Limantour Beach

Photos from our trip to Point Reyes National Seashore:

American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) feeding in Estero de Limantour, watched by a Great Egret (Ardea alba)

Moonglow Anemone (Anthopleura artemisia) in a tidal pool formed from a ship’s engine block on Limantour Spit

One of about 145 Giant Bell Jellies that we saw stranded on Limantour Beach. Not a true jellyfish, this organism is actually a colony of smaller hydrozoans. The purple spots are ocelli, or primitive eyes.

“Newt Patrol”

Here’s an interesting citizen science project….

“The Newt Patrol is a group of citizen scientists in the South Bay. We have been surveying newt roadkills near Lexington Reservoir since 2017. We have documented over 10,000 dead newts so far, representing one of the highest rates of amphibian roadkill mortality known worldwide. This project aims to raise awareness of this problem and provide a rigorous database that could be used by the authorities to implement mitigation measures.”

You can see their Web site here.

What’s good about the pandemic?

I’ve been trying to think of good things that have come out of this pandemic. Most of the pandemic is bad: personally there’s the loss of social contact, cabin fever, the fact that every task at work seems to take much longer so I either have to work long hours or things don’t get done, we can’t go to visit our relatives (who live far away)…. Then in wider society, there’s economic disaster, increasing mental distress and illness, rise in domestic violence, children not learning, widening gap between the rich and everyone else….

So is there anything good to come out of this pandemic?

Well, I haven’t had a cold or any other illness since the pandemic started. Wearing masks in public places (as everyone does here in San Mateo County) and frequent hand washing really do reduce the spread of illnesses.

I only have to commute to the office twice a week, and traffic is light when I do drive. Pre-pandemic, when there was a lot of traffic, I had a grinding, soul-sucking commute, so this is a benefit.

Since I’m stuck at home, I’ve been practicing the guitar more. I haven’t become a good guitarist by any means, but at least I’m no longer bad.

That’s really all I can come up with right now. Maybe you can add to this list?

The biggest environmental threat in California?

Here’s another environmental threat to keep you up at night:

“Nitrogen deposition and pollution is [a] more acute threat than climate change. … [But] few people are paying attention.” — Dr. Stuart Weiss, Chief Scientist of Creekside Science.

Weiss’s key paper on Bay Area nitrogen deposition, written while he was at Stanford, has a great title: Cars, Cows, and Checkerspot Butterflies: Nitrogen Deposition and Management of Nutrient-Poor Grasslands for a Threatened Species (Conservation Biology, v. 13 no. 6, Dec. 1999, pp. 1476–1486).

I’m listening to Weiss talk to the California Naturalist class I’m taking right now. Weiss makes some interesting points: Smog does an amazing amount of damage, not only to human lungs but also to non-human organisms. Non-native grasses are big contributors to the increase in pollen in recent times. Free-range cattle on California grasslands can keep non-native invasive grass species under control, providing habitat for endangered species as well as reducing allergens.

Christmas Eve

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.

Diversity

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.

Ochre Sea Star (sea stars and allies), Sea Lettuce (green algae), Surf Grass (vascular plant), and unidentified red algae at Pescadero State Beach on Friday — that’s four phyla/divisions in one photograph.

Field journal

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.

Phenology

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.”

Hummingbird

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.

Anna’s Hummingbird

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.

A good day

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.

Barrow’s Goldeneye on the left, Common Goldeneye on the right.

“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.