Friday, August 20, 2010

SF Bay Trail: Beautiful Baylands (Palo Alto)

Sunday 8-15-2010
SF Bay Trail: Penninsula - Baylands (Palo Alto)
8.0 miles SF Bay Trail

The Baylands in Palo Alto are the most beautiful bay wetlands I've seen since I moved here in 1981.  Bar none.

It might have been the effortless cycling, that it was the hour before sunset or that it was a few thousand acres of marsh--a completed example of the thousands of acres of restoration that are in the works.  The right combination of marsh, water, light.  A great boardwalk or the calls of endangered California clapper rails. Or the sand bars covered with birds:  pelicans, avocets, terns, gulls.  It was poetry.

It's amazing to me that in almost thirty years in the Bay Area I had never been there.  The start was at the corner of San Antonio Road and Terminal Boulevard, west of Shoreline Amphitheater and Shoreline Lake.  It was a short ride; I had already done a 7 mile Ridge Trail hike earlier in the day and my friend Sergio came along. He hadn't ridden in a long time.  But the slowest part was also the most sublime, stopping frequently to take pictures or just to soak in the beauty.

A week before I had intended to get to Baylands; they looked interesting on the map, two full trail loops with another segment to the southeast toward Shoreline amphitheater and two more segments to the north to include Ravenswood Open Space Preserve.  I wound up on the Bay Trail segment north of the Dumbarton Bridge, and crossed the bridge instead.

birds on islands and sandbars
This day I had limited time but figured I'd get in half or more of the connected trails, probably 20-25 miles roundtrip from Ravenswood to Stevens Creek, five or six distinct "islands" of wetlands or old salt ponds.  Instead this was a place to savor and return to.  I barely covered one of the areas, the main Baylands marshes between Charleston Slough and the Palo Alto airport.

Much of the route is unpaved fire road; the first part follows Charleston Slough northeast, past beautiful mashland and lots of those bird-covered sand bars.  You cross a couple of small bridges, across Mayfield Slough and around to parallel Embarcadero toward Sand Point, where there's a pier for water access.  More flocks of birds.  Avocets are a really beautiful bird and to see one or even ten in a mudflat area isn't all that unusual.  Fifty or a hundred was a first for me.  Sand Point is a perfect put-in spot for wind surfing or kayaking.

restored wetlands
It was getting late and I was thinking about adding in the next loop north but got stopped in my tracks by the Lucy Evans Baylands Nature Interpretive Center at 2775 Embarcadero Road.  It's funky cool and dated, from the air two connected wooden, splayed hexagonals on pilings above pickleweed marsh, topped with solar panels.  Narrow decks surround it.

But circle around those decks and you find the start of a board walk stretching arrow straight above and across the pickleweed marsh a quarter mile to the edge of open water.  We left the bikes at the Interpretive Center and walked to the end.  The tide seemed to be coming in and one of the coolest things was listening to, barely seeing, the water rush through, flood through, the pickleweed.  It was the antithesis of the imprisoned salt ponds, living marsh flushed and fed twice daily by the tides.

sunset wetlands, East Bay view
Halfway out, the boardwalk crosses a small slough, which an interpretive sign names "rail alley."  And it is.  Without seeing them, we heard multiple overlapping clattering calls.  I've never seen a California clapper rail but I knew without a doubt they were what we were hearing.  They're one of the endangered reasons forcing a lot of the salt pond and marshland restoration I've been seeing and thinking about these past few weeks.

They're hen-sized with a long straight beak and a tail cocked at a jaunty angle, and they live primarily in cordgrass and pickleweed salt marsh around San Francisco Bay and, more particularly, along the narow sloughs and channels that carry the water in and out.

Sand Point
According to a National Audubon Society website: "Once common, the California Clapper Rail has not recovered its numbers since market hunting in the late 19th Century. In the mid-1970's, about 5,000 California Clapper Rails resided around San Francisco Bay. By the mid-1980's that number had dwindled to about 1,000 and continued to fall to less than 400 individuals in 1992. In 2007, the total population is believed to be fewer than 1,000."

You don't expect an endangered species to be loud and boisterous, literally shouting to predators, "we're here."  You can listen to a California Clapper Rail at: and you can see and hear one at: .

yours truly
One of my best friends, photographer Bob Walker (who died in 1992), photographed them in the 1980s for a film called Secrets of the Bay, which was made in association with Save the Bay.  He made jokes about it afterwards, the hunt for this secretive, extremely rare bird.  He and the other filmmakers planned, finding out when the highest tides of the year are and waiting for them; they flush the birds out of hiding.  He carefully timed the trip and went to a place they're known from--maybe it was Baylands, but I think it was in the East Bay--and waited, camera tripod anchored in the mud at the edge of one of these small sloughs.

my buddy Sergio
Almost immediately a clapper rail appeared.  It walked one way and another while he took photos, then literally walked between his feet and underneath the tripod.  According to Bob, "they're not endangered because of habitat loss, they're endangered because they're stupid."  You have to feel for them, up against non-native red foxes, hawks and owls.

Sort of ruins the metaphors about plainitive calls by a sad bird endangered by man's greed, on the brink of extinction in the sunset's fading light.  All I can say is that I hope the thousands of acres of restoration will provide enough habitat that it's their endangered status that fades and their populations grow large and robust.

Isn't that a great positive symbol of what we can do?  Yes, we can ruin things before we know what we're doing.  Yes we collectively suffer from greed and thoughtlessness.  Yet we can also buy and restore thousands of acres to feed our souls, turn back the clock, and help out a loud, distinctive and not very smart bird.

the board walk at the interpretive center
We followed Embarcadero back to Faber Pl. and circled south near the freeway, the paved bike path parallelling East Bayshore road, and zig-zagged back to Terminal Boulevard and the truck.

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