I remember my parents telling me how when they first lived in Berkeley in the early 1920s they would take Sunday walks up Strawberry Canyon. That was in the days when the Botanical Garden was still on the campus adjacent to the Life Sciences building. The University owned the land up to near the crest of the hills but it was undeveloped except for a dairy and newly-planted groves of eucalyptus and pine.
My parents weren't bird watchers, but they both loved the out-of-doors. My mother, as long as I can remember, would always kneel before a wildflower to admire even the most modest species.
By the time I came to Berkeley in the late 1940s as a student, I had been a birdwatcher for 10 years. My litmus test for a prospective boyfriend was whether he was willing to meet me at sunrise for bird walk up that same canyon.
Now sixty years later I'm still drawn to the Strawberry Canyon though it has continued to change. The University moved their botanical garden up to the top of the canyon in the late 1920s, Lawrence Berkeley Lab built their complex in the 1940s, and in the 1950s. The canyon road (now known as Centennial Drive) was extended to Grizzly Peak Boulevard when Lawrence Hall of Science and the Space Science built their buildings.
These days I most likely head for the Botanical Garden. Recently I had the chance to take a walk through the garden with the Associate Director, Chris Carmichael, who is a self-avowed "avid birder."
What a splendid place to spend the morning. The surrounding hills create a natural amphitheater that seems to amplify bird song. On this morning in late May, birds were singing all around us - olive-sided flycatchers, black-headed grosbeaks, Hutton's and warbling vireos, a lazuli-bunting just over the fence line on the grass hillside. And in the trees, a pair of recently-arrived hooded orioles, chattered.
Chris can't remember a time when he wasn't watching birds - first as a boy in New England and later in Michigan where he was a grad student and then for fourteen years, the curator of Michigan State's collection of mammals and birds before coming to the Garden eight years ago.
From the Garden entrance we head down the path toward the bridge crossing Strawberry Creek. Somehow the sound of running water always draws us as if the ancestral memory of the need for water will always be a part of who we are. Along the way, Chris points out a still-furled agave leaf where, spying a narrow opening, a pair of chestnut-backed chickadee had moved in and built a nest - a perfect example of avian adaptability. The local wrentit has been seen climbing claw over claw up the stalk of an aloe on the South African Hill to feed on the upside down flowers, mimicking the behavior of an African sunbird.
The native birds and the exotic plants brought by collectors from all over the world seem to thrive together in this lovely canyon opposite the Golden Gate. Almost a 100 species of birds either pass through, fly overhead, or find a home.
For the last several years, a pair of hooded orioles has built their nest in the palm collection having a mind-boggling choice - perhaps a windmill palm from China, a wine palm from Chile, or maybe fan palm from Spain?
In the cloud forest section where we dodge the rain bird sprinklers, a warbling vireo sings. A black-head grosbeak announces territory from the higher branches of a Chinese pagoda tree in full bloom. On the sunny south-facing slope beyond the Arid greenhouse, Chris points out the Melianthus whose stalks of blooming maroon flowers seem to attract more birds than any other plant in the garden.
At the upper edge of the native plant section, Chris points out a tall ceanothus that contains the torn remnants of bushtit nests built over several seasons. Walking among the native plants, we were assailed by the strong, pungent smells of plants that for me are deeply familiar. And in the canyon below the Garden in the shade of bays and oaks, the Swainson's thrush sings its immutable song that always brings a flood of memories of other summer canyons in California.
The canyon with its year-round stream and the following forest of alders, big-leaved maples, along with the oaks and bays, has always attracted a rich mˇlange of wild life. But what birds were here before the road, the Garden and the open hillsides now profoundly altered by planted trees and invading exotics?
I now have in my possession two articles from early 20th-century issues of "The Condor:" "The Second List of the Birds of The Berkeley Campus," 1914, by Joseph Grinnell, a member of the UC Zoology faculty and "Birds of a Berkeley Hillside," by Amelia Allen who lived in Strawberry beginning in 1911.
I spent two ecstatic evenings studying these articles, first deciphering the nomenclature with two childhood bird books close at hand - Ralph Hoffman's "Birds of the Pacific States" (1927) and Roger Tory Peterson's first revolutionary field guide. What, for instance, was the San Francisco towhee, the Vigors wren, the willow woodpecker, or the intermediate sparrow? Sometimes even the Latin designations had been changed.
The story is one of gains and losses - mostly losses.
For this incurable nostalgic, who when looking over the Bay performs a mental erasure removing buildings, bridges, tankers and the two or three million people, replacing them with an imagined image of a broad plain sloping toward the Bay crossed by meandering streams, populated by herds of grazing elk, patrolled by wolf packs and over flown by condors, these publications with their descriptions of 'the way things were' was grist for the imagination.
(more later about these two publications and what they tell us)