Sunday, February 2, 2014

Birds Galore at Albany Shoreline and Bulb Help Add to Life List of First Sightings

Through binoculars, I'm peering into a thick bush about thirty feet distant, surrounded by concrete detritus, a homeless encampment, sundry sculptures, and rock-painted art strewn about a roguish slice of recovering ecosystem at the Albany Bulb. I'm trying my best to bring into focus what I suspect is a first sighting of a Northern Shrike. The bird, famous for impaling small prey on thorns or barbed wire, is deeply ensconced, difficult to single out. Earlier, on two occasions, I thought I had spotted the little sucker flying furtively into the bushes, each time, though, unsuccessful in nailing down a positive ID. Until this time. Photographic evidence is sketchy, but after glimpsing a flash of black and white wing for two seconds during a bush-diving maneuver, I'm confident I've spotted a Northern Strike. And lucky for me, too, because it would have meant three Shrikes and I'm out.

I divert up a path to check out a fenced in eight acre scrubby plateau above the parking lot – “habitat enhancement” set aside for the last half dozen years for Burrowing Owls. Just one of the elusive fellers has been spotted here since 2006, unlike at nearby Cesar Chavez Park and elsewhere in Eastshore State Park along Berkeley's waterfront, where the "species of special concern" has long been observed wintering over in sheltered nesting grounds rich in insects and rodents. No one knows why the owls have avoided the predator-proofed, attractive real estate, at least for a Burrowing Owl looking for a decent and safe place to crash for a few months. If I had to guess, insects and rodents must be in short supply. How else to explain a perfectly designed Burrowing Owl habitat failing to provide perfectly fine Burrowing Owl conditions?  In response to my query about the single sighting from eight years ago, East Bay Regional Park District Supervisor Scott Possin wrote, "To date, we are not aware of any Burrowing Owls that have been spotted at the preserve at the Albany Plateau." Well, Scott, Owl definitely keep my eyeballs peeled for 'em.

Speaking of habitat enhancement, the poor Bulb needs a severe make-over after years of going to the dogs.
Unsightly blight is tough to take anywhere, let alone in a regenerative ecosystem with pristine million dollar views. Not to diss the down and out indigent who've taken up residency in the shantytown. And let's face it, who wouldn't rather hunker down under the stars surrounded by nature, as opposed to, say, a stuffy rules-abiding shelter or pissy University Avenue doorway. But, sad to say, the homeless encampment situation is out of hand as the "authorities" move glacially to turn the Bulb into a bone fide family friendly park, in turn creating tension and contention in the homeless ranks versus the City of Albany and their considerable marshaled resources in the legal and compassionate battle to evict them. Once that's accomplished (and it must be done), then there's the huge mess to clean up before The Bulb, once and for all, can be meaningfully established as the wildlife sanctuary and human recreational area that it was meant to be. Meanwhile, the rag-tag band of self-proclaimed denizens of our public land is suing the City of Albany with legal guidance proffered by famed Berkeley "people's lawyer" Osha Neumann of the East Bay Community Law Center. The show-down is purely symbolic, of course, and hopefully, the campers will be offered help, resources, job training, something, anything, but they cannot go back to living in "paradise." Okay, enough of this off-topic rantin' 'n Raven. . .

The Albany Bulb truly is a place apart,  lost to its own natural rhythms, a reclaimed spit of land wild enough to support a voracious little predator like the Northern Shrike. Jutting into San Francisco Bay from Albany Waterfront Park, the tiny peninsula was once a dumping ground for toxic and hazardous industrial debris. Over thirty years, it has regenerated into a sylvan paradise and wildlife retreat / bird sanctuary, complete with million dollar jaw-dropping San Francisco Bay / Marin Headlands / Golden Gate views. Creative art and intriguing sculpture lie scattered over 31 acres of beautiful bay shoreline and upland woods and brush. Such perfectly fine habitat for all manner of mammals, reptiles, amphibians and, I’d guess, maybe 100 species of birds. Put that in your Pipit and smoke it a while. . .

I will return to the Bulb ptarm and Ptarmigan, for once there, I am reminded of why I always return to the place by the bay where three lovely creeks – Codornices, Village and Marin – converge hidden from the urban sprawl and super-highways. Once a pastoral debouchment, today up to 20,000 individual birds at a time can be found pecking about its vast mudflats feeding on invertebrates and milling about when the tide is out; food is abundant here, and conditions are ripe for resident and semi-permanent birds to make a good living. Among the multifarious shorebirds and pelagic kin frequenting the mudflats / shoreline are Long-billed Curlews, Whimbrels, Dowitchers, Semipalmated and Black-bellied Plovers, Western and Least Sandpipers, Herons and Egrets, Oystercatcher, Killdeer, Phalaropes, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Coots, Cormorants, Loons, Grebes, American and Gray Pelicans, Sanderlings, and dozens of other common, frequent, occasional, or rarely spotted species of waterfowl, gulls and terns, and perching birds. Recently, and cause for big fuss, a Northern Gannet was spotted making errant rounds this side of the continent. Ah, Willet ever be possible to see 'em all?

Ibis going to say. . .just hoping to have a field day at the Albany Bulb. Indeed, I've sighted a Northern Shrike, a Northern Mockingbird, a first-ever positive ID of Say's Phoebe, American Avocets, Whimbrels, and many ducks. Also observed: a resplendent pigeon. Other birds I would love to see but have not include Western Meadowlark, Savannah Sparrow, White-tailed Kite, and Northern Rough-winged Swallow. Ah, doncha just love bird watching and watching for birds at the Albany Bulbul. . .
Coot it be possible that three hours have already passed, so easily, just bird watchin' 'n watchin' for birds buzzin’ around the Bulb’s patchwork of single-track and fire road trails. Heron and there, I stop to investigate mysterious avian presences and marvel at expansive bluff top views or walk the labyrinth overlooking the excavated pit from hell now a "natural feature" attracting Bewick's Wrens, Yellow-Rumped Warblers and frisky California Ground Squirrels. Elsewhere, I have to hang abrupt u-eys at cul-de-sac homeless encampments. Down thattaway, I find navigable rocky shoreline trail to explore, where giant humanoid sculptures greet you open-armed, where don't be surprised if you spot an Eider know what. Doesn't matter. In the moment, I'm deeply engaged photographing an acrobatic Black Phoebe and dead serious Snowy Egret. I'm thrilled to see Laridae family members hanging out on Gulligan's Island.

Ah, my little birdie friends, Teal we meet again. . .

Check out Gambolin' Man's Albany Bulb post from a few years ago, where you can see more nature and art photos.

Photos ID'd:
Snowy Egret
Snowy Egret and variety of waterfowl
Black Phoebe
Western Sandpipers
American Avocet
Northern Shrike (possible)

All photographs copyright by Gambolin' Man

You tell me: Third Shrike's a charm?