Posts Tagged ‘Golden Gate Audubon Society’

Touring the terns

June 17, 2012

(Note: This is reprinted from Golden Gate Birder, the blog I edit for Golden Gate Audubon Society.)

The cement stretched for acres around us, cracked and neglected, weeds springing up every few feet through the cracks. It reminded me of a scene from some post-apocalyptic science fiction movie, or from Alan Weisman’s fascinating book The World Without Us, in which he extrapolates what would happen to the planet if humans were to suddenly vanish.

Photo by Ilana DeBare

But it wasn’t anything quite so dramatic. We were crossing an abandoned runway at the former Alameda Naval Air Station.

And we were riding in, of all things, an old-fashioned yellow school bus – on the annual Return of the Terns tour.

Each June, the East Bay Regional Park District joins with other groups including Golden Gate Audubon Society to host bus tours of the breeding colony of endangered California Least Terns at the old Alameda naval air station.

The area is normally closed to the public to prevent disruption of the tern nests. But on Saturday, we were able to drive within yards of the tern colony, provided we didn’t get off the bus or make loud noises.

This may be one of the most unusual birding sites in the world. Forget images of birding in leafy groves or reedy marshes.  Least Terns traditionally nest on flat strips of sand or gravel — wide-open surfaces that seem frighteningly vulnerable but give them a good view of potential predators.

Tern and chick / Photo by Eleanor Bricetti

Decades ago, the terns apparently decided that the airstrip’s tarmac would be a good substitute for their vanishing beaches. They started returning and nesting here each spring despite the constant takeoffs and landings.

These were California Least Terns — the West Coast subspecies of the smallest kind of tern, which were placed on federal and state endangered species lists in 1970. So the fact that they were trying to breed here was a big deal.   Over the past 30 years, volunteers with Friends of the Alameda Wildlife Refuge — a committee of Golden Gate Audubon — have worked with East Bay Regional Parks and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to nurture and protect the colony. (GGAS is still pushing to get the nesting area declared an official wildlife refuge.)

To reach the tern colony on Saturday, our school bus crossed over large stretches of cracking and weeded tarmac. Far ahead of us, the Oz-like towers of downtown San Francisco shimmered across the Bay. On our left, an adult Canada Goose and its goslings waddled obliviously across the old runway. (Terns aren’t the only birds that breed at the old air base.)

Then we reached the tern colony — a ten-acre section of tarmac enclosed with wire fencing to keep out stray dogs, cats and humans, covered with a layer of sand imported from Angel Island, and dotted with shells and small structures provided by volunteers to shelter the tern chicks. The area also held a number of small white markers with numbers, used by volunteers to map and track nests from a distance.

Tern on nest, behind wire fence. Nearby is a marker used to map the nests. / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Peering out the windows like schoolkids on a field trip, we saw and heard dozens of terns swooping through the air — males bringing fish to their chicks or mates. We could see females sitting on nests, which are little more than indentations in the sand. And every so often we glimpsed a fuzzy gray chick peeking out from under its mother or hiding from the sun in a section of conveniently-placed terra cotta pipe.

It was a hot day, hotter than is comfortable for the chicks, who don’t have the same body-temperature control mechanisms as adults. The terns face a variety of challenges to their survival — man-made challenges such as loss of habitat to development, along with traditional challenges such as predators (raptors, ravens etc.), food supply and weather.

Tern next to pipe supplied by volunteers for shelter. You can’t see it with my crummy point-aqnd-shoot camera, but there is a grey chick nestled at her feet. / Photo by Ilana DeBare

With some 300-350 nesting pairs, Alameda Point is the most productive breeding colony of Least Terns on the West Coast. But even so, 10 to 20 percent of the chicks don’t make it to adulthood.

Statewide, the number of California Least Tern nesting attempts has fallen from 8,173 in 2006 to 6,404 in 2011, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The number of fledglings fell even more starkly, from 3.108 in 2006 to 1,106 last year.

These declines make the Alameda site — as unlikely and science-fiction-like as it seems — more important than ever. About 17 percent of all the fledglings on the West Coast come from Alameda Point.

After about 40 minutes of watching the birds, we headed back to Crab Cove Visitor Center to let the next group have a turn on the bus. Outside the center, volunteers with Friends of the Alameda Wildlife Refuge were staffing an information table.

As a relative newcomer to GGAS, this was my first visit to the tern colony. But the FAWR/GGAS volunteers have been visiting for decades, both before and after closure of the naval base — monitoring the nests, documenting the incidence of predators, and enhancing and fencing the site while the terns are wintering in Central or South America. They’ve seen night skies bright with constellations over the tarmac. They’ve seen rainbows that end at Alameda Point.

They’ve also been determined advocates in a long-running battle to create an official wildlife reserve at Alameda Point, and to fend off development proposals that would threaten the terns.

Friends of the Alameda Wildlife Refuge / Photo by Ilana DeBare

My own takeaway from Return of the Terns was how resilient these creatures are. They’re so small — about as long as an Aidell’s sausage, and hardly thicker. Faced with the loss of their traditional breeding habitats, they found a new one under the noses of military jets.

The Alameda terns are visible evidence of how wildlife can coexist with us, even in the most urban settings.

But then you look at that view of San Francisco from the  airport tarmac, and you understand why developers have been itching to get their hands on Alameda Point for years.

Or you think about climate change, and wonder what will happen to future generations of tern chicks if hot sunny days like Saturday become a norm.

The terns are resilient — but only if we give them a chance.


Want to help support the Alameda tern colony and create a permanent wildlife refuge at Alameda Point? Get involved with Friends of the Alameda Wildlife Refuge; one woman on my bus said that a FAWR work day helping safeguard the nest area was one of the most fulfilling days she’d ever spent in her life! Or donate to GGAS/FAWR. You can earmark your gift to support our advocacy work on behalf of the terns.

Blogging at work as well as home

May 13, 2012

Yikes! It’s been two weeks since I’ve written anything here, a clear violation of the one-post-each-week goal I set when I started Midlife Bat Mitzvah two and a half years ago.

By way of explanation, I feel like I’m drowning a bit in social media right now. Probably 2/3 of my new job at Golden Gate Audubon involves social media — putting out our monthly e-mail newsletter, managing our Facebook page and Twitter feed, and managing our web site. Plus I have just set up the organization’s first blog, Golden Gate Birder, which you can view here.

The blog has taken up a huge chunk of time over the past two weeks, from working with our computer consultants, to corralling staff and volunteers to contribute, to writing some opening posts myself. But it’s also very exciting. My goal is to have a mix of personal reflections on birding and nature, news about local conservation issues, and reviews/info of use to birders. We have some very talented writers among our members (check out Phila Rogers’ post on “Birder or birdwatcher?”). And the blog gives us space to explore ideas that are too long for a Facebook post, yet not urgent enough to take up space in the newsletter.

One thing I’ve realized as I juggle all these social media is how great it is from a visual point of view to do communications for Audubon. Many nonprofits have important missions but humdrum imagery.  Think about editing a food bank newsletter — lots of pictures of people putting canned food into grocery bags! Instead, I get to play with wonderful bird photos like this one that I used in an email inviting members to our annual Birdathon dinner:

An excited Western Snowy Plover at Crissy Field – Photo by David Assmann

Another thing I’ve realized is how this blog prepared me for my Audubon work. I started Midlife Bat Mitzvah mainly as a way to process my thoughts about my adult Bat Mitzvah and other life transitions. But it also turned out to be useful professional development for this social media-driven era.

Golden Gate Audubon’s web site and blog are built on the WordPress platform, the same one I use here. So the mechanics of creating and editing posts was familiar — more complicated than what I’d used before, but similar. Midlife Bat Mitzvah also gave me a comfort and fluency in blog writing style that has helped me get Audubon’s going. Meanwhile, Audubon’s email newsletter relies on web-based software from a company called Vertical Response, which is unrelated to WordPress yet shares conceptually-similar editing tools.

In short, I felt like I was in a midlife, mid-career limbo back in 2009 when I started this blog — finished with the imploding world of print journalism, but not sure what else I could do.

And it turned out that the tool I chose to write about that limbo, this blog, has helped me climb out of it.

Learning to bird

April 22, 2012

This month has been Birdathon, the annual fundraiser for Golden Gate Audubon Society, where I started working in January. (Think of a walkathon, although instead of soliciting pledges for every mile you walk, you ask friends to pledge for every bird you spot.)

It’s been a good excuse for me to get outdoors and actually do some birding, rather than writing and posting and Tweeting about other people birding. Two weeks ago, I went on a four-hour trip led by a really experienced pair of birders. Today I co-led a trip for friends of mine who had never birded before but wanted to try it: We had four very experienced birders, me, one other mid-level birder, and four “baby birders.”

The BabyBirders Birdathon team / Photo by Ilana DeBare

This has gotten me thinking about the skills that go into birdwatching. It’s more than just “Boy, you really have to learn the names of a ton of birds that all look small and brown.” There are in fact a variety of different skills:
  • Peripheral vision. Walking through a wood or a meadow, you’re surrounded by 360 degrees of things to see — clouds, trees, grasses blowing in the wind. In one small corner, a bird flits between branches. A good birder notices the movement. It’s partly peripheral vision, and partly an ability to notice slight changes in  a broad panorama. It’s like the “Where’s Waldo” children’s books, where you scan for the tiny figure with the red striped cap in a page that is busy with hundreds of other tiny figures.
  • Pattern recognition. One of the first things a birder notices — in a split-second, without consciously thinking — is the shape of a bird. Is that distant figure on the water shaped like some kind of duck, or some kind of cormorant?  Toddlers learn to do this when they sort plastic triangles and squares into triangle- and square-shaped holes. We adults do this every day with images from our urban environment — the hexagonal traffic sign that means “stop,” the triangular one that means “yield.” But I learned the traffic signs decades ago, and I’m only now trying to learn the shapes of birds.
  • Noticing and remembering colors. This is where I frequently get stuck. In distinguishing among similarly-shaped birds, you have to notice all these minute differences in colors. One kind of grebe has black around its eye, while another has white. One kind of gull has pink legs, while another has yellow. Not only do you need to be able to notice these differences, but you need to remember them. And the males and females often have different coloration, as do adults and juveniles. I fear my mental database is not large enough to store all the various kinds of gulls. Can I get an upgrade, please?
  • Deciphering layers of sound. The birders who led our trip today were experts at birding by ear — identifying birds just from their calls, without ever seeing them. This requires a good memory for sounds, and remembering which pattern of tweet or trill  belongs to a particular species. But it also requires an ability to isolate the calls from each other. Walking through the Oakland hills today, there were easily six or eight different birds singing at the same moment. At first all you hear is a dense wall of sound. It’s like listening to a symphony orchestra and trying to isolate the viola from all the other instruments. Musicians can do it; people who bird by ear learn to do that too.
  • Attentiveness. This underlies everything else: You have to be mentally present and paying attention. You can’t be birding and texting on your iPhone. You can’t be birding and yakking about the great new restaurant where you had dinner last night.

There are probably more. These are just the few that come to mind right now. What struck me over the past day or two were some of the similarities to learning to chant Torah. (Maybe because I’m working on a portion for my nephew’s bar mitzvah next month!)

Learning to bird and learning to chant Torah are both mental challenges with no real practical value. They won’t get you a job like learning HTML; they won’t help you go places like learning to drive a stick shift. Basically, you learn them for their own sake. They both involve memorization of a bunch of arbitrary names and words. There is pattern recognition. There is sound recognition.

I suspect that both learning to bird and learning to chant Torah challenge our middle-aged brains in similarly healthy ways. It’s like suddenly being a toddler again, forced to learn a language from scratch.

They both feel daunting at the beginning. There is no shortcut to repetition: Practice, practice, practice.

I return to that famous Anne Lamott line that inspired  the title for her great book about writing, Bird by Bird.

(Holy cow! I’ve now worked Torah, writing and birding into a single blog post! Will someone give me a stuffed panda, please?) 

When Lamott was a kid, her brother was overwhelmed by a homework assignment on birds that he had left until the last minute. He had far too many birds to write about and one night to do it. He was despondent and freaking out. Then, Lamott wrote:

My father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

My own goal is to come away from each birding trip with one new bird that I have seen clearly enough and long enough to be able to remember and identify on my own. If I can add one new bird each time, I’ll eventually know a lot of them.

Today my bird was a Fox Sparrow. There were two of them, amazingly close to our trail in the hills, kicking up dirt with their feet like dogs at the beach. That’s apparently a characteristic foraging behavior. They were kicking and rustling leaves and making as much of a ruckus as you can imagine a sparrow making, and they didn’t seem to care a bit that we were about three feet away.

One of our expert guides said, “When you hear something making a lot of noise in the woods, it’s either a Fox Sparrow or a grizzly bear.”

That line is a keeper, and worth hauling out in a variety of situations that have nothing to do with woods, trails or birds.


Shameless plug: Want to support my Birdathon team and the conservation work of Golden Gate Audubon Society? You can make a tax-deductible online donation here.

Fun with keywords

March 2, 2012

As part of my new job at Golden Gate Audubon Society, I’m in charge of the organization’s Facebook page and web site. So I’ve been poking around and gradually teaching myself about social media.

No one at GGAS had ever paid any attention to keywords — the phrases that people type into Google when they’re searching for something. Keywords are useful for organizations or businesses to know, because they allow you to tailor the writing on your web site to show up more prominently when people search for phrases related to your niche.

In the case of Golden Gate Audubon, people might be searching for our actual name. Or for something like “Bay Area bird watching.”

Google’s AdWords program lets you figure out how often people search for particular keywords or phrases. You can do this for free even if you’re not going to buy any ads from them.

So I started with phrases like “Bay Area bird watching” but then branched out just for fun. Here is how often, on average, people in the United States search for the following phrases each month:

  • Golden Gate Audubon Society – 480 searches
  • Bay Area bird watching – 140 searches
  • Bird watching – 49,500 searches
  • Ilana DeBare – 46 searches
  • Sam Schuchat – 28 searches (HA! I beat you, Sam!)
  • DeBare – 720 searches
  • Schuchat – 2,400 searches (Sam’s revenge)
  • Midlife bat mitzvah – <10 searches
  • Adult bat mitzvah – 260 searches
  • Julia Morgan School for Girls – 590 searches
  • Temple Sinai Oakland – 720 searches
I also looked up the title of my book on girls’ schools, Where Girls Come First, and found that it was generating 390 searches per month. But I suspect that number may be artificially inflated by people searching for a less pedagogical meaning of those words. Google sometimes offers you suggestions of related keyword phrases, and in this case it suggested both “ilana debare” and “orgasm games.”

In any case, this is all interesting and fun and maybe even ego-boosting — huh! 46 utter strangers are trying to find out about me every month! —  until you put in something like “Lady Gaga” and see that she incurs 5 million monthly searches.

That’s nationally.

When you look at her global figure, it’s 24,900,000.

Wednesday the Rabbi Went Birding

February 1, 2012

Today we took our former rabbi on his first birding trip.

You know those moments — maybe real, maybe in a dream — when completely unconnected  parts of your life suddenly bump into each other?

Birds! Judaism! All I needed to fill out the circle was to find a literary agent standing amidst the sandhill cranes. Stranger things have happened.

In any case, Sam and I had long planned to introduce Rabbi Steven Chester to birding now that he is basking in the leisurely fields of retirement. It just happened that the date we picked came two weeks after the start of my new job at… Golden Gate Audubon Society.

It was a gorgeous day — sunny, warm, not even a breeze until the mid-afternoon. We’ve been on birding trips in the past where it was so cold and foggy outside that the kids refused to get out of the car to see any birds. Today was the opposite of that.

Sam and Rabbi Chester / Photo by Ilana DeBare

We saw:

  • Lots of ducks, including cinnamon teal, which were Rabbi Chester’s favorite. These rich brown birds look like someone dipped them in cocoa or cinnamon.
  • Stilts, which I love for their dramatic black and white contrast. (It doesn’t hurt that this also makes them easy to identify.)
  • TONS of black-crowned night herons. Now, I’ve seen individual night herons before. But they must have really liked this patch of marsh in Merced National Wildlife Refuge, because there seemed to be another heron every five feet or so. At one point there were nine within our field of vision, perching among the reeds, motionless as gargoyles.
  • Sandhill cranes! Snow geese! Tundra swans! Giant birds that are 100 percent guaranteed to impress novice birders, or your money back.
  • A bald eagle flying overhead as we ate lunch – wow.
  • And, as we packed ourselves into the car at the end of the day, a flock of snow geese soaring in formation like Blue Angels over our heads.

Black-crowned night heron / Photo by Ilana DeBare

How many snow geese can you count? / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Rabbi Chester had a great day. He brought his point-and-shoot camera, which has an impressive zoom, and practiced wildlife photography for the African safari he and his wife Leona plan to take later this year. Cranes and herons are certainly not as exotic as lions or elephants, but they are a heck of a lot more accessible.

So what’s the news behind this blog post?

Rabbi Chester: For those of you who know him, I’m happy to report that he’s enjoying retirement. He’s contemplating several writing/photography projects. At Leona’s request, he has joined a group that goes bowling once a week! But he’s also looking forward to returning to Temple Sinai as a congregant once he’s done with his year of staying-away-to-give-space-to-his-successor.

Me: With two weeks under my belt, I’m loving my job at Golden Gate Audubon. So far I’ve managed to set off the burglar alarm and program my voicemail greeting as the incoming message for the whole organization. But beyond those little bumps, it’s all good. My colleagues are really talented. The office is funkily nice. My job involves a variety of different tasks, some of which are familiar (press outreach) and some of which involve learning new skills (managing the web site and social media).

I tagged along on a GGAS birding event for kids at Lake Merritt  last Saturday and posted photos on the GGAS Facebook page. You’re welcome to view them here. It wasn’t the Central Valley, but hey — we saw a night heron there too, as well as a lone tufted duck that somehow makes its way to Oakland from Eurasia each winter. And this was just a ten-minute walk from BART and City Hall.

One beauty of birds is that they are such an easy way for anyone to connect with nature, even in the middle of a city.

Sandhill cranes / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Snow geese in flight / Photo by Ilana DeBare

I have a job!

January 8, 2012

I have a job!

Three years after leaving newspapers, I’m starting a new job on January 17th. I haven’t exactly been lounging around eating bonbons all this time — I’ve drafted one novel, reworked another, revised the one I drafted, wrote queries and collected rejections on both of them, and worked as a freelance writer for a variety of clients, most recently the Technion.

(Oh, and there was an adult Bat Mitzvah in there, wasn’t there?)

But being on staff somewhere is different. This feels like grasping the wood of a dock after treading water for a long time. It feels like feet on solid ground after drifting weightless in space.

There are many wonderful things about freelancing. I’ve appreciated the ability to set my own schedule, accommodate family needs and put time into fiction. But I also love many things about a traditional job — being part of an organization, connecting with co-workers on a daily basis, having a dependable paycheck.

Now I may have the best of both worlds. This is a halftime job, at least for the near future, so I will still have time to work on my novel, maintain some freelance clients, and be available to Daughter during her last semester before college.(In theory! In reality, I know it will be a challenge to make time for the novel.)

By now, you’re probably asking, So what’s the job?  (Trumpets, please.)

I’ll be communications director for Golden Gate Audubon Society, the independent local chapter of the national conservation organization. GGAS has an incredible grassroots volunteer base who lead dozens of free bird-watching walks each month throughout San Francisco and the East Bay. It provides nature education for inner-city kids, and political advocacy on behalf of birds and other native species. One of GGAS’ recent achievements was a San Francisco ordinance requiring that new buildings be “bird-safe” — i.e., take steps such as using frosted or textured glass to prevent migrating birds from flying into large glass-walled skyscrapers.

So you’ll probably be hearing a lot more about birds in this blog in the future.

Maybe it morphs into Midlife Bird Mitzvah?

No more adorable kitty photos? / Photo by Ilana DeBare

More seriously, this feels like the end of a phase of being in the semi-wilderness. Perhaps transition is always a wilderness — like the ancient Jews in Sinai, when you are no longer what you used to be, but not yet what you are going to become.

I was a newspaper reporter when I entered the wilderness. I hoped to be a published novelist when I came out the other side. But would I succeed? And in between… what was I? where was I?

One of the reasons I undertook the adult Bat Mitzvah process two and a half years ago was to help tame that wilderness. I hoped that studying to become a Bat Mitzvah would serve as a small anchor — providing structure, connections, and achievable goals — when everything else in my life felt amorphous and uncertain.

It did fill that role. But even so, I’ve felt a little unmoored.

It’s nice to touch a dock.