to published photos, the bird shown may have been a female Tri-colored Blackbird. If you want to see more photos of these birds from different angles, drop me a line,

In other birdy news, the male Savannah Sparrows were still present, at least two of them, in the southeast meadow late in the week. I heard them but did not see them. The Surf Scoters were on the water as late as Wednesday but I did not see them thereafter. There is still a handful of Scaup who have not migrated.

Faraway Tern and Weird Gull

Possibly California Gull, juvenile
Caspian Tern, far away

On a heavy overcast morning I spotted a Caspian Tern on the mudflats near the Schoolhouse Creek outfall, far away. From the dirt path along Marina Boulevard where I stood, I could only get a fuzzy image. Ever hopeful I strode east on the Virginia Street Extension aiming to get a closer, clearer shot of this picturesque bird. When I got there, the tern of course was gone. My consolation prize was the weirdest gull I’ve ever seen. If there was such a species it would be called the Harlequin Gull. It showed Irregular patches of grey and white, an almost bald head, and an extraordinary rust-colored tail. It was obviously a young gull, but what kind? Merlin, the invaluable app, suggested five different kinds of gulls in different orders, depending on what picture I showed it. but seemed to like “California Gull” best, so that’s what I’m calling it. With a big question mark. Like other gulls, the juvenile forms show various patterns of grey, but I saw nothing as blotchy as this one, and none with a reddish tail.

Joy of Birding Video

Christian Cooper, the Black birder wrongly accused of threatening a white woman with violence after he politely asked her to leash her dog in Central Park, has become host of a TV show on the delights of birding. YouTube has an interview with him and his friend Amy Tan. Thanks to Santiago Casal and two other park visitors who sent me the link, below.

Insects Noted

Both of these insects were in the Native Plant Area. Neither of them is highly ranked as a pollinator, but both are useful in other ways. The fly is one among almost identical species in the Bluebottle Fly family. They play key roles in forensic pathology, where their arrival and egg-laying helps the trained pathologist fix the time of death. Here in the park they will make good protein for bird moms to feed their hatchlings.

The wasp, tentatively identified as Cerceris sextoides, may not care about the nectar of the Coastal Buckwheat where it perched. It may be using it just as a viewpoint for spotting females to mate with. Or bees to kill. These wasps are known as beewolves. They hunt weevils, beetles, and bees and feed them to their larval offspring.

Wildflower Display

This display of masses of pink Wild Radish (Raphanus raphanistrum) sparkles in the former Berkeley Meadow, now Sylvia McLaughlin Eastshore State Park, where they don’t mow their grassland meadows. We could have painterly scenes like this in our park. We began to have them in late springtime. But then the powers that be mowed them to the ground. And they’re still doing it. On Thursday they began to mow Peace Symbol Hill in the northwest corner of the park. The mower turned a beautiful mix of grasses, wildflowers, and weeds that hosted finches and sparrows into a butchered death zone. Like this:

Even corporate landscapers are catching on, switching from lawns to grasslands of native plants, says the New York Times this week. Speaking of a new office location for Air Products Inc., the writer reports,

Rather than plant grass that would need constant watering, mowing and fertilizing, it turned to native plants that pretty much took care of themselves. Today, shoulder-high grasses wave in the wind and attract wildlife.

“One plant had yellow finches all around it,” said Patrick J. Garay, vice president of strategic projects at Air Products.

The article, by freelancer Jane Margolies, surveys corporate decision makers, landscape architecture firms, and members of the public, and concludes, “Corporate landscapes are going natural these days.” Wouldn’t it be a good idea for park landscapes to do the same?

Politics: Marina’s Two Sets of Books

Dock D, from DBW report

In discussions of Marina finances, I’ve repeatedly questioned the validity of the numbers that the City has issued. Well, it’s not just me. The State Division of Boating and Waterworks (DBW) has been taking a close look at Marina finances to see whether the Marina Fund could repay a $5.5M loan from the State to rebuild Docks D and E in the boat basin.

In their first look dated February 4 2020, DBW noted that the City’s annual audit for the Marina Fund showed an $833k loss for 2017-2018. Such a deficit would sink the loan. But, says DBW, “according to City staff, this audited account does not accurately reflect actual Marina Fund operating revenues and expenditures.” So here is City staff admitting that the Marina Fund, despite having been audited, does not accurately reflect Marina finances. I rest my case. But read on.

It turns out that there is not only a “Marina Fund” (MF) but also a separate “Marina Operations Fund” (MOF). The MOF looks better because it uses accrual bookkeeping which lists as “assets” certain grants awarded although not yet disbursed. So if the City wants the Marina to look poor, as when it wants to promote commercial development through BMASP, it points to the MF, which uses cash basis bookkeeping. But if the City needs the the Marina to look rich, as when applying for a loan, then it points to the MOF.

Dock E, from DBW report

As if keeping two sets of books weren’t enough, the City also uses two different standards for booking capital improvement costs in the MF. Capital improvement costs in past years are shown as Marina Fund operating expenses. But the same costs in future years don’t show on the books, period. This naturally makes the account forecast look stronger.

In its June 23 2023 update, DBW observes in a footnote, “Public records respecting Berkeley Marina’s finances are somewhat complex. Each year the City’s Annual Comprehensive Financial Report (ACFR) includes an analysis of the City’s “Marina Operations Fund,” which is different from but related to the Marina Fund discussed throughout this report.” Note the diplomatic language here, “somewhat complex.” If a private business kept two similar sets of books, this “somewhat complex” system might put the owners into orange jumpsuits.

The most recent MOF report for the fiscal year ending June 30 2022 showed a $1.2M surplus, while the MF again showed a deficit. The City asked DBW to rely on the MOF numbers and disburse the loan. But DBW wasn’t born yesterday. It insisted that the cash-basis MF must show a sustained positive balance before the loan could be paid.

As part of its analysis, the DBW broke down Marina money into “boating” and “non-boating” categories. For the most recently completed year, it found that revenue from boating (mainly berth rentals and leases) came to $4,193,000, while expenses related to boating came to only $3,463,000. The City made a profit of $730,000 that year on boating operations. The profit on boating operations in 2021 was more than twice as much, at $1.6M. If the boating operations were a separate account, DBW says, it would qualify for the loan.

These numbers may come as a surprise to berth renters who have been told that boat basin operations were in the red and their rents were being subsidized. According to DBW, the City has actually been making money on boating operations. It could hypothetically have used that money to maintain the docks. Are the rotting planks in the boat basin due to lack of money or to management choices?

The DBW’s analysis, contained in Tables 5 and 5a of its June 23 2023 report, teaches that the Marina Fund’s red ink comes from its inclusion of non-boating operations, such as road maintenance, park landscaping (prominently including Chavez Park), festivals, and the like. One obvious action item would be to move boating operations into a separate budget under a separate administration, while the non-boating operations are blended into the City’s general fund. Then the City could get the loan, and there would be no need to keep two sets of Marina books. The “somewhat complex” accounting could be replaced by simplicity and transparency. What a concept.

Sources: DBW 2020 Analysis | DBW June 23 2023 Analysis

Squirrel of the Week

The Ground Squirrels don’t know the name we humans give them, and if they did, they probably wouldn’t care. We like to get off the ground from time to time! This furry little critter balances about six feet high in a sage bush, up there where finches and sparrows perch. Even though its paws do a lot of digging, it can use them for navigating in a dense thicket of twigs. It might have gone up there initially to nibble on the seeds. Or maybe it was just tired of looking up at the world from the ground, and wanted a loftier perspective.

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One thought on “Park Week 7/7/23

  • One easy thing that is greatly needed is clear signage at the beginning of the trail telling people that dogs should be on leash. Thanks for all you do.

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