Sunday, October 20, 2013

Environmental Volunteers - Eric McKee - October 2013

Eric McKee Leads EcoCenter Canoe Trip
October 20, 2013

The Environmental Volunteers (EV) EcoCenter occupies a renovated Sea Scout building by the edge of San Francisco Bay, in the Palo Alto Baylands. EV Educational Programs Coordinator, Eric McKee, recently led a small group canoe trip from the nearby Palo Alto Baylands boat launch (Sailing Station) area. I joined the participants, and we heard about water sampling and bay ecosystems. We saw tiny, wriggling amphipods that shorebirds feast upon, as well as circular indentations in the mud made by bat rays. Perhaps best of all, we experienced the Bay from a different perspective -- gliding through water channels and around islands of marsh vegetation, from shorebird eye level. I later asked Eric a few questions.

What were your first impressions of the San Francisco Bay?

My first impressions of the San Francisco Bay were of the salt ponds of the southern San Francisco Bay. It seemed strange to me that so much habitat was being used for essentially agriculture, for growing salt. Being from the east coast, I was also so intrigued by the diversity of wildlife that utilizes the Bay, so many different species of ducks and waterfowl, coexisting with shorebirds, and pelicans, and from time to time, even sharks and seals!

What is your favorite craft/boat, or preferred way to get around and experience San Francisco Bay?

(I like walking, but) my favorite way to get around the Bay (on the water) is by canoe. They are such stable crafts; you get to be so close to the water, and having been in them in freshwater ponds as a kid, I feel very comfortable in them, even if my butt gets wet from time to time. Also you can put a lot of gear and snacks in them.

Are visitors to the EV EcoCenter surprised by what they see or learn about the Baylands?

I find that visitors to the Baylands are often surprised by two things: first by the variation in the environment due to the tides. Depending on the time of year (and orientation of earth, sun, and moon), the tide can rise and fall over eight feet as the Bay's waters ebb and flow. People sometimes look at me like I have two heads as we look out over the open water, and I tell them that in a few hours, there will be open mudflats, with a slight trickling path (water channel) meandering through the sloughs.

Second, the wildlife -- mainly the marine life. Here in the southern San Francisco Bay, we can play host to freshwater fishes like salmon and trout, as well as oceanic creatures like leopard sharks and bat rays. They are out foraging in the waters of the Baylands every single day. After all, we are connected to the vast Pacific Ocean; so why not?

Do you find visitors have any misconceptions about the Bay?
I think people are surprised to realize just how important the marshlands of the San Francisco Bay are to our way of life, and their importance to wildlife and biodiversity. Our marshlands are habitats for two federally endangered species, as well as several threatened species, and are important migratory staging locations for birds, some traveling all the way from South America! After hearing that, people are generally shocked to find that over 90% of wetlands surrounding the San Francisco Bay have been lost over time, but thankfully with efforts like the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, and SF Bay Water Trail, people will have increased access and opportunities to enjoy what remains, while growing a promising future for this ecosystem.

Any unusual sightings you've experienced, or heard about?

I have heard of many people sighting pink flamingos feeding on brine shrimp in the salt ponds - but have not had the pleasure to sight them. My favorite animal I have seen in action was a Belted Kingfisher, perched in a cottonwood tree above a slough, diving into the water. I was taken back by the action of its flight, its unique body shape, and the fact that this bird had such an easy time going from the tree to under the water and back again.

Do you have a favorite spot in the San Francisco Bay?

Currently, the Palo Alto Baylands are my favorite spot because I get to work in a building adjacent to them, but I also love looking out at the newly restored areas along the Dumbarton bridge and seeing all of the egrets, pelicans, shorebirds, and waterfowl.

What would you tell people about the new San Francisco Bay Area Water Trail?

I am excited at the prospect of increasing access to recreational opportunities with the Water Trail. Specifically, the City of Palo Alto and their Open Space Rangers, will be looking at making the Baylands boat launch more accessible for Handicap persons, and I am hopeful that with these projects, even more people will be out enjoying this incredibly unique local resource.  

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