A record 1,500 people enjoyed the sunshine and Wildflower Day activities at the 40-acre Ulistac Natural Area in Santa Clara on March 30.
The native floral attractions were the blue and bright purple California lilacs (Ceanothus), the yellow flannebush blossoms and a sprinkling of orange poppies.
A less flamboyant attraction required patience and binoculars to fully appreciate — the birds. The first tour on Wildflower Day was a bird-watching tour led by National Auduban Society volunteer Chris Johnson.
“This is my favorite time to bird watch here because of spring and all the flowers,” said Johnson.
Some of the birdwatchers had binoculars or cameras. San Jose resident Shirsho Sengupta’s camera had a huge, 150 – 600 mm telephoto lens. He considers bird watching a good way to connect nature and photography.
Bird watchers on eBird have recorded spotting 180 species of birds at Ulistac. It is now listed on eBird as a Bay Area birding hot spot.
Lead Ulistac volunteer Erica Fleniken advises listening for a bird song. Then if you remain still long enough, you can see every species from the smallest hummingbird and Bewick’s wren to large nesting hawks. Great Blue Herons sometimes wander over from the Guadalupe River, which borders Ulistac.
Fleniken, a Santa Clara resident, is also Ulistac’s wildlife photographer. She maintains a trail camera that records Ulistac’s night life, particularly the Gray Fox. She posts bird and other photos with descriptive information on Ulistac’s Facebook page.
Romance in the Treetops
In late March, Fleniken posted a love story. A photo taken in 2013 shows Ulistac’s first California thrasher. The male thrasher remained alone year after year, singing futilely to attract a mate.
The lonely thrasher even tried courting the Northern Mockingbirds, which are in the same family. But they rejected him time and again.
Then in 2018, a female thrasher miraculously appeared. After playing hard to get for a few months, she finally let the male thrasher share a tree with her.
“So we can finally say that Ulistac’s only thrasher is no longer alone, and we couldn’t have asked for a happier ending,” wrote Fleniken on Facebook. “The mockingbirds are also quite relieved.”
For an even happier ending, Fleniken is hoping to spot baby thrashers.
“Documenting this wildlife helps prove that we are creating a healthy and thriving natural California habitat at Ulistac,” said Fleniken. “Individuals can do the same with their own backyard to help protect the wildlife, including bees and butterflies, by simply plating native gardens.”
Since 2001, volunteers with Ulistac Natural Area Restoration & Education Project (UNAREP) have put in thousands of hours of labor to transform Ulistac from a defunct golf course to a natural area at 4901 Lick Mill Blvd., a stone’s throw from Levi’s Stadium.
Between 2016 and December of 2018 alone, 8,600 hours of volunteer time were logged doing tasks such as planting 800 native shrubs and trees at nine different sites throughout Ulistac.
A formal bird survey was begun in 2017 to determine the effects of native plant restoration on local bird populations. The survey is done once every two weeks.
Each of six survey stations is visited for five minutes by a team of three volunteers. All the birds sighted within the bounds of Ulistac during that time are recorded on a spreadsheet.
Palo Alto resident Ruth Cantwell developed the survey protocol. She explained that it’s possible to spot ten to 15 different bird species and upwards from 40 birds during the hour that it takes to do the observations.
“Ulistac is one of the jewels of this area,” said Cantwell. “Volunteering like this is fun. I love birding, and this helps the world a little bit.”
More than 90 species of birds have been recorded since the bird survey began. An increase in bird numbers was observed between 2017 and 2018.
Visit Ulistac Natural Area’s Facebook page to view Fleniken’s photography or visit Ulistac’s website — www.ulistac.org.