CODORNICES CREEK: Paying Homage to a Humble Little Stream Flowing Wild and Free in a Humble Little Redwood Canyon Hidden in the Berkeley Hills
Anna the Hummingbird is so completely at ease - in fact, zen motionless still - in her self-perceived invisibility that she is utterly unruffled by my nose practically sticking in her face to get a better look. Finally, sensing intrusion and instinctual danger, she darts away and covers fifty feet in a split nanosecond to land on a higher tree branch, at which time I am able to peer into her nest to see two little oblong eggs, jewel-like in their preciousness and rarity, oddly reminding me of two pieces of Good and Plenty candies.
The next day I return and - surprise of surprises - there is a diminutive brood of two bumblebee-sized hatchlings. From my vantage point, I can barely discern a slight jerky movement of a living creature's head, the color and size of a tiny ripe blueberry, just below the lip of the nest - that newly hatched hummingbird can't be more than a half inch long! So fascinated and fixated am I on the hatchlings, that it takes a few seconds before I even notice Anna perched on the outer rim of the nest watching over things with a steadfast unblinking eye. I watch her, myself as zen motionless still as I can be, for several minutes before she takes off again and disappears so quickly I can't track her movement. Her prolonged moments of perfect stillness versus her in-flight flurry of blurry but precise motion is an amazing contrast of opposite temperaments embodied in this little avian dynamo. This proud and protective Mother Hummer will preside over her brood for the next three weeks, until they make their first fledging attempts to fly away and carry on their genetically programmed destiny to pollinate, procreate, proliferate, and playfully ply the skies. Being witness, up close and personal, to the natural world's inner workings, is a joyous and transformative experience, a bonk on the head reminder that you don't have to venture far afield to partake of the glorious pageantry of Mother Nature unfolding in undisturbed, timeless rhythms, however small or hidden.
Codornices Park was once part of the vast Rancho San Antonio land holdings granted by the King of Spain in the early 1800s to Don Luis Maria Peralta, a big honcho who ceded the rancho in 1840 to his four sons. Jose Domingo Peralta -- Berkeley's "first immigrant"-- ended up with the land in these parts, but eventually squandered his fortune and holdings and died penniless. He named the park after the Spanish word for quail, on finding an abundance of California quail eggs. Today, Codornices Park - and others like it - has been preserved as a remnant of the once prevalent wild lands that comprised the East Bay foothills, where Ohlone natives of the Huichin tribe established villages and lived harmoniously on and off the land for millennia until the advent of the white man (who, to make a long and painful story short, in a matter of a few terribly efficient decades, subjugated, enslaved, killed, assimilated and otherwise destroyed the culture and perennial way of life of Bay Area Ohlone Peoples. . .)
Codornices Park may be a small dot of green on a grid map of cross streets and avenues, but it packs tons of beauty in its confined sylvan and riparian quarters, with its dense stands of vegetation and tree cover, gardenesque rock outcrops, and, most notably, the convergence of two forks of Codornices Creek tumbling down gullied hillsides originating from swales and springs in residential areas below Grizzly Peak Boulevard.
The upper Codornices watershed is 1.1 square miles of heavily urbanized settlement, and yet it produces an amazingly free-flowing creek, mostly out of culvert, that traverses 2.9 miles in a narrow winding ribbon to its Bay outlet. Typical of East Bay (and all Bay Area) semi-perennial streamlets, Codornices Creek flows sporadically throughout the year - turning torrential during winter rains, and drying to a near trickle in the summer. Because of this irregular pluvial pattern, the creek probably has not historically been a major spawning ground for Steelhead trout, although there have been recent documented sightings of Oncorhynchus mykiss endeavoring to establish spawning nests (redds) in its lower stretches. Even during drought stricken times, the stream preserves, 'neath shaded canopy, cool pools and trickling flows, to nurture a stream-rich habitat for city dwelling wild critters, "mean and lowly things" such as worms, crayfish, newts, salamanders, fish, snakes, and the occasional (threatened) red-legged frog, as well as refuge for larger mammals who come to browse, graze, drink and hunt - deer, fox, skunk, coyote and bobcat. A thriving creekside plant community supports a variety of California native trees, including redwood, bay laurel, buckeye, big leaf maple, varieties of oak and remnant stands of willow thickets, with a lush understory of native flora, brambles, poison oak and seasonal wildflowers. Through parks, neighborhoods and business and residential backyards, Codornices Creek flows through Berkeley and Albany pretty much as it always has; it remains only one of a handful of nearly a dozen primordial area creeks that sees the light of day on its meandering journey from hilltop, through flatlands, to its drainage system in the Bay. Owing to tireless efforts and mostly unheralded work of the Urban Creeks Council, their lofty mission to "preserve, protect and restore urban streams and their riparian habitats" for the benefit and integrity of whole ecosystems has really paid off in recent years, thanks to countless volunteers and lots of donated weekends helping to restore, clean up and set free more and more culverted stretches of East Bay creeks, so that you and I - and all our animal and plant friends - can enjoy their beauty and peaceful refuge for all time.
High in the Berkeley Hills, cutting small ravines in steep yards and woodsy lots harboring tall redwood trees, three stems of Codornices Creek rise, eventually merging to form the main stem. Along the middle fork, a literal walk in the park, up a few flights of stairs, and through a little ivy-covered gate, you chance upon an incongruous scene which makes you wonder where you are. . . you're amazed at what's tucked away and hidden back in there. . .you're walking along the muddy path, through the forest, the sound of water getting louder and louder, and then you round a bend and come face to face with an impressive waterfall in a fern grotto, in a redwood forest canyon! It's a sight to behold, a waterfall right in Berkeley!
Over millennia, the erosive forces of water have carved a respectable ravine and exposed bare volcanic rock, giving birth to a 50 ft. multiple tier drop falls that takes your breath away, amazes you that in all these years you never knew about it, yet here and now, with replenishing rains, it cascades through a lush canyon, silencing the outside world, save the mantra sound of water crashing endlessly to soothe your soul, wash away your cares, and cleanse you of worries and stress. Grok this fact: only one park in the ridgeline system of East Bay Regional Parks - Wildcat, Tilden, Briones, Sibley, Huckleberry, Redwood, Anthony Chabot - has falls that compare (Tilden). Special note: this precious spot is on private property, so tread lightly and with respect. The owner, Emily Benner, a neighbor and Sierra Club consort back in the day of David Brower, has graciously allowed passage in the spirit of the club's tradition of open space access. Thank you, Emily! (I assume you're still alive and kicking!)
In over a dozen visits during the past few weeks, Benner Falls has become our new and special sanctuary, a get-away-from-it-all-in-fifteen-minutes place of sublime privacy we call going to "church". My kind of priestless worship -- reverential silence, shrines of rotting logs and tree stumps, reliquary niches in rocks holding sacred secrets, founts of holy water, genuflecting pew of wood across the gulch, crosses of trees, communion with higher spirits, silent meditation and intimate confessionary moments, and God-beams of sunlight filtering through the arboreal steeple of redwood canopy. Here, your prayers are heard and answered.