Stow Lake … with Alligator?

I was leafing through a sheaf of pesticide use reports from the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, as I sometimes do. It’s mostly about herbicides sprayed on plants. The parts about animals usually relate to rodents and yellow-jackets.

Not this report.  Some people had seen an alligator. In Stow Lake.

stow lake with alligator

I checked the date on the report, just in case it was April Fools. But no, this had a June 2014 date on it.

It wasn’t a very big alligator – two feet, said the report. SFRPD called Fish and Game, and Animal Care and Control. But though they went out to look a couple of days in succession, there was no alligator seen. They closed the case until there’s another sighting.

Do we have our own Nessie in Golden Gate Park?

stow lake alligator sighting

Stow Lake Walk (with Birds)

A few days ago, we went for a walk to Stow Lake. Golden Gate Park is so near Forest Knolls that the outing needs no planning – jump in the car and in ten minutes you’re there.  On this warm Friday afternoon, it was crowded in a pleasant way with both with people and with birds. I have a new camera (I’m back to a Nikon Coolpix – wasn’t that happy with my Canon)and wanted to see what a pocket camera could do for bird pictures. It felt like the birds were less shy than usual, or maybe the crowd just provided a distraction so any one person didn’t bother them.

night heron holds a pose 1
Night heron holds a pose

This night heron was hanging out near the water. This is the same species as the baby birds in the trees that were trimmed in Berkeley.  (Those have, happily,  been saved. Some day, they’ll be handsome adults like this one.)

redwinged blackbird foraging
Redwinged blackbird foraging

I also saw more red-winged blackbirds than usual, and this one was so busy eating seeds near the path that it waited to the last minute to fly away – and came back the minute we’d passed by.

seven half-grown ducklings still hang out with mom
Seven half-grown ducklings still hang out with mom

These half-grown ducklings had outgrown the brown fuzzy stage, but still attracted attention of adults and kids alike.

baby geese sleep while adults stand guard
Baby geese sleep while adults stand guard

The Canada geese had young ones, too. I love how they always have a couple of geese on guard while the flock feeds, or in this case, sleeps.

blurry pic of male wood duck
Male wood duck, Stow Lake, June 2014

There was a dramatic and handsome male Wood Duck. I looked at my bird book when I got back, and realized I’d seen him (or maybe another like him) almost exactly a year ago.  The picture I got was blurry, but I’m posting it here anyway. At least it’s recognizably a wood duck!  I didn’t see a female. Some years ago, I did see a female wood duck at Stow Lake, but she was hanging out with a duck of a different species.

hunting robin
American Robin listening for food

This American robin was apparently hunting.

muscovy bedtime
Muscovy bedtime

By the time we finished our walk, the Muscovy ducks had decided to call it a day. They were sleeping under a bush But the night herons were alert.  As we prepared to leave, this guy stood like a statue on the boathouse .

Night heron posing 2
Night heron, Stow Lake June 2014

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.

McLaren Lodge and the Sunshine Act

A few days ago, I visited McLaren Lodge in Golden Gate Park. Everyone knows this handsome old building.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

I was there on a mission, looking for information under San Francisco’s Sunshine Act.

(Pardon me while I digress.  There are many things I love about San Francisco, most of which any casual visitor could appreciate (and do, when I take guests on the usual rounds of our city). But for someone who lives here, the Sunshine Ordinance is right up there with the views and the diversity. Its implies that ordinary people can ask for information from the city for any reason and no reason, because it’s their right.  I love the way that democracy here is built of small elements right at ground level. A community meeting here, a piece of local legislation there. I burbled about it two years ago in Admiring America and from time to time, I still burble.)

Anyway. I was looking for information on SF Rec & Parks Department’s pesticide use. Olive Gong, SFRPD’s own Lady Sunshine, is responsible for answering these  Sunshine requests. She emailed me to suggest I come in to look at the records, rather than her trying to send them to me. When I saw the binders, I understood why. It made a lot more sense for me to go through them, rather than her trying to copy what must have been maybe 5-10 lbs of paper…

John McLaren in McLaren Lodge Conference Room
McLaren looks down at the pesticide binders...

She was most gracious. She set me up in a corner of the conference room (which would be available for a couple of hours)  and popped in from time to time to check if I needed anything. I didn’t … I just needed not to be distracted from my work by the sheer awesomeness of the place.

McLaren Lodge is handsome on the outside, and it’s gorgeous on the inside. It used to be John McLaren’s residence. The conference room is paneled in what looks like leather: understated, elegant, warm. The view outside is Golden Gate Park.  It’s a good tribute to the man who made the park.

And the mission I was on? I was trying to find out more about pesticide use, particularly by the Natural Areas Program. For anyone who’s interested, the preliminary report of what I found is at the Save Sutro Forest website.

Notes: SFMTA 16 Aug 2011 Meeting about Bike Tracks on JFK Drive

These are a neighbor’s (slightly edited) notes from an SFMTA meeting about adding a cycle track in JFK Drive. They are published here with permission, and for purposes of discussion.

Comments are welcome (but please, everyone, keep it polite? Discussions are great, flame wars not so much.)



SFMTA, Park and Rec., other city agency staff were present; and about 20-25 people.

Antonio Piccagli (of SFMTA) gave a presentation showing the current plan and survey results. That presentation is on their website as a PDF.

There will be a “cycle track” on JFK Drive, which differs from a bike lane. A cycle track is a bike lane separated from cars by a barrier (posts, buffer zone). The one cycle and two cycle  track designs and definitions from the June meeting are at the SFMTA website here.  [The June meeting presented two options: A 2-way bicycle track on one side of the road, or two one-way tracks on either side of the road.]

People who attended the first community meeting on 13 June 2011 could fill out a questionnaire about the Plan. (Apparently the questionnaire was also available online.) There were about 500 responses. From the survey,  the majority of respondents didn’t feel safe bicycling next to cars, preferred the one cycle track; want a continuous buffer zone; want to remove curbside parking…

Antonio said they decided on the one cycle track design. On each side of JFK Drive will be a 6.5 ft bike lane, then at least 5 ft buffer zone, then a car lane. The 6.5 ft wide bike lane allows two bikes to ride side by side; or for one bicyclist to pass another bicyclist.

Diagram from SFMTA website

SFMTA is introducing a novelty “floating parking lane”. About 11.5 ft from the curb will be places for vehicle parking. A big challenge will be intersection design.

This would remove 153 (32%) of the current 482 surface parking spaces along JFK Drive.

Q & A session

Q:  Will there be a workshop for drivers to educate them of the new traffic design?

A:  SFMTA: No, we didn’t have that in mind.

Q:  The existing car lanes are too wide, offer too much visibility, making drivers go too fast. Will the new design provide traffic calming?

A:  SFMTA: Narrowing the road should reduce vehicle speeds.

Q:  There are no signs, notices along JFK Drive about the new design or this meeting. How are people using JFK Drive going to know about these major changes? Only 20 people showed up tonight. You must like flying under the radar to get the plan through.

A:  SFMTA: We posted information on our website, and told neighborhood groups.

Q:  The plan is skewed and heavily favors bicyclists. Residents, visitors require parking to see the many places of interest. Why the need to remove 153 parking places?

A:  SFMTA: It is a trade off.

Q:  When will the plan be implemented?

A:  SFMTA: We need to finalize the plan,  show it to Park and Rec., and the Board of Supervisors. [We’re] hoping to get started in Dec. [2011]

Note from Webmaster: The SFMTA site gives the following timeline:

Project Timeline:
• June 13: 1st Community Workshop
• June-July: Review Public Feedback
• July-August: Refine Concept Designs
• August 16: 2nd Community Workshop
• August-September: Complete Final Design
• September: Present to Concourse Authority
• October: Present to Recreation and Parks Commission
• December: Implement Project


Comments from the neighbor who took the notes:

  • SFMTA wants to provide a safe environment for bicyclists. That is fine. However they are bending over backwards to accommodate one party.
  • 90% of respondents like the one cycle track plan, 50% of respondents like the two cycle track plan.
  • If there are only two choices, why does their total add up to 140% of respondents? Haven’t seen the survey, not sure if people could submit multiple entries. The way data was gathered is highly questionable.


From Webmaster: This note is also from the SFMTA website.

If you wish to comment on the plan but are unable to attend our meetings, please contact Miriam Sorell at or 415.701.4770.

Outside Lands Music Festival in Golden Gate Park, Road Closures 2011

As I’m sure pretty much everyone knows, the Outside Lands music festival is on this weekend in Golden Gate Park.  The Festival is from August 12-14,  3-day tickets are around $200 and are still available. It seems like nearly 20,000 tickets have been sold, according to their website. [ETA 13 Aug 2011: According to today’s SF Chronicle, the organizers expect 120,000 people. ETA 14 Aug 2011: Apparently, 180, 000 — around 60,000 each of the three days.]
So of course a lot of roads and places in Golden Gate Park are closed during this time. (The photo of the map here will show a larger — and legible — version if you click on it, then click again.)

From the website:

“The following entrances will be closed to the public from Thursday, August 11thth at 8:00PM through Sunday, August 14th at 11:00pm:

On north side of the park:
* Transverse Dr at Crossover Dr
* JFK Dr at Transverse Dr
* 30th Ave
* 36th Ave
* 43rd Ave (Chain of Lakes)
* 47th Ave
* The Great Hwy at JFK Dr.

On the south side:
* Martin Luther King Jr Dr at Crossover Dr
* 25th Ave
* 41st Ave (Chain of Lakes)
* Martin Luther King Jr Dr at Lincoln Ave
* Sunset Blvd @ Irving St

In fact, some closures have started already (from Tuesday Aug 9) and though most places will reopen after the festival is over, the actual fields where it’s being staged will be closed longer.

  • The Polo Field was closed Aug 3, and will reopen on August 18
  • Lindley Meadow was closed Aug 9, will re-open August 15.
  • Speedway Meadow closed Aug 9, will re-open August 17.
  • Lloyd Lake and  Metson Lake will be closed August 12 – August 14.
  • Spreckles Lake and the Dog Run will be closed to vehicles August 12 – August 14.

There’s detailed information on their website — all the programs, all the artistes, all the road closures.

Also, a hotline:

Again this year, we will have a Community Hotline to respond to any issues that may affect you during the festival.  The festival hotline will be available from 10:00am – 11:00PM on the festival days.
The hotline number is 415-379-9063.

Picasso at the De Young

It’s very near here, the Concourse at Golden Gate Park. I’m a member of the Fine Arts Museums of SF, so admission would be free (or at least, covered by my annual membership).  It was a weekday, and it was raining. So why not go to the Picasso exhibition at the De Young?

As usual, they did not permit photography inside the exhibition, but no one seemed to mind photos in the hall outside, which is where this was taken. It features one of the most striking pictures in the show, a portrait of Dora Maar. She was also an artist and photographer, brilliant and sharp-edged. (This poster shows the picture many times its actual size; it’s really fairly small.)

The exhibition was beautifully presented, showing not only Picasso’s path as an artist, but also his relationship with the multiple women in his life: His girlfriends Fernande Olivier and “Eva Gouel”; his ballerina wife Olga Khoklova; his mistress Marie-Therese Walter with whom he had a long affair, secret until she bore his daughter;  Dora Maar, the woman in the picture; Francoise Gilot, mother of his son Claude and his daughter Paloma; and his second wife,  Jacqueline Roque. He generally seemed to cheat on each wife or lover with a younger woman. Each of these women featured in paintings.

I strongly recommend the recorded audio tour (unless of course you’re already knowledgeable about Picasso).  It’s 6 bucks for members (and 7 for others) and is definitely worth it. It puts what might otherwise be a rather overwhelming assemblage of paintings into context.

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:

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 .