RICHMOND -- A waterfront park got a few more residents with the assistance of some eager youngsters.
Eight black-crowned night herons and snowy egrets were released along the western bank of Point Pinole Regional Shoreline Park in Richmond on Wednesday afternoon. The birds, which were found injured or orphaned in urban areas around the East Bay, were rehabilitated at the International Bird Rescue's San Francisco Bay center.
The center, located in Fairfield, received a record number of herons and egrets this year -- about 450, which is nearly double the amount from previous years. Andrew Harmon, a spokesman for International Bird Rescue, attributed the increase to more public awareness of the birds and how to report injured or abandoned ones.
Many of the black-crowns came from Oakland, Harmon said. For those birds, the release was the first time they ever saw natural habitat.
"They might be stumbling around a little bit, trying to figure out what to do next," Harmon said, with a note of concern, before the birds were released.
On hand to help send the birds out into the marsh were about two dozen kids between the ages of 6 and 10 from the Richmond Police Activities League, a local organization that teaches youths in West Contra Costa County through athletics, academics and art.
In groups of four, the kids carefully brought cat carrier-sized red and blue boxes to the release site, a small clearing under the shade of a sprawling eucalyptus tree. They set the boxes down under the tree and knelt next to them as Harmon instructed each group on how to open the box.
The kids, who moments earlier had been laughing, teasing one another and playing, became quiet and solemn as each opened their box.
Within seconds, all of the boxes were opened, and after a beat, the white and black birds took off to startled yells and giggles from the kids.
Some of the snowy egrets flew a couple of laps around the group before landing in the trees nearby.
"OK, now you've got to come back to the park to find your bird," quipped Marty Barillas, a spokesman for Chevron Richmond, which helped organize and support the event.
As for the young birds, all of which are around 3 months old, organizers hope the birds will stay in -- or at least near -- the park, where they'll be safe from the conditions that landed them at the International Bird Rescue's center in the first place.
"This is a natural habitat for them," Douglas Bell, the wildlife manager with East Bay Regional Parks, said. "And they're quite social birds and will roost colonially. If we're lucky, they might fly over to nearby Brooks Island, where they can join another large colony and increase their likelihood of survival."