Have you seen a California newt along Wildcat Creek or around Jewel Lake in the Tilden Nature Area (TNA) recently? If so, I would like to know about it. I haven’t seen one for years (in spite of Park signs that say they still are there). When I first started studying certain species of birds in the TNA in the early 1980s, California newts were fairly common, and some (unfortunately) were invariably squashed in the parking lot every migratory season. However, the number of newts I saw steadily declined through the 1980s and, by the early 1990s, I saw none. At that time I also noted that I neither saw nor heard Pacific chorus frogs along Wildcat Creek or Jewel Lake, even though they generally are ubiquitous in California wetlands.
In subsequent years I mentioned these observations to East Bay Regional Park District personnel, naively assuming that my concerns would be passed up the chain of command, and that the situation would be investigated. After years without a response, I reached out to still more Park District staff and Board members, still to no avail.
I am told that both newts and chorus frogs still exist and breed in some small ponds to the east of Wildcat Creek in the TNA. However, from along the middle stretches of Wildcat Creek itself, and Jewell Lake, amphibians appear to have vanished. Additionally, I fear that what may be affecting the amphibians in the middle reaches of Wildcat Creek may be affecting the entire ecosystem. For example, some heron species which typically would feed on chorus frogs and small fish along and in Wildcat Creek and Jewel Lake seem uncharacteristically scarce. Over the decades I recall seeing just one each of green and black-crowned night herons, and one snowy egret (although great blue herons, which feed on gophers in picnic areas, are often seen). I also have concerns for aquatic insects, which seem scarce in that portion of the creek.
The Wildcat Creek watershed has been touted as an ecological success story. Its lower urban reaches, traversing Richmond and San Pablo, have been the focus of “remarkable community-based restoration efforts” which received a Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award in 2003. In April of 2013 the Tilden Park Golf Course, through which the upper reaches of Wildcat Creek flow, was designated a “Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary,” and was commended for, among other things, “Chemical Use Reduction Safety (and) Water Quality Management.” With such accolades and awards, one might conclude that all is well in the Wildcat Creek watershed. This may not be the case. Where are the newts, chorus frogs, and herons? I can only think that the thousands of schoolchildren that visit the TNA and Environmental Education Center every year are being shortchanged in not seeing some of the animals that are supposed to be there.
A recent article in The Yodeler by Peter Rausch and a co-author (“Putting the environment first in East Bay parks”) suggested that the Park District does a good job in acquiring and preserving holdings in the East Bay, but is less proficient in caring for the biological resources in those acquisitions. While the article makes a good general point, an inability of the Park District to assign monetary and human resources to relatively undeveloped and little-visited new acquisitions is to some degree understandable, given their limited resources. Much less understandable, in my estimation, is the Park District’s ignoring a possible ecological problem in one of its oldest and most-visited regional parks—a problem that seemingly exists in the crown jewel of its environmental educational facilities.
William M. Gilbert, Ph.D.
Chair, Sierra Couples