It was a strange Christmas Eve. We did the usual Christmas Eve candlelight service in the Main Hall of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto (UUCPA) — but the only people there were Amy, the senior minister; Paul, the camera operator; and me. The music all had to be pre-recorded, and I set up my laptop next to my lectern (Amy and I each had our own lectern, about twenty feet apart from each other) so that I could join the Zoom call and be able to hear the music. The strangest part was not being able to see anyone: the whole point of Christmas Eve for me is seeing being able to see people, including the young adults who come back to Silicon Valley for the holidays.
Yes, it was a strange Christmas Eve.
But something that happened in the afternoon made the rest of the day bearable. I was taking a break from checking email, and walked out to the edge of UUCPA’s campus to look down into Adobe Creek, which is routed into a large concrete channel for the last mile or two before it reaches the Bay. By fall, there’s always sediment that has accumulated during the summer, when not much water flows through the channel. This year, there was a luxuriant growth of what was probably water cress, and the last rain had been enough to cut some winding channels through the greenery, without washing everything down stream. The usual Mallards were paddling around, and then I noticed a Snowy Egret crouched behind a thicket of greenery; it lashed out with its bill, and appeared to spear something from the water.
I know Snowy Egrets are good at finding food anywhere, but I was a little bit surprised to see one in that particular urban channelized stream. There must have been enough prey to make it worth the bird’s time and effort; it’s a fairly sterile environment, so perhaps it was finding organisms washed down from upstream. Whatever drew it there, it certainly gave me a lift to see it.
Because I’m currently taking the California Certified Naturalist class, I’m spending more time than usual looking at and photographing various organisms. I’m astonished at the diversity of organisms that I saw this week within a 45 minute drive of our house. I managed to see organisms from four kingdoms — plants, animals, fungi, and Chromista (which includes brown algae). Going down one taxonomic level, I saw organisms from over a dozen different phyla (for animals) or divisions (for the other three kingdoms).
This represents an astonishing evolutionary diversity: green algae, red algae, vascular plants; sac fungi and allies, mushrooms and allies; brown algae; sea anemones and allies, molluscs, sea stars and allies, arthropods, ringed worms, flatworms, chordates. And I saw eight of these taxonomic groupings within a five minute walk from my desk.
I have a tendency to focus on flowering plants and vertebrates, while ignoring other organisms. Sometimes it’s good to remind myself how much biological diversity is in my own back yard.
I’m currently taking the California Certified Naturalist class, with a curriculum developed by the University of California, and offered through a local environmental nonprofit, Grassroots Ecology. One of the ongoing assignments is to keep a field journal of observations of the natural world.
Keeping a field journal feels like a kind of spiritual practice to me. It’s a way to keep connected with the non-human organisms around us, and helps me pay attention to the abiotic components on which life depends. It forces me to get away from the computer and get outdoors, which is something I need to do more of. And it’s very calming, probably because I stop thinking about myself, and think about something larger than myself.
Tonight was the first class in the California Naturalist course I’m taking, a course offered by a local nonprofit, Grassroots Ecology, and University of California Agriculture and Renewable Resources.
Tonight I learned that we’ll be participating in “Nature’s Notebook,” a citizen science project of the USA National Phenology Network, in cooperation with the US Geological survey. The Web site says, “Nature’s Notebook gathers information on plant and animal phenology across the U.S. to be used for decision-making on local, national and global scales to ensure the continued vitality of our environment.”
Put into plain English — With global climate change, spring arrives earlier and winter starts later. Ordinary people like you and me can help gather data on these changes by observing key species of animals and plants. They make it easy; you submit your observations using either a smartphone app or a Web site.
And I learned a new word, phenology, which the OED defines as “the study of times of recurring natural phenomena.”
I needed a break from being hunched over the computer, so I strolled out into the garden in front of our congregation’s buildings. A eucalyptus tree was covered in bright pink blossoms, with three or four hummingbirds buzzing around the tree. One of them decided to rest for a moment in a shrub about a dozen feet from me. I stayed there long enough for me to get my camera out of my pocket. Viewed from the front, the feathers on the forehead and neck would glow with bright red iridescence, but from the side they just look black.
I felt a distinct sense of pleasure to see this tiny bird this close; it was a pleasant change from staring at a computer screen for most of the day. I’m always surprised when people talk about having to drive many miles to “get out in Nature.” Even in human-dominated landscapes, you can still find Nature.
I finally had an entire day that I could spend outdoors. I went birding along Charleston Slough, in Baylands Nature Preserve on the Palo Alto / Mountain View border. Towards the end of my walk, I saw a man standing at the edge of Shoreline Pond and looking intently into a birding scope, and asked what he was looking at. “Barrow’s,” he said, meaning Barrow’s Goldeneye, a relatively uncommon bird. And there it was, swimming along with a small group of closely related Common Goldeneyes.
“Thanks for that,” I said. “That makes sixty species today, which is a big day for me.” (Real birders aim for over a hundred species in a day.)
We chatted for a bit, but the sun was setting, and he packed up and headed home. I slowly made my way back to my car, and on the way saw another five species of birds.
I spent all day outdoors. I saw a lot of birds. I mostly forgot about the pandemic. All in all, it was a good day.
We’re all dealing with election stress in our own ways. I took an hour away from work to go birding.
This is a messy election. As we all know, the pandemic means far more people mailed their ballots in than ever before, so the counting is going to continue for days. This gives both presidential candidates lots of time to badmouth each other.
Enough of that. That’s what I went birding to get away from. Sometimes denial is a fruitful way to deal with a stressful situation, especially a situation where you really can’t do anything to alter it. And look at birds; birds don’t care who wins the election. Sort of puts things in perspective.
When I was walking around the cemetery this evening, I saw some spectacular shelf fungus growing on the side of a eucalyptus stump.
David Arora, in his comprehensive 1986 book Mushrooms Demystified, identifies this as Laetiporus sulphures, but the more recent book Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast (2016) by Noah Seigel and Christian Schwarz identify it as L. gilbertsonii — turns out L. sulphures was split into three species in 2001.
Common names for L. gilbertsonii include Sulphur Shelf and Chicken of the Woods. As you’d guess with a name like “Chicken of the Woods,” you can eat it, and supposedly if it’s cooked correctly it does taste something like chicken. However, in a few individuals it can cause vomiting. (This apparently happens more often with the two western species, L. gilbertsonii and L. conifericola; not so much with the eastern species, L. sulphures.) I have a weak stomach, and I’m not an experienced mushroom hunter to begin with, so I didn’t try to eat it.
The smoke cloud that’s covering most of California is so thick overhead right now that it looks like deep dusk. We have to turn on the lights in our house, as if it’s almost night. Drivers have to turn on the headlights of their cars. The temperature is stuck at 63 degrees, because there’s no solar warming going on.
It’s really spooky.
At least the air quality here along the coast is tolerable, due to the marine layer keeping the worst of the smoke aloft.
The past couple of weeks have been a wild ride for me.
At work, this is always the busiest time of year because we’re getting ready for a new school year. This year is busier than usual because so many things have to be moved online. Fortunately, we were able to delay the start of Sunday school classes till after Labor Day, but even with that there’s a lot to be done.
The weather has been crazy. We had thunderstorms last week that lit wildfires all around us, and now just about the whole state of California is covered in a big smoke cloud. There are fires burning to our south — they’ve closed Highway 1 south of Half Moon Bay down to Santa Cruz because of the fires — and fires burning to our east, and fires burning to our north. There’s smoke everywhere. At its worst, the AQI peaked at over 400 in our area, then we had a couple of clear days, and now the AQI is up to about 150. Here’s a recent screenshot of fire.airnow.gov. Density of smoke plumes is indicated by the darkness of the gray overlays; the little squares and circles are AQI monitors, with green being healthy, yellow moderate, orange unhealthy, and purple hazardous; then the little flame icons show locations of fires, and the little glowing dots are potential fires from satellite imagery:
And now we have a Red Flag Warning — a warning for high danger of potential fires — because of a forecast of the possibility of more dry lightning over the next four days. Someone recently asked what a Red Flag Warning means. For me, it means: double-check your go-bag, then place it by the front door because you may only get 30 minutes warning to evacuate. Ah yes; the joys of living in a world dominated by global climate change.
Then if that’s not enough, I’ve been sitting too long at the computer — because, of course, when you work at home you have to spend hours and hours sitting in front of your computer — and my foot muscles got all cramped up; so much so that it’s actually painful to walk. I didn’t even know that could happen to my feet.
Pandemic, wildfires, and job. It would be easy to get discouraged, but I look at it this way — at least I get to work indoors.