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Sutro Tower Night and Day

September 25, 2015

The moon was rising beside Sutro Tower, behind the eucalyptus forest. I tried for some pictures. I love that digital cameras can actually get something under these conditions! It’s not the best picture, but it’s something. Of course it was much more dramatic and beautiful than this.

sutro tower with rising moon

The picture below is from a year ago (June 2014, actually). It makes a nice contrast to the night view. I love the way the trees soften the base and contrast with the tower.

sutro tower in mist

Free Days at Cal Academy of Sciences – Sept 25-27, 2015!

September 24, 2015

Cal Academy of Sciences has free admission days by zip code, and ours is coming up this weekend.

CalAcademy entrance

From their website:

“Free admission is available for San Francisco residents of each zip code during the designated dates listed below. Visiting adults are limited to six children for free entry. Proof of residency* is required.

Neighborhoods: Bernal Heights, Castro, Cole Valley, Glen Park, Haight, Lake Merced, Mission, Noe Valley, St. Francis Wood [Huh, they missed us. But we are in 94131, so we should be good.]
Zip codes: 94110, 94114, 94117, 94127, 94131, 94132
Fall 2015 Free Days: Sep. 25, 26, 27
Spring 2016 Free Days: Feb. 19, 20, 21″

It’s normally like $35 for adults and $25-30 for kids (unless you’re a member). So this could be a big saving.

Forest Knolls Skunk

June 16, 2015

Sometimes, I cruise around the neighborhood at night in hopes of seeing our resident or visiting wildlife. It’s easier from a car; they get spooked by people walking.  Last night, I was rewarded with a skunk.

It was grubbing in the mulch along Christopher, the mulch that’s still there from the tree-cutting operation a couple of years ago. Grass is beginning to grow through it, but it’s a great place for beetles and grubs.

skunk in forest knolls 1

The skunk looked small, perhaps a kit that’s just gone out on its own. It wasn’t the least bothered by the headlights. I got a couple of iPhone pictures, not good ones but definitely a skunk!

little skunk in Forest KnollsI never got to see its face. When I rolled down the window, it realized I was looking at it, and it decided to move along. In a minute, it scrambled up the hillside into Sutro Forest, and all that was left was a sound of scrabbling in the bushes.

Feeling Guilty About Loving Bermuda Buttercups?

May 23, 2015

I love these yellow flowers that appear in spring in San Francisco and vanish a couple of weeks later. Many others do, too, but consider it a guilty pleasure because they think they’re bad for bees and birds and animals. Since we often have them around Forest Knolls, I’m re-publishing a shortened version of a post about oxalis from (with permission).

The oxalis season is over, and the perky yellow flowers have vanished for another year. These Bermuda buttercups will be back next year to herald the spring, bringing joy to those who love them, irritation to those who hate them, and Tier I herbicides targeted at them in San Francisco’s so-called “Natural” Areas.

oxalis in glen canyon feb 2011These flowers are so visible in spring that Bay Nature magazine did an article about them in March 2015: A Natural History of the Little Yellow Flower that’s Everywhere Right Now.


The article quoted Jake Sigg, the retired SF Recreation and Parks gardener who is considered the doyen of San Francisco’s native plant movement. He hates oxalis pes caprae, which he considers extremely invasive. The article quotes him as saying that, without intervention, “in X many years Twin Peaks would just be one solid mass of yellow, and there wouldn’t be any other plants there…” The article suggested that an oxalis-dominated landscape “drives away coyotes, hawks and owls that feed on grassland foragers, and the situation is especially dire for endangered Mission blue butterflies, which depend heavily on native wildflowers.” Most of those ‘facts’ about oxalis are mistaken as we’ll explain below.

Mr Sigg’s theories align with those of the Natural Areas Program (NAP) of the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department (SFRPD), which uses the herbicide, Garlon (triclopyr) to battle oxalis despite its dubious efficacy for the purpose. San Francisco’s Department of the Environment San Francisco’s Department of the Environment classifies Garlon 4 Ultra as Tier I: Most Hazardous. It’s listed as HIGH PRIORITY TO FIND AN ALTERNATIVE (their caps). Since oxalis is the main reason NAP uses Garlon, the alternative we propose is – don’t use Garlon or anything else on oxalis.

First, a little about the actual natural history of oxalis. This plant doesn’t set seed in California, and spreads entirely by sending out roots and forming little bulbils (like tiny potatoes) underground. It’s usually found where the soil has been disturbed by activities such as road-building, gardening, or trail-building. In some cases, the disturbance come from landslides or something similar. It can’t stand frost. If we do nothing, it would tend to die down rather than spreading uncontrollably.

In disturbed landscapes, it can spread fast. For this reason it can be a nuisance in gardens. People don’t want to leave their gardens alone for years to let nature take its course with the oxalis, and not every garden design includes brilliant yellow as the dominant color for a few weeks. The only way to eradicate it in the short term is to dig it out carefully every time you see it, and make sure you get most of the bulbils. Or use strong herbicides, which may not work.

In a natural landscape, though, it’s a different story and here’s why.


Oxalis is actually an excellent plant for bees and butterflies. When blooming, it provides “copious nectar.” In fact, it generously gives away its nectar. Since it doesn’t set seed, it doesn’t benefit from pollinators – but it’s a food source for honey bees, bumblebees and butterflies.

In fact, a recent 2014 study shows that plant communities with exotic plants had more plant species as well as more pollinators, that pollinators didn’t prefer native plants, and that even some specialist pollinators depended on introduced plant species.

It’s true the Mission Blue butterfly needs (native) lupine as its nursery plant. (It doesn’t depend on any other native wildflowers – only three varieties of lupine. Incidentally, one of the key nectar sources for the Mission Blue butterfly is an invasive non-native Italian thistle: Carduus pycnocephalus).

Lupine has been planted on Twin Peaks as NAP attempts to reintroduce the Mission Blue butterfly there. But lupine is also a plant of disturbed areas, which means that NAP must maintain it or it will die out as the area stabilizes. An SFRPD report on the reintroduction project said “unmanaged habitat deteriorates quickly.” Presumably, they don’t use Garlon near the lupine patches, since it would likely kill that too. Despite what the Bay Nature article implies, it’s not oxalis that’s the issue. The real problem is another native plant, the coyote bush which takes over grasslands in a natural succession.


Oxalis bulbils are a food source for wildlife. Gophers and other rodents eat them. In fact, the Bay Nature article says, “Their spread is abetted by pocket gophers and scrub jays, which have been spotted carrying the bulbs and caching them in the ground—effectively planting them in new areas.”

Since gophers are a foundation species in the food web, being dinner for predators from hawks to coyotes to great blue herons, these plants actually provide habitat benefits whether or not they’re flowering, because the bulbils are there all year.

gopher-twin-peaksWhere there are gophers, the predators follow. Like the coyotes in these pictures, which clearly haven’t been driven away by a landscape dominated by oxalis.

coyote pouncing in oxalis field - copyright Janet Kessler

coyote pouncing in oxalis field – copyright Janet Kessler

coyote in oxalis field - copyright Janet Kessler

coyote in oxalis field – copyright Janet Kessler


The article says that oxalis leaves “bare ground during the six months of the year oxalis doesn’t flower.” That’s not true either.

oxalis interspersed with grasses and other plants

oxalis in glen canyon feb 2011The spectacular yellow bloom of the oxalis – valuable because it the mass of color attracts honey bees and bumblebees – gives the impression that it’s the only plant there. But though it visually takes over the landscape when it’s in bloom, it naturally grows interspersed with grasses and other plants. Like in the picture above.

In fact, oxalis tends to enrich the soil with phosphorus, which is good for grass.

So when it finishes blooming, as it has by now – you don’t get bare ground. The picture below shows the same area as the first picture in this article – but it’s after the oxalis bloom is over. It’s a grassland.

glen canyon after the oxalis season


One argument – related to the ‘bare ground’ argument – is that oxalis takes over grasslands and destroys them, particularly the native grasses. However, grasslands in most of California including San Francisco are dominated non-native grasses. The change occurred over 100 years ago, when these grasses were planted for pasture. So the grassland that NAP is defending with herbicides are primarily non-native anyway.

oxalis and california poppies sm But anyway, what’s the evidence that oxalis is actually damaging native plants?

It’s true some European studies do suggest that an increase in oxalis is associated with a decrease in native plants diversity -though whether it’s a cause is unclear. It may just be benefiting from human activities that disrupt the landscape. Another study put oxalis head-to-head with a native annual grass, lolium rigidum. The native grass tended to dominate. Their conclusion: “Oxalis is a poor competitor. This is consistent with the preferential distribution of Oxalis in disturbed areas such as ruderal habitats, and might explain its low influence on the cover of native species in invaded sites.

The California Invasive Plant Council rates its invasiveness as “moderate,” considering it as somewhat invasive in sand dunes and less so in coastal bluff areas.

In San Francisco, every place where oxalis grows is already a disturbed environment, a mix of non-native grasses and plants with native plants (some of which have been artificially planted). Here, oxalis appears to grow happily with other plants – including, for instance, the native California poppy in the picture above.


Children love oxalis, both for its pretty flower and for the sour taste of its edible stems. Even small children love gathering posies of Bermuda buttercups (though picking flowers is technically prohibited in Natural Areas). The flowers are surprisingly hardy for wildflowers, and in a glass of water last quite well as cut-flowers.

The plant is edible, and its tart leaves make a nice addition to salad. People enjoy snacking on its sour stems. Besides Bermuda buttercup, it’s also called ‘sourgrass’ and ‘soursob.’ It does contain oxalic acid (as does spinach, for instance), and so you probably wouldn’t want to make a meal of it. Though in South Africa it’s made into soup.

Adding Garlon to it is probably a bad thing.

Photo credit: Badjonni (Creative Commons - Flickr)

Photo credit: Badjonni (Creative Commons – Flickr)

From our current evidence, there’s no sign that oxalis has a negative impact on wildlife, and plenty of evidence it’s already part of the ecological food web of our city. The evidence also suggests it’s not having a negative effect on other plants in San Francisco either. Lots of people find this flower attractive; one writer described it as the city smiling with Bermuda buttercups.

[Webmaster: The original article goes on to argue that the city should not use Garlon to attack oxalis – it’s expensive, toxic, and pointless.]


Wild Parrots of San Francisco! – M. Bruce Grosjean

May 7, 2015

It was the book and movie, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill that first drew my attention to the marvelous fact that San Francisco has parakeets. Those birds originated in South America.  They’re related to the now-extinct Carolina Parakeet, which was found in North America until the early 1900s, being declared extinct in 1939.

I was interested to learn, while reading a birding group, that there’s a different parrot in town. Parrots are very social birds, and they need company. Apparently, the stranger can recognize a parrot when he sees one, so the new bird is hanging out with the locals.

How wonderfully cosmopolitan is our city?

The story and photographs below are from M. Bruce Grosjean, and are published here with permission.


Back in October 2012 I reported seeing a single Rose-ring parakeet that seemed to be trying to attach itself to the larger population of our local Red-masked parakeets. Whereas the flock itself is made up of birds that are originally from Ecuador and Peru, this Rose-ringed individual comes from Asia and Africa. The fact that he recognizes they’re all family is fascinating to me.

parrots san francisco - copyright M. Bruce Grosjean

The rose-ringed parakeet, originally from Asia and Africa – (c) M Bruce Grosjean

It was predicted by some observers that the Rose-ringed would not survive all that long, so every time we saw it over a span of about a year and a half we were surprised. But then sometime around a year ago we stopped seeing it altogether and slowly began to believe that this bird indeed couldn’t survive.

Rose-ringed parakeet surround by red-masked conures - (c) M. Bruce Grosjean

Rose-ringed parakeet surround by red-masked conures – (c) M. Bruce Grosjean

So it was a complete surprise a few days ago when I spotted him feeding with a small flock of our local Red-masked birds again. By all appearances he looks quite healthy but still doesn’t seem to get along with the other birds much better than before, and yet he survives – I’m amazed!

parrots san francisco 6 - copyright M. Bruce Grosjean

Rose-ringed parakeet and red-masked parrots at a feeder – (c) M. Bruce Grosjean

[This flock was sighted near McLaren Park. “FYI,” Bruce wrote me as he sent these pictures over, “Some time ago Mark Bittner (The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill) told me that he’d seen this bird on Telegraph Hill, which indicates it does get around.” Here are a few more pictures of the little flock with the outsider bird.  There are higher-resolution pictures at Bruce’s Zenfolio page, HERE.]

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More Colorful Tiled Stairs – Lincoln Park – Tony Holiday

May 2, 2015

I was delighted to learn, recently, that San Francisco now has yet another set of colorful tiled steps… its fourth. These are the Lincoln Parks stairs. It’s a marvelous way to beautify our city – and there are so many staircases to work with!

We have pictures thanks to Tony Holiday (who also reported on the previous staircase, the Arelious Walker stairs). These are republished with minor edits from his blog, Stairways are Heaven. Go there for more pictures and his full hiking route.

Clicking on any of the pictures below will show you a larger version.

Tony writes, “The Lincoln Park tiled stairway (52 steps) is now walkable. Do go see this in person. The steps are at the west dead-end of California St. at 33rd Ave. in the Outer Richmond neighborhood. They climb to the golf course and a trail that’ll take you north a couple blocks to the east trailhead for the Lands End/Coastal Trail.”

I haven’t been there yet, but it’s definitely in my plans!

West Portal Arts Fair 2015: Still Open Sunday

April 12, 2015

west portal fair poster 2015The weather for the West Portal Arts and Crafts Fair today was  sunny and cool, perfect until the wind started gusting around 4 p.m. I stopped by to revisit some of my old favorites and also to see what was new. The Zapotec rug weavers didn’t come this year, but some of the other craftspeople were back.

As usual, it was a delightful mix of wood work, fabric creations, jewelry, fine art, and also some interesting things like scented candles, fur toys, and organic skin care. There were also boxes made of books, handthrown ceramics, and more art than I could possibly really see. The poster said it was 50 artists. They were spread across the first two blocks on the North side of the street, and the middle block of the South side. Of course I didn’t get to them all, but here’s a selection of what I did manage to look at. If you like the look of it – they’re there Sunday until 5 p.m.

These beautiful mirrors are in inlaid wood marquetry frames, and even whole pictures made with special woods. They’ve come in previous years, and I always stop for a look.

wood inlay mirrors and pictures

Another old favorite is Moonlight Shenanigans – hand-carved ladles and spatulas and more. They’re graceful in their designs and lovely to touch. I said as much as I bought yet another piece from David Rully, maple-wood salad servers this time. “I spend a long time sanding each piece so it feels smooth and soft,” he said.

handmade ergonomic and tactile wooden spoonsI also couldn’t resist the wooden toys made with safe dyes. I bought blocks and a train for a little relative. There were also airplanes and trucks, some with animal shapes in them, and fire engines. And some sleek army tanks, which caught the attention of a small group of boys. Who could blame them? The tanks were really elegant and minimalist, and yet rolled perfectly.

handmade and safe wooden toysAcross the road, there were more things for little ones – adorable clothes, mostly for tiny girls. Last year, someone had a stall specializing in cute clothes for boys; looks like they’re alternating years!

One stall had handmade silk scarves and dressy over-shirts in lovely colors. Next to it was a vendor with caps and hats, mostly for women but with a few for men as well.

handmade silks scarves and overshirts - and fun hatsClose by, a stall displayed serene watercolors of landscapes and flowers in a dreamy sort of style.

serene watercolors

I stopped on the corner near the Starbucks, where there’s usually a stall with dramatic jewelry, and sure enough she was back this year. I got her card: Gayle Mayhew of Fun Girls Jewelry and a slogan, “If it’s not fun, what’s the point?” It was beautifully set up, with these strong pieces in pearls and stones and glass. A mirror hung next to it to encourage people to try things on, so I did. And then came a sudden gust of wind, and it blew down the display forms. We all scrambled to catch the necklaces before they fell, and then she rearranged her stall. None of the vertical displays were doing well so she laid them flat. But they all looked wonderful anyway.

unusual chunky jewelry - Fun Girls Jewelry

The Wooly Rascals stall of sheepskin products (shoes and slippers, dusters and stuffies) was on the first block. I bet this looks really inviting on a cold day.

wooly rascals sheepskin stuff at West PortalNext to it was a stall of fragrant candles.

scented candlesThis stall had glowing colored art glass objects, as well as some statement pieces like the pears and aubergines in the picture and some luminous glass plaques. I didn’t catch the vendors’ name, but it looked lovely.

glowing glassware
Across the street, I saw these colorful tie-dye clothes. They’re by Susan Baker, of Rad Rags of California. She has an Etsy store online. The sun-dress in front is one of her best-selling items, probably because of its graceful drape.

brilliant tie-dye clothes from Susan Baker

One unusual item: polymer bracelets in fine designs that wrap round your wrist and are light and waterproof – the FaCuff from Ava Austin. I don’t wear bracelets, or I’d have been very tempted by their delicate intricacy. If they come back with necklaces next year, I’ll pretty certainly get one.

Fa wristbands in beautiful intricate designs
Madd Love Designs is humorous art with a mission to promote awareness of the 5th World Conference on Women. It was mostly pins and magnets of little wire and yarn people and monsters – and artworks of photographs of these little characters by the Golden Gate Bridge. Quite charming.

madd love designs - pins and magnet art with a feminist missionDichroic glass looks so wonderful in the sunshine, and is so difficult to photograph well. You’ll have to take my word for it. The colors here were gorgeous: brilliant turquoises and teals and golds and magentas.

brilliant dichroic glassThis stall had a whole lot of little canvases with landscapes (more seascapes, actually) and still lifes. Just after I took this picture, another gust of wind blew down the display. I hope nothing was damaged.

tiny canvases with still lifes and sceneryJennifer Clifford’s pieces are collages often featuring San Francisco landmarks and a creative use of materials. In the picture with the orange poppies below, the windows of the Transamerica Pyramid are made of a golden lace that perfectly nails it. There’s more on her website.

jennifer clifford's art - collages and moreThese pictures, made from gears and other parts of clocks and watches, had a steam-punk sense to them. The construction was careful and clever. Unsurprisingly, the shop is called Time Craft Designs. The website has close-ups of the designs – and their titles.

time craft designs - pictures from watch partsThis selection of art prints was eye-catching. I especially liked the one with the tall old houses; there’s something about that perspective.

Art prints of san Francisco and more

The final stop for me, just before I had to leave, was a stall of handcrafted organic skincare products. Owner Erica Kriss has her website at

organic skincare


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