Monday, February 06, 2006

WILDCAT CREEK WATERSHED: Backyard Explorations of a Surprisingly Exotic Riparian Corridor in the East Bay Hills




While hiking in the verdant hills of Big Springs on a trail devoid of people and rife with pungent black sage, purple clover and orange poppies, I spot a Golden Eagle hunting in the ravine. At first, I'm puzzled by the odd almost incongruous sight of this tall bird, sitting motionless in the grass. For several minutes, she surveys her grassy domain, occasionally seeming to preen, until suddenly up she swoops with an audible whoosh, powered by the tremendous aerodynamic force of her three foot wingspan.

She flies below a small ridge, where I lose sight of her, but keep my binoculars focused. Sure enough, moments later, she appears with a long green snake in her sharp talons! Flying to a higher ridge, snake flailing, she disappears again for several seconds. Before I can utter, WOW!, she suddenly darts skyward, this time sans snake. (Did she slurp it down like a wet spaghetti noodle?) Now, with a mouse clutched in her beak, she lets it drop in mid-air, then catches it deftly and swallows her little appetizer and flies out of sight.

One lazy August day, sitting dreamily near a favorite section of burbling Wildcat Creek, where it flows wild and free around ancient lava flow formations in a deep hidden gorge, I happen to look up to witness a most odd phenomenon -- one furry animal plummeting 75 feet from a tree branch to a certain splattering death. The poor creature -- or lucky creature --- somehow manages to fall smack dab directly in a pool of water just deep enough in the late summer season to buffet an otherwise bone-crushing landing on the bedrock. The squirrel appears nonplussed, but shakes it off, literally turning into a blur of fur and water spray, before scurrying up the creek bank, and scampering up a redwood tree, very much resembling a scared, wet rat!

On one of those peaceful, casual strolls to Jewel Lake in Tilden Park -- the smaller of the two dammed areas along Wildcat Creek‘s 13 mile corridor, the other being the immensely popular swimming and recreational Lake Anza -- I plop myself down on a sunny bench and gwt out my binoculars to enjoy watching ducks feeding upside, turtles sunning on logs, and playful black phoebes engaged in aerial histrionics in their expert quests for insect munchies. (Cost of entertainment = free of charge, but you gotta want it.)

Without warning, a showy cormorant appears on the scene and entertains for thirty minutes. Under wings of bluish-green, with black-mottled feather pattern, the cormorant is a really beautiful bird I’d never noticed before. Perched atop a raft platform on one leg, wings spread and flapping to dry in the sun, Cormy would occasionally dive deep to come up fifty feet away a few seconds later. I'm rapt in observation, when out of nowhere there's a huge commotion -- a great blue heron has dive-bombed at poor Cormy, scaring him off in a flurry of squawking and posturing. Umbrage hass definitely been incurred. I share a laugh with the park ranger, who then asks if I'd like to see a rare sight for Jewel Lake -- a night or green heron. I would never have known or guessed it was a heron because the bird looks more like a squat little penguin with a blue jay's head! (There I go word botching again!) Greenie is perched silently on one leg, as motionless as a still photograph, frozen in classic silent hunting posture, waiting, waiting, waiting, to strike his prey.

Typical, but exotic, episodes right here in our own backyard! Just a few minutes removed from the hustle and bustle of the urban jungle. . . you never know what you’ll see, encounter or experience, for there is always something hidden, secretive, and surprising lurking on the fringes of the Bay Area’s populated regions. Reason enough for the late, great Berkeley-born Galen Rowell to publish, before his untimely death with his wife, Barbara, in a plane crash August 11, 2002 outside of Bishop, California in the High Sierra, one of his fabulous coffee table photo-essay books, called, appropriately enough, Bay Area Wild.

In past days, I insisted on a “real creek,” not some piss-ass little ditch. There was always a more precious place to seek out -- hard-flowing Alameda Creek in Sunol Regional Wilderness, with its locally famous gorge known as “Little Yosemite“, supporting steelhead trout and salmon (again after an absence of many years); Oat Canyon’s amazing waterfalls in remote Mt. Diablo; the wet, wild, boulder-strewn cascades of Marin County; the homewaters of the first identified rainbow trout species, in Redwood and San Leandro Creeks; Wildcat Creek’s twin watershed wonder, San Pablo Creek; or any of the East Bay’s magnificent creeks flowing out of its 44 watersheds.

That didn’t leave much time for little old Wildcat Creek, which always seemed like an after thought. It always seemed little more than an insignificant seasonal stream running its quaint, meandering course from -- where exactly is its headwaters? A parking lot drain atop Grizzly Peak? -- to ignominiously debouche -- where precisely? -- in San Francisco Bay somewhere in the industrial pits of -- Richmond, isn‘t it? Wildcat Creek remained, at least for me, unseen, therefore certainly an unheralded nature experience. Well, okay, so it only took a couple of decades for reality to sink in! In case you didn’t know, Wildcat Creek is a super special place, especially given its proximity to, and indeed co-existence with, the encroaching urban landscape of the East Bay cities of Berkeley and Richmond.

Fortunately, Wildcat Creek flows through protected stretches of Tilden and Wildcat Canyon Regional Parks, two absolute jewels in the 65-park, 96,000 acre East Bay Regional Park District. Although the creek has been severely degraded over the years, recent efforts have done much to restore eroded creek side vegetation and the precious natural habitat which teems with diverse flora and fauna. The result: a healthy watershed, a beautiful, living wild creek cutting bedrock, right in our backyard! Rugged hills covered in healthy, fern-friendly forests of redwood, oak, bay, madrone, and manzanita provide a rich biota home to amphibians, reptiles, birds, and native fish species such as the spine stickleback and rainbow trout, whose struggle to survive in seasonal pools degraded by off-leash dogs has the park naturalists working desperately (with mixed results) to educate the public, install fencing, weirs and other enhancements to ensure their continued existence. (Who knows? Who cares? I DO! YOU DO!)

The creek passes from Tilden Park’s more developed areas into Wildcat Canyon Regional Park -- a preserved swathe of rolling hill land that once supported ranching operations, and before that, Ohlone people -- the Huchiun, or Jutchiun, or Cuchiyun – who encamped up and down the creek and lived harmoniously in tune with and off the bounty of the land for countless generations. Today, hikers, bikers, equestrians, and, seasonally, grazing cows, all share the open space with healthy populations of deer, fox, bobcat, weasel, coyote, skunk, and badger. . .although you’d be lucky to see any of these creatures on a given outing. (I always loved how John Muir described the elusive nature of our four-legged friends: “Gliding about in their shady forest homes, keeping well out of sight, there is a multitude of sleek, fur-clad animals living and enjoying their clean, beautiful lives. How beautiful and interesting they are is about as difficult for busy mortals to find out as if their homes were beyond sight in the sky.”)

The ever-changing environment of the riparian corridor is a joy to behold at any time of the year. Even as the creek completes its journey through hilly parklands to the bay, flowing through restored, “daylighted” urban stretches, the life-sustaining creek charms, entices, surprises you at every turn (and bend). The creek cuts an anfractuous thread through the small canyon, amazingly right below extensive condo and McMansion developments atop the Berkeley ridges. And despite pernicious botanical pests like eucalyptus and thistle weed, the hill canyon country supports many native grasses and wildflowers; despite developments which threaten open space through several miles of industrial and residential sprawl, the creek thrives. And those hills, where I buried my beloved dog, Samantha, in 1988, just roll on forever. You’ve escaped the urban pressure cooker in minutes! Listen to the howling coyot’ ranging in yonder hills! Check out that kestrel looking for field mice! Careful of the newt there at your foot! Look, a banana slug! (UC Santa Cruz's mascot!) Rejoice over, but don’t eat, a colorful patch of mushrooms!

Springtime in Wildcat Creek Watershed brings profuse wild flowers and green hillsides with tall grasses swaying in gentle breezes. Migratory birds return from long journeys south to nest and mate. Summers are hot and dusty; vultures circle in burning skies; but oases of moist greenery along stretches of sheltered banks provide cooling relief as water flows year-round over bedrock channels, lulling you on a hot summer day into mystic daydreams beneath shady oak and bay trees. Come autumn, the colors change, the air becomes crisp, change is imminent as winter approaches to bring long-awaited rains and turn the creek and its numerous ribbon-thin tributaries into raging brown, then white-water torrents. Wildcat Gorge, in Tilden Park, becomes a tropical wonderland, truly transformed from the seeming prosaic to the veritable exotic -- the magic and power of abundant water flowing through our local watershed is a joyous revelation, a salve to the soul, to know and cherish until my dying day. Spread my ashes there over a hundred other places, I say!

Long live this precious resource! Even in its present altered state, there is a tremendous richness of nature just on the other side of the city. And you wouldn’t ever know it for 25 years until one day, after a big rain, you rush up to the mud and gloop and drizzle to behold a spectacle of utter magnificence – unfathomable water gushing through tropical-like forests. . .reminiscent of Kaua’i right in my back yard.

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