Friday, December 31, 2021

Green Ferns & High Tides

Upper Cataract Falls

A rough year is over, but at least we have water! Holy cow. Down from "exceptional drought" to only "severe drought"? Heck, I might even wash my car. 

I wanted to bike up to Mt. Tam this morning to check on my trail cams, and also to close out the year doing something fun on a sunny day, although it was a little brisk out there. The National Weather Service showed Mill Valley at 34 degrees just before I left. Thankfully the day warmed up quickly, and it was a mellow ride out of the city and across the Golden Gate, all the way to the end of Sausalito. And then I saw something I'd never seen before:

Flooded Bike Route

The bike path from the end of Sausalito to basically forever was completely submerged by the king tide, which peaked at 6.74 feet at 8:50 a.m. I arrived to shoot the photo above at 9:25 a.m. As I was taking stock of the situation and wondering with a few other people how we were going to proceed -- or even if we were going to proceed -- a big group of cyclists showed up and just kept on going, right on the shoulder of the freeway onramp!

It got better! At the other end of the ramp, the exit to Mill Valley was closed. Completely flooded. Even cars were blocked from getting through. Did that deter the peloton? Not even for a minute. I had jumped on my e-bike right after taking the photo above and was following the pack. All of a sudden we're riding along on the edge of the freeway and going up and over the bridge over Richardson Bay, finally getting off at the first Strawberry exit.

With all my stopping for flood-selfies (getting Mt. Tam in the background) I lost the bike group, but I just followed Hamilton Drive up to Bayfront Park, then picked up Camino Alto to Miller going past Tam High until it turns into Almonte Boulevard. Thankfully Tam Junction wasn't flooded, so I was soon heading up Shoreline Highway. A car would have to take Hamilton to Roque Moraes Drive, then left on E. Blithedale to Camino Alto, then maybe take the short-cut of R. on Miller then L. on Edgewood and up Sequoia Valley to Panoramic. If we decide to go for a hike tomorrow morning, I suspect that's the route we'll take. Gonna be king tides all weekend, thanks to the New Year's New Moon!

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Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Woodland Stroll


Coral Fungus & Christmas Berry Bouquet
(Click images to view larger.)

Having asked Mt. Tamalpais to be my photographic muse for so many years, and having put closure (or something close to that) on those years of inspiration by creating a book with many of my favorite images (which I recently updated), I felt like it was time to give it a rest. Hard to believe that was around six years ago. Since then I've been hiking more with my wife instead of focusing on photography, although I still run a couple of trail cameras, and of course the smartphone/camera always comes along on our hikes. I also like to ride up to Mt. Tam on my ebike when it's time to check up on the trail cams, something I started doing early in the pandemic when the mountain was closed to cars.

Madrone Berries in Mushroom Cap Bowl

So yesterday I drove up with my camera gear to poke around in the woods, partly inspired by a book I just finished reading for the second time, called The Invention of Nature - Alexander von Humboldt's New World, by Andrea Wulf. Humboldt collected enough natural history data during his five-year adventure to generate a lifetime of books, studies, and lectures on what he found. He inspired a younger Darwin to set sail on the Beagle, and he inspired Thoreau to make Walden a classic of literature instead of a dry tally of observations.

Silvery Madrone Leaf

I picked up one of Humboldt's books, Views of Nature, but haven't begun reading it yet. I'm hoping to find some inspiration in there for when I eventually return to blogging more regularly. In any event, I began my stroll in the Tamalpais woods beneath a canopy of madrones. The forest floor was littered with leaves and countless berries, most of which were already fading to black as chemistry and forest decomposers went to work on them. I've seen flocks of band-tailed pigeons feeding on madrone berries in the past, but I wondered about the seeming overproduction of fruit as I stood in a forest with no apparent birds around. Just the sound of light rain striking leaves in the canopy above and on the ground at my feet.

Grandfather Oak Covered With Moss

I was glad I'd brought an umbrella, and also that I'd dressed more warmly than I do when I'm hiking. Even so, after a few hours of poking around, with knees good and muddied, I was chilled to the bone. I thought of Humboldt and his love for data and chided myself for forgetting to bring a thermometer.

Faerie Cave

A camera can be a fine instrument for collecting scientific data, but I confess to being more interested in the subjective business of recording inner impressions. The emerald-colored cave above struck me right away, but I only wanted to make one photograph in the large group of mossy boulders, so I set down my camera gear and walked around to see if some other part of the jumble would call even louder. None did.

Moss and Lichen Colonizing a Rock

But the moss wasn't done with me yet! As I continued on my wander of wonder I was again drawn to a mossy landscape-in-miniature. All these incredible life forms, and all metabolizing in high gear, doing all the necessary work of growing, finding security, and casting the next generation into the world, while the rain lasts.

Witch's Butter

There are two different species called witch's butter, and according to California Mushrooms (Desjardins, et al.) the two are not closely related. When I saw this still-fresh-looking specimen I wanted to photograph it in a way that would show which species this is. I remembered that Tremella aurantia is a parasite on Stereum hirsutum and wanted to include both species in the shot. The thing is, I'm not sure I've actually done that here since I don't know without a doubt that the somewhat decayed, leafy fruitbodies next to the witch's butter are actually Stereum. I also didn't remember to try to figure out if the branch of wood it's growing on was Douglas fir or tanoak (the two most likely suspects for softwoood vs. hardwood), which is another diagnostic characteristic to separate Tremella from its distant cousin Dacrymyces chrysospermus.

Amanita Cleansed of Her Warts

I think this is either Amanita gemmata or something close to it, despite the lack of veil remnant "warts" on its cap. A close examination does show faint white dots on the cap. I figure the warts have been washed off in all the rain. I was interested in the scrape mark on the cap. Was it created by a passing banana slug? Or did it somehow get scraped by bark as the mushroom forced its way up from its thready mycelial origin beneath the forest duff? If I lean toward the slug scrape, I wonder why so little was eaten. I wonder if a slug senses a chemical reaction that warns it off a potentially poisonous meal.

Turkey Tails

I recently found a gorgeous fruiting of turkey tails on a hike with my wife along the side of Bolinas Ridge, and of course I took a picture with my camera phone, but I was hoping to find something just as nice with my DSLR. I didn't see anything as big as that, but this patch growing out the end of a fallen branch was fresh enough and just big enough to entice me. I'm not sure what the reddish tinge on the wood comes from, but it reminds me of a photo I took of a red droplet hanging from a fungus that my botany teacher at Santa Barbara City College also thought was curious, and he simply called it "some kind of metabolic byproduct." Mushroom poop.

Abstract on Madrone

These patterns of bark reminded me of Kandinsky paintings for some reason. I've photographed this same stand of madrones several times. In the summer the bark that's tan in this view sometimes turns green. Moss tries to colonize madrone but can only maintain a foothold until the outer layer of bark peels off. 

Abstract #2

With so many potential compositions, I decided, as I did back at the mossy boulder field, to limit myself to just a few. I was also close to shivering by this time and was eager to get back to the car. I enjoyed getting out to do some photography with my DSLR once again since it's been awhile, and I appreciated having more time than I take while hiking to contemplate the life of the woods—what it means to me spiritually as well as its power to enliven my curiosity about its fascinating intricacies—that is the subject matter for any nature photographer.

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Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Lagunitas Creek Sunrise


I hadn't planned to be anywhere in particular to photograph the sunrise, and in fact had only brought my camera gear on the off-chance I'd want to use it. I just haven't felt fired up to do much more than phone-snaps for quite some time. The workweeks are long, and the weekends short. I've found that I enjoy being out in a different way when I don't have my camera gear with me, when I don't have the same drive to acquire an image. Instead I just enjoy being out and about. This time, though, the scene just kind of fell in my lap.

By the time I passed through Point Reyes Station I realized I needed a bathroom, and I knew there were porta-potties at the turn-out for White House Pool. I almost missed the entrance in the pre-dawn darkness, but once I was there I figured I might as well set up my camera for the coming sunrise.

I was surprised how quickly the blaze of color came and went. You don't get very long to bask in the color this time of year, whereas in December you get so much time you can hardly believe it.

A kingfisher chattered from upstream, then finally flew downstream along the opposite bank. It was cold out there, and I was glad I'd chosen to wear jeans instead of shorts. I even had jacket and gloves on until after the sun broke out. It was beautifully quiet out there, and the reflective surface of Lagunitas Creek lent itself to a contemplative frame of mind. 

I've been reading a couple of those "Best Science and Nature Writing" anthologies, downloading them to my Kindle from the library. With all the amazing science going on, I'm still in awe of the fact that we don't know what the "life force" is. I mean, we know all kinds of things about physics, chemistry, and biology, but we still don't know how the elements that formed in exploding stars found their way to becoming living plants and trees, kingfishers and human beings. As one astrobiologist put it, the theory of evolution should be able to address how supposedly dead matter comes to life in the first place. I hope I'm still alive when (or if) we figure that out.

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Monday, November 8, 2021

First Porcini

Giacomini Wetlands Overlook

Sometimes I wonder why I bring my bulky and heavy Nikon at all since it's often enjoyable to just whip out my smartphone and fire off a few frames. I did bring the Nikon on this trip, but I was a lot more picky about my subjects. It's actually great to have the smartphone for quick snaps, plus the Nikon for when I want to be more contemplative in my photographic work.

The Giacomini Wetlands Overlook was nice, but it's gotten a little overgrown for scenic purposes since I photographed it in 2015. I don't think the shot I made then would be possible now.

Giacomini Marsh in 2015

First Porcini of the Season

I found this porcini in the first two minutes of my mushroom-hunt on Mt. Vision, and it was in great shape. My wife and I ate it that night. I poked around under the bishop pines for another hour-and-a-half or so without finding any others. All I found instead were a few holes in the pine duff where it appeared that someone had beaten me to the goods.

Raggedy Amanita

While I was in the woods I also found this apparently rain-soaked amanita with its raggedy veil remnants hanging off the cap margin. I suspect the top of the cap wouldn't have been quite so white if it hadn't been rained on.

Curlews on the Beach

Along with Mt. Vision being open again, it was great to see that Drake's Beach was too. The parking lot and marsh restoration look nice and new.

Estero Bird Overlook

The Estero Bird Overlook at the edge of Schooner Bay beckoned with its mirror-like reflections. As I made this phone snap I caught some movement in my peripheral vision and was surprised to see a river otter preening nearby.

Resting River Otter

I hung out while it carried on without paying me much mind. The otter really seemed to like using the rolled straw wattle at the base of the riprap as a comfy platform to preen from. A car drove by as I was hanging out, then stopped to turn around and park. I had tried not to bring attention to the otter, but apparently a sharp-eyed photographer had spotted me watching it, and I felt a little bit like I'd betrayed the otter. I walked back toward my car and said hello to the photographer, who said, "We must have seen the same thing, eh?" I must have given him a slightly quizzical look because he added, "The reflections." Oh yeah, I said. He had some kind of Brit or Aussie accent and I liked his demeanor enough to tell him about the otter. Thankfully he just went over to pay his respects from a distance without the otter being bothered in the least.

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Saturday, November 6, 2021

Change of Season

On the one hand, it's great to finally be getting some rain. On the other hand, I had to postpone my dental check-up this Tuesday because I didn't want to show up like a soggy dog after biking downtown.

I took the day off to drive out to Pt. Reyes yesterday to beat the weekend crowds. I drove up through Lucas Valley where there's still a traffic light where they're doing roadwork on a tight bend in the road. I drove home on Hwy. 1, the Shoreline Highway. I'd planned to climb up the northwest side of Mt. Tam via Bolinas Fairfax Road, but the gate was closed, so I enjoyed the drive along Bolinas Lagoon instead. It was pretty much high tide at the time, something like +6 feet. Definitely no dry land for basking harbor seals or foraging shorebirds.

I shot these three scenes along West Ridgecrest Road, near the intersection with Bolinas-Fairfax. It kind of looks like I could have made these shots yesterday, but they were made back in early July, when ferns and redwoods live off the sometimes prodigious summer fog drip.

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Friday, October 29, 2021

Spartan Accommodations


October Sunrise with Mt. Diablo

“Man is a creature who can get used to anything, and I believe that is the very best way of defining him.”—Fyodor Dostoevsky

The quotation comes from a book about life as a prisoner in a Siberian prison camp, but I read it in a book about wilderness survival, in the context of a story about a couple of people lost at sea (Deep Survival, by Laurence Gonzales).

It’s a sentiment I’ve shared for a long time, ever since I heard about crowded Japanese subway systems where people are pushed into packed cars. The pusher’s job title was oshiya, and as Wikipedia reports, “In 1975, oshiya packed commuters into rush-hour trains that were filled to an average of 221 percent of designed capacity.”

Apparently it’s gotten somewhat better since then, and the pandemic’s effect on mass transit has been, and will likely continue to be, considerable. Nevertheless, the image of people being crammed into sardine cans remains indelible in my mind, and has long stood for the humorous, sad, and inspiring fact that we always adapt to the various impoverishments we experience in our lives, from environmental degradation to urban blight, from price inflation to wage deflation, and from calling money “speech” and corporations “people” to the gaslighting of common sense.

Sunrise from Mt. Tamalpais

When I began this blog in 2007 as a motivator and creative outlet for travels and explorations around natural California, I’d been working for environmental non-profits for nearly ten years. Despite my daily exposure to the myriad ways in which civilization degrades wild nature and human health, I still felt upbeat about our chances to fight back, and I felt lucky to have such an interesting and biodiverse state to explore. I put thousands of miles on my Jeep Cherokee with no thought of my "carbon footprint," a term rarely used at the time.

Half-way into 2013 I decided to “wipe the slate” on all that travel (including the blog posts) and concentrate instead on making a deeper exploration of Mt. Tamalpais, which is fairly close to my home in San Francisco. (I can see East Peak from my living room window, although someone’s trees down the block have been growing and obscuring the view over the years.)

I’ve been visiting Mt. Tam for thirty years now. In the beginning there was an off-trail area I used to explore, a place I called Bobcat Hill. It offered an emotional salve, even salvation, to a nature-loving guy who lived and worked in the city. I recently hiked back up to Bobcat Hill for the first time in well over a decade and was surprised to see that all my old landmarks had been overgrown. The meadows and animal trails had been smothered by coyote brush. Even the forest understory was dark and sterile-looking.

Turkey vultures warm their wings at Vulture Rock, up on Bobcat Hill, in 1996. On a recent visit I couldn't even find Vulture Rock, now completely obscured by chaparral.

In the Bobcat Hill days I often felt like I had the mountain to myself. Then came Twitter's arrival in downtown San Francisco to usher in the latest tech boom, a boom that would eventually draw many other people like myself to the mountain, people who needed salvation from the city. 

In 2013-14 I would often show up at the Pantoll gate on Mt. Tam before the park ranger arrived to open it at 7 a.m. I would park in front of the gate to wait, roll down the windows, turn off the motor, and listen to birds singing the new day into life. When the ranger opened the gate I would have the mountain to myself for quite a while. I called that blog project A Circumannuation of Mt. Tamalpais and brought my photography gear up to the mountain to explore pretty much every weekend for a year. After the year was over in May 2014, I took an intermission from the blog for a year or two (with very few posts in 2015) and allowed myself to arrive for hikes or photography well after the gate-opening.

The next time I showed up before 7 a.m., I was surprised to have so much company. I actually had to pull in behind a line of cars already waiting. To this day it remains that way. Lots of new Mt. Tamophiles. (It would be another few years before  crowded conditions led to reservations being required at Muir Woods.) I was recently first in line at the gate and thought the pandemic might have shifted visitation back to before the latest wave of tech workers, but several more arrivals soon disabused me that notion. Anyway, it’s not like Mt. Tam has become too crowded, at least not in the manner of Japanese subway trains.

Sunrise with San Francisco Skyline

After the Mt. Tam project was over I decided to do the same kind of thing out at Pt. Reyes. I traded the 17-mpg Cherokee for a Mazda 3, doubling my gas mileage, but even then I was probably concerned more about the price of gas to me, personally, than I was to the price of gas to our climate. Like the parable of the slowly cooking frog, I’ve been getting used to things heating up so slowly that I just accommodate it.

Back in 2007 I didn’t really think about the term “carbon footprint” which, according to Wikipedia, “was popularized by a large advertising campaign of the fossil fuel company BP in 2005…. The campaign was intended to divert attention from the fossil fuel industry onto individual consumers.”

Occasionally I will ride my e-bike up to Mt. Tam, but I do still drive there in a car from time to time. And although I’m a little bit proud of the fact that after more than seven years I only have 40,000 miles on the Mazda, I do look forward to soon using it to re-explore the world of natural California, which means lots more gallons of gas to burn. (An electric car is only as clean as the powerplant you charge it from, and I can't afford one anyway.)

I can only wonder what I’ll find as I re-discover natural California. Will it become a place of drought-stricken and impoverished landscapes, burnt forests and dry riverbeds, smoke-filled air and blazing summer heat? Has the California I explored in the 2000s already disappeared forever? 

If so, I guess I'll just have to get used to it. Like those Siberian prisoners and shipwrecked castaways.

Sunrise with Ridge Silhouettes

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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Bird Bath

Here's a little bird action showing some of the diversity of species that have been visiting the little water pool. I was surprised no wild turkeys showed up on the cam. When I went down to the pool recently to collect the SD card and swap in some fresh batteries, I spooked up several turkeys who immediately but casually mosied out of the area. Probably the most frequently captured bird has been the screech-owl. The owl visits often and tends to stick around awhile. In contrast, the band-tailed pigeons, who are also frequent visitors, are usually in-and-out during the span of a 12-second video clip. 

Acorn Woodpecker

Black-headed Grosbeaks

Band-tailed Pigeon

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

Downy Woodpecker and Western Tanager


Flycatcher (?) (It didn't land.)

Great-horned Owl

Pacific Wren

Pacific Slope Flycatcher



Spotted Towhee

Steller's Jay

Townsend's Warbler

Varied Thrush

Western Tanager

Wilson's Warbler

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