Thursday, September 10, 2009

Walter Kitundu bird talk, tonight!

Walter Kitundu is a Multimedia Artist with the Exploratorium, Artist in Residence at the Headlands Center for the Arts, and a Distinguished Visiting professor of "Wood Arts" at the California College of the Arts. He is also a wildlife photographer, with a specialty in hawks and other raptors.

Wondering if you should go? Check out his website and wonder no more. These photos will be AMAZING on a big screen.

Randall Museum
199 Museum Way, San Francisco, CA 94114
7:30-9 pm.
Free and open to everyone.
For more information, go to

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

coming home to roost

Houston birdhouse, October 2008

Recently, I was directed to a lovely art piece in Brooklyn called for the birds, described as "Building birdhouses/roosting boxes so that are built-to-suit local bird species using cast off materials." Nice, right? So I was sad to look at the pictures and see that some of the houses had perches on the outside.

Please please please, if you are going to put up a birdhouse, please DON'T put a perch on the outside. As far as I know, there are no native birds that require a perch to get in or out of a nestbox. After all, if you didn't give them a box, they'd nest in a tree, or maybe your roof, and those don't have perches on them. The only purpose of a perch is to give birds that want to eat the wee birds inside a place to sit comfortably while they're dining. We've made life in the city hard enough for many of our native birds, and plenty easy for house sparrows and crows, don't sabotage your own good deed with an unnecessary perch.

End rant. Thanks.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

summer in the city

Oh San Francisco.....why do you have to do summer like you do?

"The Golden Gate is the only complete breach in the Coast Range, which borders the Pacific for most of California’s length. As a result, the Bay Region is the meeting place of continental and oceanic air masses. Through the funnel of the Golden Gate and San Francisco Bay, the immense aerial forces of sea and land wage a continual war, and the tide of battle often flows back and forth with regularity.

Along most of the Coast Range, the sea air and its fog reach the heads of the canyons and are stopped by the higher ridges from penetrating farther inland. But at the Golden Gate, the only sea-level breach in the mountains, the wind moves through the range, bringing with it the masses of condensed moisture. At the maximum, an estimated million tons of water an hour float through the Gate as vapor and fog."

Geologic Map of California from the USGS, with the Coast Range shown in light green, and the break at the Gate in the black square

As grumpy as this summer fog can make me, I can't deny how amazing it is to stand in the Mission and watch the fog pour over Twin Peaks. It's the air and the atmosphere made visible in this incredible, tactile way. A million tons. That's amazing.

Get the short story on San Francisco Summer Fog from Bay Nature Magazine "Cutting Through the Fog: Demystifying the Summer Spectacle" (where the above quote came from) or the long story in this book from the same author.

"There's always a chance for new discoveries and surprises"*

image of Smooth Owl's Clover from the Presidio Trust press release

1917 was the last time Smooth Owl’s Clover was last seen at the Presidio. That is, it was the last time it was seen until April 2009, when staff of the Presidio Trust spotted the bright yellow flower not seen in the Presidio in 92 years emerging from the soil.

from the SF Citizen:
Wildflowers Coming back to San Francisco’s Presidio – “Smooth Owl’s Clover” Rediscovered

*title quote also pulled from the Presidio Trust press release. A good motto, no?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

water bears

Have I ever told you about water bears?

If I haven't, I'm really sorry because water bears are amazing. Water Bears (aka Tardigrades = slow walkers ) are microscopic, water-dwelling, segmented animals with eight legs. The biggest adults can reach a body length of 1.5 mm, the smallest a wee 0.1 mm.

Water bears are considered "polyextremophiles", a fancy word that means that they are able to survive in conditions that humans and most other living things would find absolutely dreadful. Some can survive temperatures of -273°C (close to absolute zero), temperatures as high as 303 °F, 1,000 times more radiation than humans, almost a decade without water, and even the vacuum of space.

If you want to try your hand at bear-hunting, you may not have to leave the comfort of your own yard. To find some around your house, your best bet is to look somewhere that is intermittently or permanently damp. The most likely place in a backyard is in clumps of moss or lichen found in damper parts of yards such as the base of trees and walls, in plant pots, and on roofs or gutters.

Put the moss clumps they can be dry when collected in a small shallow dish and thoroughly wet with rainwater so that there's a centimeter of standing water in the dish. Let the moss stand in the water overnight, then remove the excess water from the dish and (this water can be discarded at this point). Use your hands to squeeze the moss clumps out to remove more water from the moss. Collect the squeezed water in a smaller dish or watch glass. Search this dish of water under a stereo microscope at 40x, or the lowest power of your compound microscope. Putting a black background behind your glass might help you see the specimens you've collected. You may need to look awhile in order to find water bears in your sample. Other critters, like worms and rotifers, are likely to be much more abundant. While I have a soft spot for these tiny bears, some of the other creatures are also quite amazing and incredible to watch.

When you're done searching, don't forget to put the moss clump and water back where you found it!

Tardigrade Appreciation Headquarters
Science Friday film about Water Bears

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Moths of San Francisco

Brought to you by the fine folks of the San Francisco Naturalist Society

"Come learn about the diversity of local moths and the biology of their caterpillars. San Francisco Naturalist Society general meeting. Free and open to everyone. Moth expert Dr. Jerry Powell received his B.S. (1955) and Ph.D. (1961) from UC Berkeley. He spent his long career at the University and he currently holds the titles of Professor of the Graduate School and Director Emeritus of the Essig Museum of Entomology."

Tomorrow! June 11, 2009
7:30 PM - 9:00 PM

Randall Museum
199 Museum Way
San Francisco, CA 94114

Friday, June 5, 2009


It's that time of year, when the city is full of lots of hardworking bird parents protecting their carefully constructed nests and the precious cargo inside of them. Protecting your babies from threats can make any critter a little testy, and our feathered friends are no exception.

Have you heard about (or been attacked by) a brewer's blackbird at Front Street and California in downtown San Francisco. Then you may have had the distinctive pleasure of meeting "Swoops" guard-bird extraordinaire.

Check it out.

Like other legendary testy creatures in San Francisco, this creature has fans who chronicle it's every exploit in blog

You've been warned.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Official Dedication of the Tenderloin National Forest

SATURDAY, MAY 9, 2009 - 10 AM TO 9PM



An all day celebration of this wonderful space. DJ's, Butoh, Youth Speaks, Film/Video screenings and Arizmendi pizza.

Some history of the Tenderloin National Forest from the Luggage Store:

Luggage Store Co-Artistic Directors/Artists Darryl Smith and Laurie Lazer of the Luggage Store have been working to transform Cohen Alley since 1989 from a place emblazed in a health-hazardous cesspool of bodily fluids and other dumped items, non-supervised open-air chemical experiments and illicit – criminal activities -- to a community commons where people of all ages can gather for public art, performance, experimental art projects. and classes and activities related to this inner city garden which is home to naturally growing vegetation and built organic structures, or just to sit....

The Alley has been reclaimed and will be rededicated May 9, 2009 as “The Tenderloin National Forest." With recent funding from the San Francisco Art Commission/Creative Space Fund and the Mayor's Office, Community Challenge Grant, a series of physical improvements were completed.

One of the very few open spaces in our high density neighborhood of over 40,000 culturally and ethnically diverse residents, the Alley lies adjacent to two heavily trafficked inner city streets (Leavenworth running north and Ellis running est); and it is roughly 23 feet wide by 136 ft. deep. It is surrounded by multi story residential buildings and hotels that house formerly homeless, immigrant individuals and families, as well as seniors, artists, active drug users, dealers and others. The Tenderloin Children’s Playground is situated directly across the street.

In 2000, Lazer and Smith negotiated a lease with the City of San Francisco for $1.00 per year, which permanently closed the alley to traffic. A sculptured gate, commissioned by the luggage store and built and designed by Bay Area artist Kevin Leeper was installed.

Over the years, Lazer and Smith have organized murals to be painted on all sides of the Alley, produced and presented hundreds of performances and cultural events, planted trees, vegetables, herbs, flowers, built a small “ green” structure with a living roof, a staging area, seating, a clay oven, and upgraded lighting.

The Tenderloin National Forest is now dynamic, and is one of the most peaceful, quiet and inspirational areas in then neighborhood.

Green Hairstreak Butterfly Walk-May 9, 2009

Image of Green Hairstreak Butterfly (Callophrys dumetorum) from

From the fine folks at Nature in the City-

"Come take a walk to see the Green Hairstreak butterflies and lend a hand in restoring habitat for this rare and beautiful creature! The Green Hairstreak Butterfly once flew in abundance throughout San Francisco, but now is restricted to Hawk Hill & Rocky Outcrop overlooking the Sunset District, and the coastal dunes of the Presidio. The goal of the Green Hairstreak Project is to connect the two small butterfly populations by planting a community corridor of local native plants. Restoring interbreeding between the two populations above the Sunset will bolster their genetic diversity and viability."

Space is limited -- RSVP by phone or email required.

Date: Saturday, May 9, 2009
Time: 11am-1pm
Location: Corner of 14th and Rivera, San Francisco
Cost: $10-50 suggested donation. No one turned away for lack of funds.
Contact/RSVP: 415-564-4107,,

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Chill Pill

Pilllbugs (Armadillidium vulgare aka roly poly) are crustaceans, related to shrimp, crabs and lobsters. Their family name is Armadillidiidae, which refers to their Armadillo-like defensive posture of curling up into a tight ball. A related family, the Porcellionidae, look like pillbugs but lack the ability to roll up when threatened.

These charming little creatures are one of the few crustaceans that have made the long trip from the sea on to land.

(far from the sea)

Pillbugs need moisture because they breathe through gills, which is why they are usually found in dark, damp places, like underneath rocks and logs. Most are nocturnal detritivores, emerging at night to feed on dead plant matter.

Pillbugs, like other crustaceans, have an exoskeleton which they have to shed as they grow. Moulting takes place in two stages; the back half is lost first, followed two or three days later by the front.

If you flip a pillbug over (and it doesn't curl up on you), you can distinguish between males and females by the shape of their legs. Females will have leaf-like growths, brood pouches to hold developing eggs and embryos, at base of a few of their legs. Up to 100 eggs at a time can be held in the brood pouch. After the eggs hatch, the juveniles, which look like miniature adults are soon freed and receive no more parental care.

Monday, March 30, 2009

come to the park!

butterflies are migrating!

ps-they are painted ladies

Friday, March 6, 2009

fort funston

It's low tide time again this weekend. My love affair with low tides started when I was a tiny person and got to spend hours on the rocky beaches in Seattle, peering under rocks for all the amazingness that lurked underneath (thanks Mom!). To this day one of my favorite places in the entire world is on the beach at a low tide.

So one of the things that has always bummed me out about San Francisco was its lack of rocky shores for exploring. There are truly amazing beaches just north and south of the city but they are, sadly, rather difficult to reach by public transport. (I will say in San Francisco's defense that the only octopus that I have ever seen at a low tide anywhere was in the rock wall off Marina Green. That was great.)

The ocean was calling my name last month at low tide, so I headed out to Fort Funston by way of a long walk down Ocean Beach. And honestly, it was lovely. The sandstone cliffs are beautiful, composed of soft soft rocks from the Merced and Colma Formations. The Merced Formation makes up most of the cliff face and the Colma Formation is the thin sandy layer at the top. The Merced was deposited from about 2 or 3 million years ago to about half a million years ago and the Colma, about 125,000 to 55,000 years ago. In some sections of the cliff face you can see a thick, chalky substance-veins of volcanic ash thrown from Mount Lassen thousands of years ago!

At the base of the cliffs is this thick black sand. I thought this was the sad remnants of the Cosco Busan spill but it turns out that it's a kind of iron ore called magnetite. The magnetite is a part of the cliff walls, and as the sandstone erodes, it leaves the heavier iron-based magnetite on the beach.

So I was relieved that the black stuff wasn't oil. But oh man, was there a lot of other garbage at the high tide line. From a distance I thought this junk was was sad to get up close and realize it was all plastic and styrofoam.

Ah....but there were shells lower on the beach.

Western Sand Dollar
(Dendraster excentricus)

These lovely critters form dense beds in the low intertidal and subtidal zone in the sand just beyond the break zone of coastal areas. Their living body consists of a rigid test (a hard external covering) covered with movable spines, usually a pale gray-lavender to a dark purplish black. The lovely flower-like pattern on the aboral side of the body is composed of pore pairs whose specialized tube feet are used for gas exchange. At the center is the madreporite - a perforated structure that forms the intake for their water-vascular system-a system of water-filled canals that connect with tube feet, which the animal use for locomotion, feeding and breathing. It's fun to stare at the ocean and imagine all the life out there just underneath the surface.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

San Bruno Mountain

You know how you can live near a restaurant and walk by it every day and then one day, after years of walking by, realize they serve the kind of food that you absolutely LOVE......and you go and it's great, leaving you wondering why on earth you never went there before?

Last weekend B and I went to San Bruno mountain. For the first time. Which is totally ridiculous because it's truly lovely there. We saw....

Moss and Lichen (loving the rain)

A huge ant colony. I read later that there are 27 native ant species on San Bruno Mountain. What kind of ants are these?

Fritillaria affinis (aka Mission Bells or Chocolate Lily)

My number one terrestrial mollusc!

Ariolimax columbianus (aka the mighty Banana Slug )

Sunday, March 1, 2009

up in the sky!

Where would you go if you wanted to see one of the fastest predators on earth?
Would you believe me if I told you that right now you have a good chance of finding one at Main and Beale in downtown San Francisco?

No, cheetahs aren't hanging in the Financial District, but a couple of Perigrine falcons (Falco peregrinus) are. How do you know if you're looking at a peregrine? They are crow-sized falcon, with a blue-gray back, barred white underparts, and a black head and "moustache". These birds can be found all over the world, hence the name, which means "wandering falcon" (a fancy word for wandering around on foot is "peregrination").

The Peregrine Falcon became an endangered species due to the use of pesticides, especially DDT. Since the ban on DDT in the 1970s, the many populations have recovered, supported protection of nesting places and releases to the wild. Interestingly, lots peregrines have settled in cities, with tall buildings that stand in for cliff faces and a plentiful supply of food (especially pigeons). They search for prey either from a high perch or from the air. Once prey is spotted, it begins its stoop, a dive in which they can reach speeds of 200 mph. Peregrines strike their prey with a clenched foot, which stuns or kills it, then turn to catch it mid-air. I saw a peregrine catch a pigeon on Mission and 3rd-it's a truly impressive display.

The fine folks at the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Group have been instrumental in the recovery of peregrines in California. As part of their education and outreach they have installed cameras in San Francisco and San Jose to allow the public to peer into the lives of these amazing birds. There has been much drama with the San Francisco birds with the much loved Gracie and George abandoning downtown for the Bay Bridge and then vanishing altogether from the city. This year there are two new birds on the nest cam.-now is a great time to start watching. Peregrines mate for life and go through some really charming courting in the lead up to mating. Sadly (or luckily for my productivity) I can't stream video at work, but if you can, you should check it out.

If you want to see some truly remarkable images of these (and other) birds, check out the website of Glenn Nevill. Or, if you want to try to catch one in person, try some of the spots on this map.

Happy perigrinations!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Photography is one of the many things I wish I could do better. However, I suspect that what I need is not just more patience, skill and practice, but also some fancy, and maybe expensive, equipment.

While I work on those things, I'll direct you to the fabulous San Francisco Citizen, who posts regularly about all kinds of SF related stuff, including some truly fabulous pictures. Lately they've covered foxes, damselflies and some pretty graphic bird poops.

Please, pay them a visit.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

a miner forest

Miner's lettuce
(Claytonia perfoliata)

Native to the western mountain and coastal regions of North America, Miner's lettuce is found from Alaska to Central America. It's common in the spring, and prefers cool, damp conditions., often appearing in sunlit areas after the first heavy rains. As days get hotter and the leaves dry out, they turn from green to a deep red color.

The common name "Miner's lettuce" refers the plant's use by California gold rush miners who ate it to get their vitamin C to prevent scurvy. People still eat miner's lettuce as a leaf vegetable, most commonly raw in salads, sometimes boiled like spinach.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Birding at the End of Nature

The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature"

Locations: Main Library Koret Auditorium
Address: 100 Larkin St. (at Grove)
Library Sponsored Public Program

Event Time: 6 p.m. - 7:30 p.m., Tuesday February 3
Author Jonathan Rosen discusses his book, "The Life of the Skies". Copies of the book will be available to purchase for the author to sign. Cosponsored by the Stegner Environmental Center.

Twelve years ago, at age 30, Rosen (Joy Comes in the Morning, 2004, etc.) took a class in bird-watching and found a new way of seeing. Through the "sanctioned voyeurism" of his new passion, he began noticing everything in Central Park, just two blocks from his Manhattan apartment: the birds, to be sure, but also connections between humans and the wild, the pleasure of lists and classifications, his own unexpected hungers and urges. In these pages Rosen mingles accounts of his own experiences in the field with those of others from Henry David Thoreau and Alfred Russel Wallace to the Yiddish journalist Abraham Cahan to convey the lure of a pastime pursued by 47.8 million Americans. Bird-watching, he declares, is "simultaneously marginal and utterly central to the business of being human." Looking at the feathered creatures that are the dinosaurs' closest living relatives satisfies his craving for wildness and makes him feel whole. Rosen's text covers wide ground. Interesting facts include the bleak statistic that half of all migrating birds die on the journey. Among the famous birders profiled are John James Audubon, who killed and impaled hundreds of birds in order to resurrect them in paintings, and President Theodore Roosevelt, who burst into a cabinet meeting declaring he had just seen a chestnut-sided warbler. The author recounts pursuits of rare birds, from Wallace's search for the bird of paradise to his own unsuccessful quest to spot the ivory-billed woodpecker in the Big Woods of Arkansas. Readers will close the book understanding the magic he feels at his favorite spring in Central Park during the day's last hour of light, when birds come to drink.Combining memoir, history and science, Rosen's gracefully written chapters form an exquisitely crafted meditation on life and nature, as well as a splendid introduction to bird-watching.

( Kirkus Reviews 2007 November #2)

Monday, January 19, 2009

Coast! Live! Oak!

My first tree of 2009 is the Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia). Of all the trees in Golden Gate Park, this is the only species that is native there....and there's a whole lot of them. It's fun to learn a tree you see a lot, because everytime you walk by one you can say "coast live oak" (say it out loud and give it a wave).

How do you know if you're looking at a Coast Live Oak? Their height is pretty variable, from 25 to 40 feet, so height could throw you off. To be sure, check out their characteristic leaves.

Coast Live Oaks have round to oval shaped, brittle leaves, generally with several spine-tipped teeth. Look for tufts of hairs on the bottom of the leaves.

Monday, January 12, 2009

bats in the ggp!

Holy cow it was nice outside today.

Walking home from work today, not far out of the building, between the tennis courts and the AIDS memorial grove about a dozen bats zoomed around my head. So rad.

What kind of bats were they?

Turns out there are 23 bat species native to California, 14 in the Bay Area. It was dark, they were fast and I don't know a thing about bats, so I won't even attempt to ID them.

In doing some google sleuthing I found out that the USGS has been doing bat surveys in the Bay Area, and has a great website that has all kinds of bat vocalizations. Check it out.

USGS bat inventories in the San Francisco Bay Area

Friday, January 9, 2009

First rock of 2009-Serpentinite

South side of the Mint (Safeway parking lot)

In addition to wanting to learn more about trees this year, I also want to learn more about rocks. Luckily, I can use kind of a similar approach to both subjects. Neither trees nor rocks go anywhere very fast, so I can use our vast collection of field guides to look stuff up post-wandering, and if I can't figure out what something is, I can go back and take another look (and maybe bring a camera).

Alright. First rock of the year is serpentinite, a hulking mass of which holds up the mighty Mint at Market and Dolores. It's a metamorphic rock found on the sea floor at tectonic boundaries. Serpentinite often contains veins, some of which may be filled with a form of asbestos called chrysotile.

Pay attention to serpentinite – if you see fibrous veins, don’t touch the rock.

I didn't see any fibrous veins in this rock, but I also didn't get that close. Not surprisingly, they have a big old fence around the Mint. And very stern looking guys with guns. They may even have guard crows. I kid you not, as I was walking around the building trying to find a place to take a picture a crow flew over me and dropped a rock square on the top of my head.

Little bit of trivia? It's the California state rock.

More trivia? This hill used to be 90 feet high, but they shaved off the top 40 feet to build the Mint. Our very own mountaintop removal project.