Between the office parks and condos of California’s South Bay, in stark contrast to the glass-and-steel world of tech startups and venture capitalist firms that infest the region, you can find 30,000 acres of gentle hills and peaceful wetland filled with rustling salt grass and the calls of migrating sea birds.
The wildlife refuge, originally named San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, exists thanks to the efforts of local citizens and members of Congress, especially Congressman Don Edwards, who the park was re-named after in 1995. When the refuge was created in 1974, to protect part of the Bay ecosystem from conversion to salt ponds, it was the first national wildlife refuge in an urban area.
When the refuge was created in 1974, to protect part of the Bay ecosystem from conversion to salt ponds, it was the first national wildlife refuge in an urban area.
My first class in the Bay Area Master Naturalist series at Merritt College was BIOL 64H: Natural History of Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Professor Hank Fabian’s enthusiasm was infectious, and when I asked if I could bring a camera on the field trip, he said, “Definitely.”
The class started with an evening lecture portion at Merritt College, which I had never been to before. The campus is near Chabot Space and Science Center, which I had visited before and where I still send a portion of proceeds from my scientific children’s book The Sun and the Places Where it Shines. I was greeted in the parking lot by a spectacular red sunset and kicked myself for not bringing my camera. I’d given myself more than enough time to find the right room, and ended up dejectedly eating a package of vending machine wafers in the dim, empty cafeteria, wondering what to expect.
when I asked if I could bring a camera on the field trip, he said, “Definitely.”
The class was packed. The gender divide was even and the students were of all ages and ethnicities, although they erred heavily white, which they dismayingly had in common with birders in general. We started out with notes on how to get to the wildlife refuge the next day, and then jumped into an extensive PowerPoint tour of the animals and plants we might see. I was struck by the diversity of species and wondered how I had never heard of this place. Salt marshes just don’t come up in conversation during ad agency happy hours, I guess.
I left for the field portion of the class early the next morning and drove about an hour south from Berkeley, out of the eucalyptus groves and into a paved expanse of scattered palm trees. I was early again, so I drove down the road past the visitor center a ways. A number of birds were wading in the salt marsh along the road, and I shot a few from my car window before heading back to the visitors center to meet up with the rest of the class.
My Olympus and I warmed up on some sparrows flocking edge of the parking lot while the rest of the class arrived. When everyone was there, we walked out to the salt marshes. The trail was a raised dirt and gravel pathway that wound around the edge of the water, separating it from the salt grass. I didn’t catch all the names of the birds we saw on the water–I was too busy shooting them–but I did look them up later, and it was veritable aviary of interesting waterfowl.
The trail was a raised dirt and gravel pathway that wound around the edge of the water, separating it from the salt grass.
Bonaparte’s gulls, with their little gray cheek circles, floated between larger California gulls. Sandpipers ran along the water’s edge and hunted off the tiny rocks as if they were minute fishing piers on warm, gentle sea. American avocets perched on old wood pillars out in the water, barely close enough to identify through my telephoto lens. I recognized a double-crested cormorant from my time on Chesapeake Bay, where I had first gotten into birds.
Both snowy egrets and great egrets stalked the shallow water flowing through the salt grass. A pair of Canada geese seemed to follow us from spot to spot. I trailed behind the group a bit, and caught a variety of sparrows. One was hunting gnats on the edge of a low rooftop on the way to the picnic area.
It wasn’t just birds that we saw at Don Edwards. A tiny, fuzzy caterpillar caught the attention of some members of the class, and we watched it crawl slowly across the dirt trail until it was time to move on. (I’m always surprised and delighted when other human beings go out of their way for tiny creatures. One time, on the Drexel University campus after a spring rainstorm, I saw a college girl pick a live worm up off the walkway with a stick and throw it back into the bushes. It made my day.)
A tiny, fuzzy caterpillar caught the attention of some members of the class, and we watched it crawl slowly across the dirt trail until it was time to move on.
We also saw one lizard under the wooden steps of one of the park buildings. It was half in bright sunlight and half in stark shade and I couldn’t get the exposure right, but I was pleased to see a reptile. Also in attendance were several ground squirrels. I watched two of them chase each other and get into a tussle. Maybe they were playing.
There was still plenty of time left in the day, and Professor Fabian announced we could double up this trip with a visit to nearby Coyote Hills Regional Park. I took too many photos there for one post, so that adventure will have to be its own entry. When we came back to the parking lot at Don Edwards after, I got into my car and looked up–a western scrub jay had perched in a tree right outside my car. After all those exotic migrating birds in the salt marshes, my favorite photo from Don Edwards ended up being a common jay.