Tuesday, April 8, 2014


This year, for most staff and interns in the Golden Gate National Parks, March 28-29, 2014 was defined by BioBlitz. The term "bioblitz" currently has no formal definition, but it's used with increasing frequency for those in the natural sciences. A bioblitz (n.) could be defined as: 

An inventory of a given time constraint, usually 24 hours, in which all living things in a defined unit of land and/or water are located and identified. In a bioblitz, expert scientists from multiple disciplines (botany, zoology, mycology, etc.) are invited to visit the defined unit to undertake inventories according to their skill and interest.  Public participation (see also citizen science) is generally integral to a bioblitz.

That's my own definition. I'm sure it's more concise elsewhere, but I'm rolling with it. 

In our case,  BioBlitz (with two capital Bs) was all of the above, but specifically the one that National Geographic sponsors. National Geographic has been in the process of choosing a national park each year in which to conduct their BioBlitz. They announce the following year's selection at the closing ceremony for the current one. They've done it for 8 so far, including ours; next year, as they just announced, will be at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. And the tenth, to be announced next year, will coincide with the 100-year anniversary of the National Park Service in 2016.

So, a year ago, it was an abstract concept that was blocked off on our calendars. We knew it would be something incredible and unprecedented. Thanks to attention to detail by dedicated staff and interns from the National Park Service and The Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, by the time early March rolled around we all had a fairly good idea when and where to be during the chaos. 

The planning paid off -- the events, from what I experienced, were quite streamlined. About 9,000 people and over 300 scientists flocked in from other parks and academic institutions. One father/son came from Hawai'i because the dad wanted his son to experience it. What a way to travel!

Sam Hasek enters bird species seen by bicycle on smartphone via the iNaturalist app. Photo: Anand Varna.
The species were catalogued via the smartphone app iNaturalist. If you've got a smartphone, I encourage you to download it (free) and start using it to explore your local patch. It's one of the coolest uses of technology that I've seen, and gives me great hope. I've been kind of fearful/resentful of the encroachment of technology into our lives (except for nature-related blogs, ha ha), but I feel like iNaturalist is a good way to get people outside to start working on their "Life List", or list of all unique species they've seen in their life.

Moreover, iNat also encourages one to participate with a larger community of people across the country and world who are experiencing nature on their own level -- from novice to professional. As an iNat user, you are able to ask for help identifying what you've seen from other users who may be more familiar with a particular animal, plant, fungus, whatever. Got a moth in your pantry? Put its photo on iNat, call it a "moth", select "ID Please", and within minutes someone might tell you what it is. 

Now that BioBlitz is over, the dust is settling -- and it's back to doing what we love: working with volunteers, planting a few more plants as the rainy season comes to a close, and pulling lots of weeds. There's a bit of postpartum depression circulating as this milestone has passed us. But the ray of light is that this is really only the beginning: 2,700+ students came during the event to get inspired to learn the wonders of their local national park, and many of us have been inspired to collaborate with eachother and the public in new ways. 

My BioBlitz went as follows:
Friday morning, I was one of a group of scientists assigned with a station to host busloads of students from Dianne Feinstein elementary. Situated with the Golden Gate Bridge as my backdrop, I was given about 10 minutes for 5 different groups of 10-15 5th graders. My job was to tell them about birds. I decided I'd tell them about bird biodiversity there; then I had them listen to bird song for exactly one minute and describe what they heard to the group; then they had some time to use binoculars. One kid, when I asked what he saw, reported, "I saw a beggar" on the Golden Gate Bridge. (I didn't put that on iNaturalist.) 

Friday afternoon, I co-led a nature walk with some other great scientists from the Bay Area. We had placed coverboards -- old plywood boards in contact with soil -- to encourage salamanders, lizards, millipedes, isopods (pillbugs and roly polys), and other critters to take refuge under them. Then, during the walk, we revealed the critters. We also took note of plants, birds, butterflies, whatever the group could identify. It was a great convergence of skill sets that made us all want to do more than just a short 2-hour walk. 

Left with some daylight, I went birding and was lucky to have a red crossbill land right in front of me, bathe in a puddle, then disappear into the canopy. I think it was the only red crossbill inventoried during the count period of Noon Friday to Noon Saturday. (150 bird species were tallied across the whole park during the event.)

And speaking of BioBlitz magic -- before the above walk began, a few of us were lucky enough to see a majestic adult bald eagle fly over our heads. This was in a place where they are very unusual. Swept away in the moment, I announced it loudly to about 30 people who were there, hoping they could see it and photograph it (I guess I said something kind of cheesy and patriotic, but I really don't remember exactly). Unfortunately, it soared away, but it was a powerful moment.

On Saturday morning, the 7-11am birding-by-bike inventory that I led ironically saw some of the heaviest 4 hours of rain that the Bay Area has seen in 6 months. But spirits were high, and the group of four, later three of us, stuck it out, enjoying the much needed rain, and cataloging 44 bird species. This included the elusive Wilson's snipe.  

In the blogs/news:


Thursday, March 20, 2014

Townsend's warblers singing

In the Presidio, Townsend's warblers began singing their full breeding song last Thursday. My coworker Diony and I noticed that they had not been singing Wednesday, nor any day before -- no, it was Thursday that they began singing. And, it isn't as if the Townsend's warblers are all concentrated in one location in the Presidio. They are nearly ubiquitous: in the coniferous and mixed tree plantations, in stands of willow with the yellow-rumped warblers and ruby-crowned kinglets, and even in isolated cypress trees surrounded by low-growing vegetation.  That day, I observed them singing in three very distinct and separate places, one well out of earshot from the next. I posted this observation to our local Yahoo group SFBirds, which local birders use to communicate with one another, and others had observed the same or similar.

With all the mysteries of nature that exist, I thought it was pretty cool to capture this event. Did a new wave of migrants arrive the previous night? Did the hormones of all the local wintering birds suddenly spike? One of my SF birding mentors Matt Zlatunich once used the phrase "they are all responding to the same cues".  Matt and I had been observing a mixed-species flock of migratory songbirds with very different plumages, life histories, and final destinations northward. I like this phrase because, to me, it means yes, we humans can observe birds' presence and some of their behavior; but a combination of many, many things that we may not know have brought them in front of us for viewing: the position of the stars in the sky; the precise length of day; barometric pressure; wind patterns; pollen in the air; stream flows; the sound of the surf below as they fly in darkness, thousands of feet above the ground.

I probably could have noticed the onset in Townsend's warbler song in previous years, had I been more in tune to it. The strange thing for me is that I'm not doing anything different(ly?) this year than any prior year. Maybe it was just that I happened to use my bike to get around that day, so heard more birds; and that a fifth year in the field here has just added to my own knowledge base enough that I reached a new point. I'm grateful that Diony was there to confirm what I think I was hearing. There are many things in nature that one learns to wonder about. The more you learn, the more you realize how much more there is to learn. As many photos as I do take, on various cameras and now on my smartphone, so much of the experience of being outdoors is a flash-in-the-pan observation that can't be recorded or shared, just experienced.

Townsend's warblers will soon migrate northward to Oregon and Alaska to find mates and raise the next generation. Then, next fall, again they will return to two specific regions -- a thin strip of Pacific coast from Oregon south to Baja California, and another, distinct region ranging from southeast Arizona through central Mexico and into Central America.

I don't have a powerful enough lens for a great photo of a Townsend's warbler to share. (See the link above.) Perhaps it's time I got one. But, here's a picture I took of a small group of birders at Battery East in the Presidio, on participants in my monthly bird walk there. We were sort of hamming it up, staring into the thick fog. It had been one of those mornings that began miserable and became glorious as the sun "burned off" the fog.

Presidio Park Stewards birding the bluffs, October 2011.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Happy Presidents' Day!

Happy Presidents' Day ! (er, Washington's Birthday. Why was Lincoln's name/birthday removed, anyway?)

Enjoy a photo of an Obama shotglass!

Lala's Obama Shotglass, Charlottesville, 2013.

Beardog and Mt. Tam, Summer 2013.

I just don't have enough pictures of Bear on the blog, so he's making a cameo. He looks fairly presidential, right? So does Mount Tam in the back. I learned this week that Tamalpais is a word from the local Native Americans, the Ohlone, who gave it the name. Tamal means "west" or "coastal" and pais means "mountain," or "peak". It, along with Mt. Diablo, are the two eyes of the turtle; the rest of the turtle lies east of the mountain. Current political boundaries make the turtle's other features somewhat unclear to define.

At any rate, the picture of Bear with Mt. Tam is appropriate, since Bear happily spent most of this holiday with his loving mama. For him there could be no better way to spend any day.

Source: Wikipedia.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

American Eateries: Waffle House

Waffle House on Yale Blvd.,  Albuquerque, 2013.
Here's a little bit of Americana. If my diner geography is accurate, Waffle House is found in the South, and Denny's is its Northern answer. And Village Inn seems to be in the West. They are not affiliated, as far as I know, but at any of these you can probably order American food like chicken-fried steak and drink bottomless cups of weak coffee.

I missed taking the photo of its famous sign with Scrabble-like letters spelling its name. Highway drivers in the Southern U.S. know to look for those glowing yellow letters. 

Here's the menu for your perusal. You've got Alice's Iced Tea, Bert's Best Bowl of Chili, and Walt's Soup to choose from. Save room for Bert's Chili Sausage Gravy (Bert was creative) and Papa Joe's Pork Chops! Some of the typos are amusing... like in the Ligher Choices section. See if you can find it. 

Let's go to Waffle House! 


Photographer's note: this was shot with 100 speed film that was inadvertently set to ASA 800, then "pushed" in the developing process to allow enough light to hit the negative. Hence the tonal quality. I kind of like it.