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Owls, woodpeckers stop tree-trimming in Sonoma’s Depot Park


The City’s planned project to trim the eucalyptus trees at Depot Park was called off Monday morning after the discovery of a nesting acorn woodpecker in one of the trees near the bocce-petanque courts, and a Great Horned owl nest in another.

The tree trimming was originally supposed to include all 23 blue gum eucalyptus in the park area, including the six along First Street West. Those trees are of particular interest to the City as they are implicated in flooding along Fryer Creek and recommended for removal by the Sonoma County Water Agency as a component of their flooding solution.

Sonoma City Councilmember Gary Edwards said he checked with local ornithologist Tom Rusert several months ago about the plan to remove those trees. “I know his love of birding, in fact he taught my kids birding,” said Edwards. “We want to make sure that any trimming happens outside the nesting season.”

But April is within that nesting season range, and the city’s plan to trim and top the Depot Park eucalyptus raised some eyebrows. Rusert said he contacted Mayor Laurie Gallian, who then contacted Public Works Director Dan Takasugi, who then called Rusert and invited him to come to Depot Park on Monday morning.

Under city contract, biologist Trish Tatarian of Wildlife Research Associates in Santa Rosa, surveyed the contracted trees on the morning of April 7, and reported to Takasugi she observed American kestrel nesting behavior in the six trees along First Street West.

“No other bird nesting or bat presence was observed at that time,” said Takasugi, echoing the words of the report – but visitors to Depot Park were well aware of the presence of the owls, who often called to one another in the early morning and late afternoon hours.

“They’ve been chorusing back and forth with each other every night around 7 o’clock,” said Rusert. “All the baseball people know, all the townspeople know, everybody’s pointing out those birds to us.”

The trimming and topping was scheduled due to the presumed “safety hazard these trees pose to the users of the park,” according to a City press release dated April 7. Takasugi clarified the City had been urged by its insurance carrier in November to take care of the trees. “The arborist report mentioned that these conditions need to be mitigated to reduce the chances of large limb or trunk failure occurring into or onto the actively used park facilities and the users below them.”

The proposal was to shorten the 50- to 60-foot high trees to between 20 and 25 feet, and drastically reduce the “multiple co-dominant leaders forming in their lower trunk sections.” This would have had a dramatic effect on the visual landscape and the “shadescape” of the park, though the risk of personal injury had to be considered as well.

But when the trimming started Monday morning, a number of neighborhood naturalists including Rusert were on hand to monitor the work, and to let the tree-trimmers know about the owls.

“Four guys are up in the trees, limbs are coming down, chippers are going to beat hell, and I show up. Then Dan shows up. Then Trish shows up. Then the birders show up,” said Rusert, recalling the action Monday morning at the park.

As the work progressed, Rusert and others spotted a 2-foot-long, 3-pound owl harried under the assault of mobbing crows and the noise of tree trimmers.

The Great Horned owls were not reported in the 90-minute survey by Wildlife Research Associates, conducted the same morning, April 7, that the City announced the topping job. Nor was the acorn woodpecker nest in the eastern stand of trees, above the bocce courts. Rusert and other birders, however, were quick to point it out to Sonoma County Tree Experts, the contracted trimmers.

“It was so dead obvious,” recalled Rusert. “Look: there it is, they’re flying in, they’re flying out, they’re carrying food and stuff in and out – that was right in the middle of the row.” Rusert said cutting trees within 75 feet of a nest is a violation of the Migratory Bird Act, as it breaks up habitat.

He recalled an incident some years ago when Caltrans cut down trees on Broadway and disrupted a Great Horned owl nest which was being monitored by school children nearby. “They cut the two trees on both sides of the tree that the nest was in, then they topped the tree that the nest was in. The kids all saw crows totally dive-bombing the babies and carrying them off – it was a frickin’ mess.” That incident led to a review of the city’s tree policy, which Rusert was involved in.

The upshot of Monday morning’s citizen watch was that the trimming was halted after only two trees had been topped. The felled limbs were chipped on Tuesday, and the tree contractor had packed up by the end of the day.

“And here we are at the edge of the city celebrating Arbor Day,” observed Rusert. Still, he lauded the solution the city, birders and contractors arrived at, on the spot Monday morning. “All parties really worked together in a positive way, and we kind of changed the paradigm,” he said.

“All biologists on bird nesting surveys insist that if bird nesting is observed then work should stop, which promptly happened on this project,” said Takasugi. “It was not an unexpected outcome.

Takasugi said the trimming would probably resume in the fall, September or October, after the extreme end of the bird nesting season.

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.