North Basin: The Video

The North Basin is the body of water between Cesar Chavez Park and the Berkeley mainland.  When I first started going to the park, I had no idea what this water was called, or if it had a name at all.  In the handful of years that I’ve been walking in Cesar Chavez Park,  I’ve been blown away by the variety of birds that you can see in the North Basin.  The things they do — feeding, meeting, fighting, preening, loving, getting along, sleeping — create endless opportunities for observation.  I’ve taken hundreds of photos and dozens of videos of birds in the water and on the shore.  And I’ve come to care for them.  I feel a bit protective.  It upsets me when people harass the birds or get careless with their plastic discards.  I think the North Basin ought to be a bird sanctuary — a place where the birds get respect and protection.  I’m not sure at this point about the legal options or about the path to get there. At this point I just want to call people’s attention to the existence of this place and its charms. That’s why I’ve made this video.  It runs just under fifteen minutes.  I hope you enjoy it and give thought to the issue it raises. 

Here’s some more info about this interesting body of water.  

Because fresh water from Schoolhouse Creek runs into it, the North Basin is technically an estuary.  At low tide you can see a meandering channel that freshwater from the creek has carved into the muddy bottom of the Basin.  See this article about the creek.  The mudflat by the creek is a major bird magnet.  

The North Basin owes its existence in part to the efforts of Sylvia McLaughlin, the cofounder of Save the Bay and tireless activist for conservation.  In 1961, there was a City Council debate whether to extend the Berkeley dump westward, further out into the Bay, or northward.  McLaughlin and her organization argued for north, and prevailed.  Had the dump extended further west, there would have been only the stub of a cove.  And the westward penetration of landfill would have served as anchor for grandiose development plans that would have reduced the Bay to a river.  Even with that defeat, the developers got their hooks into the project.  The designers lined up the northern edge with Gilman Street.  Developers contemplated running a dike across the water to enclose it.  Hence the name “Basin.”  The thought was to then fill it and develop on it.  In the citywide waterfront battles during the 1970s and 80s — see Norman La Force’s history book — priorities changed.  Water won out over landfill. 

Taking the line between the north edge of the park and Gilman Street as the northern boundary, the North Basin occupies approximately 126 acres, as measured using Google Earth.  Some of the literature of the 1980s gives a much larger surface area, basis unknown.  

According to the 2002 Master Plan for the Eastshore State Park the North Basin forms part of that park.  The park’s rules and regulations apply.  

In 2004,  the California Department of Parks and Recreation  commissioned a study of birds in the North Basin.  Observers set up a network of watching posts staffed by expert birders.  They followed an observation schedule designed to balance the tides and the seasons.  They even went out in kayaks to record the distance at which the approach of a boat upset the birds.  Their report is  available here.  It covers three years.  They recorded a total of 70,778 individual waterbirds belonging to 83 species, of which 81 were seen in the winter and 63 species in the summer.  

The most common species the observers reported during those years were Ruddy Duck (47 per cent of all winter waterbirds), Scaup (36 per cent), and Bufflehead (6 per cent).  In fourth place by frequency was the Surf Scoter.  How does that stand today?  My own unscientific observations, supported by the opinions of other bird watchers I’ve met in the area, suggest that the Scaup have taken over first place in numbers, by far.  This winter season, there were days when Scaup in the thousands almost covered the water.  Ruddies showed up in much more modest numbers, never in rafts of hundreds.  And, remarkably, Surf Scoters have been almost absent.  Since I’ve been looking, I’ve seen exactly one such bird, in May 2015.  And they’re hard to miss.  

The study also mentions a number of species that I personally have not (yet?) spotted in the North Basin: Blue-winged Teal, Canvasback, Common Merganser, Great White-fronted Goose, Northern Shoveler, Red-breasted Merganser, Redhead, Ring-necked Duck, Heermann’s Gull, Baird’s Sandpiper, and Ruddy Turnstone.  I’ve seen some of these in the neighboring Meadow, others in Aquatic Park, and I may well have seen others without recognizing (for example, the Ring-necked Duck, which is the spitting image of a Scaup).  

Among other things, the study recommended that all boat traffic, including kayaks and paddleboards, be banned from the North Basin during the winter bird migration season.  The researchers found that Scaup were the species most sensitive to disturbance by approaching craft.  




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