Earthquakes and Ostriches: The Cutest California Academy of Sciences Exhibit

The California Academy of Sciences has an exhibit about earthquakes, so of course, it has ostrich chicks.

You don’t see the connection? Neither did I, actually, but I had to see the ostrich chicks.

As a member of the Cal Academy, admission is free and I can guiltlessly just drop by. That’s what I did today, just to see the ostriches, and was directed to the end of the building. But the enclosure was empty. The ostrich babies were actually outside, being exercised in a large pen in the sunshine.

These little guys were 20 days old, and as you see here, still fuzzy. The fuzz is actually rather like dry grass in texture, and doubtless helps conceal them on the African plains. Ostriches form harems, with 6-7 females and a male, and lay eggs in a communal nest. The females incubate it in the day, the male in the night. When the chicks hatch, they’re ready to run with the flock. In nature, they’d be chasing their mother around the savanna, much like outsize chickens (or she’d be chasing them).

The Academy chicks are indoors much of the time, and so this outdoor exercise time is important to their development. They came as eggs from a ranch in Escondido, the docent explained, and were hatched in an incubator at the Academy. As they outgrow the exhibit, they’ll be sent to various zoos, or back to the ranch. The Academy hatches a new batch every few weeks.

I’m wondering if these little chicks are going to imprint on humans… I was reading on the internet that they do, sometimes, and then the males will direct its mating displays to its human attendant instead of the female ostriches.

Oh, and the connection with earthquakes? Well, it’s plate tectonics.

As the earth’s tectonic plates separated, they parted related birds onto different continents – emus and rheas and ostriches. They’re all flightless rattites, but each evolved flightlessness separately.

Plate movements also cause earthquakes.

And if the connection still seems a bit far-fetched, it’s a good excuse for a display of fuzzy ostrich-babies.

Stow Lake Photo Swap

At Stow Lake yesterday, we came upon a couple looking at something. We stopped to see what it was. There on the ground was a red crayfish. We’d never seen one at Stow Lake before, and neither had they, though they visit often. I pulled out my camera.

“You have a camera?” the lady asked. “We came from someplace else, so we didn’t bring ours.”

Even better, my companion had an iPhone. He could take the photo and instantly send it to their email address.  Which he did.

Here’s the iPhone picture of the crayfish.

(We’re still wondering what it’s doing there, on the dry dusty path.)

When they emailed back to thank us, they sent us this enchanting picture of three baby Great Horned Owls in Golden Gate Park.

When I asked for permission to publish it, they agreed. In a follow-up they said, “One of the really nice things in the park is sharing wildlife, especially with people who may not have ever seen owls, or herons, or bats…

Couldn’t agree more. We’re so fortunate to have this wonderful park ten minutes from our neighborhood.

Stow Lake Surprise

Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park on a golden summer evening… it’s one of my favorite places to walk.  It was past seven when I got there, not crowded at all, though a few joggers and walkers and families were still around.  So also a few ducks and gulls, and something that splashed from time to time.

What was it?

A single pied-bill grebe was diving around the boat island, but it didn’t splash hard, it just dived in and vanished. But walking along the water’s edge, I came upon a possible splasher: a large koi fish, I estimate over a foot long. It was white and gold, not the usual well-camouflaged gray. So maybe the splashing was from fish? I still don’t know.

Stow Lake August ducklingI crossed the bridge beyond the boat house, and was startled to see a little bird bobbing along the reeds on the other side: a duckling. It busily swam along the reads, reaching up into the overhanging bushes. Its mother floated patiently along, just supervising junior. I was surprised because it’s so late in the season. I wonder if mallards can hatch a second brood?

I watched it for a while as it explored, for all the world like a toddler running ahead and stopping and looking, while its mother looks on. Here is again, hiding in the shadows of the overhanging tree.

Strawberry Hill was busy with squirrels, showing off their white shirt-fronts as they sat up to people-watch. They moved with the confidence of the popular, knowing that humans were more likely to admire than threaten. And maybe there’d be a nut or two on offer.

There’s been undergrowth removal on Strawberry hill, and maybe tree-trimming as well. It seems rather bare by comparison to what I remember from previous years. Steller’s Jay’s, blue birds with charcoal gray heads and crests, flew around the trees; the work seems to have opened up hunting grounds for them.

On the way back, I came upon the last surprise. Two people were looking at this: A crayfish. Never seen those before at Stow Lake, either.

Missing Cat [FOUND] – Maine Coon – Jan 2012

A note from a neighbor:

Our gray/brown/black Maine Coon cat, Rosie, has been missing since yesterday afternoon [6 Jan 2012] from her home at +++ Christopher, near Oak Park. She is an indoor – outdoor cat, but rarely stays out long. She has a collar and tag, but it’s hard to see under all her fur, and has been known to fall off. She is usually afraid of strangers, and has never been in a fight.

If you’ve seen her, please email  or call us at [Edited to remove] . Thanks!

Edited to Add:  Good news! Rosie is safe home. Here’s the note I received:

“Thank you to everyone who expressed concern. Rosie seems to have gotten accidentally detained in a neighbor’s garage. She’s fine, and we’re happy to have her home.”

Making Buildings Safe for Birds

“This is a local issue,” a neighbor said, asking for a response. San Francisco is in the process of finding ways to make buildings safe for birds. In fact, the Supervisors are right now in the process of figuring out what rules are needed (they’ve decided in principle that it should be done).

If you think it’s a good idea, write to your Supervisor. (Right now, ours is Sean Elsbernd; his email address is )

More details below (this post is replicated from


Bird-killers. More dangerous than wind-farms, more insidious than cats… it’s windows. (The glass ones, not the thing produced by Microsoft.) Birds can’t see normal glass, and crash into it. Either they die, or they become easy prey.

San Francisco, like Chicago and Toronto, is trying to introduce legislation to make glass buildings safer for birds. Here’s a quote from the Planning Department website:

The newly adopted Standards for Bird-Safe Buildings [Note: this is a PDF file] explains the documented risks that structures present to birds. Over thirty years of research has proven the risk to be “biologically significant” for certain bird species. Recent studies have determined that annual bird fatalities in North America from window collisions may be as high as 1 billion birds per year or 1-5% of all birds. While the facts are staggering, the solutions are within reach. The majority of these deaths are foreseeable and avoidable. The document summarizes proven successful remedies such as window treatments, lighting design, and lighting operation. The document proposes a three-pronged approach to the problem:

  1. establishment of requirements for the most hazardous conditions; ( page 28 of Standards for Bird-Safe Buildings )
  2. use of an educational checklist to educate project sponsors and their future tenants on potential hazards; and ( page 38 of Standards for Bird-Safe Buildings )
  3. creation and expansion of voluntary programs to encourage more bird-safe practices including acknowledging those who pursue certification through a proposed new program for “bird-safe building” recognition. ( page 33 of Standards for Bird-Safe Buildings )

If you’re living in San Francisco, please write to your Supervisor to support this.


And meanwhile: If you find a crashed bird and it’s not dead — try to rescue it by providing a safe quiet place and some food and water. There’s a heart-warming story here on Walter Kitundu’s marvelous bird blog, wherein he saves a young Western tanager. It has some charming photographs.

Red-tailed Hawks in Forest Knolls

Mary Allen posted these two great pictures of red-tailed hawks on our neighborhood Yahoo Group. They’re reproduced here with her permission and her notes.
These were taken from my living room windows… south facing toward Laguna Honda Hospital. They like to rest at the top of the tree on Warren at the bottom of my hill. I have my camera set up ready to go and when I happen to see them, I quickly rush to open the window and click away before they fly off.
(Taken with a Nikon D5000 200 mm lens.)

San Francisco Butterfly Count Results, 2011

The results are in! The sunny day paid off; the teams (34 people) saw 990 967 butterflies of 26 species. Last year, it was 775 butterflies, 24 species. The count this year was a month later than in 2010, and in hot weather rather than on cold and foggy day. Also, they looked on Angel Island for the first time.

The Cabbage Whites were the most common. Next were the striking yellow Anise Swallowtails. These two butterflies accounted for nearly half the butterflies the teams observed.

If you’re interested in more detail, there’s a full list here.

You can Count Butterflies in San Francisco Tomorrow: 3 July 2011

The North American Butterfly Association is sponsoring the annual butterfly count in San Francisco. It’s usually in June, but had to be postponed this year because of the wet weather. So it’s tomorrow, July 3, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. If you’re interested, bring lunch, and contribute $3. They are happy to have amateurs.

One group meets at the Randall Museum (199 Museum Way), with Liam O’Brien coordinating. (Email:

Another meets at the Presidio and will be led by Matt Zlatunich. (Email him at

Cats, Lies, and the Smithsonian Catbird Study

Like many of us in this neighborhood, I like birds and animals, including cats. So I was dismayed to see the recent  SF Weekly with a huge cover picture of a demonic cat. It contained an article by the controversial journalist Matt Smith, using as fodder a press release from the Smithsonian about a study done in 2004.

That study implied that cats are the main cause of death of small birds. It’s become a talking point for those advocating stronger measures against feral and outdoor cats.  But did the study’s results justify it? No way.

It sounded pretty bad. According to the website of the Smithsonian, “The main determining factor was predation, which accounted for 79 percent of juvenile catbird deaths within the team’s three suburban study sites. Nearly half (47 percent) of the deaths were attributed to domestic cats…”  This makes it sound like cats killed a huge number, over a third of the birds. What huge number was it, actually?  Well, six.

The study followed 69 young catbirds (the name is a coincidence, it has nothing to do with cats really) by putting tiny radio transmitters on them. In the five months of the study (May-September 2004),  42 died from predators, glass-panes, or disease. Cats killed only 6 of them.

Here’s the real picture:


Working in three Maryland suburbs filled with homes and gardens, the  researchers tagged a total of 69 baby catbirds with tiny radio-transmitters. They tracked the birds until the bird was found dead, or its signal disappeared, probably meaning it had moved on.

Of the 42 that died, the researchers figured 33 were killed by some kind predator. For 19 of them, the researchers thought they could make a good guess at what kind of predator got the bird. Besides the 6 actually killed by cats, they thought another 3 probably were because they were found headless. But it turns out that many hunting birds (owls, hawks, for instance) also bite off the head first, so assuming cats did it is a stretch.

Unfortunately, when the study was published, the abstract (the summary that’s the only thing most people read) said:

Why is this misleading?  Two reasons. First, it includes the headless birds that probably were killed by something else. Second, it compares the number with “known predation events” — which just means the number of cases where they guessed at who killed the catbird. What they should use is a comparison agains the whole bunch of tagged birds: 6 out of 69. That would be 8.7%.  The graphic below represents the real story.


And since it’s in the nature of predators to go for the weakest and slowest, it’s more than likely that if the cats didn’t get them, something else would have… an owl, a hawk, a rat, or disease.

What really hurts our birds is destroying their habitat. Everywhere in the city, bushes and thickets are being removed, even in the so-called “Natural Areas.”  Some ground-nesting birds like the quail are particularly affected. It’s easy to blame cats, especially feral cats. Though cats do hunt birds, they’re far more likely to get rodents. But small birds are prey to everything that hunts: hawks, owls, coyotes. They need places to hide and nest.

Not that I’m particularly advocating outdoor cats. Quite aside from the whole bird issue, they are themselves at risk from predators, whether with two legs or four legs or four wheels. As their reflexes slow with age, they face greater odds.

[A longer version of this article appeared on the site.]

Twilight Adventure in Golden Gate Park: Raccoons and Janet Kessler

There are a couple of really neat blogs I follow. One is Golden Gate Park: View From the Thicket, with articles about our neighborhood park.

The other is Coyote Yipps, an observational blog by Janet Kessler, who observes and documents a clan of San Francisco coyotes. (Had Jane Goodall kept a blog about her chimpanzees, it might have looked something like this.) [ETA: She’s been interviewed by the New York Times: click here for the story; and featured in an Associated Press story on coyotes by Robin Hindery, which has appeared in a large number of publications.]

Janet Kessler is also a wildlife photographer with a local focus; her website has wonderful animal pictures taken in and around the city. So imagine my delight when I found a convergence of the two: View From the Thicket published Janet’s story about photographing raccoons in Golden Gate Park. Here, for your enjoyment, is the article (reprinted with permission).


a wildlife photographer shares twilight adventure in golden gate park


Janet Kessler took this delightful photograph of a raccoon in Golden Gate Park for an exhibit at the main San Francisco library last summer.  The following is her description of capturing these elusive animals on film  .  .  .

“I had been invited to put on a photographic wildlife exhibit at the main library — what an honor!  As I began preparing the photographs for the show, I realized that I really needed more animals — more animals that everyone would know about.  For starters, I decided that I needed a shot of a raccoon. Raccoons normally come out after dark, so I roped my husband Jack into coming with me, because, also, I would be visiting unknown parts of the park. We had an early supper and headed out well before dark: me with my camera, and Jack with a powerful emergency flashlight which we bought years ago for, well, not exactly this kind of activity, but it was the best we had. I had no special nighttime photography equipment — the emergency flashlight would have to do.

Jack also carried his brand new iPhone — it can do anything. We started walking in the park, not knowing anything at all about raccoons, just relying on hope. Jack wanted a little more guidance — he didn’t want to stay out all night, and we couldn’t decide on where to find raccoons. So, as we walked, he looked up “raccoon” on the internet. Of absolute relevance, but a complete surprise to us, was that raccoons live in trees. Come on, give me a break! We argued this, back and forth, but finally decided to “look up” as we walked — “just in case” — maybe we would see something. As it got darker, I eventually noticed a denser area up in one of the trees. I looked and looked, and decided, without really being able to see anything, that this might  be a raccoon way up there, 75 feet above the ground.

So, we settled down and waited — until Jack had had enough and said it was time to go. After all, there were unsavory fellas roaming around, too close for comfort, and they were even looking at us. He did not like it. But I felt safe with him, and decided we needed to stay a little longer — I think my enthusiasm and sense of adventure may have overpowered him. We decided to sprawl out on the ground at the base of the tree,  to avoid neck-cramps. Here we enjoyed looking up into the tree branches — the way we all have when we were little.

We had arrived in the park at 6:00pm, and now it was 10:00pm, when slowly we began to notice movement. Ahh, something was happening. The movements occurred infrequently at first, but slowly, ever so slowly, there was more. And then, YES, we saw a raccoon tail — you could barely make out the stripes, but they were there!  Yes, this would be my chance to take a raccoon photo. The raccoon was still high up in the tree, so we remained in our prone positions so as not to cause alarm. There was more movement. And then we noticed something very strange. That tail over there couldn’t possibly be connected to that raccoon, could it? Noooo — there were two raccoons! We could feel our excitement mounting.

The raccoons were still high up in the tree when, oh no, could it be? We now counted three of them!!  It is at this time that we got up. My husband shined the light on the raccoons and I tried taking photos as they all slowly made their way down the tree trunk. A flashlight hardly produces enough light for taking photos, but we were able to get some fairly decent shots. After reaching the ground, the mom moved off, as did the larger of the cubs. But the smallest, the runt, actually turned around and came back to examine us from a high log on the ground. Hi there! The shutter of my camera kept getting stuck because of the lack of light, but we did get the photos I wanted, which I am including here.

We went home that evening, not only with a few raccoon photos, but also with an adventure to remember and a story to tell!  Golden Gate Park at Twilight!”

Here’s a link to Janet Kessler’s [photo] website:

A Barn Owl’s Sad End

One of San Francisco’s ace birders, Dominik Mosur, works at San Francisco’s Randall Museum, and occasionally gets calls from people finding birds in distress. On this occasion, it was worse than distress. The barn owl in a pine tree at the Mission High School was dead. The bird had lived around there for some months, hunting and perching.  Now it was dead.

Photo credit: Dominik Mosur

He retrieved the body and found the cause of death. Some netting, possibly from a Christmas tree, had caught on the owl’s foot, and snagged on a branch, trapping it.

This is a message to please think about discarded materials  — particularly things like plastic netting, fishing line, or six-pack holders. If this had been rope, maybe the bird could have bitten through it and escaped. With plastic, there was no way.

According to Rebecca Dmytryk of WildRescue, a wildlife rescue organization in Moss Beach:

“Sadly, this sort of accident is not unusual. Birds can become tangled in discarded fishing line, kite string, or netting, then the material catches on a branch and then they’re stuck, sometimes hanging upside down. The worst part about this story though, is that no one knew it was in trouble I guess, and it starved to death.”

A press release on the subject said:

Dmytryk hopes this story will prompt people to be more vigilant and quicker to report wild animals in distress. If they do not know whom to call they can use Wildrescue’s toll-free hotline that will provide the number to the nearest rescue organization – that’s 1-866-WILD-911. They can also report injured wildlife directly to or paging a rescue team at 831-429-2323.

Anyone interested in learning more about what to do when they find an injured wild animal may be interested in attending their Wildlife Search & Rescue class being given in coming weeks.

Learn what to do when you come face to face with a wild animal that’s in trouble and needs help. Learn how to become part of a team of trained and qualified rescuers who respond to emergencies involving wildlife on a regular basis. This class is the ONLY one of its kind and is tailored for those who work with animals and want to better their skills and those who have an interest in becoming a volunteer wildlife rescuer.

The lecture part of the class covers laws and regulations governing wildlife rescue, human safety and animal safety concerns, capture strategies, proper animal handling techniques, basic first aid for wildlife accident victims, and initial care of healthy wild babies. The afternoon portion of the program gives students the opportunity to try out equipment and practice their skills with Robo-Duck.
To REGISTER :  w i l d r e s c u e . o r g (831) 840-3896

ALAMEDA:  FEBRUARY 5, 9:00 – 3:00, Shorebird Nature Center, 160 University Ave. Berkeley
SANTA CLARA: JANUARY 28, 9:00 – 3:00, Morgan Hill PD, 16200 Vineyard Blvd. Morgan Hill
MONTEREY:  JANUARY 15, 9:00 – 3:00 Elkhorn Yacht Club, 2370 Highway 1 Moss Landing
SANTA CRUZ: JANUARY 29, 9:00 – 3:00, Santa Cruz PD, 155 Center Street,Santa Cruz

Stow Lake with Winter Birds

Having Golden Gate Park so close to home is a gift.

It was a beautiful afternoon, and we headed for Stow Lake. So did a number of  winter birds, the ones that spend their summers in the Arctic and their winters in San Francisco.

I hadn’t brought my bird-book, and couldn’t ID them, being more of a wannabe birder than an expert; but they graciously posed for photos. After that, it was on to my Lone Pine Field Guide of the Birds of Northern California, and a little help from Google.

There were gulls.  Most people consider gulls a  white or brown-streaked aquatic version of crows and ravens. So I was surprised to discover several different species of gull at Stow Lake, besides the ubiquitous Western Gull.

Mew Gull


The first one I saw was a little self-conscious Mew Gull. These gulls visit San Francisco in winter, hanging out in Alaska and Canada during the summer.

Not a Thayer's Gull, but not yet identified

The Thayer’s gull, which resembled the snow owl from the Harry Potter books,  was so pretty I took a bunch of photographs. It looked like it was covered in lace. It also spends summers in the Canadian arctic. This is probably a young gull in its first year. As it grows older, it’ll look quite different — more like the Western Gull. [Edited to Add: This gull apparently is not a Thayer’s. It may be a cross between two other species of gulls. I didn’t actually know there were such things as gull hybrids, which complicates an already tough-for-amateurs identification problem. Thanks to expert birders in the SF Birds Yahoo Group, where the discussion continues.]

Herring Gull

This herring gull really did look like it was posing on that rock, standing sentinel. It’s another winter visitor, just like the Mew and the Thayer’s.

Feeding Frenzy

Someone brought Cheerios for the birds. Gulls have no table manners. Lots of violence and swearing. Luckily the kid couldn’t understand gull-speak.

White-fronted Geese

Usually the geese out at Stow Lake are the big Canada geese everyone knows. But today, there were three White-Fronted Geese cropping at the grass on the roadside, and ignoring people passing within a few feet of them. Don’t know why they’re called white-fronted — they look very brown to me. (The black bird in the picture above is an American Coot.)

And finally, there was this odd duck with a brown head and white throat. I don’t know if it’s a species I couldn’t ID, or if it’s just a variant of the Mallards we see everywhere.

An unexpected bonanza for what was planned as a lovely afternoon walk .

Evening Walk with Owl and Moon

I went for a walk around our neighborhood last evening… Forest Knolls is easy night-time walking. Good sidewalks. Bright but not oppressive lighting. A dramatic crescent moon setting over a theatrical city-lights backdrop.

And a barn owl, flying overhead. They’re very silent, so I can’t say what made me look up, but there it was, winging its way over the neighborhood. It may have been hunting, but I think it was just checking the place out.

It’s easy to tell a barn owl from a great horned owl — our other neighborhood owl —  even in the dark, even in flight. A barn owl appears white, and its head looks round. It’s sometimes called a “ghost owl.” It doesn’t have the “ears” or “horns” that a great horned owl has. It also flies more nimbly. Rodents, beware!

The picture here isn’t the owl I saw; that was moving too fast for my camera and my reflexes. It’s a public domain picture that I’ve tweaked to make it somewhat similar to that owl. I wonder if this was the same owl I saw some weeks ago on Twin Peaks.

Wildlife Rescue

Living near the forest as we do, we have a fair amount of wildlife around us: birds, raccoons, skunks, opossums, coyotes and who knows what else. So what happens if you’re suddenly responsible for a small, injured creature?

Today I found out, when I volunteered as an ambulance for a Green Heron. You take it to WildCare in San Rafael (at  76 Albert Park Lane, San Rafael, CA 94901).

Actually, first  you find out if it actually needs help:

  • Call Wildcare at 415-456-7283 (9 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
  • If it’s after 5pm PST (Pacific Standard Time), call their 24-hour Nightline at 415-300-6359.
  • Read their very informative page.

Then you decide if you should take it in. It’s a long drive, but you might save a critter’s life. 

They’re open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day of the year, and they have a wildlife hospital. They try to rehabilitate the animal or bird, and release it back to the area it was picked up. (California law does not permit relocation of wildlife.)

It’s a pleasant place, just across a little creek, which has tree-lined banks and a resident duck population. The courtyard is lined with cages, enclosing birds that cannot be released, usually because they have a disability that prevents them from fending for themselves. It also has a pond with a couple of resident pelicans (one brown, one white), a sea-gull, and an egret that may just have been visiting.

The Green Heron had flown into someone’s living room, and been brought to the Randall Museum. Though they do have an animal room, they don’t do wildlife rehabilitation, so the bird needed to go to Wildcare. [ETA: Wildcare sent an emailed update: “The Green Heron was suffering from wounds and I see a note of a fracture. I see from the log book that it was transported to International Bird Rescue up in Fairfield on the 7th. IBRRC have the facilities best suited to shore
birds and one of our fantastic volunteers gave the Heron a ride up there.”]

I took a photo of it, then dropped it off, and spent a few minutes looking round at the denizens of the courtyard. (Visitors are welcome.)  The birds were beautiful – a Swainson’s hawk, a spotted owl, and a turkey vulture among others.

Each was accompanied by naturalist’s notes. They were all informative, but my favorite may have been the one by the turkey vulture. “Don’t be surprised to see a melon in here with our Turkey Vulture,” it said. “Although they eat carrion, they do like a change once in a while. In fact, there have been cases where large numbers of Turkey Vultures have descended on a pumpkin patch.”

The image was irresistible, especially in this season.

Critter-Spotting on a Foggy Night

A foggy night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets… and me, prowling along in my little car, hoping it would share them. Not the kind of secrets found in City Hall or downtown in the dark alleys… critters.

Foggy nights are often good for critter-spotting. On Panorama Drive, I saw a trio of raccoons chase each other across the road and disappear into the shadows between two houses. And then, on Twin Peaks, which was densely swathed in fog, a barn owl!

I’ve been wanting to see one, ever since learning that they do inhabit San Francisco. This one was sitting by the side of the road, like a large white cat wanting to thumb a ride. Cursing myself for forgetting my camera, I stopped the car and put my flashers on to watch it.  I was afraid someone coming fast round the bend might take it out, and wished it would move. It walked down the road a bit, which didn’t help. Two cars went around me.  Then the  owl took flight, just a few feet, but thankfully onto the hillside.

I went home for my camera, but the owl had moved on. At least it wasn’t roadkill.

Our Neighborhood Owls

Yes, there's a great horned owl on the branch...

Out for a walk by Sutro Forest yesterday evening, we saw our neighborhood Great Horned Owls. They live and nest in the forest, and come out around dusk. I first noticed them some years ago, and I’d heard them even before that. (If you hear a soft resonant hoot, that’s them. Most other kinds of owls don’t hoot; they screech or cry out.)

Great horned owl, not a bunch of leaves.

One of them was perched in the fork of a big eucalyptus tree, looking out at the landscape, waiting for dark and hunting time. As we stopped to watch the watcher, its mate arrived, landed on a higher branch, and looked around with interest. As long as we chattered, they ignored us, but when we whistled softly, they bobbed their heads and turned to look at us.

No one had a camera, so these indistinct images are from a cell phone.

It was amazing, to see these splendid birds so near home. “I’ve never seen owls so close up before,” said my companion. We felt very lucky indeed.

Sutro Forest Planned Actions

As many of you know, UCSF is planning some major changes in Sutro Forest, the dense eucalyptus forest behind our homes – the “Forest” in Forest Knolls. Many of these will affect our neighborhood directly. Details are on the SaveSutro website. A few people from our neighborhood – including Walter Caplan and Kristine Zaback from the Forest Knolls Neighborhood Organization – have been attending these meetings.

1) On South Ridge (the forest area above the junction of Christopher and Crestmont) UCSF plans to cut down around 2000 trees on 3 acres to space them an average 30 feet apart,  mow down all the plants growing under the trees, and use Roundup/ Garlon on a 1-acre test site to prevent it from coming back.

Our concerns are the use of herbicides upslope from our neighborhood, potential for displaced wildlife (including rodents) to move into our area, micro-climate changes and how it will look.  Drying out the forest by thinning the trees may also create a fire hazard similar to the forest in 1934, when it was being logged.

No other demonstration area lies directly above a residential neighborhood, and we had hoped UCSF would consider a different area. It hasn’t.

2) The trail leading straight up from Christopher into the forest will be re-routed into a hairpin trail that lies above Christopher. Houses below this route may lose some privacy as trail users will be able look down into them.

3) A new trail will be cut from Clarendon behind the new pump station and through the curtain of trees between the Aldea student housing and Christopher. This screen of trees has already been thinned considerably because of the PUC water project.

In the map above: 1 is the Gash cut into the forest for the water-line; 2 the concrete pad that was supposed to be returned to the forest but has instead been enclosed with a chain-link fence; 3 the area of the old pump station where the thinned trees make the buildings on the Aldea campus quite visible; and 4 the new pump station, with very few trees behind it. The blue lines are the planned new trails, and the pink one the existing trail. (Edited to Add: The aqua line shows the boundary of UCSF’s Aldea Student Housing.)

Residents nearby had hoped the screen would be regrown, not further thinned. In fact, there is no hope of a screen of trees between the new pump station and the Aldea campus; there’s no space. The pump station grounds extend nearly all the way to the Aldea campus boundary.

Pump Station on poster
New Pump Station in reality

The issue of hazardous trees along Crestmont was also raised. UCSF says they are the City’s responsibility; apparently the City, after staging the area (see the picture) has said they are UCSF’s problem and didn’t remove them. UCSF said they would discuss the matter with the city.

Edited to Add 1: Crestmont does not appear to be on the list of streets with City-maintained trees.

Edited to Add 2: We understand neighbors complained to the SF Fire Department. UCSF’s Barbara Bagot-Lopez sent out a message saying: San Francisco Fire Department had recently issued a “Notice of Corrective Action Required” stating that an area of the Reserve above Crestmont Avenue contains an “accumulation of combustible material”; UCSF will be resolving this issue.

We hope the corrective action will deal with the hazardous trees rather than merely further implementation of the predetermined plan.

Edited to Add 3:  Kathleen asked for contact information. Here it is:

Whom to contact:

For UCSF, there are whole bunch of people. The Chancellor, Dr. Susan Desmond-Hellman, is at 3333 California Street, Suite 103, San Francisco, CA 94143. Here’s a link to others involved.

For SF PUC: Not sure, try Suzanne Gautier( Here’s a link to the meetings schedule of the SFPUC Commission. (If anyone has other contacts/ resources, please note them here.)

For the City, the Urban Forester is at (415) 641-2674.

Mayor Gavin Newsom and Supervisor Sean Elsbernd are at City Hall, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, San Francisco, CA 94102.

Mayor Newsom: Telephone: (415) 554-6141;  Fax: (415) 554-6160;  Email:

Supervisor Elsbernd:
(415) 554-6516; Fax (415) 554-6546 – fax; Email:

Around: Stow Lake Evening

A marvelous feature of our neighborhood is that it’s so close to Golden Gate Park.

Mt Sutro from Stow Lake – shows UCSF (Photo credit: LC)

The park is full of wonders, from the carousel to the Japanese Garden to the museums and golf-course and windmill… but Stow Lake remains a favorite. (Not just with me – this neat essay talks about looking for microbes in Stow Lake water.)

Stow Lake is an artificial lake that feels natural. With the island of Strawberry Hill in the middle, and smaller islands where birds can safely nest, it’s become a bird and animal habitat. At the same time, it’s very accessible.  It’s paved all round, which means that even people who can’t safely walk trails can go around the lake. For those who want more, Strawberry Hill has trails encircling it and climbing it. And there are the boats, or at least, if you go early enough and are willing to pay the fees, there are boats. (Stow Lake access is free.) Parking is seldom a problem.

Old postcard from Save Stow Lake Boathouse website shows college that became UCSF. (Click on pic to go to website.)

Being San Francisco, of course there’s a controversy: A historic boat house and snack stand on the edge of the lake may be turned into a cafe (this links to a PDF file from Rec and Parks, describing the project and asking for proposals from interested concessionaires.) Opponents  fighting to prevent a restaurant fear it will alter the historic character of the boat-house and destroy the peace of the area. I wonder if this latest iteration (dated 5 March 2010) which notes that Rec and Parks don’t want a restaurant with table-service (i.e., upscale) represents an acceptable compromise?

I was at the lake one evening, not long ago. It was too late for the boats, late enough that most people had left, except for a few joggers and dog-walkers.  The lake had ducks, coots, Canada geese, and seagulls, but most of them had called it a day. Even the herons in the nesting colony in the trees near the boathouse had settled down.

A rat ran through the undergrowth, and a few squirrels. This one glared at me from a redwood. They’re pretty unafraid, out at Stow Lake. They know we’re not going to eat them, and who knows, maybe we’ll feed them.

The birds were starting to look for places to roost, and I heard the soft, resonant hoot of a Great Horned Owl. Bats emerged in ones and twos, fluttering and swinging across the sky.

Finally the moon rose over the pines. Peaceful.

Stray Black Pup [Safe home now]

This pup was wandering around the neighborhood on 24th Feb, between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. Saw it on Christopher near Crestmont, and then down on Oak Park.

Black, female, white collar with blue turquoise-look decorations.

ETA: Someone just posted the following note on the community newsgroup (Feb 25th evening):

“stray puppy is home and safe….and absolutely adorable.”

Here’s to happy endings!

Great Horned Owls in the Forest

The first owl...

If you live near the forest, perhaps you’ve heard the soft hoots at dusk, or in the early morning. Soft, but a sound that carries. Those are our Great Horned Owls; they nest in Sutro Cloud Forest.

Recently, we were up in the forest at dusk, and along a trail, as the light faded, we saw them. First we noticed one on a branch high overhead. It saw us, looked down, and decided we were neither threatening nor edible. Then there was an almost noiseless flapping, and another owl settled into a tree on the other side of the trail.

... and its mate

We didn’t want to use a flash, of course; that would disturb the birds. But we got something of a picture without one.