Wildlife Symposium Meets on the Island

Ilana DeBare People who attended the April 9 symposium looked for nesting peregrine falcons by the Fruitvale Bridge.

Least terns, harbor seals and western bluebirds are just part Alameda’s rich variety of wildlife that recently had their day in the sun — or drizzle — as part of Golden Gate Audubon Society’s “Wild! In Alameda” symposium, which included trips to viewing stations around the Island City. 

Some 100 people, including Mayor Trish Spencer, visited the Main Library on Saturday, April 9, for the two-hour symposium and slide show that featured the species that make Alameda their home for all or part of the year.

Golden Gate Audubon Society (GGAS) Executive Director Cindy Margulis described the nesting colony of egrets on Bay Farm Island. Discovered in 2007, the nests once extended over five or six trees but after several trees were thoughtlessly trimmed, the colony contracted to just a single pine tree with about 29 nests — 12 percent of all great egret nests in the East and South Bay.

Richard Bangert, publisher of the “Alameda Point Environmental Report,” recounted the soap-opera-like saga of ospreys trying to nest at Alameda Point. Over the past few years, they’ve tried nesting in inhospitable places (masts of ships, a light pole directly over a motorcycle class area). One year, breeding was distracted by the arrival of a second, rival female. Another year, common ravens nesting nearby chased the ospreys off.

“There was a certain self-confidence about those ravens,” Bangert said. “It was one of the most in-your-face bird actions. One raven actually picked up the ospreys’ nesting materials and took it over to the ravens’ nest.” Perhaps 2016 will be more auspicious: The osprey pair has chosen a more secure spot and may be sitting on an egg.

Mark Klein, who used to work with the Marine Mammal Research Center, described the harbor seal population that hauls out on a dock at Seaplane Lagoon. When that dock was threatened because of development, seal lovers spoke out and won installation of a new floating dock for the seals, which is scheduled to be installed in about six weeks. December 2015 was a new record for the seal population there, with 38 hauled out at one time.

“They haul out for several reasons,” Klein said. “To warm up since they don’t have a lot of blubber like elephant seals, to give birth and nurse their young, and to molt and throw off their old skin and grow a new one.”

Perhaps Alameda’s best-known bird is the California least tern — a tiny, endangered species that has been nesting on the tarmac of the former Naval Air Station for at least 40 years. Susan Euing, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USF&W) biologist who manages the tern colony, described its breeding cycle: The birds arrive in mid- to late-April from points as far south as Ecuador. Early May sees the first wave of nests. By late May or early June, chicks have hatched. Within three weeks they have started flying, and within another three weeks they are heading south again.

The terns make airport runways their home because the birds like big open beaches, Euing said. “But there’s a lot of competition since people also like big open beaches for their dogs or for condos.”

GGAS volunteers have helped USF&W monitor and prepare the terns’ nest site for years. These days, Alameda Point is home not just to least terns, but to a breeding colony of Caspian terns, as well as burrowing owls, stilts, avocets and barn swallows.

Diane Bennett, a citizen-scientist and GGAS board member, described the amazing discovery of a wintering snowy plover population on Crown Memorial State Beach several years ago. Decades-old notes by conservation pioneer Elsie Roemer had mentioned plovers, but no one had seen any there in recent memory. When Bennett and some others did a point blue shorebird survey along Crown Beach in 2013, they decided to make a special search for plovers — and found some.

Those who attended the symposium also learned about the presence of western bluebirds, peregrine falcons and California brown pelicans. In the afternoon, GGAS and its partners sponsored viewing stations around the island so people could get real-life glimpses of the birds and animals they’d learned about that morning.

The Wild! in Alameda photography exhibit at the Alameda Main Library will remain up through the end of May.