Saturday, April 22, 2017

Earth Day

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In honor of the special day I decided to visit the planet Earth, and an especially lovely corner of it situated on the outskirts of the town of Larkspur near the base of Mt. Tamalpais. The place is called Baltimore Canyon. 

When my family moved away from Hawaii the first time, I was about seven years old, and we went from Honolulu to Towson, just outside Baltimore, Maryland. It was the year of the "blizzard of '66" for this Island boy, and I still remember two years later worrying about my father as he drove off to work in Baltimore during the riots that broke out after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968 .

So how, you might ask, did the name of Baltimore end up in this pretty little canyon at the base of Mt. Tam? According to a Wikipedia entry on Larkspur Creek, a sawmill was transported down the east coast of North and South America, around Cape Horn, then up along the west coasts of those two continents -- all the way from Baltimore to Larkspur -- in 1849:

Secretary Daniel Taylor of the Baltimore and Frederick Trading and Mining Company recalled in a 1914 newspaper article, “When we arrived at Larkspur, there was no one to meet us. The country was a wilderness, with wild geese in abundance." The sawyers denuded Mt. Tamalpais of old-growth redwoods in short order. Said Taylor in 1914, "I can picture the majestic redwoods that covered the flat where Larkspur stands today. Some of the trees were eight feet in diameter and lifted their immense bulk 300 feet upward.” 

You can still find a few redwoods along Larkspur Creek. In the photo above that shows multiple trunks rising in a kind of circle together, my guess is that they are all sprouting from the same burl, or underground fruiting structure, that once supported a single giant redwood. Larkspur is no longer a wilderness, but it seemed like a cute little town as I drove through it. 

I got a stiff neck looking for California spotted owls but didn't have any luck. I photographed this semi-snoozing owl about this time two years ago.

I was surprised to see a fruiting of Panus conchatus on a decaying bay laurel that had fallen across the creek. I didn't even notice the slug gnoshing on the old specimen until I viewed the image back at home.

I drove out of Larkspur along Magnolia Avenue to Sir Francis Drake, then out to Fairfax-Bolinas Road which finally reopened earlier this month. This velvet-antlered buck was grazing on the edge of the road across from the Meadow Club Golf Course.

This might have been his younger brother, kicking back. It was great to see so many deer out and about again. Seems like it's been a while. 

Up near Azalea Hill, a California poppy emerged from its tissue-like calyx.

Several cream cups (Platystemon californicus), bloomed around their orange brothers in the Papaveraceae.

Due to the road being closed most of the winter, I hadn't been to the Lily Pond in ages. The non-native lilies were in bloom, but I was more interested in these slime mold fruiting bodies, which I presume to be wolf's milk (Lycogala epidendrum). There were a few bright red spots nearby which apparently is what the slime mold looks like in its plasmodial stage. Now I'm sorry I didn't photograph them.

A little farther down the trail I found a nice fruiting of spotted coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata), a plant that doesn't produce chlorophyll. Instead of photosynthesizing, this member of the orchid family parasitizes the mycelium of fungi in the Russulaceae. Now that I think about it, there were quite a few black-spotted banana slugs in the same vicinity. One of the slugs was feeding on a very old, entirely black and decayed mushroom that was probably among the last of the above-ground fruitings of a russula.

As I walked back toward the car, this little Pacific chorus frog hopped across the trail and landed on a log that seemed a perfect match for its camouflage. I fired off two frames before it hopped off and scuttled into a nearby pool of water where it disappeared.

Once again, another happy day on planet Earth.

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Sunday, April 16, 2017

Blue and Gold

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Sometimes it feels like it's getting harder to enjoy nature, to get close enough to it that our senses and aesthetic consciousness become engaged, close enough to experience that magical loss of boundary between us and the world. To find a virgin patch of wildflowers that hasn't been trampled confers a responsibility to try to  leave it that way for the next person to discover, to say nothing of the specific needs of insects and the general interdependence of the ecological web as a whole. A patch of wildflowers can take only so much of that up-close-and-personal love. 

Meanwhile, the more we turn the planet over to cities and suburbs and food production, the more we impoverish our heritage of wild nature. You know the end is near when nature becomes akin to a museum diorama--look but don't touch--instead of something intrinsic to our lives, part of who we are.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Sky's the Limit

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Eight cars at the gate and the ranger was late. I think instead of squeezing in front of the gate with the one or two smoggers who don't turn their cars off I might just pull into the Pantoll parking lot when I arrive on the early side. Better yet, just leave home a few minutes later.

I guess it must be spring break because there were tons of early arrivals this morning.

Everyone seemed interested in watching the rising sun, but I had a hunch the photography would be better out the other way.

I'm not sure I was right about that, but it was probably a pretty great morning no matter where you were. Way out in the distance in this view, you can just make out where my home is buried under a blanket of fog. Even in the wind, it was shorts-and-t-shirt weather in the mountain sun.

So the sky lupine are out. Among the lupine I also saw lots of individual ladybird beetles, a flower spider, and numerous plant bugs. It's kind of humorous to try to get your camera close to a flower spider or a plant bug and have them see you and run around to the other side of the stalk or flower. Like that will save them.

The wind came up very fast this morning, making it impossible to photograph most of the wildflowers around the Serpentine Power Point.

Instead of doing focus stacks I just went old school, firing off single frames.

Along with the sky lupine, the lizards are back out.

This tail-less one might already have had a run-in with a predator.

I wish I could have found a bobcat that was as cooperative with a photographer as these fence lizards.

I didn't have a lot of time to hike around, so I just poked around near a couple of pull-outs. It was kind of a random morning.

Back in San Francisco I was just a block from home when I drove past this guy smoking a cigarette. I thought his dog had gotten away from him and was cantering down Ortega Street in front of my car. It took about one second to realize the dog was actually a coyote! It headed downhill on 11th Avenue, creating a bit of excitement for me and a neighbor who was out walking his dog. The coyote headed down the sidewalk toward a small boy who was pushing his scooter up the hill, but crossed the street long before the boy even noticed. I think the coyote took a right at Noriega Street, perhaps trying to get back to the other side of Laguna Honda.

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Sunday, March 26, 2017

Tenacity Required

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I figured the walk up to Morse Falls would be tricky after a stormy season that brought so many mud slides and toppled trees--even closing access to parts of the mountain--and I was not wrong. The waterfall is a short hike from Highway 1 north of Stinson Beach, but there's no maintained trail. The usual trailhead was still flooded by the creek, so I took an alternate route. A faint trail through the spring grass told me someone had chosen the same route before me, and not just people, as I surmised when I came upon a bedding area with three obvious deer lays pushed down in the grass. I walked through, hoping I wasn't picking up any ticks.

I went up in February last year. The route was much easier to follow then, but it was nowhere near as green.


I hadn't gone very far up the trail before I encountered this fallen canyon maple tree. Note the new green leaves and dangling flower catkins. Tenacious tree. Judging by the weathered look of the wood where branches had been sawed off, I believe the tree was probably there last year. I'm sure it had no leaves though, so I guess I didn't pay much attention to it.

Hiking up the canyon, I placed my feet as carefully as I could to avoid brushing up against poison oak and poison hemlock, but my tingling legs told me I'd tangled with some unseen stinging nettle. They are still tingling as I type up this blog post five hours later. The route had taken me through lots of wet grass and other low plants, over fallen logs and under fallen trees, and even up the middle of the creek at a point where the old route had been wiped out. The very last section of the trail had also slid away and become a maze of branches from a fallen tree, hard to wrangle through with a backpack and tripod.

I was glad to see when I reached the falls that my tenacity had paid off. Lots of water was flowing over the falls, and the bigleaf maple that keeps the waterfall company was nicely covered with moss and ferns. I had been disappointed last year because the moss was sparse due to the prolonged drought. 

I shot a few photos, only 37 frames, about the limit of a roll of film, before hiking back out to the car. I'd planned to drive north and go up the mountain via Bolinas-Fairfax Road, but the gate was locked. I turned around and soon turned into a pull-out to look at an osprey that was perched on the top of a telephone pole. I wanted to observe the osprey as the tide came in, but I felt extremely antsy--itchy, actually--so I reluctantly got back on the road. Then I noticed another odd sensation. My face felt like it had been shot full of novocaine. I tried to whistle but couldn't do it. My face looked very red in the rearview mirror. The chest congestion I'd been feeling due to a cold got worse. 

I realized I was having some kind of allergic reaction, and I thought back to my hike. Could bare legs brushing up against poison hemlock do this? I wanted to do more photography, but I was too uncomfortable. By the time I got home I realized my torso was covered with scarlet patches and hives. A hot shower felt great, and as I was toweling off I felt the telltale bump of a tick on the back of my leg, just below my right butt cheek. I pulled off the tick, and my wife gave me some Benadryl which seems to have relieved most of the redness and itching. I do tend to get bad reactions to tick bites, but a couple of these symptoms--a numb face and mild respiratory distress--were a first. Now my wife thinks I should carry an EpiPen in my camera bag. Maybe she's right.

All during the hike I was thinking about my friend David Sumner, who passed away yesterday afternoon after tenaciously battling leukemia for nearly ten years. Dave once worked for Galen Rowell, but he wasn't a nature photographer. He was once an anthropologist who studied signs left by indigenous people who lived in the desert, but I could never convince him to create a book of his photography for the sake of posterity. I'm lucky to have a few of his prints hanging in my home. He collected a little art and photography himself, but what he loved to collect more than anything, I believe, was friends. He had a million of 'em, and we all miss him terribly.

I've been reading about and seeing pictures of this year's brilliant wildflower blooms in the southern deserts near where Dave grew up, but I haven't felt like driving all the way down there to see them, feeling content to ramble around Mt. Tam and Pt. Reyes. I've always been inspired by Dave's love of photography--he used digital cameras at times but was devoted to film--especially as the leukemia made him less able to go out and explore the visual possibilities of places away from home. If he was unable to get out and about, he found brilliant images in his own home, always aware of the way the light filtered through the windows, the way a simple piece of furniture, a fork on the counter top, or even half-filled cup of coffee could evoke a transcendent emotion.

Dave was an erudite man, a storehouse of knowledge on many subjects beyond his love of photography, and he was charismatic and outgoing, always eager to bandy ideas with people. But he took a different approach to his photography and once told me he was attracted to the quiet places of the world. I always appreciated that subtlety, that ability to compose an image the way a poet composes a haiku, making art from the quotidian, from the magical realms of ordinary life.

I miss you, Dave. 

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"Beer & Gear" Gathering at Dave and Anna's Place

Dave with his wife, Anna, on the Ocean Beach Esplanade

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Sunday, March 19, 2017

Crested Woodpecker

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I spent the early part of the morning, while it was still too dark to hike down the Cataract Trail, poking around Serpentine Power Point (see Tamalpais Walking for the origin of that name). I didn't see anything new to photograph, but I noted lots of  (silverleaf?) lupine plants getting started (but still no sign of sky lupine), and lots of cobweb thistle (though only one of the dozens of plants had a flower on it already). Later in the day a bit of warm sunshine opened the closed petals of a few scattered California poppies, but overall the wildflower show, to whatever extent we will have one, is still probably a couple of weeks off. 

Returning to my car in the Rock Spring parking lot, I was questioned by a young man who might have been from Brazil (says my gestalt). He pointed the way I'd just come from and asked, "Is that the trail to the beach?" I cocked my head, unsure if I'd heard him correctly. I figured he'd meant to start at Pantoll and hike out the Matt Davis Trail down to Stinson. He had no map, so I couldn't show him that or any other plausible route. I told him there was no trail to the beach from there, but he gave me a kind of jaunty, defiant look that said, "I will find my way just fine, old man." I pointed him in the right direction as best I could, thinking he had an interesting day ahead of him.

The Rock Spring water tank is still dripping from a loose valve fitting at the top of the tank. As I stood next to the huge thing and thought about the water pressure against those weathered old barrel staves and rusty hoops, I had a brief but scintillating moment of panic. I don't know if I faced my fear or just ignored it, but I threw caution to the wind and made a couple of photographs.

I was well down the Cataract Trail before I realized I'd left my water bottle back in the car. I didn't have a particular hike planned, but I figured I might need it if I got ambitious. After photographing this irresistible group of shooting stars (five flowers and a bud on the stalk, instead of the usual two or three flowers), I got all the way to the Mickey O'Brien Trail without taking my camera out of the bag again. 

My throat felt a little scratchy, maybe due to an incipient cold, so I decided to hike back up to the car. I figured I'd do some poking around up on Bolinas Ridge, but as I hiked back up the trail I thought that if the water tank and the shooting stars were my only photos of the day, I wouldn't have a blog post for today. With very few exceptions, that's always the way I approach an outing on the mountain. I rarely have anything in mind. I rely on inspiration and luck, and sometimes I go home empty-handed.

I've been hearing pileated woodpeckers quite a bit on recent trips, and this morning was no exception. These large woodpeckers often sound tantalizingly close but can nevertheless be difficult to see. I was terrifically excited when this guy swooped over my head, crossed Cataract Creek, and came to rest on a jumble of logs just a hop, skip and creek-dipped-shoe away. My longest lens was a 105mm, but I couldn't resist trying my luck. 

The first bird's mate soon swooped by but was much more skittish about me and hid behind trees until finally fluttering into the woods across the meadow. She was soon followed by the other one. I foolishly followed them despite having no chance whatsoever of being able to photograph them with my puny 105mm. I had binoculars, though, and figured I might enjoy just watching them.

To make a long story short, the more brazen of the two birds, presumably the male, ended up pecking so diligently on a large downed Douglas fir that I was able to waltz right up to him. In truth I approached incrementally, grateful for the bird's forbearance each time I moved a bit closer. 

At no time did Pileated Pete seem the least bit perturbed by my proximity, even when he finally prized out his prize, a big fat grub.

I shot a little bit of hand-held video showing Pete working the wood, then gnoshing on bits of Mr. Grubs before he decided to go for broke. Unfortunately, he couldn't quite fit Mr. Grubs down his gullet and sort of spit him back out. He held one end of the grub in his beak and snapped his head to and fro to try to snap the grub into smaller pieces, but he lost his grip and sent the grub into some nearby brush. I felt bad for him for losing his meal after all that work, but he did not seem bothered in the least. After Pete flew away I managed to find the remains of Mr. Grubs on the ground under some bushes. Not a pretty sight.

I got back to the car and drove out along Bolinas Ridge to walk the same short loop I followed last week. This land snail, perhaps a redwood sideband snail (Monadenia infumata), was crossing the path. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the calypso orchid I replanted (after photographing it from bulb to crown) was still alive. Dozens more have sprouted flowers in just the last week, and spotted coral root is already getting started in a few places. I hung out with the shrieking robins, screaching steller's jays, whistling mourning doves, band-tailed pigeons making very weird noises, and mountain bluebirds sounding as pretty as they look. I think I spooked up a poorwill at one point and was disappointed that I hadn't noticed it before it flushed.

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Sunday, March 12, 2017

Winter's Last Moon

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I figured the "spring forward" time change would rattle most people, so I expected to be the first one at the gate at 7 o'clock this morning. Wrong! I had to pull in behind three other waiting cars, and four more followed close behind before the ranger opened the gate about three minutes past the hour. For years I was the only galoot crazy enough to be there that early, but crazy people have become a dime a dozen. 

As I followed a car up Pantoll Road we entered a dark canopy of trees. My headlights caught a strange movement like dry ice swirling inches above the surface of the road. It was wispy waves of tree pollen. 

For the first image of the day I hung out awhile as the sun came up. Eventually it rose far enough to balance the light in the sky so the moon wouldn't show up as a featureless white orb. I still miss the more picturesque, gnarled old top of that Douglas fir. Before a storm damaged its top (in December 2015) it used to have kind of a Japanese bonsai look to it. Now it's just kind of an old flat-top, growing up slowly.

I was scoping out the Serpentine Power Point area for wildflowers (not much there yet) when I found this interesting, very pointy oak leaf. Its skeleton is so tough, the old leaf was practically a stone.

Speaking of which, there are always interesting stones to be found in serpentine areas.

I kept putting the macro lens away, only to have to pull it back out a few moments later. I finally just left it on and didn't take it off again the rest of the morning.

These rocks in the serpentine area are not only soapy-smooth to the touch, some of them are laced with the most intricate veins of color.

I was drawn to this patch of lichen because its shape was a very nice circle, as if it had spread out evenly from its central starting point.

After checking out the serpentine I poked around in the forest a little bit.

I read somewhere that the bulbs of calypso orchids are edible. One web site says they are "edible, raw or cooked, and have a rich, butter-like quality." I tried one raw, and "buttery" was not the first adjective to strike my fancy. The thing is, you feel pretty guilty harvesting any of these little nuggets, and since they aren't exactly yummy, I do not plan to try it again anytime soon. 

Pure diva.

I found a nice spot on the edge of a very small meadow where I could sit on soft grass and lean my back against a fairly smooth rock. The scent of Lomatium, an interesting combination of fresh and slightly acrid, was still in my nose, or at least in my memory, since I'd just been handling some as I viewed its flowers under a hand lens. A pileated woodpecker called out a few times from a tall dead tree close by and a northern flicker drilled a couple of staccato bongo flourishes into another snag nearby. Acorn woodpeckers laughed from a nearby granary tree, and a few band-tailed pigeons shifted nervously in some high tree out of my sight. 

From my pleasant seat I got to ruminating about how macro and landscape photography bring you to opposite ends of your experience of nature. If the greater landscape can take your mind out past the moon to the ends of the universe, the macro landscape can take you to its beginnings, to a point so small that we cannot even make a picture of it in our minds. And yet from that zero-point onwards, matter and antimatter managed to keep from annihilating each other, stars formed and exploded with enough energy to create all the elements that would eventually come together to form the planets, including our own blue-green Earth. A big bang, and then: the initial conditions that led to planets, birds, wildflowers, people.

I watched the tops of some nearby Doug fir trees dance in the wind with a blue sky for a backdrop and thought I had been wasting my life right up until that moment. What better occupation could I ever have than to be right there in that blissful moment? A shaft of sunlight cut through the forest and lit up a shooting star that I hadn't noticed before. So much for my blissful repose! Nature just keeps calling.

As I walked back to my car beneath a canopy of madrones and a very big old Doug fir, the ground was singing with milk maids. Once again, I couldn't resist.

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