EGRET’s Volunteers Serve People and Wildlife

By STEVEN FINACOM Special to the Planet
Friday February 06, 2004

“Look! This wasn’t here last week!” Mark Liolios shows visitors a strong green shoot on a willow trunk. Recent hand-clearing of tangled, sun blocking, ivy and brambles along the eastern edge of Berkeley’s Aquatic Park has encouraged the gnarled tree to vigorously re-sprout. 

It’s a chilly, overcast January morning and long-time Berkeleyan Liolios is energetically on duty for Aquatic Park EGRET (Environmental Greening, Restoration and Education Team), an affiliate of the nonprofit Berkeley Partners for Parks. EGRET is dedicated to improving conditions for wildlife and human visitors at Berkeley’s biggest, but perhaps least understood, municipal park.  

Aquatic Park may be Berkeley’s most visible public open space with tens of thousands of freeway drivers speeding past its western edge every day. To those passersby the park itself might appear empty, even abandoned. A visit, however, makes it clear that it is home to thousands of shorebirds and also well-used by the public. 

Rowers from the Berkeley Rowing Club tranquilly scull past. Disc (aka Frisbee) golfers compete along the shore. Joggers, parents with strollers, dog walkers and cyclists circle the water on extensive paths. The Dreamland children’s playground and the new pedestrian overpass to the Berkeley Marina have brought even more park visitors, Liolios says. 

Aquatic Park is a mix of human and natural constructs, edged on the east by railroad tracks atop a slight bluff along Berkeley’s original shoreline. The park encompasses three brackish lagoons, connected by pipes to the tidal flow of the San Francisco Bay.  

The lagoons and park appeared in 1937 when a four-lane highway for Bay Bridge access was built parallel to, but beyond, the shoreline. “That created a spot of shallow water which the City of Berkeley acquired and developed with Works Progress Administration funding,” says Liolios. The park opened with three days of elaborate citywide festivities. 

As evidence of that earlier era, along three banks of Middle Pond EGRET volunteers have gradually unearthed and cleared tiers of masonry stairs and viewing terraces for watching model yacht races. Nearby, EGRET’s crews have uncovered a substantial flagpole pedestal and plaza, probably a post-World War II veteran’s memorial. 

In recent years EGRET has been undertaking a sort of ecological archaeology, attempting to untangle, interpret, and re-knit layers of natural systems and human interventions. “The primary focus of EGRET is habitat stewardship”, says Lisa Stephens, another volunteer and former Parks and Recreation Commission chair.  

The nature of Aquatic Park’s habitat is complex and not always easily discerned. In one corner of the park, for instance, drivers headed for the freeway speed by a low and unremarkable bank of willow. But seen from its other side, across the water, the willow grove is revealed as the preferred daytime roost of black-crowned Night Herons, dozing just a few dozen feet from the moving cars. 

Even the non-native eucalyptus and black acacia trees below the railroad embankment presently have habitat value, providing secure roosts each night for great egrets that stand up to four feet tall. 

On this dreary winter day, the eucalyptus are in bloom and alive with small birds. “It’s not a eucalyptus tree, it’s a migratory bird feeder,” observes park visitor John Sutake, who pauses to share his binoculars and the reason several bird watchers are at the park today. A regal pair of hooded mergansers, rarely seen here, is serenely paddling amidst more plebeian ducks on Middle Pond.  

The park is an important stopping point for migratory birds along the Pacific Flyway and a year-round home to egrets, herons, and other species. Near dusk, Liolios says, birds crisscross the sky as “the night herons are going out to feed and the snowy and great egrets are coming in to roost for the night.” 

A centerpiece of EGRET’s work has been creation of a garden of California native plants along a causeway at the southern end of the Main Lagoon. Volunteers have meticulously cleared non-native vegetation from two wide shoreline berms, and carefully replanted with California flora. Native shrubs and wildflowers (soon to begin their spring bloom season) dot the shore and snowy egrets gravely stalk through the shallows hunting for lunch. Now closed to motor vehicles, the causeway is a tranquil setting for walkers and bird watchers. 

EGRET’s plan, Liolios says, is to cluster native plantings along the shore to provide screening and roosting sites for the wildlife, interspersed with gaps through which visitors can view the water and birds.  

“We want the park landscaping to better serve both visitors and wildlife,” he explains. “Beautiful and useful” is the goal, Stephens adds. 

In almost every part of the southern end of the park there is evidence of EGRET’s on-going stewardship work. Groups of volunteers wearing EGRET t-shirts (with a handsome logo created by local design firm BGDI) work there regularly. More are needed, Leolios says. 

EGRET, Liolios adds, is happy to structure a volunteer activity to fit a lunch hour or complement a picnic. “Even a small scale project fits a much larger biological picture,” he explains. Volunteer work is always combined with wildlife observation and education. EGRET also offers guided walks and a self-guided tour booklet. 

EGRET is now working with the City of Berkeley to get California Coastal Conservancy funding for trail, habitat, and water quality improvements. Plans call for safer trail connections for pedestrians and cyclists, clearing unneeded asphalt to create more native plant areas, seating for wildlife observation, and better water circulation to improve the biological health of the lagoons. The former model yacht club cabin—a rustic structure with beamed ceilings, knotty pine paneling and a whimsical porthole window—can serve as a nature center for park visitors. 

Despite the scale of the projects, the enthusiasm and dedication of EGRET’s habitat stewards is clear. “It’s a lifetime of rewarding work,” Liolois says.