Editor’s note: In mid-January, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced that an outbreak of avian cholera had killed hundreds of birds at Radio Road, and that the ponds would be drained to prevent the further spread of the disease.
here were thousands out here last week,” George Chrisman says, lowering his binoculars and squinting into the sunlit sewage treatment pond. A brisk wind makes tears gather in the creases of his eyes but Chrisman, dressed in a short sleeved shirt, wipes them away and comments on the weather: maybe it’s just too nice a day. From across the marsh, the dull thud of gunfire cuts through sounds of the calling birds. A plane roars overhead. As any pretense of nature’s tranquility crumbles, Chrisman instead chooses to notice that the sun is out. He notices because there is really only one thing that makes for a good day at Radio Road: birds. If there are birds, then the sewage and gunfire and airplanes mean nothing. If there are not, then all the sunshine in the world won’t compensate.
Chrisman sets up his spotting scope over the gunfire. “Those guys are hunting Bair Island,” he says. “I always think, do they know where the birds are roosting?” As he tells me about his past — how he would join his dad and brother on the occasional hunting trip, his involvement with Audubon as a kid — his focus stays on the pond. He points out the greater yellowlegs and willets standing in the shallows. “I’m not opposed to hunting,” Chrisman says, rotating the scope to a get a better look at a flock of avocets, “but I hunt with my camera now.” He scans the pond for green-winged teal and explains how he majored in wildlife management, went on to work in construction and then, in 2007, joined the Sequoia Audubon Society as a board member — a position he still holds. Back to the marsh: “It’s strangely quiet today.” While the birds number in the low hundreds, it’s not uncommon to see more than 10,000 converge on Radio Road and Chrisman, a regular, has seen it many times.
In the mid ’90s, the ponds — part of the South Bayside System Authority wastewater treatment plant in Redwood Shores — were an empty dustbowl, a place where people would go to ride their ATVs on the weekend. But in 1998, the authority manager, fed up with dust clogging the plant’s machinery, flooded the area creating the Radio Road ponds and consequently, a bird — and birding — paradise. Wastewater ponds, like those in Hayward, Sunnyvale, Petaluma and San Rafael, draw a range of bird species in high numbers. Rich in algae and invertebrates and free from recreational water sports, the ponds provide a largely undisturbed bird resting site.
At Radio Road there are varying habitats—islands for roosting terns, trees that act as a heron rookery, and a berm that is a gull favorite—all of which sit on the shores of the brackish South Bay, turning it into a bird resort of sorts. So it’s not really a question about why the birds are there. And birders, focused on species observation, on creating lists and keeping them, on “collecting” birds, as Chrisman says, are somewhat scenery-agnostic. So if a birder follows the birds, and the birds choose to flock to a pond where the smell of fennel dances on the breeze and gunfire rattles in the distance, than that’s where the birder goes.
o matter how unpleasant the location,” Chrisman says. “Birders will go anywhere there are birds and the rarer, the better.” At Radio Road, what keeps birders coming back week after week, parking their car on the asphalt road and waiting in a quiet rhapsody, eyes glued to their binoculars, is the chance to see a rare species that flashes through, leaving only its name and the legend of its sighting behind. If that doesn’t happen, there’s the prospect of sighting hundreds of something common. As Chrisman disassembles his spotting scope, he lists the birds he has seen at the pond: blue winged teal, white faced ibis, common yellow throat warblers, cinnamon teal, scoters, common mergansers, Forster’s terns, peregrine falcons, and a one-off gull-billed tern that meant the bird could be added to the county bird register.
This is also one of the best places to see black skimmers in Northern California, Chrisman says, motioning to the small, flat islands where they are known to rest belly down, as though they fell over and forgot to get up. But today is defined by an absence rather than a presence: there are no skimmers.
We begin walking south, past a dog park to a levee that runs parallel to Steinberger Slough where a row of powerline towers cut a path to outer Bair Island. A white-tailed kite hovers over the levee, wings outspread, body upright. “Birding is almost like a collecting impulse,” Chrisman says. “You’re kind of chasing something.”
That chase, for a rare species, for a common one, for not even a bird at all, is the drive that keeps a birder coming back to Radio Road. It’s a place to watch, to listen, and to be outside — no matter the landscape — in a “contemplative” sense, as Chrisman says.
“I like it,” he says. “It’s quiet.”