Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Mission Greenbelt Project

The Mission Greenbelt Project opens this week. Come to the Campaign kickoff at the San Francisco Arts Commission gallery this Thursday 5 to 8 pm.

From the website:
The Greenbelt will consist of neighboring native plant sidewalk gardens in front of homes, apartment buildings, storefronts and schools between Franklin Square Park and Dolores Park. In addition to improving the environment and creating a habitat for birds, insects, reptiles and small mammals, the project will unite and strengthen a community.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Lights Out!

It's lights out tonight! Lights Out SF is asking all San Franciscans to turn off non-essential lights from 8 to 9 tonight. Turn off your lights and head outside-the city is turning off the lights on the Bay Bridge, Golden Gate Bridge and TransAmerica building. Yay!

Why turn off your lights? Saving energy seems to be the big selling point for this event-and that's always a good thing. But saving energy doesn't really capture people's imagination, at least it doesn't mine. Saving energy feels so dour. Turn off your lights, turn down your heat, take shorter showers. All good ideas, don't get me wrong, but who really gets excited about any of those things?

So, what's a non-energy related reason to turn off your lights tonight? My favorite, and this one that makes this event so well-timed, is that lights at night cause light pollution. What's the big deal about light pollution? Light pollution is a huge problem for migrating birds. San Francisco is lucky enough to be smack in the middle of the Pacific Flyway, so this time of year we are flooded with birds making their way south for the winter. It's an incredible time to go birding around here and also, unfortunately, a really dangerous time for some of these birds. Lights left on overnight in skyscrapers disorient the birds. The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimates collisions with building windows cause 97 to 976 million bird deaths in the United States every year. Turning off the lights in skyscrapers at night can dramatically reduce this number. The AT&T tower in Chicago initiated a program to dim it's lights during bird migration and reduced bird collisions by 80%.

Light pollution also means that we can't see the stars. While this is clearly bad for astronomers, what impact does it really have on the rest of us? I read an essay by Rebecca Solnit the other day that talked about the night sky as a place worth saving because it is available to all of us. Every one of us can go outside and look up and access the huge mystery of the universe, the mystery of life and our lives on this tiny rock. More than once, when someone I love was far away, I've walked outside to look at the moon and been comforted knowing that at least we could look at the same sky, that maybe they were looking at the moon too.

So turn off your lights tonight, have a candlelight dinner and go out and watch some stars. I'll be looking too.

International Dark Sky Association

Ecological Consequences of Artificial Night Lighting (bibliography from a conference)

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Study Urban Birds

Are you a budding ornithologist or just a regular city-dweller who wants to take a closer look at the living things around you? Well, this project might be for you.

Cornell University has a long-standing, well-respected tradition of bird studies and now you don't even have to leave your neighborhood to help them out. Their ornithology lab has started an Urban Bird Studies project. Watch pigeons, crows and gulls, collect data and join their band of citizen-scientists. Doesn't that sound fun? Check it out.

Pigeon mating rituals are hilarious.
If you don't do it for the science, do it for the comedy.


Something about primitive plants really gets me. Maybe it's their dependence on water. I imagine the mosses, liverworts and ferns all holding their breath with me as our dry, dry summers wear on. Saying little plant hallelujahs when the grey days and rain start again. It's finally started raining here again. Let's all breathe a sigh of relief.

This lovely fern has sprung up all on it's own in our yard. It's wedged under the fence between our house and the neighbor's-I swear it looks like it's growing right up out of the concrete.

Ferns are incredible plants. If you ever find yourself around a fern, dissecting microscope and lamp (yes, I realize that magical trio is probably rare in most lives), put a fern frond sori side up under the scope and watch what happens. Seriously, it's great. When the sori dry out they pop open like a pac-man and tons (thousands?) of spores fly out. These spores land on the ground and grow into the other life stage of the fern, the microscopic gametophyte that makes the sperm and eggs needed to make the plant we all think of as a fern.

(Fern gametophyte photo from http://www.uic.edu/classes/bios/bios100/summer2003/fernlifecycle.htm)

Incredibly, ferns are able to survive and thrive in some really harsh urban environments. Blair found one growing way up in the air on the metal supports of the freeway. Last month the New Yorker published this article (by Oliver Sacks of all people) describing a fern hike in the middle of New York-not in the park, but right down the city streets. You all in New York have some fantastic urban naturalist stuff going on.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Western Fence Lizard

Scelorporus occidentalis

In our yard, catching insects and basking in the sun. Males have bright blue patches on their flanks and bellies, hence the other common name "Blue bellies". Apparently they can also change color to match their background, though this fella seemed to be content to stay the color he was when we were hanging out.

It turns out that we may have these lizards to thank for the relative rarity of Lyme Disease in California. Infected nymphs (young ticks) that feed on Western Fence Lizards do not have the Lyme Disease causing bacteria when they metamorphose into adults. The protein that protects the lizard from contracting Lyme moves into the ticks body and kills the disease causing bacteria in the host.

Now if they could just do something about poison oak.

Western Fence Lizards and Lyme Disease

Friday, August 3, 2007

Crow's Nest at 22nd and Mission

This photo is from last year, when a pair of crows built a nest on the Sketcher's sign at 22nd and Mission. The nest is still there, and I saw some crows hanging out earlier in the year, but haven't seen anyone in awhile. Has anyone else seen any activity there?

Maybe they're all out smoking cigarettes.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

On coyotes and sea bass

(photo from Wikipedia)

As you may have already read, two coyotes living in Golden Gate Park were shot and killed this weekend after they reportedly attacked one dog and were seen stalking another one (see the Chronicle story here).

There has been a lot of heated comments posted on the local newspaper's website, both in favor of the shooting and against it. Some are arguing that we live in a city and wild carnivores like coyotes are are danger to pets and children. Others are arguing that coyotes were here before any of us and that we should learn to live with them (or at least move them somewhere else instead of shooting them).
This whole thing makes my heart feel heavy. I love that there are wild things in this city. Something inside me feels a particular thrill at knowing that there are large animals, living their large, wild animal lives in among our cafes and buses and built, managed stuff. Today, it's the negotiation of that boundary between wildness and cityness that I'm interested in. A few people posted comments admitting that they have purposefully fed coyotes living in San Francisco. Mostly I was aghast that anyone would feed coyotes (first, dog food is not coyote food. Second, feeding wild animals makes them less fearful of people, making it more likely that they will meet the end of the two GGP coyotes) but part of me can understand. There is something about wild animals, perhaps especially for us city folk, that is almost spellbinding. I think that urge to get close and have a relationship with animals is deep and unfortunately, sometimes misplaced. Have you seen Grizzly Man? Maybe that's an extreme example of someone "making friends" with wild animals, but I don't think the underlying feeling is uncommon at all. I feel it. I say good morning to the birds outside my house every morning when I fill their feeder and goodnight to my fish before I go to bed.

What is it about animals that makes us want to get close to them and what is our responsibility when we do? The museum where I work has an aquarium that I like to walk around in to give my eyes a break from my computer screen. Today, as I walked around the few late-afternoon visitors I took special care to notice what they were saying to the animals on display. Most people, even the adults, said hello when they walked up to a tank. Some people spent many minutes locked in some serious eye-contact with the fish. Do those fish know or care that we're there? I kind of doubt it. Do I love going downstairs and spending time with the sea bass? You bet I do.

Are we seeking out those relationships because these animals need us, or because we need them? I readily admit that I am sustained daily by the non-human creatures in my life. I also feel deeply responsible for them and realize that responsibility manifests itself in different ways. For my fish, it means that I feed them everyday. For my plants it means water. For the coyotes of San Francisco it means that I leave them alone, content with the knowledge that they are out there living their wild animal lives so close to mine.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Water Water Everywhere

Grey and windy day today, but it's summer and still really dry, so I spent my moring having a slow cup of coffee and watering our plants. While I was moving plants and furniture I uncovered this charming little one living under our table outside.
It's a California Slender Salamander (Batrachoceps attenuatus). Check out it's short little arms and legs (four digits on each if you want to get really close). Like earthworms these animals breathe through their skin, which is why they hang out in moist environments, like the rotting wood on the underside of our table. If their skin dries out, they'll suffocate. They manage to survive the hot (or at least dry) months here by estivating, a sort of summer hibernation, where their metabolism and activity slow way down.
Having such absorbent skin makes amphibians extremely sensitive to even low concentrations of chemicals. All over the world amphibian populations are crashing, and while the exact causes are still unclear, pesticide exposure seems to be a significant contributing factor. I know when a lot of people think about pesticide exposure, they think of huge farms in the Central Valley (or wherever the large farming communities are where you live), but home pesticide use is greater (up to 10 times more per acre) than agricultural use. The pesticides and herbicides that you can buy at the store are serious chemicals and should be treated as such. Besides being dangerous for the critters in your backyard, they can be washed into waterways by rain and even transported in fog, impacting organisms far beyond the boundaries of your yard. So for heavens sake, be careful with those chemicals. Better yet, don't use them at all. Garden organically. You know it's a good idea.
This morning was not the first time that I've seen a salamander at our house. I remember the first time I saw one in our basement. I was shocked to find such a moisture-loving animal right smack in the middle of the city, in my house no less. Then I saw this map, and it started to make a little more sense. Today we are living in a houseboat on a concrete lake. But as recently as 200 years ago the land my house is on (18th between Mission and Valencia) was the middle of a pretty good sized body of water. My area of the Mission had lakes and streams and, I can only assume, all of the plants and animals that make up riparian communities. Somehow, incredibly, some of them have managed to hang on. That's pretty freaking incredible. Even surrounded by all this stuff, water and the living things that depend on it is never very far away, for me or for anyone else.

Amphibian-friendly gardening

Our friendly local organic demonstration garden

San Francisco Watershed finder

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Happy Summer Solstice!

It's the longest day of the year today! So whether you celebrate today as the first day of summer or the middle of it, I hope it's great. Go outside, eat some yummy food and watch the sunset. It'll be a whole year before we have this much daytime again.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


Hey there. Welcome to my blog.
I'm not much on bios, but I wanted to start with a short intro for anyone reading who doesn't already know me. I'm a biologist, currently just finishing my second year of a Master's in ecology and systematic biology. My first love and research concentration is marine ecology but seeing as how I live my life smack in the middle of a city, I've been thinking a lot about how ideas in ecology, the idea of ecology, fits in urban places. I don't have much space to play around with these thoughts in my professional life, so I've created this space for my musings about urban ecology, mostly in San Francisco, but in other places as well.
Maybe I will post often, maybe not. After a day at work I start to feel allergic to my computer, so we'll just have to see how this little experiment works.
Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Grey days, moss love

I think when a lot of people think about ecology in the city, they think about big stuff, like trees and falcons and coyotes. I humbly propose that if we really want to understand and appreciate nature in the city, we need to pay attention to those things, but we also have to look down, and look closely at the other smaller, things that we share this space with. We have to start noticing-and once you do, the city will never be the same place again.
I've been thinking about moss a lot lately. Moss is one of those fantastic bits of wildness that most people don't ever notice. It's subtle and it's all over the place, sprouting up uninvited and untended, little bits of spontaneous green.
The plant that we all recognize as moss is haploid (unlike you, you're diploid). It does not have true stems or leaves. Sperm and eggs are produced in this phase of it's life cycle, and need water (usually rain) for the sperm to swim through to find an egg. Those structures growing up out of the moss are another life stage, produced after the fusion of the egg and sperm. This stage produces spores, which are dispersed by wind and, if they land in the right spot, will grow up to be new moss. Cool huh? Plant reproduction is pretty incredible. I'm sure it will come up again.
Next time you're out and about, look for some moss. You probably won't have to go far, this picture is on my front porch. If you find some, kneel down and check it out. Tell it I said hello.

Recommended Reading
Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Moss
More moss greatness!