Our Forest Knolls Coyotes

We’ve known for years that coyotes are all around us in Forest Knolls – I wrote about it here when a couple of neighbors reported seeing them. (LINK: Coyotes Among Us)

But this time, neighbor Michelle Lukban got this really neat picture (published here with permission). For everyone who’s been jealous of Bernal Heights coyote pictures, we got ours! [Edited 3/27/17 to correct attribution of picture]

 

BEING CAREFUL AROUND COYOTES

Janet Kessler,  the Jane Goodall of SF’s coyotes, has for many years been observing, photographing, and reporting on our San Francisco coyotes. Her website is at CoyoteYipps.com. She’s also involved with Coyote Coexistence, an organization that helps people and coyotes to co-exist safely.

For guidelines on staying safe – and keeping pets safe – around coyotes, click on this LINK:  Coyote Coexistence Guidelines

And here’s a 30-minute video on the subject.

Coyotes are not very concerned about people, and are generally quite shy of them. But they are very interested in dogs. Coyotes are territorial animals, and dogs could be considered interlopers. Also, some dogs chase coyotes, and so coyotes may feel threatened.  Often the coyote will remember which dog it was. Don’t let your dog do this. It could be dangerous for both animals. Finally, really small dogs – and cats – may be viewed as prey. This is rare, but it has happened. If you have pets, the video above may be useful.

Coyote looking at a dog (2011)

What’s Happening with the Coyotes?

coyote looking at dog, San Francisco
Coyote looking at dog, San Francisco, Aug 2011

A couple of days ago, neighbor Greg Flowers posted this on our Nextdoor site. (It’s reproduced here with permission.)

COYOTE SCARE

“After my experience last night, I plan to behave much differently when I am met by a coyote (or two) on the Sutro trails or on our neighborhood sidewalks. My usual MO is to respect its space and maybe snap a few photos of it as past encounters have been limited to in the woods of Mt. Sutro, and they usually run away.

“I took my dog out last night for a walk around the neighborhood around 10:45p following Christopher Dr east. As we were passing 15 Christopher, there was a rustle in the bushes and my dog lunged into the darkness. I pulled him back and we continued a few steps and then I saw it was indeed a coyote. It crossed the street into the woods and we made it to Clarendon before I turned and saw there were now two coyotes stalking us.

“Now I’m concerned and my dog is very interested in playing or giving chase. I tried to make myself look big and menacing, yelled a bit and made like I was going to charge them but they continued toward us so I then made the mistake of turning and continuing down Clarendon to get to Oak Park, looking over my shoulder constantly. No cars or people were out at this time and the fog + blood moon combo + coyotes stalking me really affected my nerves. The coyote in front crossed Clarendon as if it was planning to circle around to surround us and so when I got to Oak Park we turned the corner and sprinted all the way back to Christopher and Oak Park til we got home. That wasn’t the smartest choice but they didn’t follow me back into the neighborhood which was a huge relief.

“I’m posting this as a learning experience for myself and hoping it will help raise the awareness about the coyote presence around these parts. The closest I let them get to us was about 20 yards and my dog is 60lbs and these coyotes appeared larger than him. Because they were unaffected by my dog’s size and my scare tactic, I looked online and found this explanation of how to ‘haze’ coyotes so that they will fear humans again: Coyote Hazing: Guidelines for Discouraging Neighborhood Coyotes

“Hopefully we can make a neighborhood effort toward keeping coyotes, all our pets, and ourselves safe and that starts with coyotes maintaining a healthy fear of humans.”

A COYOTE WATCHER’S OBSERVATIONS

As readers of this site know, I’m a believer in coyote coexistence. This report was concerning, especially in the context of recent reports in which coyotes attacked dogs (one fatally) at Pine Lake (behind Stern Grove), a popular dog-play area.  So I reached out to Janet Kessler, the Jane Goodall of San Francisco’s coyotes. She’s been studying our coyotes for years, and maintains a great blog, CoyoteYipps.com where she puts up her observations. Why were we suddenly getting this bold behavior?

“There seems to be a change in their behavior going on, but I’m told that it’s not due to habituation, it’s due to the drought. All urban coyotes are habituated by definition, yet they still keep a healthy distance (can’t use habituated and wary at the same time). For dogs, it’s a different story — and it’s going to be the same story whether a coyote is habituated to humans or not. Habituation to humans has nothing to do with coyotes approaching dogs — especially when they are curious about them.

“[Greg] did the right thing by moving away from the coyote — that’s how you diffuse a situation and maintain control — you are simply not going to engage. If a coyote follows… he’s just checking out your dog, gauging whether it’s a threat to be worried about, and making sure it is a safe distance away.

“We’re seeing more coyotes because of the drought. Because of the drought, there are fewer gophers and voles in the coyotes’ home range, so they are expanding that range as they hunt for their favorite foods. However, as they hunt in new areas, they will opportunistically take free roaming cats.”

This is also a concern; I know some people in Forest Knolls do have outdoor or indoor-outdoor cats. I think it’s also important for people with small dogs to be especially careful. Coyotes may see them as rivals or as prey, and they’re much more vulnerable. Humane Society guidelines recommend keeping cats indoors, and not letting small dogs off-leash in the backyard at night. Here’s their article: Coyotes, Pets and Community Cats.

From Janet Kessler: “And, yes, coyotes have been approaching dogs, much more than we’ve seen before. Walk away always, and keep walking (never run) away from the coyote, even if he follows.

There’s more useful information on the CoyoteYipps website, here: CoyoteYipps.com

It also has some great photographs and observations of coyote behavior.

Forest Knolls Skunk

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?

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 SFForest.org (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.

THOSE WHO HATE OXALIS AND WANT TO POISON IT WITH GARLON

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.

1) OXALIS IS GOOD FOR BEES AND BUTTERFLIES

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.

2) OXALIS IS GOOD FOR WILDLIFE

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

3) OXALIS DOESN’T LEAVE THE GROUND BARE

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

4) OXALIS HAS LITTLE IMPACT ON “NATIVE” PLANTS

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.

5) KIDS LOVE IT AND IT’S EDIBLE

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

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.

AN INTERLOPER SURVIVAL STORY – M. BRUCE GROSJEAN

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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Strangers in the Night

Around midnight, it’s usually quiet in Forest Knolls, the only sounds coming from the house itself. Outside, you might hear the wind soughing in the trees and humming in Sutro Tower. But tonight, a bird chirped tentatively in the backyard. At first I thought it was just a songbird disturbed on its perch, or responding to the bright moon.

moon from forest knolls drive san francisco
But it continued, growing louder and insistent. Opening a window to listen, I wondered if a raccoon had caught a bird. It sounded distressed. I could see nothing in the dark, my yard was in shadow.

skunk 1I ran down to turn on the garden light. And then I saw it – not a bird at all, but a skunk, right up against the back fence in a corner. When I shone the flashlight on it, it emerged from the shrubbery. And then, out came another one. Mating season!

They stuck around for a while, but annoyed by my watching them, they left through a hole under the fence. There was mildly skunky smell. Love was in the air.

 

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