Restoring Habitat at MLK Shoreline

By Pipi Ray Diamond

On a bright sunny day in mid-November, about 25 mostly-teenage Golden Gate Bird Alliance volunteers gather for three hours to dig holes, put in plants, water, and cover the bare ground with mulch.

Kisha Mitchell-Mellor, the leader of the restoration effort, explains that they are putting in native plants partly to block the view of large, ugly pieces of concrete at the water’s edge. The plants also serve as cover for sparrows, Marsh Wrens, and endangered birds like the California Clapper Rail. Mitchell-Mellor was a geography major in college but is self-taught on most of the native plants, which have colorful common names such as western goldenrod, lizard’s tail, and sticky monkey-flower.

It is a peaceful day at Arrowhead Marsh, part of Martin Luther King Jr. Regional Shoreline in Oakland. The pier that extends into the marsh has fallen into disrepair and is not accessible to the public, which makes it a popular spot for resting birds. Willets, Marbled Godwits, Snowy Egrets and one Great Egret are all sharing the pier with minimal squabbling when a Northern Harrier comes into view. The willets and godwits scatter while the egrets stand their ground. The raptor swoops low and does a tour of the entire marsh in less than a minute. After it is gone, the birds resettle on the pier. This everyday bird drama is easy to view from the trail.

Arrowhead Marsh pier with Fruitvale Bridge in the background / Photo by Pipi Ray Diamond
Arrowhead Marsh pier with Fruitvale Bridge in the background / Photo by Pipi Ray Diamond

Golden Gate Bird Alliance has been organizing volunteers to restore habitat at MLK Shoreline for over a decade.  In 2012, over 164 people hoisted shovels, rakes and trash bags at monthly work days; in 2013, there so far have been more than 275 volunteers.

Some are individual GGBA members who understand the importance of habitat to healthy bird populations, while others are part of community groups that want to do something good for the local environment.  Today’s groups include Alameda’s Chinese Christian High School Leo Club and Fremont’s Irvington High School. Other organizational participants this year have included volunteers from Outdoor Afro, Safeway, PG&E, Girl Scouts, Ohio State University, the Sigma Phi Omega chapter at U.C. Berkeley, and many others.

Volunteer Martin Rochin watering native plants / Photo by Pipi Ray Diamond

One of today’s volunteers is Martin Rochin, an East Oakland resident and former intern with Golden Gate Bird Alliance. On a break from his engineering studies at U.C. Santa Barbara, Rochin enjoys being outside and seeing wildlife. He has been involved with Golden Gate Bird Alliance for many years, attending memorable GGBA trips to Alcatraz and Angel Islands.

MLK Regional Shoreline is a hidden gem, but one that many birders are keenly aware of. On Ebird, Arrowhead Marsh is labeled as a yellow hotspot with 196 species identified. I look at the BirdsEye application on my smart phone and am excited to find that a Burrowing Owl has been spotted here as recently as two weeks ago. Last year a Burrowing Owl spent the winter in a ground squirrel’s burrow in the meadow right across from Arrowhead Marsh.

This park and Arrowhead Marsh in particular has an interesting history. In the 1870s Anthony Chabot — known as the “Water King” for his monopoly on supplying water to the East Bay — built an earth dam to create Lake Chabot in the hills above Oakland. Four years later the dam collapsed during a storm. The earth washed down San Leandro Creek and formed Arrowhead Marsh. The dam was later rebuilt out of concrete. Even though Arrowhead Marsh was formed by accident, it is prized as one of the few wetlands habitats left in this part of the bay.

And Arrowhead Marsh almost disappeared twenty-five years ago. In the mid-1980s, the Port of Oakland announced plans to drain and fill hundreds of acres of seasonal wetlands — but Golden Gate Bird Alliance led other local environmental groups in a ten-year legal battle that eventually saved the marsh and created a $2.5 million fund for its restoration.

Today restoration of Arrowhead Marsh continues incrementally each month, thanks to Golden Gate Bird Alliance volunteers. And the beneficiaries aren’t just birds and wildlife — it’s humans who enjoy birds and wildlife.

While the GGBA volunteers are busily digging, GGBA member Marilyn Kinch walks by the restoration site birding largely by ear, a skill she has improved from classes with Denise Wight. She hears a Marsh Wren and a Common Yellowthroat in the bushes right in front of us, but they stay hidden.

California Clapper Rail in spring 2013 / Photo by Pipi Ray Diamond

In the hour and a half I spend here, I am able to identify 23 species! Mitchell-Mellor tells me that there has recently been a rare sighting of a Red-throated Pipit. She also gives me a tip on how to see a Clapper Rail: When it’s raining and at high tide, Clapper Rails come up to higher ground, sometimes right onto the path.

At noon, the volunteers take a break for birding. Peering through a scope set up by Mitchell-Mellor, they spot Black-necked Stilts, cormorants, a Western Meadowlark, Northern Shoveler, American Pipit, White-crowned Sparrows and Golden-crowned Sparrows.

None of these birds would be present here if Golden Gate Bird Alliance and its allies hadn’t fought to save the marsh in the 1980s.

Now, thanks to the ongoing work of GGBA volunteers like Rochin, the marsh will be an even more welcoming home for birds in the future.

Never too young to volunteer! / Photo by Pipi Ray Diamond

Come join the fun and make a difference! Golden Gate Bird Alliance holds habitat restoration work days at MLK Regional Shoreline on the third Saturday of each month from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The next one will be on December 21st. We also hold ongoing habitat work days at other Bay Area sites including Pier 94, Crissy Field, Candlestick Point, and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, and the proposed Alameda Wildlife Reserve. For directions and details, see


Pipi Ray Diamond lives in Oakland. Her marketing consulting business at is named after one of her favorite birds. She volunteers for Golden Gate Bird Alliance and manages GGBA’ social media Pinterest site. Check it out for beautiful photos of Bay Area birds and more: