Sausal Creek: Birding Hotspot
By Patricia Bacchetti and Mark Rauzon
Fifteen years ago, Sausal Creek wouldn’t have been even an afterthought on most Bay Area where-to-bird maps. Running from Joaquin Miller Park in the East Bay hills down to the Oakland estuary, the creek was long confined to concrete channels, with its tree canopies cloaked in ivy.
But in 1996 volunteers from the newly-formed Friends of Sausal Creek (FOSC) together with the City of Oakland began to liberate the creek along its run through Dimond Canyon. Since then, thousands of cubic yards of invasive plants have been removed and local-to-the-watershed natives have been added to the creek’s banks and its tributaries in the hills. As the riparian vegetation began to mature, animal life emerged, and the creek now hosts an increasing list of breeding and migrant birds, currently at 120 species.
If you follow Sausal Creek as it meanders from the hills down to the estuary, you encounter the full range of urban birding in the East Bay.
The creek’s headwaters are in the redwoods along Skyline Boulevard, near Redwood Regional Park. A trip to Fern Ravine (near the Sequoia Horse Arena) offers the opportunity to find nuthatches, Brown Creeper, singing Pacific Wren, and Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers the year-round, and House Wren in spring. There have been sightings of Pileated Woodpecker across Skyline Boulevard near the Chabot Space and Science Center, one of the few places in Alameda County where they can be found.
The Fern Ravine wetland is one of the newer areas restored by FOSC, so look for more species to appear as the habitat matures. It is the only spot in the watershed that still hosts California Quail, and a migrating MacGillivray’s Warbler was counted here on the last bird-monitoring survey.
As you work your way down the hill, a short hike up the steep Palos Colorados Trail along Palo Seco Creek in the spring holds the possibilities of Pacific Wren, Hutton’s Vireo, Black-headed Grosbeak, Olive-sided and Pacific-slope Flycatchers, towhees, and migrating warblers. (The trailhead is at the end of Joaquin Miller Court, off Mountain Boulevard.)
The most developed part of the restored creek bank is in Dimond Canyon along Park Boulevard. This stretch of the creek is becoming a reliable area to find breeding riparian species and is a migrant trap in spring and fall. Here the hills meet the flats, and conifers merge with riparian vegetation that surrounds the park.
At Dimond Park (accessed from El Cerrito Avenue, with parking at the Dimond Rec Center), you can work your way from the lawn area near the pool to the trail that heads upstream. Cooper’s Hawks have nested across the creek from the Tot Lot; Warbling Vireos, Pacific-slope Flycatchers, and Wilson’s Warblers breed here as well. Townsend’s and Black-throated Gray Warblers pass through in fall, Bullock’s and Hooded Orioles in spring. Lincoln’s and Fox Sparrows and Varied Thrush are present in winter. The FOSC Native Plant Demonstration Garden was the wintertime home to four White-throated Sparrows last year, and a Gray Catbird stopped here in October 2010.
After going underground between I-580 and I-880, the creek enters the bay at the Fruitvale Bridge, where a pair of Peregrine Falcons has raised clutches of young for several years. During the winter months, you can observe a number of local shorebird species, Surf Scoters and other diving ducks, Clark’s and Western Grebes, gulls, Double-crested Cormorants, Brown Pelicans, and Caspian and Forster’s Terns in the estuary waters from the small Fruitvale Bridge Park.
Bird surveys show results of restoration
The Sausal Creek watershed we just toured is the focus of a long-term bird-monitoring program. Friends of Sausal Creek has collected quarterly bird data from 10 sites along the watershed for more than a decade, making it one of the East Bay’s longest-running bird surveys.
Originally begun to document bird use of the restored areas, the data now offers a long-term perspective on bird presence in all the various habitats—useful in documenting impacts related to climate change, decreasing bird numbers, and land use patterns. The 10-minute point count method — where all seen and heard birds are recorded from a single spot and entered into eBird — shows some trends already.
We have made Diamond Park safe for Spotted Towhees and Song Sparrows, but as the vegetation matures and fire concerns grow, undergrowth must be removed and cover for sparrows is affected. Another trend is the creeping domination of corvids, including an invasion of Steller’s Jays and Common Ravens. We have built a riparian canopy that beckons neotropical migrants to breed, but see the impact of cowbird parasitism due to habitat fragmentation. With a healthy creek and a restored population of native Rainbow Trout, Black-crowned Night-Herons and Belted Kingfishers are new visitors. Red-shouldered Hawks scream at Cooper’s Hawks, which fight with the park’s ravens.
“If you build it, they will come.” Sausal Creek’s restoration shows the truth in this well-worn saying. In a highly urbanized watershed, green space beckons to birds, just above the heads of dog walkers and playing kids.
With a little planning and some free-flowing water, we can all coexist.
Location: The creek starts in Joaquin Miller Park above Highway 13 in Oakland and continues to the estuary between Park Boulevard and Fruitvale Avenue. There are a various access spots along the creek.
Hours/Fees: Dawn to dusk; free.
Habitat: Woodland/riparian along the creek; bay habitat at the estuary.
Key Birds: Year-round: Red-shouldered Hawk, Peregrine Falcon, Cooper’s Hawk, Belted Kingfisher, Downy, Hairy, and Nuttall’s Woodpeckers, Black Phoebe, Bushtit, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Oak Titmouse, Pacific Wren, Bewick’s Wren, Dark-eyed Junco, Spotted Towhee, House Finch, Lesser and American Goldfinches.
Winter: Diving ducks, grebes, shorebirds, [A beginning birder might not know that “peeps” is shorthand for shorebirds.] gulls, Hermit Thrush, Varied Thrush, Townsend’s Warbler, Black-throated Gray Warbler, White-crowned and Golden-crowned Sparrows, Lincoln’s Sparrow.
Summer: Warbling Vireo, Black-headed Grosbeak, Wilson’s Warbler.
Ease of Access: Easily accessible dirt trails along most of the creek; some trails have a moderate climb. Wheelchair accessible in Dimond Park.
Getting There: For bus and BART access, see: www.sausalcreek.org/pdf/transitmap.pdf
By car: Most accessible via Park Boulevard in Oakland, from El Cerrito Avenue and Benevides Avenue. There is a large parking lot behind the Dimond Rec Center in Dimond Park. Joaquin Miller Park areas can be reached from Skyline Boulevard at the Sequoia Horse Arena, and from inside Joaquin Miller. The estuary at Fruitvale Boulevard and Alameda Avenue can be reached at Fruitvale Bridge Park.
Nearby Services: Restrooms in Dimond Park and Joaquin Miller Park.
Nearby cafes/restaurants: There are many excellent restaurants in Park Blvd’s Glenview District. The Jingletown neighborhood, west of Fruitvale and south of San Leandro Avenue, has several interesting cafes. See http://oaklandwiki.org/jingletown.
Conservation opportunities: Friends of Sausal Creek offers ongoing opportunities to volunteer in habitat restoration. See the FOSC calendar. FOSC also holds a yearly native plant sale at its Joaquin Miller Nursery, which will take place this year on Sunday, October 20.
For more information: For maps and events, see the Friends of Sausal Creek website.
Patricia Bacchetti is a veterinarian, an avid county birder, and a proud FOSC board member emerita. She continues to look for underbirded areas locally and around the state. Mark Rauzon, a founding and current FOSC board member, is a seabird biologist specializing in predator removal from tropical islands. He is a tenured professor teaching geography at Laney College in Oakland.