Friday, January 3, 2014

Of Urban Redoubts, Refuges, Havens and Sanctuaries for the Wild Birds of Berkeley

Berkeley is renowned for many things - a world-class academic institution, a first-rate arts scene, unparalleled diversity and culture, and wacko trend-setting politics. But thank Goddess for the beautiful Berkeley Hills. Topping out at 1905 ft. above sea level (Vollmer Peak), the Berkeley Hills offer up boundless recreational opportunities, with over 10,000 acres of mostly undeveloped (heavily managed) park lands to explore - Tilden, Wildcat and Briones. On this side of the ridge, though, the neighborhood side, what may be known only to Berkeley's residents (who have included a veritable Who's Who of the Famous and Infamous), one finds (if one looks) a trove of hilly, forested, veritably wild city parks (if one looks). Mini-nature getaways, Berkeley's parks offer up abundant but small miracles, places where one experiences, as I wrote in a post on Codornices Creek, "a bonk on the head reminder that you don't have to venture far afield to partake of the glorious pageantry of Mother Nature unfolding in undisturbed, timeless rhythms, however small or hidden."

Because I can't always get to Tilden / Wildcat / Briones, I've been forced (poor me) to take advantage of exploring our city parks, a cluster of them within walking distance from my North Berkeley neighborhood, including Codornices, Live Oak, Mortar Rock, Indian Rock, Grotto Rock, Remillard, Cragmont, Great Stoneface, and John Hinkel. And have discovered they are places of understated natural beauty, perfectly wonderful habitats aflutter with transient and permanent bird species, owing to the parks' rustic settings among volcanic boulders, redwood trees, streams, waterfalls, and pockets of hidden forest and brush. For us humans, the parks provide much needed respite from jarring city life and the madding crowd, but for the birds . . .well, these places truly are for the birds.

Take Codornices Park. I've spent the past few days observing Juncos, Jays, Titmice, Chickadees, Crows, Vultures, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Spotted and "regular" Towhees, unidentified Sparrows, Morning Doves, Northern Flickers, Anna's Hummingbird, Bushtits, Robin, Wood Thrush, Bewick's Wren, Townsend's Warblers, Adult Male Green-backed and Female Lesser Goldfinches, and - at the end of a two-hour bird watching session - a beautiful Sharp-shinned Hawk, North America's smallest. Only once before had I espied one so up close and personal, amazingly, in the 100 year old Interior Live Oak tree out my bedroom window. Both, wonderful and unexpected surprises, and no small miracle.

So I'm hangin' out watchin' for birds in my usual place - the upper reaches of the hilly park - where only dog walkers and teen stoners pass by - when I'm struck by an urge to explore more, as though there's any more exploring to do in the very delimited park boundaries hedging up against tall redwood fencing abutting spacious back yards. But indeed, a deer trail leads into sylvan pockets of dense tree cover and brush, promising areas I'd peered up into from below, but never checked out until now. Stooping to clear some tangled foliage, I startle a big bird from his hiding place in thick brush. Emerging into the open, I glance up at a nearby tree branch and see the perching hawk, busy with his freshly killed meal, which, I realize, is probably one of the little songbirds I'd just been admiring. I can't really tell, but I do see a red and white gloopy glob of something fall from his sharp yellow beak to the ground, to no great apparent concern.

These handsome Accipiters, with their sturdy squared-off tails that act as rudders, swoosh and swoop through dense forest cover in deadly assaults on songbirds and mice. The stealth creature's diet consists of 90% of their avian kind, but they're not secretive for nothing - they themselves are subject to being preyed upon and eaten as a tasty meal by larger stealth creatures, such as the Northern Goshawk.

Oak Titmouse
Specialized "pursuit hunters" such as the Sharp-shinned Hawk chase down and snatch songbirds out of thin air, or pounce on mice from perches just 36 inches from the ground. To be lucky enough to stumble on one them in wild feasting mode, in a local city park, reaffirms the necessity of preserving our urban redoubts, refuges, havens and sanctuaries for the wild birds and animals (and weary humans).

Certainly, this Sharp-shinned Hawk is a regular nester, somewhat known (among the avianscenti in North Berkeley) for its uncharacteristic frequent appearances over the tree-tipped skies (often harassed by a swarm of crows). But, surely, permanent residency is to be expected, for Sharpies are no dummies, attracted to easy pickings in the urban-cum-woodsy setting of North Berkeley where bird feeders attract a year-round smorgasbord of songbirds (warblers, robins, thrushes, sparrows, poor little things).

The unexpected sighting in Codornice Park of a gorgeous Sharp-shinned Hawk reminds me of a chance sighting I had in the same area of another rarely seen and pretty bird - a Varied Thrush. I spotted him flapping from branch to branch, then landing and remaining still for a nice look. I happened to take a shortcut through an area where a homeless person was encamped, and was pleasantly surprised (rewarded) when the bird flushed out of the brush, revealing a flurry of impressions of burnt orange, sooty black, a flash of turquoise, it seemed.

Crazy fact: 11,000 (!) Sharp-shinned Hawks were spotted on a single day in October on Cape May Point, New Jersey.

Read my post on Codornices Park and Creek @


  1. Thanks to ;you, I'm paying more attention to the birds on the golf course! They run on little twig legs across the fairways. Gonna have to take pictures with my cell phone...

  2. A wonderful post, and a good reminder that there's much to appreciate when we become attentive to where we live.

  3. Truly, a meditation on paying attention and connecting to the smallest of natural wonders that most of us ignore!