Monday, February 13, 2023

Burrowing Things


Burrowing Owl at Cesar Chavez Park, February 2011

The oldest form of life on Earth has survived all the great extinction events and is an important part of not just "the ecosystem," but even of the internal microbiome of the likes of owls and humans. Bacteria have ruled the planet for around 3.5 billion years, and all us plants, fungi, and animals had to emerge and evolve in their royal presence. "[T]he cell biology and genomes of all modern eukaryotes were built on a bacterial foundation."

An evolution in bacteria was responsible for the Earth's first great extinction event, which doesn't even count in the so-called five great extinctions, and which made life possible for us eukaryotes. Interestingly, the five extinctions that do count were all a result of rapid climate changes that involved either planetary cooling or warming. 

The earliest of the big five occurred 444 million years ago. But that first pre-big-5 extinction occurred around 2.5 billion years ago and is known as the Great Oxidation Event. It was brought on by the proliferation of photosynthesizing cyanobacteria that produced a deadly gas: oxygen. The bacteria that had been basking blissfully in a warm methane atmosphere for a billion years were unceremoniously torched by this new, highly reactive gas.

As I was thinking about all this it occurred to me that our own ancestral gut microbiomes, most of which are composed of obligate anaerobic bacteria, are pretty good sanctuaries from inflammatory oxygen. Somehow the anaerobes that survived the deadly new Oxygen World burrowed into whatever new forms of life came along that could take advantage of oxygen's power. Now here we are, with each milliliter of our large intestines providing a home to 100 billion microbes of perhaps 400 species.

All us animals, including birds, live with symbiotic microorganisms in our guts, where the tiny critters provide "a multitude of nutritional, defensive, and developmental functions with a myriad of implications for host health and fitness." 

We are dependent on minerals and gases, on liquid water, on microorganisms, and on the plants and animals we consume to power our lives. If you think about it, we truly are one with everything. 

Owl on the Shoreline

Owl in the Spotlight

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Saturday, February 11, 2023

Virga Bow


Virga Bow at Sundown

The last couple of times I've gone over to Grandview Park to look for a rainbow, all I got was rained on. It's only at unexpected times that I actually see one, including this "virga bow" I stumbled upon when I looked out my rear, east-facing, window shortly before sundown yesterday. Although I'd been somewhat rained on during a bike ride earlier in the day, it appeared that no rain was actually reaching the ground when this bow appeared. 

There wasn't enough daylight left to run a timelapse, and I only fired off four frames before the sunset color drained out of the clouds and the bow broke up.

Since I'm already posting something, I might as well toss in a few phone snaps I shot during my walk and bike ride yesterday. My daily walk down Noriega Street takes me right past the scene of the 22nd Avenue house explosion, which happened the day I biked to Mt. Tam. It happened right around the time of morning that I'm usually walking by there. People heard or felt the blast from many blocks around.

Garden Plum Blossoms

Cordoned Block at 22nd & Noriega

Rehabilitation of Golden Gate Park's Middle Lake

Magnolia Along Chain of Lakes Drive

Young Herring Gull (?) at the Esplanade with Cloud-Hidden Mt. Tamalpais

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Friday, February 10, 2023

Tam Cam


Big Buck Passing Through

I figured it was fairly well established that this location has lots of deer and turkeys, so I moved the cams to a new location yesterday. I locked my bike to a tree and hustled up the ravine, only to soon realize I was in the wrong place. It looked like a pretty good alternative location, though, and I will keep it in mind for the future. 

In the meantime I wanted to find someplace a little different, and one of the new spots I found seemed promising, with lots of bobcat scat around. As usual I would be extremely surprised if any humans showed up in either of the new spots, but I was not surprised to find someone's long-lost Aerobie Ring Flyer. You can chuck those things a mile (well, not quite a mile).

Wild Turkeys Among New Spring Growth of Hounds Tongue

Tam Cam Clips

On the way home I saw this gigantic, brand-new-looking ship passing under the Golden Gate Bridge, so I pulled over and grabbed my phone to get a selfie with it. I took note of the ship's name on the stern but mis-remembered it. I thought it was Polar Explorer. It seemed so new, I thought it was one of those NOAA research vessels that sometimes tie up behind the Exploratorium. However, this ship seemed headed toward the Richmond refineries. Sure enough, I took note of the Chevron logo on the superstructure once I got home and saw the photo. It's actually an oil tanker, the Polar Voyager. It looks so spanking new because it was built in 2014.

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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Woodbridge Ecological Reserve


Sandhill Cranes Above & Below, With Mt. Diablo

Sometimes you don't realize how long it's been since you last visited a place, even when your visit was to see, and hear, "the oldest living bird species on the planet." I would not have guessed that it's been ten years since I last drove out to Woodbridge Ecological Reserve to visit the sandhill cranes. When I looked up the reserve in preparation for my trip I found that you now need to buy a California Department of Fish and Wildlife Lands Pass, which can be had for about five bucks a day, but you have to specify the day in advance. I like to keep my schedule open, though, and since the money goes toward conservation, I bought an annual pass for $30.50, and I hope to get a lot more use out of it.

The parking area at the viewing platform seemed much the same as my last visit in January 2012, except for the chickens. It was still dark when I arrived, and when I turned off the car engine, a cock crowed. And then he crowed again. He was sounding off from his roost in a nearby tree, and can still be heard in the video below.

Even though it's been ten years since my last visit, I could still recall to mind the staccato honks of the cranes calling out to each other, a sound that might not have changed in the last 2.5 million years. It was exciting to hear them again in person. They were somewhere off in the dark distance, though, with none close to the viewing platform, so I drove farther up the road until I found a few cranes in a flooded field. Many of the regal birds had yet to stir to life, content to keep their beaks tucked warmly under their wings. 

Distant shotgun pops punctuated a soundscape owned mostly by the companion calls of snow geese and cranes. Both are popular game birds. The cranes tended to gather together in little cocktail party groups, while the snow geese gathered in their multitudes like conventioneers at a HonkerCon.

Once the sun came up, the cranes began to stir and fly off in small groups to their feeding grounds. It wasn't long before the group I'd been watching had dwindled away to nothing, gone like the wind. I drove north on Thornton Road to see if any of the cranes flew off to the nearby Cosumnes River Preserve, but it seemed pretty quiet there. I continued north to the Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge which seemed even more quiet, then continued west to pick up CA-160 which heads south on a levee along the Sacramento River. The route criss-crosses the river over draw-bridges built in the 1920s and last rehabilitated more than 60 years ago (see video for crossing of the Steamboat Slough Bridge). Think about that the next time you cross one of these scenic old gems. 

Driving along the levee road was quite enjoyable, with the river right there, some interesting tiny towns along the way, and very light traffic all the way to Rio Vista. My final scenic stop came just before CA-160 crosses a bridge near the confluence of the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers, where I pulled onto the shoulder to watch a huge flock of snow geese lift off and spiral back down to a new feeding ground. Green and burly Mt. Diablo ruled the background to the south, and a wind farm backdropped the geese to the north. 

Resting Cranes and Myriad Waterfowl at Dawn

Flocks of Snow Geese Getting An Early Start

The Cranes Begin to Stir

In small groups, the cranes peel away toward their feeding grounds.

Roadside Tree Silhouette

Same Tree in the Morning Sun

Moon Setting Over Almond Orchard

Birds Lifting My Spirits

Layers of the Land


Going the Other Way

King of the Viewing Platform

Snow Geese Along Sacramento River South of Rio Vista

SMUD's Solano 4 Wind Project

Mark Your Calendars!

A Cock Crows, A Bridge Is Crossed

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Monday, February 6, 2023

Cloud Drama


Storm Clouds Roll Over The City

I'm a sucker for dramatic skies. I always want the window seat on airplanes so I can ogle and photograph the clouds. It's hard to believe these clouds were howling and boiling overhead just yesterday, drenching us with downpours and exciting us with hailstones. Today I drove out to Woodbridge Ecological Reserve to observe the sandhill cranes before they and their friends the snow geese head north, and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. 

Once again (yesterday, that is) I'd hoped to catch a rainbow arching over the Golden Gate, the Marin Headlands, and Mt. Tamalpais, but no such luck. During a break in the storm I biked down to Ocean Beach just to be out in the wind and sunshine. Boy, the Giant Camera sure has taken a beating this year. The observation deck is open again, and I enjoyed watching the scintillating silvery sea swells, though I had to squint to keep from burning my eyes out.

I'd already decided not to go back to Grandview Park to try again for a rainbow in the late afternoon since photographing another cityscape doesn't inspire me that much. Instead I kicked back on the couch and continued re-reading my book, The Vital Question, by the biochemist Nick Lane. Excellent stuff. Meanwhile my wife was on the other couch scrolling on her phone when she noticed some of the neighbors out on their balcony, way up the hill. It's pretty rare that we see anyone actually use their balconies, and when they started pointing and taking pictures, my wife said, "I'll bet there's a rainbow!" I bookmarked Nick Lane and we rushed to our back window, and sure enough, there was a pretty decent rainbow. We could see it from our back window, but I grabbed my FZ80 and went outside to snap a photo.

Looks like we've got lots of sunshine forecast for the rest of the week, which is great, but I can't help hoping that February has more rain in store.

Light in the North


Liquid Light

Swell Dance

It looked like the tail end, but there was more to come.

Rainbow Over Mt. Sutro

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Saturday, February 4, 2023

Metson Lake


Common Yellowthroat

Riding my bike through Golden Gate Park on Friday I noticed a large Monterey cypress had toppled into Metson Lake. There was only one pair of ducks on the lake, and none of the geese I frequently see there. No other people either, as it was quite wet. So it was very quiet around that too-green pond. Maybe too quiet. The lone pair of ducks seemed nervous as I approached, with the female quacking quietly as if to say, "Keep an eye on this one." A Golden Gate Park duck that's afraid of human beings? Not bloody likely. Perhaps they'd been present when the tree fell and were still shaken up. As soon as I stopped, the hen commenced to quack in earnest as she flapped and skedaddled across the lake's surface, the drake in close pursuit, and flew away to more congenial grounds. 

Just out of curiosity I checked my photo files this morning to see if I had a picture of the lake showing that fallen tree when it was still standing, but all I found were pictures of birds I'd photographed around the lake back on November 27, 2008, including one of my local favorites, the Common Yellowthroat.

My next stop was Stow Lake, where they are repairing part of the walking path. Either the construction notice got the name of the lake wrong, or they are putting the new path on the wrong lake (see picture below)!

Black Phoebe

Common Yellowthroat

Robin Gets A Berry

Pygmy Nuthatch Finds Water

Young Robin in Cotoneaster Bush

Angry-Looking House Finch Shares A Multicultural Bath

Young White-Crowned Sparrow

Fallen Cypress at Metson Lake on February 3, 2023

Construction Sign for Spreckles Lake at Stow Lake

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Thursday, February 2, 2023

Surf and Turf


Ocean Beach on Jan. 31, 2023

Monday was an excellent day to watch the surfers enjoying a rare clean swell at Ocean Beach, but the waves got even bigger on Tuesday, and I couldn't resist bringing the camera down to the beach again. Three other photographers were already there, shooting from a high vantage point on the dunes with big-lens 35mm gear (as opposed to my point-and-shoot FZ80). 

The surf was great, and so was the turf. On Wednesday I stopped to check my trail cams on the way to Rock Spring where my wife and I took a hike down to Cataract Falls. I had put the trail cams in the area where I recently saw a lot of buck deer and turkeys, and sure enough the cams recorded numerous deer and turkeys, as well as a passing fox, a coyote, and a herd of band-tailed pigeons. I say "herd" because there were dozens of them roaming all over the ground like cattle, feeding on whatever it is they find in leaf litter.

Despite the recent deluge of rain, the forest on Mt. Tam already seemed to be drying out. We saw very few fungi, and Cataract Creek was quite placid, as were the falls. Fetid adder's tongue was already blooming in its usual places, although some of those places had been reduced in size due to forest debris blown down by the storms. Down by the falls below Laurel Dell, chestnut-brown buckeye nuts were sending their cream-colored roots into the earth, and several very young buckeyes, most of them little more than foot-high unbranched sticks, were just leafing out. Here's hoping they'll get a nice lift with more rain soon.

Poetry in Motion

Ocean Beach, San Francisco

Leader of the Pack
(see video)

Flying Buck

Bucks in the Wee Hours
(the light is from a second cam)

Traveling Stone

Tam Cam

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