by Rex Burress


Down by the bayside at Berkeley, there is a precious project cradled in a corner of an extensive landfill. It is the Shorebird Nature Center, housed in a portable building at the edge of a lawn near the rip-rapped shoreline projecting to a peninsula where Hs Lordship restaurant is located.

Just as the duck islands of the Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge consist entirely of landfill, so a marina has been secured by extending the land mass into the San Francisco Bay. Limitations now exist to maintain the bay water expanse, but in the earlier days of development, some ambitious projects extended out from shore.

I love nature centers, and when I return to the East Bay to check on Oakland's own Rotary Nature Center where I had 32 years of personal job input, I try to stop by the Berkeley unit operated by super organizer and nature enthusiast Patty Donald and her staff. It is remarkable how Patty's program has united natural history segments into marine exploration, classroom discovery, and even an Adventure Playground adjacent to the center. They are even planning a more proper building made of straw bales!

It was with extreme interest and appreciation that I followed Patty and her dog into a nearby 70-acre "waste" area and learned about the evolution of that manmade land extension. When we drive out to the marine facilities, parking lots, restaurants, and even the long pier stretching into the bay, we forget that the land mass is the product of soil-fill manipulation rearranged by machines. Not all development is detrimental to the environment, as demonstrated by the Berkeley extension, where a considerable chunk of wildlife-supporting habitat has been created in exchange for tide flats and open water.

The 70-acre undeveloped parcel has been vacant for nearly ten years while a court battle has been admirably fought by the city to prevent high-rise structures from being built on the open space, a project that they felt would be detrimental to the marine appearance. During that time, nature has been free to colonize the land with plants and animals, and the grassy, semi-marsh land, spotted with coyote bush and invasive species, presents a sterling example of how life tries to fill very vacuum on earth.

During the rainy season, small ponds are formed containing aquatic life, but they dry up during the summer," Patty said as she pointed out the colorful introduced curly Rumex dock that contended for space in the drying ponds like a thin army on the march.

Transients camped out in every brush patch until the East Bay Regional Park District removed them after the parcel was turned over to the district for managing as part of the new Eastshore State Park. Even the Christmas tree lots have been ousted along the freeway, and bulldozers have leveled the lumpy bicycle course," Patty remarked as she let her well-behaved dog roam the pathways. "Dogs generally have to be leashed or controlled," she said.

I looked intently for native species of plants. Nearly every bit of growth was of foreign origin, if you consider plants that have progressed from other countries in the last 200 years as contending residents. European fennel, wild oats, teasel, dock, dandelions, ox-tongue, star thistle, mustard, wild radish, and dozens of other exotics crowding onto the land space indicates the hardy nature of those colonizers, and a rather admirable resistance to adversity. A few native California poppies, goldfields, and brass buttons had squeezed in along the paths, but gnerally invasives, aliens, introducees, or whatever you want to call them, had succeeded. But no one species was completely dominant, and there is a sympathetic tendency to accept what makes it on its own and doesn't overwhelm the habitat, a fact that native-plant purists would not find agreeable.

Even botany enthusiast deceased Naturalist Paul Covel of the Oakland park system often displayed a mixture of plants at the Lake Merritt Rotary Nature Center, and he remarked, "Plants from many lands help spread good will throughout the world." Perhaps he referred more to attractive foreign blossoms that often appear along our streets and in gardens, but his admiration of fennel and dock was apparent on nature hikes, even as he denounced star thistle.

Those aliens are able to spread by the use of efficient seed-dispersal systems and hardy roots that grab the moisture. There is no problem with native American animals using the plants from other lands. In the open space fill land, we saw fussing blackbirds that undoubtedly had nests somewhere, and jackrabbits hopped high through the grass cover. Patty said that meadow voles are abundant, and a handsome male marsh hawk, or Northern Harrier, swooped low as if demonstrating its adaptation to the meadow. I even later saw a Red-tailed Hawk trying to catch the numerous ground squirrels along the shoreline! Patty had seen a shrike in the meadow. Insects plied the blossoms, and a small gopher snake, plump with a victim, scooted out from the path. The field merged with the shoreline, and a straggler Lesser Scaup flapped out from the shore, perhaps an injured bird unable to migrate with the flock. During the winter, vast numbers of waterfowl and shorebirds frequent the cove.

Patty referred to the additional 90 acres of fill rounded into low hills to the north, where kite flyers converge and a multitude of users hike the shore trails. The land managers have even developed about an acre into native shrubs, evidence that land facilities can be molded into a natural-appearing condition. All it takes is soil, sunshine, and water and protection. The landscaping around Patty's nature center contains a small forest of mixed native and introduced species, just as the entire marina supports a manipulated wildlife community.

Nature is where you find it, and often there is an intrigue in studying the survival methods around the concrete obstacles of the city.

 © 2000 Rex Burress
May 21, 2000