The California Quail was named state bird after an extensive public outreach campaign and election led by Audubon in the 1920s. Photo: John Ehrenfeld

The Berkeley-based Golden Gate Audubon Society (GGAS) is marking its 100th anniversary with a traveling exhibit on display at Tilden Park Environmental Education Center through the end of March.

“We started in 1917 from a UC Berkeley ornithology class, and we’re honored to still be here, celebrating and protecting birds, 100 years later,” said GGAS Executive Director Cindy Margulis.

GGAS – which serves members in both San Francisco and the East Bay from its San Pablo Avenue office – was one of the earliest conservation organizations in the Bay Area.

Founded by graduates of Professor Harold Bryant’s ornithology extension class, the group hosted monthly field trips and guest speakers on birds from the very start. It also dove quickly into conservation advocacy.

The group’s first major campaign involved deadly oil spills on California waters. With automobile ownership spreading, oil shipment had become a fast-growing business. Tankers were discharging contaminated ballast water off the Farallon Islands, one of the most important seabird breeding sites on the Pacific Coast. Oil slicks were being reported every two to three weeks.

Audubon leaders met with oil company officials in 1919 and convinced them to start recycling waste oil at onshore facilities rather than dumping in the ocean.

“These actions were a crucial early step in protecting the Farallones and were probably among the first organized conservation efforts to stop oil dumping at sea,” wrote Harry Fuller, author of a forthcoming book on the natural history of San Francisco.

Over the following century, Golden Gate Audubon tackled issues ranging from choosing a state bird (winner: California Quail) in the 1920s, to preservation of shoreline habitat; creation of parks like Point Pinole and Eastshore State Park; purchase of the Audubon Canyon Ranch nature preserve in West Marin; protection of the nesting colony of endangered Least Terns at Alameda Point; and reduction of bird deaths from Altamont Pass wind turbines.

GGAS field trip to the Farallon Islands in 1969. Photo: courtesy of GGAS

In Berkeley, GGAS had decades of involvement with Aquatic Park. In 1948, the group opposed a proposal by the city to fill in the lagoon. It subsequently conducted a series of bird censuses at Aquatic Park and co-sponsored nature talks there with the city in the early 1950s. In the 1960s and early 70s, GGAS sponsored a nature education training program for Berkeley teachers at Aquatic Park.

More recently, GGAS advocated for preservation of marsh and mud flat habitat along the Berkeley shoreline during the creation of Cesar Chavez Park. Its volunteers became staunch advocates for wildlife in the park, particularly the Burrowing Owls that spend the winter in ground squirrel burrows there. Each year GGAS organizes volunteer docents, who take up position with spotting scopes and binoculars to help parkgoers spot the tiny brown raptors. (As of this February, there is currently one Burrowing Owl residing near the rip-rap on the north side of the park, a second in the meadow, and a third near Albany Bulb. A fourth owl was sadly found dead on a park bench in late November.)

Over the past century, GGAS grew from an initial handful of members to more than 7,000 today. (Thus that guesstimate of 7,000 pairs of binoculars. J ) It offers over 150 free field trips and about two dozen birding classes each year.

When it came time to plan its centennial, the organization considered holding a gala dinner like many non-profits. But it opted instead to create a traveling educational exhibit focused on Bay Area birds and Audubon’s achievements on their behalf.

“We wanted to do something outward-facing that would introduce Audubon to communities that may never have heard of us before,” Cindy Margulis said. “We hope the exhibit will inspire people to pause and look at that Chestnut-backed Chickadee in their backyard or the ducks and herons along the shoreline. When they want to learn more about those birds and help them thrive, we’re here to assist with field trips, classes, and volunteer opportunities.”

Throughout 2017, the exhibit will be on display for free at public venues including Tilden Park, Oakland City Hall, the Tides/Thoreau Center in the Presidio, and Lindsay Wildlife Experience in Walnut Creek.To create the exhibit, Audubon connected last spring with a Berkeley-based graduate class in Museum Studies at JFK University. Professor Brianna Cutts adopted the GGAS Centennial as the class project, and students came up with the concept of a series of tall nylon panels featuring photos and text about Bay Area birds and GGAS volunteers. Then GGAS enlisted pro bono graphic design services from Airloom, a Berkeley marketing and design firm, to create the actual panels.

GGAS kicked off the exhibit’s visit to Tilden Park on Feb. 4 with a reception featuring East Bay Regional Park District Board President Beverly Lane and General Manager Robert Doyle.

“Audubon fought against development, even litigated, to protect shorebirds and habitat,” Doyle told the crowd at the launch. “I can’t tell you how important that is…. (and) I don’t know of any other partner that has done more to get kids to the shoreline, to learn about birds and the plants you restored to nourish the birds.”

Ilana DeBare, a former San Francisco Chronicle reporter, is communications director for Golden Gate Audubon Society.