We met at 8 a.m., the first Sunday of the month, in front of the Botanical Garden, about thirty sleepy people with binoculars around our necks. The San Francisco Audubon Society offers monthly bird walks in the Botanical Garden, led by volunteer birders whose public spirit matches their passion for birdwatching. Splitting into three groups, we straggled after the guides, who had large birding scopes on tripods slung over their shoulders. My group followed Dominik Mosur, a tall, pony-tailed Audubon Society board member, who works at the Randall Museum. He turned out to be an outstanding birder with encyclopedic knowledge of the birds and bird habitats in the city. As we walked around the large, central lawn, he began to call out species, both seen and unseen (many hiding in dense foliage, but identified by their calls). A pair of Black Phoebes nesting by the fountain . . . crested Stellar’s Jays . . . Scrub Jays . . . Hummingbirds (Anna’s and Allens) . . . the list grew rapidly. By the end of the two-hour walk we had spotted 30 species.
Highlights included a California Quail, which used to be commonplace in the park, but now only a couple of pairs are thought to be nesting here. Sadly, we also came across a dead quail chick, seemingly run over by a maintenance vehicle. Quail nest on the ground and have fallen victim to predators, such as feral cats and squirrels. According to our guides, these predators’ hunting prowess has been aided by the removal of underbrush in the park in an effort to combat homeless encampments. However, as the arboretum is locked up at night (no homeless encampments here!) and there seems to be plenty of underbrush, I think there must be other explanations.
The story of the dwindling quail population, and accounts of other once-abundant bird species in the park, can be found in the Handbook of the Birds of Golden Gate Park, by Joseph Mailliard (California Academy of Sciences, 1930). Mailliard listed 111 bird species in the park. Interesting to compare Mailliard’s list to the Checklist of the Birds of Strybing Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, currently sold at the Botanical Garden bookstore for 75 cents. This current list includes 167 species, reflecting sightings by birdwatchers from the late 1940s to the present.
Another highlight of the morning was a Black Crowned Night Heron, which has taken up residence in a very green pond near the Botanical Garden nursery. It was easy to study through the scope, standing like a statue in the water, its black cap adorned with a single, long, white feather at the back.
My favorites were the Pygmy Nuthatches (tiny birds with bobbed tails), running up and down and around the trunks and branches of trees head first, feeding off the bark. We also saw flocks of Common Bushtits, calling tsit, tsit, tsit and hanging upside down to eat insects and spiders off the undersides of leaves. And a chattering cloud of Red-masked Parakeets flew by.
I came home feeling happy to have seen so many birds, seemingly flourishing in the Botanical Garden. I wonder if this count is typical of the park at large? It was interesting that when we walked through the California Native section, there were no birds in sight!