Bike party

We came out of the theatre at about eleven o’clock and looked to see if it was safe to cross the street. A whole passel of bicycles was coming at us. “Bike party!” said one of the bicyclists as they came near. We watched for about five minutes as clumps of bicycles passed by. There was a break in the bikes, and I scurried across; Carol wiated for another couple of minutes for another break in the bikes before she got across. There were enough bikes that we weren’t going to be able to get the car out easily, so we stood on the sidewalk and watched. Hardly anyone seemed to be talking to one another, except that everyone once in a while someone say, “Bike party!” A few of the bikes were playing recorded music ranging from rap to norteno to classic rock. Two daredevils rode too fast and weaved in and out of the other bikes, but most people just rode along fairly sedately. It looked a little boring to me, but then I never was one for making long bike rides in a group. Finally, along came two motorcycle cops, a few stragglers on bikes, and that was it. We got in our car and drove home.

Nests

At lunchtime, I went for a walk at Baylands Nature Preserve along the Bay in Palo Alto. One of the first things I saw was a baby American Avocet, still with downy plumage, sweeping the water for small invertebrates. American Avocets are a precocial species, so this little baby was pretty much on its own; there were no adult birds nearby.

A little further on I saw a line of Cliff Swallow nests on a building. The swallows pick up some mud in their bills, then fly up and apply it to the nest, gradually building the structure out so as to completely enclose the nesting birds except for small entry holes. The two nests closest to the camera are darker around the entry holes; that’s where mud has been recently applied, and the damp mud is darker than the dried mud.

I kept walking out the dike along Charleston Slough, past other birds that are I guessed were nesting, though I didn’t actually see a nest or babies: Forster’s Terns, Marsh Wrens, a Northern Harrier, Snowy Egrets, Mallards. About a mile and a quarter from the parking lot, I could finally see the California Gull nesting colony. The gulls were screaming and flying in swirling circles above the colony, and as I got closer I could see why: two researchers had kayaked out to the colony, and were walking around with clipboards checking out the nests. The gulls were divebombing them, and through my binoculars, I could see that the researchers were wearing helmets and jackets for protection.

I watched for a while; I like watching gull nesting colonies, and the addition of the invading researchers made it even more entertaining. Then it was time to head back to work, so I walked back to the parking lot, my mind completely emptied of everything except for birds, sun, mud, and nests.

Silly Rynchops niger

In one of the few breaks in the rain this week, I managed to take a walk along the old salt ponds at the edge of San Francisco Bay in Palo Alto, now the Baylands nature preserve. It was low tide, so there were birds everywhere: shorebirds, gulls, diving ducks and dabbling ducks, egrets, grebes, geese, a White-Tailed Kite out hunting. And sitting among some California Gulls were half a dozen Black Skimmers (Rynchops niger), standing on the mud flats, all facing in the same northwesterly direction. Black Skimmers make me smile; they are such silly-looking birds, with their ridiculously large orange-and-black bills with the lower mandible sticking way out past the upper mandible, and black-and-white plumage on their heads that makes them look as though they’re wearing a baseball cap pushed to the back of their heads, and gawky red-orange legs.

But they’re not ridiculous at all. Their bill may look silly to me, but it is a precisely engineered product of natural selection and evolution, allowing the birds to skim fish from the surface of the water as they fly along. No doubt their plumage also has an evolutionary function; their legs only look a little gawky because these are birds that are meant for precision flying, not for walking around on dry ground. Black Skimmers are not silly at all, they are amazingly successful organisms: “This skimmer has undergone a remarkable range expansion north from Mexico into California since 8 Sept. 1962, when the first bird was found at the mouth of the Santa Ana River…” Arnold Small, California Birds: Their Range and Distribution, 1994.

Spring in Palo Alto

Today was sunny and warm, almost warm enough for us to hold a committee meeting outdoors at lunch time. The apple trees at the school next door are white with blossoms, a couple of early California poppies are providing little spots of color along Charleston Road in front of the church, and I found this daffodil in full bloom outside the Main Hall.

Quite a contrast from the news we’re hearing from the eastern part of the United States, where buildings are collapsing under the weight of a huge amount of snow. (Personal to relatives and friends back east: yes, we do have an empty bed in our apartment if you want to escape winter for a few days and enjoy spring here.)

Tibetan monks in Palo Alto

We have five Tibetan Buddhist monks visiting the Unitarian Universalist Church in Palo Alto, from the Drepung Loseling Phukhang Monastery. They’re working on creating a sand mandala, which will be completed by Sunday:

Here’s a close-up:

Last night, they had an opening ceremony, which involved about ten minutes of chanting. They wore elaborate yellow headdresses, and accompanied their chanting with a bell and a pair of cymbals. Part of their chanting involves overtone singing, which produced exceptionally low notes. (I happened to be sitting next to Marsha, a professional singer who knows a great deal about chanting, and asked her about the technique, but she said she couldn’t speak with any certainty about their specific technique.) All of the chanting tended to stay in the lower ranges of their voices, and was quite powerful and loud. You can find recordings of this type of chanting on the Web, but they simply don’t capture what it’s like to be sitting a couple of yards away when the monks are chanting.

Now they’re working on creating the sand mandala. As their work on the mandala progresses over the next few days, I’ll post more photos. (Link to a photo on the church Web site.) I’m also including a press release below, which gives more details. Continue reading “Tibetan monks in Palo Alto”