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Ruffled Feathers: Can Birds and Music Festivals Share Middle Harbor Park?

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In 2018, Middle Harbor Shoreline Park hosted three events attracting more than 4,000 people each. (Estefany Gonzalez)

Nestled along the southwestern-most corner of Oakland is Middle Harbor Shoreline Park, a crescent-shaped greenbelt and public beach stretched beneath Port of Oakland cranes.

The remote park is Megan Jankowski’s “patch,” birdwatcher lingo for a site of regular study. Dramatically set against the San Francisco skyline, sandbars and rocks within Middle Harbor’s shallow shore water provide roosting and feeding terrain for myriad species of birds. On Sunday, Jankowski convened a dozen or so binocular-toting birders at the mast of the USS Oakland, which greets visitors in the parking lot, to describe the site’s wintering waterfowl and shorebirds.

Map of Middle Harbor Shoreline Park.
Map of Middle Harbor Shoreline Park. (Port of Oakland)

Jankowski, 37, who works in real estate, also noted that the park hosted Treasure Island Music Festival a week prior, and that a smaller event featuring DJs and a jump-house was scheduled for that afternoon. “If you don’t like electronic music, you might be annoyed,” she told the crowd.

A birder carrying a tripod-mounted telescope asked Jankowski—who records avian activity at the park twice a month as part of her “master birder” training through the Golden Gate Audubon Society—a question she’s lately asked herself: “How do the Ruddy Ducks feel about electronic music?”

Jankowski smiled, “We’ll see.” Then she recognized a passing Anna’s Hummingbird solely by the squeaking sound of its tail-feathers at the bottom of a dive, the first of 38 species observed and identified by the group that afternoon.

Birders look for waterfowl.
Birders look for waterfowl. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

In 2018, the Port of Oakland-owned and operated park hosted three music festivals attended by more than 4,000 people; Treasure Island and Blurry Vision each drew more than 10,000 people over both festivals’ two-day runs. Jankowski is among the community members and conservationists concerned about the events’ impact on the park wildlife. She worries that the increasing rate and size of the festivals, and lack of environmentally-conscious conditions, runs against the port’s efforts to improve the habitat for birds, including endangered Least Terns and threatened Snowy Plovers.


“Non-birders, I call them muggles,” Jankowski said, invoking J.K. Rowling’s term for un-magical people to describe the general population’s indifference to birds. “I know it’s divisive, but I love in Harry Potter when he asks the guy on the night bus, ‘Don’t the muggles see the night bus?’ And the night bus guy says to him, ‘No, the muggles don’t see anything, do they?’”

At Middle Harbor, birds and music festivals are vying for the same physical space. After Blurry Vision, a Goldenvoice production headlined by Migos and SZA in May, Jankowski found killdeer fledglings roaming what’d been the stage area. On Sunday, she pointed out bushtit and crow nests on the Treasure Island Music Festival grounds.

Shorebirds visiting in the fall and winter are especially vulnerable to disturbance, she said. “Later in the season ahead of migration, it’s important for them to be constantly eating or resting.” Still, Jankowski admits, the area is a park, not a wildlife refuge, and it’s difficult to quantify the birds’ tolerance for crowds and noise.

Bay Area municipalities closely regulate changes of use in public spaces. The San Francisco Recreation & Parks Department requires Another Planet Entertainment (APE), which coproduces the Treasure Island Music Festival with Noise Pop, to rent special forklifts with gopher-friendly tires in order to throw Outside Lands in Golden Gate Park. Berkeley commissioned a study of the effects of recreational watercraft on the birds at Aquatic Park. But Port of Oakland contracts with APE and Goldenvoice, which KQED reviewed, include no park-specific environmental stipulations aside from cleanup. For this year’s concerts, the festival producers each paid the port more than $30,000 in rental fees.

Birders and port officials agree the park is underused.
Birders and port officials agree the park is underused. (Estefany Gonzalez/KQED)

The shoreline is part of the Middle Harbor Enhancement Area, an ambitious port and US Army Corps of Engineers project to restore salt marsh and shallow tideland habitat to some 180 acres of waterfront. A 2001 report by port consultants includes goals such as “increase habitat benefits for aquatic birds” and “identify any conflicts between public access and habitat development.” Port spokesperson Michael Zampa said the festivals are part of balancing public access and environmental stewardship. “At all of our events, we’re mindful that the park is adjacent to a sensitive natural habitat,” he said. “After all, we helped create the habitat.”

Jankowski and port officials agree that the park is underused, an oasis separated from West Oakland by acres of shipping containers and barren roads known for late-night sideshows. (One afternoon, Jankowski was robbed in the parking lot.) But Jankowski fears that marketing the park via music festivals threatens part of what makes Middle Harbor a naturalist destination and a “jewel within the port,” saying the agency should better study the effects of crowds, fireworks and noise.

In regards to increased festival size and frequency, Zampa said on average, Middle Harbor hosts only two events a year with more than 1,000 people in attendance. In answer to concerns about pyrotechnics during Treasure Island, he said a performer used fireworks for only 15 seconds before officials intervened. And as far as studies informing potential conditions on events, Zampa said the port took the “above-and-beyond step” of hiring Horizon Water and Environment to monitor birds during Treasure Island, but the findings aren’t yet available.

“Our intent is to open the shoreline to the public and to develop/preserve the ecosystem,” he said. “We believe those two goals are compatible, but we must be watchful for negative impacts.”

At Middle Harbor on Sunday, the main detectable aftermath of Treasure Island Music Festival was a dustbowl where there was once grass. House beats from the small afternoon party, along with the buzz of a gas-powered generator, echoed faintly throughout much of the park, but only as loudly as the beeps and clangs of port machinery offloading an international freighter.


Shorebirds including species of sandpiper, egret, heron, gull and tern sprawled across the sandbars at low tide. When they suddenly up and flocked, the birders looked to the sky for predators, and saw the first Northern Harrier hawk Jankowski has recorded at Middle Harbor. But there was a conspicuous lack of Ruddy Ducks.

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