Finding Beauty Series – The Bridge and the Bay

I live near an icon that visitors from across the world come to see, the Golden Gate Bridge. A place that’s packed with cars, bikes, and tourists on foot, it wouldn’t typically be a destination. But these are not typical times. I took advantage of the emptiness for a walk combining nature and history, strolling along the approach beside the spring flowers and eventually on to the structure 220 feet above San Francisco Bay.

Like many others, I am sentimental about the big orange bridge created in the 1930s, as much a work of art as a utilitarian structure.

Ingot symmetry

The base of the north tower

The north tower

The expansive views at eye level include the San Francisco skyline, Alcatraz Island, and the Pacific Ocean meeting the horizon. On this day, I was interested in what I could notice looking up and looking down.

The afternoon light created a giant shadow, a still silhouette on the waves moving below. Standing in one place, I watched the water to see what would pass beneath me. A flock of cormorants. A small group of brown pelicans. A single gull that I managed to photograph.

A gull in the shadow

Four sea lions swam below. They surfaced and dove and surfaced again, their gracefulness amplified by watching them from above.

My best shot from 220+ feet above this fast-moving sea lion, its head underwater

Below the north end of the bridge is the ancestral land of the Huimen group of the Coast Miwok people. Today, Lime Point is the site of a lighthouse and foghorn dating back to the 1880s.

As I walked back to land again, I moved slowly and touched the plants, thriving in full bloom. I’m grateful that nature finds the cracks in the pavement and the soil beside the steel.

Pride of madeira

Fleabane

Red valerian

Thoroughwort, with thanks to Lawrence whose comment led to the species ID

As always, I welcome your feedback in the comments section.

Finding Beauty Series – Birds in San Francisco


Lesser scaup, Stow Lake

In these strange times across the globe, it’s been easy to feel unsettled around the clock whether checking the news or waking up suddenly from a disturbing dream. As I found myself feeling off-kilter for days on end confined in my house, I realized I had shut out so many of the gifts in the world that come with being an earthling.

Now I’m spending time outdoors where no distancing is required from flowers, from fresh air, from views of the landscape. Beauty in the natural world hasn’t disappeared and in fact, I need to connect with it more than ever. Perhaps you are feeling the same, so I have started this series—to celebrate beauty as a necessary elixir.

In the Bay Area, waterfowl find places to feed, roost, and nest adjacent to and sometimes in the middle of urban areas. Here are some of the local birds whose beauty consistently inspires awe and gratitude for their company. This post features those that frequent the lakes of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco in the winter and spring.

As always, I welcome your feedback in the comments section.


Ring-necked duck, Stow Lake

If it were up to me, this bird would be called ring-billed instead of ring-necked

Female ring-necked duck, less colorful than the drake

Northern shoveler, Stow Lake


Northern shoveler with a ring-necked duck in the foreground, Stow Lake


Hooded merganser, Lloyd Lake


Pied-billed grebe, Stow Lake


Bufflehead couple, Stow Lake


Female bufflehead, Stow Lake

Taking Refuge

Ross’s geese

It was my traditional first journey of the season, my annual solo trip in winter to witness one of the world’s great migrations of birds. The rain was heavy as I slowly moved my car along the muddy auto route at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, in search of this year’s initial sightings of some of the two million geese, ducks, and other birds who travel from Alaska and Canada to spend the winter in California’s Central Valley. Mine was the only vehicle.

The frigid wind was so strong that the shallow ponds, just a few inches deep, had waves on them. The ducks of many species huddled in the reeds as a windbreak, barely visible. I saw just a handful of the geese this time that are often here by the thousands. Where were they?

Eager not to miss their fly-off at dusk with the sound of thousands of wings beating together at once, I headed north on the rural back roads, passing miles of flooded rice fields post-harvest, scanning in all directions. And there they were—snow geese.

I parked on the shoulder. The wind and the rain pelting the roof and windshield this time were blasting from the other side of the car, so I could roll down the windows adjacent to the field. This sound is everything, and I bundle in warm layers so I can turn off the engine with the windows down. I listened to the chorus of countless white geese. Tears filled my eyes in the company of such beauty, again. And in a great whir of wings as the light faded, family groups took off to feed for the night.

It is this moment, this silent witnessing of yet another miracle of nature, that comes to mind now when I think of my year away from this blog. It has been a time of change and reflection, a time of looking inward, of maintaining equanimity during this difficult time in the world.

I’m returning to share my photos and musings on this blog. I’m touched that some of you noticed my absence and reached out in concern. I’m in good spirits.

As always, I welcome your feedback in the comments.

Spring Wildflowers in the Marin Headlands

When the rainy season this year showed up late and coincided with warm spring days, this created perfect conditions for a burst of wildflowers in the San Francisco Bay Area. I spent an afternoon taking it all in, strolling through the Marin Headlands in Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the national park in my backyard. Although their blooms appear to be delicate, these plants of the coastal scrub community are tough and thrive in steep rocky soils, wind, and the extended dry season.


California poppy, the official state flower

Bush lupine Marin Headlands 4-2018 smallSilver bush lupine

Lupine stalk Marin Headlands 4-2018 smallSilver bush lupine
 California buttercup Marin Headlands 4-2018 smallCommon buttercup

Cow parsnip Marin Headlands 4-2018 smallCow parsnip

Seaside daisy Marin Headlands 4-2018 smallSeaside daisy

Mule-ears 2 Marin Headlands 4-2018 smallMule-ears
 Morning glory Marin Headlands 4-2018 smallMorning glory

Sticky monkeyflowers Marin Headlands 4-2018 small
Sticky monkeyflower

 Common yarrow Marin Headlands 4-2018 small
Common yarrow

Checker bloom Marin Headlands 4-2018 small
Checker bloom

Paintbrush Marin Headlands 4-2018 small
Paintbrush

Western blue eyed grass Marin Headlands 4-2018 small
Western blue eyed grass

California poppies and poison oak 4-2018 small
These California poppies are safe from being picked amid the poison oak

Marin Headlands view 4-2018 small

Redwood Parks in Spring


Rhododendron, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

I set off into the darkness, toward the sound of the creek. Though I hadn’t been here in a long time, there was a familiar feel to a trail in a redwood forest. My feet knew the surface below me, and I smiled to myself hearing the sound of my footsteps on the wooden footbridge as Godwood Creek, shallow but swift, moved below me.

I might have hesitated on a dark night, but tonight with the moon above nearly full it was bright enough to read an interpretive sign on the reflective metal: New Growth.

I had come to Prairie Creek Redwoods multiple times, but never in the spring. Even in the darkness, I could see small white flowers adjacent to the trail. At an opening, I watched for bats and saw a few.

New growth. I couldn’t recall so much water here before, audible from a good distance away at Elk Prairie adjacent to the visitor center.

I knew this was a well-groomed, flat trail without obstacles or anything to trip on, but I placed each foot carefully. Not because I was afraid I would stumble, but because each footstep connected me with this forest of ancient redwoods.

There is something ironic about writing about an inherently wordless experience. It was about natural silence. Eventually, I tore myself away from the darkness and the creek to head back to my campsite. But I laid myself down on the same soft earth, to the soothing sound of the smaller Prairie Creek before it flowed into the bigger one.

More delights awaited me when I visited the trail in daylight. I had walked right past a large cluster of rhododendron blooms adjacent to the bridge, now just beyond where I could reach with my fingertips, and snapped the picture above. The new growth referenced in the sign was the vibrant green and delicate leaves of vine maple. The small white flower I’d seen was one of many, the blooms of redwood sorrel. This was the beginning of days meandering among the giants above me and tiny beauties below me.

____________

What a treat to visit in the spring after a near-record wet winter. I had never been there when so much was blooming.

Western azalea

 
Bleeding heart

Giant trillium

Hairy buttercup

Salal

Coast twinberry

I meandered through Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park and neighboring parks, Redwood National Park and Jedediah Smith State Park, collectively managed together to best protect them. Trail damage was extensive from the winter storms with some trails still closed. For the ones that were open, they still had a lot of downed trees and limbs to climb over, under, or through.

Since May was still a bit rainy before the tourist season, I had little human company. The Ten Taypo Trail in Prairie Creek in some places was a carpet of moss from little use.

I was fortunate to observe lots of wildlife. Previously I had seen Roosevelt elk in the fall breeding season, when the bulls have their enormous antlers and aggressively vie for the cows. This time of year, instead the males herded together and the cows stayed as a separate group with juveniles. The young bulls had their new antlers for the season covered in velvet, and many of the elk had a patchwork of hair as they were shedding their winter coats. I watched them from a safe distance.

However, just because I gave them space didn’t mean they did the same. One day, I pulled my car over on the shoulder of the road to watch a herd, and they calmly strolled by just a couple feet away. I took the following photo through the open window.

It was nesting season for birds. This barn swallow glared at me when I got too close to his nest under the eaves of the bathroom at the Trillium Falls trailhead.

Everything was so lush, a tangle of green upon green, with every available spot occupied by something growing, including the dead logs that provided a home for everything from moss to whole trees that sprouted out of them.

Trillium Falls

Even the picnic table at my campsite had a couple tiny plants sprouting where rainwater had soaked them. I transplanted them where they wouldn’t get trampled, and gave them a drink from my water bottle before I reluctantly headed home.

Happy blogger in Redwood National Park

Soundscapes—Winter Birds

It’s the season when the birds that overwinter return to join the local residents, and I once again journey to join them. My intention with these videos is to share the soundscape of calls and wingbeats that is so much of the experience, not the wobbly handheld video in the poor light of dusk and dawn. These were filmed at three national wildlife refuges in California—Pixley, San Luis, and Merced.

Pixley National Wildlife Refuge is a small pocket of wetland habitat surrounded by the enormous fields typical of industrial agriculture. At sunset, thousands of sandhill cranes begin to arrive. They roost each night in flocks that stand together in a shallow wetland to avoid predators on dry land.

Wrapped in warm layers, I returned at dawn to watch them depart. They took to the air and dispersed in family groups to forage in the surrounding fields.

Later that day, I traveled to San Luis National Wildlife Refuge. I walked the trail to a platform overlooking Sousa Marsh. Visually obscured by tall reeds, there’s little to see and it’s not obvious at first how much life is in this wetland until sunset. Standing alone in the fading light, I could make out the notes of a few songbirds winding down their day as the owls were just beginning theirs. All of them were nearly drowned out by the increasingly loud chatter of countless ducks, invisible until they took off in a whir of wings for their evening roosts elsewhere. There were so many they were lifting off for half an hour.

I walked back slowly back in the dark, much quieter now. I listened to the hoots and screeches of owls and the yipping of distant coyotes.

The following morning, I arrived at Merced National Wildlife Refuge for sunrise. The calls of snow geese were unmistakable but they were visually hidden in the thick tule fog at dawn.

Eventually, I could see the flocks of geese. They had spent the night feeding in the farm fields adjacent to the refuge and were returning to rest for the day, but something had startled them and they all took to the air. I couldn’t see well enough to tell if the cause was a common one, the appearance of a bald eagle.

Moving along deeper into the refuge, the sun warmed the air and burned off the fog. I watched and listened to another population of sandhill cranes. They flew above me, then disappeared as they headed out to the neighboring pastures to feed.

Despite the fact that this migration is predictable and occurs year after year, it is no less magical every time. What a privilege to be an earthling.

Ashes – A Poem

Photo by Andy LeSavage

I grab the damp sponge to wipe up the black soot that has blown in on my window sills
I stop in mid-reach
Whose lives have arrived with the thick smoke from 50 miles away

This fine dust
Made of the ordinary and the treasured heirloom
Tomorrow’s to-do list
An aged letter from an ancestor
The walls of a home
A favorite book
A favorite person suddenly cremated at 1 a.m.

I close the windows to minimize the smoke creeping into the house
I stare again at the ash and put down the sponge
Instead I wipe away tears for the thousands of neighbors who have arrived in the wind

Donations to help the Sonoma County community recover from the fires can be made through North Bay Fire Relief, a partnership of Redwood Credit Union and the Press Democrat, or through the Resilience Fund of Community Foundation Sonoma County.