VA project adds to legacy of letdowns on airfield

A legacy of disappointment continues on the aircraft runway area at Alameda Point.  In the nearly 20 years since the Navy ended operations there, the community has lost 74 acres of open space that was once slated to become city property.  The community has also lost the possibility for a 550-acre national wildlife refuge and a state-of-the-art community hospital to be run jointly with Alameda Healthcare District to serve veterans and non-veterans. 

There is still no groundbreaking scheduled for the veterans’ clinic and columbarium.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) plans for outpatient clinic, medical and benefits offices, and a national cemetery at Alameda Point. San Francisco in background.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) plans for outpatient clinic, medical and benefits offices, and a national cemetery at Alameda Point. San Francisco in background.

The only recent expenditures on the 624 acres of federal property, now owned by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), have been to fund landscaping over an underground dump and the management of the endangered least terns that nest on 10 acres, which includes the widespread application of herbicides and vegetation removal on 300 acres of pavement at the direction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Mitigating the loss of wetlands appears to be the only planning underway. Continue reading “VA project adds to legacy of letdowns on airfield”

Scouts join volunteer effort for least terns at Alameda Point

Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts were helpful in getting the least tern nesting area ready for the 2015 season.

Cub Scouts distributing oyster shells around the nesting area for the least terns.
Cub Scouts distributing oyster shells around the nesting area for the least terns.

Fifteen boys from Cub Scout Pack 1015 and three boys from Boy Scout Troop 73, along with 18 parent volunteers, came out to the least tern nesting area at Alameda Point on Sunday, April 12. They joined a dozen students from UC Berkeley’s Tau Beta Pi fraternity, and five students from Oakland School for the Arts’ Club Impact and Empowerment. The volunteers put out oyster shells and tern shelters, made fence repairs, and trimmed weeds. It was the final work party before the terns arrive later in April to begin nesting. 

Piles of oyster shells.  Two students mending plastic mesh fencing to keep chicks from wandering through the chain link fence.
Piles of oyster shells. Two students mending plastic mesh fencing to keep chicks from wandering through the chain link fence.

“The older boys in our Webelos Den have been studying the least tern as part of their Naturalist Badge where they study local birds who are endangered, as well studying the local ecosystem and wetlands,” said Dorinda von Stroheim, Bear Den Leader Pack 1015. “The younger scouts are working towards their World Conservation Award where the boys are encouraged to ‘think globally’ and ‘act locally.’”

Least tern adult with chick sitting in a depression in the sand in 2014.
Least tern adult with chick sitting in a depression in the sand in 2014.

When asked what they liked most about their day of volunteering, Dash, age 9, said, “Digging up all the weeds! We did a lot of work but that part was fun!” Will, age 8, said, “I liked putting out the oyster shells the best because the little baby birds will now be protected. Also we saw a big spider!” They also saw some crickets and fence lizards.

The oyster shells are similar in color to a tern chick and make it harder for flying predators to spot them, especially if the chicks hunker down under the flanks of a larger shell. A-frame wooden shelters and terracotta drain tiles also provide shelter from predators and from the sun.

Scouts loading oyster shells

By mid-June, the 9.6-acre sand-covered site could be humming with activity with as many as 300 chicks scampering around waiting for food to arrive. The adults dive for small fish in nearby waters from Alameda Point to Crab Cove.

“The boys felt a big sense of accomplishment being part of the conservation project in April,” said von Stroheim. “It was great to see how even these young boys age 8-12 could contribute in a meaningful way to the work. The parents also enjoyed getting to be part of such an important Alameda project.” The Elks Lodge in Alameda sponsors Cub Scout Pack 1015.

The public will have an opportunity to visit the site on Saturday, June 20. The annual Return of the Terns bus tours leave from the Crab Cove Visitor Center on McKay Avenue following a presentation. Tour times are 11 am, 12:15, and 1:30.

Registration is required via the East Bay Regional Park District’s website. The cost is $11 for adults or $9 for youth (over 8 years).  The tours are co-sponsored by the East Bay Regional Park District and Golden Gate Audubon Society.

Published in the Alameda Sun.

Picking up oyster shells.
Picking up oyster shells.
Volunteers at work.  Looking south.
Volunteers at work. Looking south.
The view toward San Francisco at the start of the volunteer work day.  Lettered and number cinder blocks are used to record nesting activity by a grid system.  Tiles and A-frames were spread around the site for use as shelters.
The view toward San Francisco at the start of the volunteer work day. Lettered and number cinder blocks are used to record nesting activity by a grid system. Tiles and A-frames were spread around the site for use as shelters.
UC Berkeley students trimming tall pampas grass near the nesting site.
UC Berkeley students trimming tall pampas grass near the nesting site.

Volunteers help maintain successful least tern nesting site at Alameda Point

Volunteers at the Alameda Point nesting site of the endangered California Least Tern continued their efforts this fall after a successful 2014 nesting season.

Tau Beta Pi members help out during the November 2014 work party.  Port of Oakland in background.
Tau Beta Pi members help out during the November 2014 work party. Port of Oakland in background.

The Alameda Point colony produced over 350 least tern fledglings this year, and a record number of the nests had three eggs, as opposed to the usual two. The 45 nests with three eggs may be due to in part to better than normal availability of small fish in nearby waters. The terns arrive at the airfield site in early April. By mid-August the terns have headed south to Mexico and Central America.

Least Tern adult with two chicks - June 2014.  Viewed through chainlink fence.
Least Tern adult with two chicks – June 2014. Viewed through chainlink fence.

Continue reading “Volunteers help maintain successful least tern nesting site at Alameda Point”

Film: “Demilitarized Landscapes” produced for Oakland Museum

“Demilitarized Landscapes” is a nine-minute film about three San Francisco Bay Area communities in which the military has played a major role:  San Francisco’s Bayview Hunters Point, Alameda Point, and the Richmond waterfront.  The film was featured in a special exhibition called “Above and Below: Stories From Our Changing Bay” at the Oakland Museum of California.  The exhibition, which ran from August 31, 2013 to February 23, 2014, explored the impacts of humans and natural forces on San Francisco Bay over the last 6,000 years.

The film played continuously in a special display area titled “Military Landscapes – Demilitarized Landscapes” and shows the transitions being made today.  The Alameda Point segment focuses on the Nature Reserve and the recovery effort for the endangered California Least Tern.

This film is © Oakland Museum of California. All rights reserved. The film appears here by permission. Special thanks to Louise Pubols, Senior Curator of History at the Oakland Museum of California, for facilitating reproduction rights.


Volunteers maintain tern nesting area at Alameda Point Nature Reserve

The endangered least terns have returned.  Committed volunteers prepare and maintain this unique site during the non-nesting season.  The public can see the fruits of their work on June 15.

2013 maintenance work began on January 13th by clearing weeds from the outer perimeter of the nesting area.  The terns need a clear view of their surroundings to feel comfortable that predators are not lurking nearby.  Trimming vegetation near the nesting area is a high priority on work party checklists.

January work party
January work party

Volunteers were at the site again in February, March, and early April prior to the terns’ mid-April arrival.  Tasks included replacing deteriorated plastic mesh along the base of the fence around the nesting site.  The plastic mesh keeps chicks from wandering out through openings in the chain link fence.  The chain link fence is there to keep out predators, and to keep out rabbits that might easily trample eggs.

Replacing black mesh "chick fence."
Replacing black mesh “chick fence.”

Another of set of tasks involves randomly placing wooden A-frames and half-round clay tiles that serve as shelters for the chicks from predators like hawks.  One of the senior volunteers has been working to help the terns since the base closed.  This year he brought 48 wooden chick shelters that he made at his home.  Another task is the distribution of oyster shells that make it harder for flying predators to distinguish where the chicks are located.

Going for another load of oyster shells to distribute on the nesting area.
Going for another load of oyster shells to distribute on the nesting area.

The number of volunteers ranged from 12 to as many as 30 each month.  Among the volunteers this season were members of the Tau Beta Pi engineering fraternity at UC Berkeley, which has been sending volunteers for many years, and members of the Encinal High School Key Club.

Setting out the chick shelters.
Setting out the chick shelters.

Volunteers will return in September after the terns are gone.  They will gather up the A-frames, clay tiles, oyster shells, and the numbered plaster markers that the US Fish & Wildlife Service uses to keep track of nesting success.  Picking up the “tern furniture” allows for weed control and periodic grading of the sand and gravel.

During May, June, and July, another set of volunteers participate in the “Tern Watch Program.”  Volunteers are trained in recording observations as they watch from their vehicle near the nesting site.  A cinder block grid system helps in recording feeding activity, among other things.  If predators are threatening the colony, the volunteers alert the Fish & Wildlife Service in the office nearby.

Volunteer opportunities:

Return of the Terns tours

On June 15th, the general public gets an opportunity to observe the nesting activity of the terns during a bus tour to the site.  The tours leave from Crab Cove Visitor Center in Alameda.  Registration and a fee are required.  More info is on the Return of the Terns flyer.

Previous stories about the least terns:

Least terns depart – volunteers move in at Alameda Point refuge

Protecting the California Least Terns at the Alameda Point Wildlife Refuge

January – April 2013 Photo Gallery

Click on photos to enlarge and view slideshow

Least terns depart – volunteers move in at Alameda Point refuge

The last egg, abandoned at the end of the season.

The least tern nesting season ended in mid-August much as it usually does – a lonely and dangerous place for young terns.  There were three of four pairs of adults flying back and forth with food for their young chicks.  These late nesters are often the ones whose eggs or chicks were attacked by avian predators and have re-nested.  Their vulnerability is only compounded as the weeks wear on because the rest of the adults and their flight-ready young have left, leaving the remaining families without the strength of numbers to mob a predator.

Volunteers arrived at the nesting site on September 9th to begin gathering up the oyster shells, wooden A-frame shelters, and clay tiles randomly arrayed about the site that serve as camouflage and chick shelters from predators.  

They also carefully gathered up over 300 numbered nest markers that were placed near the nests by the US Fish & Wildlife biologist.  A tern nest consists of a small depression in the gravel – no twigs.  The four-inch white nest marker rings are set upright in a plaster base and each have a number.  This allows Fish & Wildlife to monitor breeding success and record predator activity such as taking of eggs.  Between now and next April when the terns return, the site’s substrate of gravel will be groomed and weeds removed.

On September 16th, volunteers returned to continue gathering oyster shells and taking care of another task:  Removing a pernicious weed call stinkwort.  It is virtually impossible to eradicate stinkwort with herbicides and must be removed by hand.  Pulling the tough sticky weed out by its roots is usually not successful, and volunteers were limited to chopping the weed off at its base.  If not removed by fall, the weed would begin releasing seeds that find their way through the gravel and into small crevices in the old pavement underneath.  The weed is so prolific that it can quickly inundate an area.

It is undesirable to have any weeds in the nesting site or in the immediate vicinity of the nesting site.  The historic nesting habitat of the terns is on beaches.  The presence of vegetation in close proximity to the nesting area signals possible hiding places for predators and may cause the terns to look elsewhere for safe nesting.

On both days, volunteers included members of the Key Club at Encinal High School  in Alameda, a student organization that encourages volunteerism.

Monthly work parties organized by the Friends of the Alameda Wildlife Refuge will continue through March of next year.  The terns arrive in April.  To get involved, contact FAWR.

Wildlife refuge gets the ax in VA development at Alameda Point

The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) received a green light from the US Fish & Wildlife Service (Fish & Wildlife) for their Alameda Point clinic and national cemetery project in late August.  Fish & Wildlife issued its biological opinion, which focuses only on the impacts to the least tern colony that nest on the previously proposed wildlife refuge.  While they agreed with the VA that the project would adversely affect the least tern, they concluded their review by saying the tern colony’s existence is not placed in jeopardy by the plans.

The area labeled “VA Undeveloped Area” used to be labeled “Wildlife Refuge”

The opinion includes a description of the VA’s planned uses for the 511 acres, labeled “VA Undeveloped Area,” that will not be used for the clinic or cemetery.  The description makes clear for the first time that the national wildlife refuge envisioned by Fish & Wildlife in 1998 is dead.  Other than the 9.7-acre nesting area for the terns, the remainder of the tarmac, taxiway, and runway pavement will be used for emergency training exercises during the non-nesting season (August 16 – March 31), and set aside to be used as a staging area during emergencies and natural disasters.  Two ammo bunkers will be used to store emergency supplies.

The VA has been working with the Navy since 2005 to take over the proposed 549-acre wildlife refuge.  Previous talks between Fish & Wildlife and the Navy ended over disagreements about environmental cleanup.

Still, the Golden Gate Audubon Society, the main advocate for a wildlife refuge, held out hope for a full-fledged wildlife refuge.  Their website has a conservation page dedicated to the Alameda Wildlife Refuge that lists one of their goals as:  “Achieve transfer of land from the U.S. Navy to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to create the Alameda National Wildlife Refuge.”

A colony of the endangered California Least Terns has been nesting here for decades.  The VA’s project stalled last year over proximity to the tern nesting site, but was revived when a compromise plan emerged that will move the clinic facilities and part of the cemetery northward away from the terns.  Due to the terns’ status as an endangered species, the VA needed clearance from Fish & Wildlife for their project to proceed.

Another indicator of the downgrade from wildlife refuge to surplus land with a small bird sanctuary is the amount of parking for the VA’s Conservation Management Office – the Nature Center – to be built next to their clinic.  It will have ten parking spaces.  In contrast, the 1998 Fish & Wildlife plan for a national wildlife refuge included visitor projections that ranged from a low of 46,000 to a high of 113,000 annually.

Fish & Wildlife’s funding projections in 1998 dollars were $848,000 for initial capital costs, and $299,000 per year for full staffing.  The Fish & Wildlife refuge plan called for wetland restoration, screened observation platforms for viewing and photographing wildlife in the wetland area, improving habitat quality for songbirds, and removal of non-native grasses.

Photo above shows weeds killed with herbicide.  Eliminating weed growth in areas like this one to the southeast of the nesting site creates an important roosting area for adult terns and for their chicks learning to fly.  This area is favored by the terns because of proximity to the nearby water in the Alameda Point Channel.  Areas to the far west and north of the nesting area, on the other hand, are poor candidates for weed removal and better candidates for grassland establishment.  New grassland is not part of the plan for managing this area.

The VA’s plans call for removing the mostly non-native grasses that have grown between the hundreds of pavement slabs.  Herbicides and sealing the pavement cracks are listed as options.  They have no plans to eliminate the pervasive non-native ice plant or to plant native grasses.  Grasslands in the outlying areas of the refuge can provide habitat for prey species like small rodents that would be attractive to birds like hawks that might otherwise focus on the nesting terns for a food source.  Wild grasses are also used for shelter and foraging by common visitors like the killdeer, a shorebird that spends its time on the ground.

Above:  Pockets of grassland on the the far west and north parts of the wildlife refuge offer ideal habitat for prey species that would relieve pressure on the tern colony from avian predators like hawks.  Areas in between these grassland pockets are covered with pavement that would better serve the terns’ welfare if it were removed and converted to grassland.  Much of the remnant pavement is significantly farther away from the tern colony nesting site than the aircraft hangars.

The land transfer is expected to take place next year after other environmental documents are approved.  The City of Alameda will have to approve the change in location for the VA project.  The city is currently slated to receive the 220-acre area on the northwest part of the runway area along the Oakland Estuary – the Northwest Territories – where the VA clinic and part of the cemetery are planned.

Alameda’s city council must approve an amendment to the no-cost conveyance agreement with the Navy signed last year.  This will allow the Navy to keep 70 acres of the Northwest Territories that it will then include in the Navy-to-VA transfer.  Approval of the land transfer by the city council without conditions for establishment of a wildlife refuge will effectively amend the community reuse plan adopted in 1996.

A shorter version of this story was first published in the Alameda Sun.

More photos and commentary 

Above is a typical view of the vegetation-free zone around the tern nesting site.  This view is looking southeast toward the Alameda Point Channel.  Beyond the cleared pavement is the area shown in the article above with all the weeds killed.  

Photo above shows taxiway next to grassland in north part of wildlife refuge.  Instead of removing weeds between pavement cracks, the pavement itself should be removed and a contiguous band of grassland established for predators to hunt in.  A mismatched hodgepodge landscape is not scientific wildlife or ecosystem management.

Hodgepodge landscape such as the above in the far western area of the wildlife refuge is not helping the terns to thrive.  The ice plant does not offer the habitat quality that grasslands would offer.  And the adjacent patchwork of pavement does little if anything to simulate a beach habitat favored by the terns for nesting.  Grasslands here would do more to help the terns by providing prey for avian predators than by leaving it as is.  Leaving this amount of pavement to capture heat rather than capture carbon is at odds with climate change science.  This particular area is only a stone’s throw away from the water and could easily accommodate pockets of wetland supplied by water via an open culvert.

This wetland in the above photo is on the interior of the wildlife refuge.  It is not seasonal – it’s permanent.  This photo was taken on September 16, 2012 when all seasonal wetlands on the refuge and adjacent Northwest Territories were completely dry.  The water source can only be from the Bay via the tide.  The VA’s columbarium cemetery footprint currently includes this wetland, which is not officially mapped as a wetland.

This stand of willows above is a favorite area for songbirds.  It may be compromised or completely removed for construction of the VA clinic.

The photo above shows the Runway Wetland at the southeast corner of the wildlife refuge in mid-September 2012.  This area looks like a small lake during most of the year.  The southern edge of this wetland comes within 20 feet of the Alameda Point Channel and could easily become a year-round wetland if an open culvert were created in the seawall.  No plans for such environmental enhancements are likely to emerge for land that is labeled “VA Undeveloped Area.”  Not one additional acre of wetland is being suggested for the area formerly known as the wildlife refuge – a failing grade in environmental stewardship.

Killdeer love the wildlife refuge and the habitat shown in the photo above.  Only about a dozen pair nest here, but for reasons not entirely clear, between one hundred and two hundred killdeer arrive in the winter and can be seen roosting on the tarmac area.  Killing all vegetation between the pavement slabs would destroy valuable bird habitat.