Monday, June 23, 2014

More Insatiable Birding in the Berkeley Hills

Summer Solstice is a time of abundant avian appearances. Multifarious species are in transit, coming and going, out 'n about doing their thing in the bird rich forests sheltering the precious artery of Wildcat Creek and frolicking in force up on the sunburnt conifer / chaparral ridges near Inspiration Point where birds rule the roost. You're hoping against hope to spot and photograph a Lazuli Bunting, or maybe a Black-headed Grosbeak. Fat chance, but who knows. That's why you bird watch. For the promise of a simple but soul-satisfying reward. If you're into bird watching, that is.

Wildcat Creek is running dry early in the year, owing to the prolonged drought; still, it contains sufficient discharge - miraculous! - to earn special status as a perennial riparian environment in a protected watershed. A very special place in our urban midst - the Berkeley Hills and its 2000 acres of open spaces and wild places. Along Wildcat Gorge Trail, euphonious rifts of water chugging away on its journey to the Bay makes good company, while mellifluous melodies of golden-throated creatures emanate from the bushes and branches and tree tops. Birds galore! Singin' their sweet hearts out! Hidden and initially unseen, once you drop the bike, stop moving, and begin to pay attention, dozens of birds along a 100 yard stretch gradually come into being, popping into your consciousness like spirit guides, almost.

You're taken by a pair of frisky Wilson's Warblers, a couple of classic looking, yellow as yellow can be, very handsome black-tammed passerines. Soon  another of its kind crashes the party, a flitty little guy almost unrecognizable as a Wilson's Warbler were it not for the black crown. Perhaps, you wonder, the camouflaged breast spots or streaks or irregular patterning IDs them as juveniles. Otherwise, what gives?

You continue working your way upstream through the small, pretty gorge, stopping at a special nook for several minutes to admire and track the flirty movements of Bushtits, Chickadees, Juncos, Jays and Robins. Looking out at a dense copse backed by sandstone cave outcrops (yes), you spot way up there - can it be? Yes! You zero in just in time for a two-second glimpse of the seldom-seen, orange / cinnamon-colored Black-headed Grosbeak. Where have you been, my loverly little friend, perched so ephemerally, and then gone in a flash, never to be spotted again. It's been maybe two years since a last sighting, and the thrill ain't gone.

On your bike, if you wanted to, you could zip through the pretty little gorge in ten minutes - but think of how much you would miss! So how long does it take to cover the half-mile? One hour! But what better way to kill time than a lackadaisical sixty minutes of effortless locomotion up the trail, deeply intrigued with everything in your path. Stopping here to steal a glance down into the tangle of green, sinuous creek bed. Lollygagging there to investigate chirping choruses and furtive movement in the trees and bushes. When suddenly your attention is diverted to some minor ruckus in the creek - "nothing" at all to get excited about - "just" a Junco takin' a dip. But how cool is that!

During one dilatory stretch, you're stopped in your tracks, glued to the scene, entranced by the pretty little creek. Dreamy reflections of upside images of arching bay tree branches and redwood trunks melt into a leafy tableau of blue hints of sky. In this nothing little half-stagnant pool. Endless minutes pass, oblivious to time, absorbed as you are in desperate, futile attempts to photograph Ruby-crowned Kinglets feeding on gnats and Wilson's Warblers flitting all over the place. When suddenly one lands nearby, you get a sense of how tiny they are, how vulnerable they must be, how precious each one is - and, contrariwise, how resilient, tough, resourceful, ingenious and durable they are. One cute little cuss hops to a flimsy branch not four feet away, but you fumble and miss a picture perfect photo op and at the same time, being a lens-obsessive birder, you miss the visceral delight of just looking at the pretty wild creatures with your natural eyes.

Many families are walking the gorge trail on this beautiful first day of summer. Little kids taking delight in things (you suspect) their parents are missing. A four-year old approaches to ask what you're looking at. You say, "Birds. But you really have to be patient if you want to see them." The boy nods and seems genuinely interested in, not so much the birds, but with your fascination with birds. Some time later, the same curious little boy passes by again, smiling smartly, "Hey, you're still here! Cool, Mister! Are the birds still here?" You turn to address him, losing sight of a lovely Spotted Towhee, "Yep, lots of birds to see."

Difficult as it is to leave the forested creekside scene - so vibrant with bird life! - it's inspiring to ascend several hundred feet up to sunny (and windy, per usual) Inspiration Point, one of the East Bay Regional Park District's most - uh - inspirational - panoramas of a changed but still viably prehistoric landscape. New educational signs posted overlooking San Pablo and Briones Reservoirs, Briones Regional Park, and Mount Diablo State Park tell the fascinating geological story of a shifting, moving, living land shaped by earthquake activity and erosion. As you stand there gazing out at. . . by now dry thistle-infested brown hills.

Instead of heading out on paved Nimitz Way - world-class views of San Francisco, Mount Tamalpais, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Marin Headlands - you ditch your bike in the weeds and enter the water district's (EBMUD) protected lands via Inspiration Trail to hang out a bit on a little slice of wild territory that you love and cherish. Despite a phalanx of electrical pylons clogging up the ridgeline view.You just block them out. Besides, you have to love them, because they provide ideal perches for Red-tailed Hawks, White Kites and American Kestrels, catching a breather or overseeing their bountiful domain to espy some tasty meal of vole, mole, rat, mouse, feral cat or - lost little dog.

And just why do you love this unknown, unheralded little "nowhere" place? Because! Because of stellar eastward views of Mount Diablo's massive double massif  juxtaposed with the 2000+ ft. rollicking ridges of Las Trampas Regional Wilderness and, beyond, the dark silhouettes of the Ohlone Range with peaks rising out of southeastern Alameda County at over 4,000 ft. Because of this place's anonymity, its sheer nowhereness and hiddenness (in plain sight). But mostly because the birds love it, and what's good enough for the birds is good enough for you.

In your lonesome element here, it's a lazy saunter up and down the trail hugging the half-forested, half-chaparral hillside. You love it because it's a real piece of undisturbed Mother Nature. And what fine bird habitat, and no doubt fox, coyote, cougar, and skunk territory, as well. Now operating in a purely sans souci, meditative frame of mind, in zero hurry, a quick hour slips by. . .doing not much of anything. . .except patrolling the little-trafficked trail spotting feisty Scrub Jays, darting Juncos, scolding Stellar's Jays, Ruby topped Finches, slowly circling Turkey Vultures, glittering Anna's Hummingbirds, rump-end glimpses of skittering off Northern Flickers, handsome Spotted Towhees, joyful Lesser Goldfinches, playful Black-capped and Chestnut-backed Chickadees, and Lark Sparrows, bursting with song. Other feathered crooners could be heard but not seen, forever unidentified. Oh, well. Still. Where else would you want to be?

Read more of Gambolin' Man's shout-outs of Wildcat Creek Watershed, Wildcat Creek, Wildcat Gorge Trail, the Tilden Nature Area, and Tilden Regional Park @

Black-headed Grosbeak photo courtesy of Alan Vernon. All other photos copyrighted by Gambolin' Man.


  1. Reading this blog made me realize how much it has in common with The Power of Now.

    I'm currently listening to the audio version as I commute to work, having read the book itself years ago about 5 times.

    Tom, reading your blog I'm just so taken by how your ambles through nature exemplify everything The Power of Now is about. Your use of the word "meditative" at the end is so appropriate.

    When you are in nature, Tom, you truly are in the power of now. Keep up the great "work". This is the exact kind of energy that shifts planetary consciousness.

  2. Very nice write-up Tom, reminiscent of your Gambolin' Man hiking posts. I'm particularly impressed that you actually saw the incredibly rare scrub jay!