Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A Sora at Merced National Wildlife Refuge!

I have to warn you, the bird in the following photos may not inspire awe and wonder as well as some other species might.  It's just a little brown thing that at first glance looks a bit like a chicken-duck blend.  But this little guy is a special bird, because although they are widely distributed across North America, they are infrequently seen.

This unassuming and secretive marsh bird is a Sora (Porzana Carolina), of the family Rallidae, which also includes Rails, Gallinules and Coots.  And I will confess, I was extremely excited to get this photo!

Soras are not a very well-known species, and even their page on Cornell's All About Birds site is rather empty compared to many others.  They are year-round residents of California's Great Central Valley, breeding in freshwater marshes that boast an ample supply of vegetation, such as cattails and tule reeds.  Soras forage on the ground for seeds and aquatic invertebrates.

I may have implied that this bird's appearance is unimpressive, but I would like to remind you that I said at first glance.  As is often the case, when you take a moment to look a little closer, you will find plenty of praiseworthy features.  The Sora has a bright yellow bill, along with yellow unwebbed feet.  Deep burgundy eyes are set in a roguish black mask, and white markings highlight its rich chocolatey feathers.  And I find the Sora's rather stumpy little tail cute!

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Lincoln's Sparrow

I love our native sparrows. 

They are maddening, frustrating, flighty little things that hardly ever stay still long enough for a positive identification, let alone a decent photograph.  Oh, and they are also mostly brown in color, with cryptic markings and subtle differences between species.  But I love them for their liveliness, and the great birding challenge they present. 

Let's be honest, sometimes watching twelve different species of male ducks, all in vibrant breeding plumage, sitting placidly on the water 30 yards away feels a little like cheating for a birder.

That said, I have a long way to go before I'm an expert at sparrow identification!  But I'm learning, and that's all part of the fun!

This pretty little guy is a Lincoln's Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii), and anything but drab!  Just look at those dashing markings! 

Lincoln's Sparrows have a bold rufous crown, often peaked, with a narrow central stripe of gray. They have distinct eye lines, as well as a pale eyering.  There is some yellow or buff at the base of the bill, though it is not as bright as the yellow supralorals of the Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis).  Notice also the streaky white throat, as well as beautiful buffy cheeks and sides. 

The Lincoln's Sparrow is a perfect example of why I love sparrows.  Largely unnoticed and underappreciated, they have a delicate, unassuming beauty that rewards those to care to stop and notice.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

A Merlin's Thanksgiving Meal

More accurately, it was the Merlin's day-after-Thanksgiving meal, which is known in my family as "Second Thanksgiving," and involves a repeat of the traditional fare (comprised of leftovers).
In any case, I spotted this Merlin (Falco columbarius) at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge yesterday during our annual Black Friday protest outing (we hike or bird or otherwise explore and appreciate nature rather than shop, and have done so for a number of years even before REI's brilliant #OptOutside campaign!)  The Merlin was perched in a tree with its lunch, a freshly-killed songbird (or Passerine).  We watched the lovely falcon for about 15 minutes as it plucked feathers from its catch, pausing to look around after every pluck.
Merlins are smallish falcons, smaller than the Prairie Falcon (Falco mexicanus) or Peregrine Falcon (F. peregrinus), but larger than the American Kestrel (F. sparverius).  They use high-speed surprise attacks in mid-air to capture their prey, usually smaller birds such as songbirds and shorebirds. 
Merlins nest farther north, largely in Canada and the Pacific Northwest, but here in California we are lucky enough to host them during the winter months where there is suitable habitat.  Merlins prefer grasslands, open forests and shorelines, where they can find abundant prey. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Double-crested Cormorants Visit CSU Stanislaus

Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus)
Recently, there have been a few newcomers on campus at CSU Stanislaus.  In addition to augmented numbers of Canada Geese (Branta Canadensis) and American Coots (Fulica americana), the cooler fall weather seems to have brought a small flock of Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) to campus ponds.  I've counted seven at one time, mixed in with a much larger flock of Canada Geese. 
The cormorants, coots, and Canada geese at Stanislaus State lend a rather cosmopolitan feel to the ponds.
Double-crested Cormorants can be found across North America, commonly in fresh water.  They sit very low in the water, sometimes with only their rather snake-like heads and necks exposed above the surface.  They have obvious bright yellow skin on their faces, and vivid blue eyes.  If you happen to get a glimpse of the inside of a Double-crested Cormorant's mouth, it is also bright blue!  Cormorants are expert divers, chasing and catching fish underwater.  If you see a cormorant dive underwater and watch for a moment... it will often pop up many yards from where it vanished beneath the surface!
Double-crested Cormorant striking a common pose: wings outstretched to dry in the sun.
Most people will first notice these bird because of their common pose, perched on a rock or other object, large wings outstretched toward the sun.  Cormorants have less preen oil than other birds (the oil that allows water to literally roll off a duck's back) and therefore must spend time letting their wings dry.  Though it may seem that a bird that sits low in the water and dives frequently ought to have superior waterproofing, scientists believe that the opposite is true, and that having less waterproof oil on their feathers allows them to dive and swim underwater with greater efficiency.
Double-crested Cormorant, sitting low in the water

Friday, November 18, 2016

What's Wrong With This Tree?

If you've spent any time in an oak woodland (and I sincerely hope that you have!!) you may have noticed something odd: strange growths on the branches and leaves of oak trees.  You might wonder if the trees are sick or diseased, or plagued with a dangerous pest.

But not to worry; these fascinating growths are a normal part of a healthy oak community. 
Spined Turban Gall on Valley Oak, with a bonus gall: the tiny orange sphere to the left of the larger gall might
be a gall of the California Jumping Gall Wasp (inconclusive)
They are in fact galls, caused by a variety of wasps.  Galls form when an insect lays eggs in a plant's tissue, releasing chemicals which stimulate the plant to use its own tissue to form protective structures around the eggs.  As the insect larvae develops, it feeds on plant tissue from within the cozy gall home.  Galls form on a variety of plants, including alders, poplars, willows and even sagebrush.  But the best known and most diverse galls in California are found on oak stems and leaves.  Oak stem and leaf galls are caused by more than 150 species of gall wasps in the family Cynipidae, of the order Hymenoptera, which is the order of insects including wasps, bees and ants.

However, today I only have examples of three types of galls (four, I suppose if you paid close attention to the first photo above).

The first gall is a leaf gall, fascinating in shape, which is found on Blue Oak (Quercus douglasii) and Valley Oak (Q. lobata).  The photo below is an example of the gall of a Spined Turban Gall Wasp (Antron douglasii) on the leaf of a Valley Oak.
Galls of the cynipid wasp Antron douglasii on Valley Oak leaves

The second type of gall, also pictured here on the leaf of a Valley Oak, is formed by the Red Cone Gall Wasp, Andricus kingi.  These little galls remind me of tiny pink chocolate chips!

Galls from the wasp Andricus kingi, found on Valley Oak.
The third type of gall is an oak stem gall, and one you might be more familiar with.  These large tan-colored galls are sometimes called "oak apples" and range in size from less than golf ball-sized to baseball-sized (up to several inches in diameter).  They are also formed, or more accurately induced, by a cynipid wasp, the California Oak Gall Wasp (Andricus quercuscalifornicus).

In the photo below, the oak galls have aged to a darker color.  The astute observer of nature will notice something extra special about this photo as well: not only a female bushtit (Psaltriparus minimus) but her beautifully camouflaged nest as well, tucked in amongst the galls!
California Oak Galls, with a female bushtit (Psaltriparus minimus) and her nest.

California Oak Gall, also called "Oak Apples"

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

At Home With A Naturalist: In The Kitchen

The kitchen is often referred to as the heart of the home, but the true fact is that the kitchen is more accurately the heart of household waste production.  But this hasn't always been the case.  We can apply some of the valuable skills dear to our grandparents (like composting kitchen scraps) and combine them with a few new innovative ideas (like reusable sandwich bags) to create an efficient, cost effective, healthy kitchen... that produces much less waste.

Below is a list of practices that we follow in our kitchen to ensure our waste production and resource consumption are both minimal.  I promise these practices are all completely feasible, with very minimal cost and effort.  In short, these are not just nice ideas; they are rules that work very well in everyday life.

The kitchen toolbox for reducing waste.  Clockwise, from top left: Reusable lunch bag, reusable water bottles and
thermos, reusable sandwich bags and glass food storage containers to replace plastic sandwich bags and freezer bags,
glass jars for food storage, real glasses and mugs, real dishes and flatware, cloth napkins, a real cloth tablecloth, flour
sack towels and kitchen towels for replacing paper towels.

>> Ban disposable paper AND plastic products from your kitchen.  Every single disposable item in your kitchen is entirely unnecessary (ask your grandma how her family survived before the advent of paper plates).  Using disposable items is a gross misuse of our resources as well as money, and only serves as landfill fodder. 

This means...

>> NO paper towels : Use cloth rags instead and wash them with your regular laundry.  I promise, contrary to what some nay-sayers believe, this does not add a significant amount to your laundry load.  I use flour sack towels, cut into paper towel-sized pieces, for most jobs that we have been trained to use paper towels for.  Larger sized more absorbent kitchen towels can be used for spills and the like, rather than using up an entire roll of paper towels.

>> NO paper napkins : Use cloth napkins instead.  Designate one per person and leave it beside his or her place at the table; it should last for several days before needing to be washed.  See note about laundry above.

>> NO plastic straws.  I'm not even sure when these became a thing.  But we can certainly do without them!  Plastic straws are surprisingly harmful, especially to wildlife, when they persist in the environment.  There are reusable stainless steel straws out there for the hardcore fan of straw-sipping.  But for most of us... just do without them.

>> NO paper or plastic plates, cups, or utensils!!!  Watching people use paper plates and plastic forks kills me every time; they require resources to produce and transport, then are used for ten minutes and thrown away... I really don't get it.  It's not that difficult: use real plates, real glasses, and real flatware!!  The modern age has seen the advent of wonderfully efficient dishwashers; what more could you possibly want?? 

You might have a few pro-paper plate arguments in mind...  Luckily, I have prepared some solutions for troubleshooting and navigating the murky waters of returning to real plates and flatware :

Problem: You're expecting more guests than you have plates, cups, and flatware for.

Solution: Ask to borrow plates from a relative or friend.  Believe it or not, it used to be common practice to lend and borrow dishes, as well as bring your own bowl when invited for dinner.  Or, stock up on inexpensive but good quality extras when you get the chance (if you entertain large groups often and have the space to store extras).  If you regularly host your extended family of 15, but only have dishes for 12 so you opt for disposables every time instead... just buy three more plates!  White plates from a thrift store are a favorite practical, affordable solution.

Problem: You're having an outdoor picnic / barbeque / other gathering. 

Solution: There is no rule that says you can't use real plates outside.  They are not more likely to get broken outside than they are inside, and they will always wash.  So use real plates.  If you MUST, buy sturdy plastic or lightweight metal plates that are easily transported and 100% washable and reusable.

Problem: You're going camping. 

Solution: Invest in metal or durable plastic plates, cups, bowls, etc. just for camping that will serve your family for a lifetime of wilderness trips.  There are few things more appalling to me than seeing how much unnecessary garbage people can produce while spending a weekend in nature; it's disgusting.

>> And for goodness sakes, NO plastic tablecloths either!  Use real tablecloths and wash them; if you or the kiddos are doing a messy project, lay down newspapers on a bare table to keep it clean.

>> No plastic sandwich baggies or freezer bags.  "What?  Impossible," you say.  Very possible, in fact.  I have literally never, not once, purchased sandwich bags or freezer bags.  But the truth is, there are a few plastic freezer bags lurking around our kitchen; they just seem to materialize.  People will give you things in plastic bags (leftovers, for example) if you're not prepared with your own reusable container.  But luckily, freezer bags are more durable than they appear, and can be washed and reused several times before meeting their untimely end.  So if they do find their way into your kitchen, make the best of it.

In lieu of plastic sandwich baggies, use reusable food storage containers (preferably glass, though it's heavy, or stainless steel) or reusable sandwich bags.  There are several designs on the market (check Amazon) and though they initially cost more than a box of disposable baggies, they will last indefinitely if well cared for.

Rather than plastic freezer bags, freeze food in reusable food storage containers (I really like glass, since it doesn't stain or hold smells, and you can take it from the freezer to the refrigerator to the oven easily).  Food can also be frozen in glass jars (don't fill them too full).  And they don't have to be fancy canning jars either; wash out your glass peanut butter or jelly or pickle jars and save them for reuse.  Reusable food storage containers will become your eco-friendly kitchen's new best friend!

>> Transport hot beverages in travel mugs or thermoses.  Refuse to buy beverages in single-use cups.  Bring your own mug.  Hot soup carried in a thermos is ideal for a winter picnic.

>> Pack your lunch in reusable lunch boxes or bags.  This will reduce a huge amount of waste, especially if you are in the habit of eating out for lunch, as fast food and other on-the-go food generates a massive amount of garbage.  Bonus: homemade lunches are better for your health and your wallet.  It's a win-win-win, all around!

>> Reduce food waste and compost your kitchen scraps.  Vegetable peels, apple cores, egg shells, moldy bread, spent tea leaves, cardboard toilet paper tubes, dog fur and hair clippings from home hair cuts (another story for another time)...  all can be composted, magically transformed from "garbage" to nutrient rich gardeners' gold! 

In apartments, this is a bit more tricky.  I've read quite a bit about compact worm bin systems for apartment living, but in the name of honesty, I've never tried it.  I keep a compost bucket under the kitchen sink and take it to my parents' house to empty once or twice a week.  (For future reference, the backyard at my parents' house is my garden laboratory, where I have a set of compost bins, no-dig vegetable beds, very wild wildflowers, seed starting and other propagation supplies, a few suffering blueberry bushes and a peach tree.  It is how I manage to live in an apartment and still garden a bit!)

Following these practices and simply refusing to buy single-use products for your kitchen will go a long, long way in reducing waste and consumption of resources.  It's just a matter of breaking old habits - bad, destructive habits - and forming new ones; it may take a little time to phase single-use disposables out of your kitchen, but I assure you that it can be done! 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Yosemite Valley Wanderings

Yosemite National Park is, for a naturalist, almost too much to describe!  Where to even begin??  There are so many facets of this iconic place, the birthplace of the national park concept.  It is rich in history, and one could easily write about the native people who called this beautiful place home, or John Muir, who immortalized the valley in his poetry-like writings and fought so hard for its protection. 
Iconic Half Dome
Fire, controlled and wild, has its place in the park; the discussion of fire management continues in the wake of the Rim Fire.  The topic of climate change might be explored, or the effects of California's drought.  Swaths of reddish brown conifers, standing dead trees that have been ravaged by the bark beetle have been a common topic recently.  Water is a perennial topic of conversation and debate all across California, including within Yosemite National Park.
Merced River, reflecting greens and golds
A geologist would be thrilled to write about the textbook examples of glaciation found in the park; a botanist would have a number of plant communities to study, from groves of Giant Sequoias to alpine meadows.  In spring and summer, wildflowers abound; at this time of year, in November, the leaves of Pacific Dogwoods, Black Oaks, Cottonwoods, Willows and Big Leave Maples are changing colors for one final glorious show before winter settles in. 
Mule deer beneath a black oak
Wildlife biologists study the region for a number of reasons: peregrine falcons nest on the sheer granite cliffs of the valley; secluded wet meadows in the back country are home to the endangered great gray owl, as well as habitat for the federally endangered Sierra yellow-legged frog, the rare Yosemite toad and Mount Lyell salamander.  Everyone knows that mule deer and bobcats wander Yosemite Valley, but the backcountry of the park is home to more secretive mammals, such as the federally endangered Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, Pacific fisher, Sierra Nevada red fox, maybe even wolverines.
Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls
Hiking and climbing enthusiasts have another approach to the park; I could write about trails and hikes, the lifetime of adventures to be had in Yosemite.  Half Dome, El Capitan, Cloud's Rest, Yosemite Falls: the familiar names of the mountains and trails beckon!
The hiking professor with our adopted lab
Yosemite National Park is a special place, for too many reasons to count.  On a recent visit to the park, however, we decided to take a slower approach to Yosemite Valley.  No hike starting at dawn, no 14-hour day on the trail, no rush to get down from the mountain before an afternoon storm, no real destination or timeline.  We wandered the trails that loop around the valley, admiring the fall colors, appreciating the warm afternoon.  The waterfalls were flowing, which is surprising at this time of year, thanks to a storm that hit a couple of weeks ago.  The deer were out in the meadows, making the perfect picture as oak leaves drifted down around them on the breeze.  As evening set in, the moon came out and the setting sun illuminated the face of Half Dome.
Sunset on the North Dome and Half Dome
When visiting National Parks as teachers, scholars, scientists, artists, hikers and naturalists, we often have an agenda, a plan, a purpose: data to collect, research to be done, photographs to be taken, trails to be hiked, mountains to be climbed.  And these are all worthy pursuits.  But other times, the value comes not from accomplishing a predetermined goal, but from letting the day unfold in a slow-paced adventure, following the trail one step at a time, pausing to admire a leaf, listen to the water.
The hiking terrier says 8 miles feels much farther when your legs are only 7 inches long!
Note: I clearly have not perfected this art of leisurely adventure; somehow, we still hiked over 8 miles during our "slow paced" unplanned afternoon in Yosemite Valley!

Monday, November 14, 2016


I know even less about astronomy than I do about geology.  But here and there, I pick up tidbits of information, reading an article in National Geographic, flipping through a book, or, quite honestly just using Google at times!

Last night was a "Supermoon," occurring as the full moon coincided with the closest the moon has been to earth since 1948.  (Yup, I Googled that.  Not very scientific of me!)  Basically, the supermoon gave me a chance to try out some lunar photography (new to me) and check out some maps of the surface of the moon.  At least I used a book for that!

In the photo above, the lunar crater Tycho can be seen in the lower right.  The darker areas are "seas," called maria.  The largest sea on the Moon is on the western (left) half, called Oceanus Procellarum.  The two most obvious craters within this area are Copernicus, which is slightly larger, and Kepler, to the lower left of Copernicus.  The round, dark sea in the upper center portion of this photo is Mare Serenitatis; below it to the right is Mare Tranquillitatis. 

The moon is an obvious target for the neophyte astronomer; no telescope is necessary, as even a pair of binoculars will reveal many details of the moon's surface.  Give it a look, and see if you can identify a few lunar landscape features. 

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Chinook Salmon in the Stanislaus River

Over the last several weeks, an incredible phenomenon has been taking place in California's Great Central Valley: the fall salmon run.  Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) have been traveling many miles from the Pacific Ocean upstream to their spawning grounds in freshwater rivers, like the Stanislaus.  This weekend, the salmon were celebrated at the annual Knight's Ferry Salmon Festival.
Female Chinook Salmon
Something about watching these large fish, this magnificent keystone species, swim slowly up-river to suitable gravel spawning grounds is captivating, mesmerizing even, as you realize you are witnessing a timeless dance in the circle of life, an event that has taken place in our local rivers for thousands of years.  And these days, many of us have very little idea of the fascinating and intricate circle of events playing out in our nearby streams.  It almost seems like a miracle that in this age of development and habitat alteration, an ancient species like the salmon, so dependent on clear, cold, unobstructed rivers, is able to persist.
Male Chinook Salmon
Chinook salmon are anadromous, meaning they spend the early part of their life in freshwater before migrating to the sea and undergoing physiological changes to be able to live in salt water.  These fish spend between two to five years of their lives at sea before returning to the same freshwater river of their birth in order to spawn and then die.  It is a fascinating life cycle that continues to intrigue citizens and scientists alike.  Adult chinook salmon reach three or more feet in length, weighing upwards of 100 pounds (an average is probably closer to 40 or 50 pounds).
Adult male Chinook Salmon, about one meter in length.
At 2 to 4 years of age, adult salmon leave their marine home and find their way through a maze of rivers to the very stream where they were born, a life strategy known as anadromy.  Females search for a suitable nest site, dependent upon the size and composition of the streambed gravel, as well as water depth and velocity.  Females use their fins and bodies to create a shallow depression in the gravel, a nest known as a redd.  A female salmon may deposit thousands of eggs in several individual "nesting pockets" within her redd.  The male salmon then releases sperm over the eggs, in a process known as external fertilization. 
After mating, the male and female will work together to territorially guard their redd for from several days to a month before dying.  Migrating many miles upriver to spawning grounds, breeding and guarding the redd requires a massive amount of energy and the salmons' last bit of strength; the salmon will die before their eggs hatch, their bodies returning rich nutrients to the ecosystem.  The act of spawning once in a lifetime and then dying is known as semelparity.  Historically, bears and eagles lined the riverbanks of the Great Central Valley to feast on spawning salmon in the fall.
Salmon carcass
Salmon eggs are preyed upon by other species of fish, raccoons and even ducks.  Eggs are susceptible to pollution, as well as suffocation from silt accumulation due to stream bank erosion.  Between 3 and 5 months from the time of deposition, salmon eggs will begin to hatch.  The exact time of hatching is dependent on water temperature, though the salmon lifecycle is timed to ensure that their hatching corresponds with the abundant productivity of spring, when there will be plenty of food available for the young fry.  Juvenile salmon eat insects, crustaceans and other invertebrates, and in turn are preyed upon by fish-eating birds, such as herons and egrets, as well as mammals like the river otter.
Stages of Chinook Salmon egg development
Salmon eggs thrive in cold water; the upper water temperature threshold is around 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit.  It is critical that our relatively shallow valley streams remain cold enough for salmon, even as November daytime temperatures creep toward 80 degrees (as the temperature has the past few days).

After spending several months to two years in freshwater, chinook salmon make their way to the sea where they will spend the next few years of life as marine adults, preying largely on other fish, as well as squid and shrimp.  While at sea, salmon are a favorite food item for seals and sea lions, orcas, sharks, and, of course, humans (which is okay as long as harvesting is done sustainably!)  After a few years at sea, they begin their long and final journey upriver to return to their birthplace.  And the cycle continues.
Look closely: Chinook salmon in the Stanislaus River (A red male can be seen in the lower left of the photo)
Like much of our wildlife and many of our wild places, both salmon and the habitat they depend on is under threat.  Most of California's waterways have been altered, and since the life cycle of salmon  is so intrinsically linked to many miles of pristine aquatic habitat, these changes have been detrimental to salmon populations.  The construction of dams, water storage, withdrawal and diversion for agriculture and urban use, as well as for flood control and hydroelectric power, has done severe damage to habitat that has been historically available to salmon for millennia.
The Stanislaus River, looking west
The NOAA Fisheries website states,
"Land use activities associated with logging, road construction, urban development, mining, agriculture, and recreation have significantly altered fish habitat quantity and quality. Associated impacts of these activities include: alteration of streambanks and channel morphology; alteration of ambient stream water temperatures; degradation of water quality; reduction in available food supply; elimination of spawning and rearing habitat; fragmentation of available habitats; elimination of downstream recruitment of spawning gravels and large woody debris; removal of riparian vegetation resulting in increased stream bank erosion; and increased sedimentation input into spawning and rearing areas resulting in the loss of channel complexity, pool habitat, suitable gravel substrate, and large woody debris. Studies indicate that in most western states, about 80 to 90 percent of the historic riparian habitat has been eliminated." 

In recent years, efforts have been made to bring back the salmon and restore habitat in order to ensuring their conservation and success as a species.  Efforts include captive rearing in hatcheries and habitat protection and rehabilitation.  Sections of key habitat have been protected in order to guard against habitat fragmentation.  Dams that obstruct salmon migration have been modified or in some cases removed.  Degraded habitat has been restored and water quality and flow improved.  In many cases, efforts have been made to curb streamside erosion and restore streambed gravel deposits suitable for nesting and critical for the reproductive success of the salmon.
The Stanislaus River, looking east
It was encouraging to see curious and concerned citizens gathered at the river during the festival to learn about our native Chinook Salmon.  And it was inspiring to see close to record numbers of salmon in the shallow waters of the Stanislaus River, performing the age-old dance: migrate, select a nest site, spawn, vigilantly guard the nest with the last of their strength, then die, their bodies returning to the same river gravels from which they came. 

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Acorn Woodpeckers & Granary Trees

The Acorn Woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus) that live along the rivers in our area are busy this time of year!  Acorns are ripe and ready for collecting, and these busy woodpeckers are capitalizing on an abundant crop.

Male Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus) dining on a favorite: a flying insect.

Acorn woodpeckers are a rather rowdy bunch, living and breeding in large community groups.  Though famous for their acorn gathering, they also feed on sap, fruit, grass seeds and other nuts, as well as flying insects when they are abundant during the warm season.  They may stash uneaten insects in crevices.  Acorns are stored in communal granary trees, thousands at a time.  According to Cornell's All About Birds site, acorn woodpeckers can store up to 50,000 acorns in one granary tree, each snuggly wedged in its own hole. 

Granary Tree

I've read that when stashing an acorn, a woodpecker will poke an acorn into a hole, pull it out, poke it into another hole, pull it out again and try another, testing different holes for the perfect fit for that particular acorn.  As stored acorns dry out, they become loose in their holes and woodpeckers will move them into a better-fitting hole.  Acorn woodpeckers drill holes in the thick bark of dead limbs, doing no harm to living trees.

Acorn Woodpecker, checking out the communal granary tree.

Acorn woodpeckers are dependent on acorns and the oak woodlands that produce them.  In the highly agricultural Great Central Valley, most of our oak woodland remnants are scattered along the rivers, hugging the banks of the Tuolumne, Stanislaus, and Merced.  They range widely across much of California, wherever suitable oaks are found.

Granary Tree

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

River Otters in the Great Central Valley

Several times this year I have been lucky enough to see North American River Otters (Lontra canadensis) in both the San Joaquin and Tuolumne Rivers.  They have been too leery of me to allow for any great National Geographic quality photos (let's be honest, that's not entirely the otters' fault!) but I have gotten a few shots in which they are at least recognizable as river otters, not just obscure brown blobs on the riverbank!

River Otter along the banks of the Tuolumne River.

The presence of otters in our rivers is a wonderful thing.  As a top predator species in the ecosystem, river otters are often heralded as indicators of the health of the entire watershed.  Like their seafaring counterpart, California's Southern Sea Otter (Enhydra lutris nereis), the North American River Otter was once hunted extensively for it's thick pelt.  Where otters once thrived, over hunting, followed closely by habitat loss and degradation, has taken a toll on their populations.  As is the case with most aquatic (and semi-aquatic) species, water pollution is detrimental.

River otter along the sandy bank of the San Joaquin River

Only recently, river otters have been making a remarkable comeback in the watersheds of the San Francisco Bay Area.  For more information on the valuable (and cute) North American River Otter, specifically their presence in the Bay Area, check out The River Otter Ecology Project's Website.

Monday, November 7, 2016

At Home With A Naturalist: An Eco-Friendly Lifestyle

And now for something completely different...

Well, not completely.  It is entirely in keeping with a main theme of this blog, conservation, which is a favorite topic of mine. 

In posts titled "At Home With A Naturalist," I will endeavor to give a brief glimpse into the day-to-day lifestyle of a naturalist or conservationist, since naturalists ought to be, by definition, environmentally conscious, green-living individuals.  It think it's necessary and important to set a good example through our actions, and it would be hypocritical of me to write about the beauty and grandeur of nature, as well as the harsh reality of environmental issues, but not live accordingly. 

No one wants to see a "naturalist" drinking from a plastic water bottle!! (At least I sure don't!)

These posts will address issues related to environmental degradation, especially those brought on by our general over-consumption as a society, and what every consumer can do to help by offering tips for reducing your ecological footprint and living quite happily while using fewer finite resources.  The "At Home With A Naturalist" series will be a glimpse into how I try to live everyday, and an example of the environmentally friendly lifestyle that I try to set.

First, to set the scene:

Our Home: 820 square-foot apartment, cozy and comfortable, minimally furnished (largely with repurposed furnishings) and complete with plenty of books.

Our Family: The husband, a college professor; his wife, a naturalist, wildlife care center volunteer, and dabbling student; Dog #1, a scruffy terrier-mix rescued from the local animal shelter; Dog #2, a black lab adopted by a friend from a Bay Area SPCA.

We happily choose to live what some would perceive as a "simple" life, as this translates to decreased financial obligations and increased opportunities to reduce our "footprint," or the amount of the world's resources it takes to sustain our lifestyle. 

Future posts will delve deeper into these ideas. 
For now, I'd like to give a brief overview of some eco-friendly lifestyle choices and habits to consider practicing in your own household.  These are all things that we do regularly; I know from experience that they are completely realistic and attainable, with very minimal cost or effort.  A bonus is that many of these simple changes will actually save you money and benefit your own health as well as that of the environment.

>> Say NO to single-use plastic!!  I can't stress this point enough.  We MUST get over our infatuation with harmful plastic that is used once for a trivial purpose and then set loose in the environment.  Single-use plastics are a fairly recent introduction.  There were happy, successful, well-rounded people before single-use plastic existed; we will be okay without it!

>> Bring reusable bags to the grocery store, and every store you visit.  There are many reusable bag options available that are inexpensive as well as practical, and they will last a long time.  In addition to larger bags for groceries, I keep two compact bags with me at all times; they roll up into neat little portable bundles that weigh very little.

>> Bring reusable produce bags to the grocery store.  Using fabric produce bags (usually made from a mesh material or cotton) eliminates the need for those flimsy produce bags they offer at the store for vegetables and bulk items.  While regular plastic bags can be used for trashcan liners and so forth, it's almost impossible to find a second worthy use for produce bags.  Let's eliminate them altogether.

>> Make reusable water bottles a habit (stainless steel or BPA-free plastic are fine examples).  There is no valid reason to purchase plastic water bottles.  This is an incredible waste of money and resources, and it's hard for me to believe that people have fallen for this marketing ploy so completely in recent years.  Use a water filter if you're concerned about the quality or taste of tap water, though in most all of the U.S. our water is perfectly safe, and you'll get used to the taste.  Carrying a reusable water bottle with you any time you go out will save you from the need to buy a drink somewhere, which almost always means a plastic bottle (or other single-use container).  You know you'll be thirsty eventually; be prepared.

>> Refuse to buy single-serving beverages of any kind: bottled water, bottles or cans of soda, energy drinks and sports drinks, soda at fast food restaurants, coffee at Starbucks... just SAY NO.  Once again, I can think of few things as unnecessary as disposable bottles, cans and cups that we use for a few minutes to hold a luxury beverage, then throw away.  Having a reusable water bottle with you when you're out will solve the problem every time; at home, drink water or milk out of real glasses, tea or coffee from real mugs!  Most other beverages aren't good for your health anyway.

>> Think twice before you buy.  Our consumer habits drive the economy of the world.  We have the ability and responsibility to tell manufactures what we do and do not want to see on store shelves.  Only buy what you really need; resist emotional impulse purchases and buying something because it's "cute" or "neat" or the latest trend.  Know your needs, and that most of what is being sold to you is not truly a need.  Realize you're being duped by marketing.  When you do make a purchase, think about where the product came from, if it will be long-lasting, and where it will go once you're done with it.  Purchase quality items, from responsible sources whenever you can.  Choose items with less packaging.  Buying lightly used items will keep them out of landfills.  And take good care of the stuff you already has, so that it will last many years. 

My list of ideas for living more lightly on this beautiful and precious planet could go on for days (it probably seems as if it already has).  But I'll stop for now; another day, another list! 

The above are a few easy habits you can adopt in your own home, starting today! 

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Monterey Bay Aquarium

I may never (correction: will almost certainly never) scuba dive in a kelp forest.  But with the help of the world-class facilities at Monterey Bay Aquarium, naturalists of all ages and skill levels can experience the wonder of the magnificent ocean ecosystems, from an underwater forest to the open seas, to rocky shores, without even getting wet (unless you really want to).  Yesterday, I had the privilege of spending the day exploring the ever-fascinating Monterey Bay Aquarium.
For a naturalist, there is nothing more thrilling than exploring nature hands-on, in the elements, feeling the raw power of nature, the delicate balance of ecosystems.  A close second, however, is exploring nature in a more controlled setting that is designed to facilitate learning, such as a museum, aquarium, or lab.  And because most of us are not marine biologists with scuba certifications, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is our portal to the fascinating underwater world.
Leopard Shark in the kelp forest exhibit
Not only is the Monterey Bay Aquarium the premier destination for marine biology enthusiasts on the Central Coast of California, it is also a facility that is leading the way in ocean conservation.  The message is clear: the value of healthy oceans is immense, and the responsibility to keep them healthy, or more accurately restore their health, is ours.
Most visitors are smitten by the adorable sea otters and waddling penguins, mesmerized by the jellyfish and awed by the vast open sea and towering kelp forest exhibits.  And that is wonderful; inspiring an awe and respect for the ocean is the first step.  People will protect what they care about.  But for me, the take-home message was found in a couple of more out-of-the-way exhibits: one on plastic pollution in our oceans, another on overfishing. 
Baby sea otters suffocating in plastic bags and sea bird chicks turning up dead with stomachs full of pieces of plastic may not be popular topics for drawing a crowd, but they are valuable, painful lessons we need to learn. 

Overfishing and under appreciation present a dire situation for sharks in all of our seas.  Most people aren't even aware that this is happening.

Visit the aquarium, if you get the chance.  Read and listen and learn about the plight of our oceans.  Educate yourself and your family; learn to make wise choices.  (The aquarium's Sea Food Watch program is a great help for consumers.  View and download the guide here.)

Be enchanted by the sea, and let yourself be changed by it. 

Like the rest of the earth, it is not a dumping ground for our waste, but a delicate and beautiful ecosystem, teeming with a remarkable variety of life.

Some frugal (and eco-friendly) tips for visiting Monterey Bay Aquarium:

Check for coupons, or ask for gifts cards to the aquarium for birthdays or Christmas.  Tickets are pricey, but there are a couple of ways to reduce that cost.

Don't pay for parking.  Parking in the immediate vicinity of the aquarium comes at a premium.  It will save you a considerable chunk of change if you park a littler farther away, in a free parking spot along the ocean, and walk.  The walk along the bay is gorgeous anyway!

Pack a picnic lunch.  The aquarium has its own cafĂ©/restaurant, and there are no shortage of dining options along Cannery Row, but they will cost you.  The aquarium has a lovely spot outside for picnickers; pack some sandwiches, reusable water bottles and snacks in a backpack, and enjoy a picnic overlooking the bay.

Plan on spending the whole day at the aquarium.  Generally, doors open at 10am and close at 5pm.  Spend the whole seven hours there, and your money will be well-spent.  Take time to see all of the exhibits, as well as special demonstrations.  Photograph signs with valuable information, if you're a nature nerd like me, so you will have that information available to you later, long after you've left the aquarium.

Along the same vein, plan for efficiency.  Look at a map of the aquarium beforehand, as well as the day's schedule of events.  Decide what you want to see, and plan out when you need to be in certain parts of the aquarium.  Some people may prefer to just "go with the flow" and be content with seeing whatever they stumble upon.  I, on the other hand, prefer a more structured approach!

Bonus savings: When the aquarium closes and your thoughts are turning toward dinner, have a plan!  You know you're going to be hungry at dinner time, after all.  A favorite Monterey treat for us is clam chowder in a bread bowl; a cost-saving option is to bring sourdough bread from home along with a thermos of clam chowder (On sale for $0.99 per can?  Yes please!) and have another ocean-side picnic as the sun sets.  The views can't be beat!

Friday, November 4, 2016

Foray into Geology: Travertine Hot Springs

For sheer dramatic beauty, there is nothing quite equal to the eastern Sierra Nevada, where 14,000 foot peaks rise from a sea of gray sagebrush and billowing clouds roll in for summer thunderstorms.  It is the product of some incredible geologic activity, and home to a handful of rather "secret" hot springs.
Travertine Hot Springs is a popular, easily accessible point of geologic interest near the town of Bridgeport on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada.  The hot springs lie on the northern edge of a region known for its tectonic activity, roughly 50 miles north of the Long Valley Caldera.  The region is alive with geothermal activity, as recent lava domes and flows, and active hot springs and fumaroles will attest.
The pools at Travertine Hot Springs
The travertine for which these springs are named is actually limestone, a calcium-rich rock which forms as calcium carbonate precipitates, or forms a solid from a solution.  Chemical precipitation occurs as ground water rich in dissolved calcium carbonate reaches the surface.  At hot springs, geothermally heated ground water travels up to the surface, releasing carbon dioxide and depositing calcium carbonate.  The trigger for chemical precipitation is a change in pH, brought on by a change in carbon dioxide levels.  Water evaporates, leaving behind mineral deposits.
Looking down from the travertine formation onto the series of three pools.
Over the years, the deposition of calcium carbonate at Travertine Hot Springs has created long, linear mounds of travertine rock; the hot springs originate from the tops of these mounds and the geothermally heated water flows down into a series of pools.  The porous version of travertine is called tufa, which we'll learn more about when I get around to writing a post on Mono Lake.
The source of the spring; the water flowing from this rock was extremely hot!
 The Travertine Hot Springs are located on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, and small pools have been created to allow visitors a chance to soak in the mineral rich water.  There is a vault toilet at the dirt parking area, a short walk from the springs, but no other facilities are available.  In our age of overcrowding and vandalism in national parks (read about some infuriating examples of recent vandalism here and here and here) it's almost surprising to find these hidden gems tucked away down a few dirt roads.
The lower (and coolest) pool

If you visit, please, please, please respect the springs and the surrounding area. 

It is a privilege to still be able to visit places like this in California. 

Practice "leave no trace;" pack out what you pack in; leave the springs even better than you found them.