River otter in Fountaingrove Lake

I was surprised to see a river otter swimming in Fountaingrove Lake on January 24, 2022 at 8:15AM. The lake, more a city reservoir, as beautiful as it is for what it is, doesn’t seem a really robust, flowing, naturalistic water system given it’s placement in the middle of a golf course. I know it is fed from the east by Piner Creek which discharges to Santa Rosa Creek which in turn joins the Laguna de Santa Rosa.

But, it was really exciting given that I was just on a walk and not expecting to see one.

I managed to get two video snippets that don’t seem like much until the animal dives under the water and showing the hump of the back and the tail.

Some interesting information about otters in Sonoma County

From the Santa Rosa Press Democrat: River otters populations rebounding in Sonoma

The River Otter Ecology Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to the welfare of river otters and our watershed, is doing fantastic work studying and cataloguing the otter population in Northern California.

Toast and Jelly…fish?

No, I’m not eating jellyfish, but I’m not accustomed to seeing them during my morning walk with my dog on the Embarcadero as I did this morning. I know that there are jellyfish along the coast and in (and out) of the bay, but I didn’t expect to see them gently drifting up and down in the tides so close to the piers along the sidewalk.

I still experience a thrill when I see wildlife at an unexpected time or in an unexpected place. I’ve done this particular walk, extending out onto the vacant Pier 32, many times and have seen numerous sea birds and seals, but this is the first time I’ve seen jellyfish drifting along. At first, I was drawn to areas of bubbles emerging to the surface–i’m not sure what was producing them. [I know that jellyfish absorb oxygen and expell carbon dioxide through diffusion, but I didn’t think that produced many bubbles. Were the jellyfish feeding (slowly)? Was something feeding on the jellyfish?]

Anyway, the naturalist in me compelled me to stay and watch, which is what ultimately lead to me observing the jellyfish (and the above video). I’m thinking it was a sea nettle?

Here are some great resources to learn a bit more about jellyfish:

A short but captivating experience reming me of the power of nature to calm and relax! Be sure to check out the Jelly Cam link!

Oh, The Gall of it…

I just splurged on the online purchase of an out-of-print book from an independent used bookstore.  You see, I became obsessed with a particular field guide once I started more closely observing the many galls abundant in my area.

the gall

the gall that started it all–California Gall Wasp

Our native oaks are abundant hosts to an amazing variety of galls—they host more gall insects than any other native tree or plant in the western United States[1].  Looking into an oak tree in California, it might be easy to mistake some of the types for fruit—the variety produced by the California gall wasp are often referred to as “oak apples,” though I wouldn’t take a bite out of one.

Galls can be considered a nursery for insect larva that the tree is forced to produce in response to the activity of the larva—chemical secretions produced by the larva after emerging from their egg causes the host plant to produce material that eventually forms the gall specific to that plant and insect combination.

There is nothing I (or anyone really) can write about galls that hasn’t been better and more exhaustively covered by Ron Russo; the article I linked above gives just a taste (here it is in its original publication).gall book

His extensive and renowned guide on the topic is now “out of print” at UC Press but available at some online sites for a bit of an investment (a hard cover copy is available for just over $1,000). Hence my obsession. I managed to find a used paperback (for much less that the price of the hardcover I mentioned) that is in remarkable shape.

Field guides are a treasure—the cumulation of dedicated research and observation by an enthusiastic, committed individual (or team). The thrill of a well-researched, well-written, well-documented and well-illustrated field guide is difficult to explain to someone who isn’t inclined to the natural world.

This 340-page tome by Mr. Russo is no exception—a thorough and beautiful guide to the amazing diversity and variety of plant galls in California (and other western states).  He worked as a naturalist for the East Bay Regional Park District for 37 years, retiring as the chief naturalist in 2003. He has discovered over sixty-five new species of gall-inducing organisms (including bacteria, fungi, aphids, moths, midges, and wasps).

In most instances, such a collection of concentrated knowledge on a narrow subject would be considered an obsession…well, actually, often the best field guides are indeed an obsession—so be it!

As “social progress” seems to favor the extremes of general, homogenized, mass media or niche, targeted, “tribal,” self-interested content, I’m more content to regularly connect with in-depth, specialized material, especially those intended for sharing knowledge.  True field guides often represent years and years of study, research and careful compilation. Much to enjoy.

Take a few moments to find something like this in an area that interests you…

[1] Oaks of California by Bruce M. Pavlik, Pamela C. Muick, Sharon G. Johnson, and Marjorie Popper; Cachuma Press.

Hungry birds in the rain

I could NOT take my eyes off the bird activity in the backyard during the recent heavy rains—mostly a few dozen robins (& others) enthusiastically devouring berries from what might be a Sambucus or Elder (the smooth leaf margins are confusing my efforts to id it). Of course, robins are known for sometimes foraging en masse like this. This day, it was in the middle of the heaviest downpour.

Spider Might Civility?

spider-mite-webMy juniper bushes got spider mites, suddenly and extensively. They came seemingly out of nowhere and made a significant stand, claiming wide real estate over a number of the ornamentals lining the fence between us and the neighbors.

Spider mites are not true insects but a type of arachnid, relatives of spiders, ticks and scorpions, that can seriously suck the life force out of a plant. I knew I needed to act fast.  Having long been oriented to organic gardening, I was clear I didn’t want to spray a heavy miticide chemical, but I also knew that I had to intervene as each day seemed to bring a widening incursion.

After reading more on the issue, it was thought-provoking to note that spider mites often become a problem (or worsen) after broad-spectrum insecticides are sprayed since those applications kill off beneficial insects like wasps and other mites (like the western predatory mite) that naturally feed on spider mites. Over all, it’s best just to knock down the population of the spider mites and allow their population to be balanced by the common insect predators that limit pests—the “beneficials.”  It’s not an uncommon technique to introduce more or different beneficial insects to expand their population in the garden.

Integrated pest management, or IPM, is a process used to solve pest problems while minimizing risks to people and the environment. I’ve found such an approach very effective over the years. You can read about the approach from the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Do what is needed to help resolve the problem, but strive to avoid making it worse—the gardener’s version of “do no harm.” And by all means, don’t kill off the beneficials, because without them the infestation only gets worse or rebounds quickly.

This got me thinking about incivility and the seeming explosive infestation of it we seem to be experiencing now in society. (Or is it better to say the wider culture?)  It seems to me that more and more, people are agitating for a broad-spectrum approach, which seems to be an attempt to respond to incivility with more of the same—a strange manipulation of “fight fire with fire.”

Screen Shot 2018-07-20 at 11.43.08 AM

This, of course, being linked literally to firefighting techniques of using backfires to remove potential fuel from the path of a larger fire.  Ironically, it’s more about removing combustible material from a terrain to lessen the intensity of the main fire, slowing or stopping it’s advance, hoping for it to “burn itself out.”  Its common use seems to have morphed into the idea that we return fire with more fire, which seems to defeat the original, more measured meaning.

If the infestation in my analogy is incivility, I’d like to think of the “beneficial” as being civility, which is a way of behaving though it’s often seen as weakness and possibility a form a capitulation.

I’m not implying that the initial infestation should be left unabated. Some intervention is required; however, again, the intent is to use an approach that minimizes risks.

In my case with the spider mites, it was a mild organic oil spray and a couple of regular rinses with water to wash away the tiny invaders to stop them from sucking the life out of the shrubs.  It took a bit more effort than spraying an intense chemical, but I think things are balancing out.

Homeostasis, from the Greek words for “same” and “steady,” refers to any process that living things use to actively maintain fairly stable conditions necessary for survival.

“So let us begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is subject to proof.”

~JFK, at his inaugural address




December Hummingbird

Just a brief interlude in the backyard garden at the hummingbird feeder.

Curious about backyard bird feeding?  Checkout this great information presented by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

Should I stop feeding birds in fall so they can start their migration?

Keeping your feeders up has no influence on whether a bird will start its journey south. A number of factors trigger the urge for birds to migrate…

Fill Your Feeders! Project FeederWatch and BirdSpotter Are Back

Feeder season. It’s one of the best things about fall and winter. With the cold weather and bare trees, your bird feeders become hubs of activity.

FeederWatch Staff Answers Your Feeder Questions In Live Q&A (previously recorded)

Drawing Nature

I spent the day in Pepperwood Preserve, a conservation and nature study center in the heart of Sonoma County, as part of the California Naturalist Program certification. I’m taking the course at this location to learn more about this incredible natural setting in order to become more involved as a volunteer.

This first field session was focused on drawing skills—an important part of one of the naturalist’s key tools, a field journal. Now, I am not an artist, but that’s not so much the point. The act of drawing gives us the ability to capture key details of what we see in the field and emphasize key elements that strike us at that particular moment.

TR Charcoal sketch

A quick study across the senic vista. What I most like about this is that I used a piece of burnt log from the nearby fire pit to make the drawing. The 4 smudges in the lower foreground are fog collectors for climate studies.

Of course, being a huge fan of digital photography, I really appreciate my Nikon point & shoot. So ultimately, I find it useful to combine digital pictures with good field journaling, sketches, and detailed notes.

A most outstanding resource on the subject of field journals is The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling. John Muir Laws is just an outstanding and very personable resource with an excellent website. The book is really amazing and in depth. I’m taking it section-by-section.

My naturalist class urges us to use the “Grinnell” Method, developed by Joseph Grinnell (1877–1939), an American field biologist and zoologist. It is, to say the least, precise. Hopefully practice will make…well, not “perfect” but good enough. (To be mindful…)

Our field-records will be perhaps the most valuable of all our results. …any and all (as many as you have time to record) items are liable to be just what will provide the information wanted. You can’t tell in advance which observations will prove valuable. Do record them all!

~Grinnell, 1908


a drawing of the clouds and rain from the journals of Thoreau

I do find that this time-honored technique is an important part of the naturalist experience for the individual while also leaving an important and personal record.  Beyond simply recording data, field journals offer engaging and compelling observations and reflections that provide important context. I was just reading an article that quotes the field journals of Henry David Thoreau (also not necessarily artist), and I was struck by his boundless enthusiasm and curiosity as well as his detailed observations.

Towards the end of the session on Saturday, we stopped under this Bigleaf Maple, native from Alaska to southern California. (Yes, maple trees in California, big bold hardy ones, not those precious palmate maples.) The hills around us are dotted with splashes and zones of deciduous color right now—likely this tree. The patterns that appear indicated specific preferable growing conditions. Given the summer heat, these trees do best with some humidity, like the fog blanketing the area the morning we started, so I’m postulating that the specific and demarcated color splashes in the hills represent growth patterns defined by the effect of the fog rolling over and concentrating on the hills.

Bigleaf maple zone

An example of the color patterns of what I assume are deciduous trees in the hills of Pepperwood Preserve. Sadly, because of the ongoing effects we have had of Sudden Oak Death in the forrests here, some of us were wondering. Closer examinaton may be required.