White ribbons of ocean fog often touch Albany Hill before arriving elsewhere on the East Bay shoreline. Fog’s added moisture, plus shoreline moderation of temperature extremes, creates unusual growing conditions for this wild remnant of the urban waterfront that rises 338 feet above sea level just a quarter mile east of San Francisco Bay.
After I wondered about the natural sandstone “wall” next to the trailhead at the north end of Albany’s Jackson Street, I discovered that Albany Hill bedrock presents a late Cretaceous outcrop roughly 70-83 million years old. It’s only a few miles west of the much younger Berkeley-Oakland Hills, which rose a mere two or three million years ago (don’t you feel younger already?).
Albany Hill’s indigenous flora combines plants from the oak woodland and coastal prairie communities, with a riparian corridor along Cerrito Creek at the northern base of the hill.
But residential development has crept up the sides of the hill, repeating the common problems of building over habitat and thus speeding the introduction of invasive species. When I view Albany Hill from the BART platform to the northeast, Tasmanian blue gum trees (Eucalyptus globulus) form a raggedy summit canopy, with lower ranks of home windows bordering the roads climbing the hill. The Judson Dynamite & Powder Company, which operated manufacturing plants on the west side of Albany Hill in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, planted the eucalyptus forest on its upper slopes and summit to shield residents east of the hill from the sound and debris produced by the inevitable explosions at the plants.
On the north and northeast slopes now, eucalypts and homes yield to the horizontal, dark evergreen mounding of coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) forest. Many of the hill’s native plant populations survive in the oak forest, but the coastal prairie remnants occur mostly in clearings where some of the eucalyptus trees have been removed. Recent construction for disabled access at the summit cleared several blue gums for the additional pavement but also freed some ground for bunchgrass plantings by an organized group of volunteer stewards who grew the grasses from seed they collected on Albany Hill.
I like to start Albany Hill ascents from El Cerrito’s Creekside Park, jumping the creek’s short width by hopping the rocks among arroyo willows (Salix lasiolepis). Uphill and south from the creek, I enter a sloping meadow area bordered by arroyo willows climbing up from the creek below and oak woodland spreading above on the uphill side. Grassland plants like blue wild rye (Elymus glaucus), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), and California buttercup (Ranunculus californicus) grow in the open meadow, while blue elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. caerulea) and western hazelnut (Corylus cornuta ssp. californica) grow at the upper edge of the meadow near the oaks.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, volunteers assembled near the meadow area above Creekside Park. Most months, they returned to clear Algerian ivy (Hedera canariensis), cape ivy (Delairea odorata), and the occasional passionvine (yes, Passiflora) from this grove of heritage-size coast live oaks. When Italian thistle (Carduus pycnocephalus) flowered in late summer, many of the same volunteers cut and pulled thistle stalks before their dandelion-like seeds drifted off to the rest of the hill. Reports and photos of these volunteer efforts still appear on their Tending the Ancient Shoreline Hill website. Other tabs on this website lead to photos and lists of the plants, animals, and fungi recorded on or around the hill. The site’s poetry-prose-art section displays several of biologist and artist Laura Cunningham‘s artistic reconstructions of pre-Columbian Albany Hill and its surrounding coastal prairie.
In spite of the massive Tasmanian blue gums covering much of the upper half of the hill, remnant coastal prairie plants persist and flower in sunnier openings among the trees. When I first visited the top of Albany Hill to watch the sunset, almost nothing met my eye except the eucalypt canopy and poison oak growing abundantly in its understory. Later, I saw much more of Albany Hill’s diversity when I joined field trips led by Barbara Ertter, Curator of Western North American Flora at the UC and Jepson Herbaria, as she pointed out local rarities like California horkelia (Horkelia californica) and shade phacelia (Phacelia nemoralis) blooming among more common yarrows, soaproots (Chlorogalum pomeridianum), and hedge nettles (Stachys ajugoides). Both ookow (Dichelostemma congestum) and blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum), with nearly identical blue flowers, grow on Albany Hill alongside California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) and buttercups in early spring.
Unlike “charismatic magafauna” seen in the remote Sierra Nevada, monarch butterflies have dominated the winter wildlife counts on Albany Hill. Far from the fir trees on their larger wintering grounds in Mexico, monarch butterflies shelter in a grove of Tasmanian blue gum to spend winter on the west side of Albany Hill. But like so many other monarch overwintering sites in California, Albany Hill’s winter count revealed far fewer monarchs in 2020 than in past years.
Unluckily, much of the butterflies’ winter grove lies on or near roughly 10 acres of private land near Pierce Street, facing San Francisco Bay. Late in 2019, a developer bought an interest in this site and proposed building 96 residences on the parcel. In March 2020, the developer withdrew the proposal, perhaps dissuaded by public outcry; CEQA requirements to compensate for destruction of habitat, open space, and biota; and the requirement that the developer obtain a significant variance from the city ordinance mandating only a few residential structures in the area. Nonetheless, much of the west side of Albany Hill remains private land, subject to future development proposals.
Albany Hill’s dedicated volunteer stewards continue to protect this island of coastal prairie and oak woodland plants through habitat restoration and environmental education. So enjoy Albany Hill and the work of its protectors this spring, and keep track of the flowers that appear so you can aid in their preservation.
— Janet Gawthrop, Field Trips Committee Chair, CNPS East Bay Chapter