Saturday, May 2, 2015

Avian Sanctuary and Nature Refuge Along SF Bay Trail / McLaughlin Eastshore State Park

Near Emery Point, a small seaweed strewn beach is abuzz with dozens of Sanderlings devouring flies and gnats. Rhythmically attuned as a single organism to the ebb and flow of gently lapping waves, the frisky flock dances to and fro in concert with receding waters, hungrily stabbing at the exposed sand with their short black bills. Then an oblivious dog owner arrives and sets her pooch loose, creating panic and havoc as the small sandpipers lift up en masse, flying off to a farther shore in a flurry of bleeping disapproval.

Near busy University Avenue and Frontage Road, glistening mudflats attract hundreds of Gulls, Coots, Killdeers, Avocets, Willets, Whimbrels, Wigeons and Mallards - one and all convivially joining in on the "feast-ivities" of rich pickings upturned by roiling tidal action. Terns circle and dive bomb in the calm bay, surfacing with limp fish clutched in their beaks. Pole sitting Cormorants flash wings in garish displays of territorial bragging rights, or maybe they’re just airing things out.

A troupe of Gray Pelicans flies overhead in graceful V-formation, much prettier air-borne birds than they appear in their awkward terra firma mien. A motionless White Heron stalks near the freeway in stony silence next to a discarded old tire, hoping for a tasty meal of fish, frog or snake. I wait a full five minutes hoping to see the old boy strike, but the Heron remains laser focused on his phantom meal, a fixated and statuesque creature of the wild not a stone’s throw away from roaring 6-lane I-80 traffic.

North past the bird sanctuary (aka the Albany Bulb), on toward doggy heaven (aka Point Isabel), the bay’s mud-caked bottom glistens in provender-rich pasturage laid bare, hosting tremendous bird life. Hundreds of flying creatures enjoying nature’s bounty of insects, worms and micro-organisms. Three East Bay creeks converge here, draining into the bay to create an auspicious foraging habitat. When the tide's out, and conditions are right, an inconceivable 20,000 individual birds might be spotted.

One unexpected among them - a Peregrine Falcon! Imagine that, coming upon the regal bird, feathers unruffled as I pop off my bike nearly trembling, fumbling to shoot a few frames and reel off at least one decent shot. I have only seen a Peregrine - pairs of them - in flight, never under such intimate circumstances for close unfettered scrutiny. . .at least for ten to fifteen seconds, which seems like a very long time watching him perched on a rock with a mangled California Towhee clutched in his deadly orange talons. He flies off at last with his prized catch to another bay side rock 500 ft. distant to enjoy his meal in peace and quiet without a paparazzo bugging him!

Welcome, bird lovers, to the San Francisco Bay Trail! For views, history, recreation, and exemplary urban development in natural, sensitive areas, it can't be beat. Years of behind the scenes efforts by dedicated individuals have resulted in successful habitat reclamation up and down the Trail, providing sorely lacking foraging and breeding territory for Coyote, Fox, Deer, Bobcat, Skunk, Raccoon, and many reptiles and amphibians. Notably, birds and native plants have struggled to regain a foothold in once endemic nooks and crannies of the long abused shoreline. Despite set-backs and countless perils and innumerable threats to their existence, by all measures, the birds et al are doing a great job in and around San Francisco Bay. Viva Aves!

Still undeveloped patches of land - e.g. Berkeley's waterfront area known as The Brickyard - are good bird territory. Somewhere around here, you look for where Strawberry Creek drains into the bay. Opposite University Avenue and Frontage Road, an intriguing gateway exhibit welcomes visitors to explore a unique feature of California’s newest jewel, the 1854 acre McLaughlin Eastshore State Park. A diorama, commemorating the park’s namesake, co-founder of Save the Bay, Sylvia McLaughlin, tells the story of this unique natural feature once common along miles of bay shoreline but today exists as a mere remnant of salvaged habitat that once characterized shoreline ecology.

The Berkeley Upland Meadow, with it protected (fenced in) acreage of brush, swale, and copse, at first blush appears as relatively uninteresting, but on closer scrutiny you realize it’s a skillfully terraformed intervention of a land in crisis, aimed to restore its original character and once again attract raptors, Burrowing Owl, coyotes, foxes, deer and raccoons – an ecological treasure and birdspotting wonderland in our urban midst

Where water and coastline meet, edged by meadow and scrub brush, Mother Nature provides for and nurtures so much variegated bird life. All in all, a fine day to witness many small miracles of creation who call these salvaged gardens their home - American Pipits, Scrub Jays, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Lark Sparrows, Golden-crowned Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, European Starlings, Red-winged Blackbirds, Black Phoebes, California Towhees, Spotted Towhees, Red-tailed Hawks, and the usual assortment of Crows, Vultures, Robins and Chickadees.

Bonus Footage of Peregrine Falcon with Towhee:

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