A “Pheasant” Afternoon Drawing Birds

By Ellen Hong

It’s not every day that you get to sit down with a real artist and get a lesson on bird illustration. On Saturday, March 8, I and about a dozen others had the pleasure of learning how to draw birds from Lisa Sindorf, a wildlife illustrator and expert in field sketching.

Lisa explains the basics- just start with two circles! Photo: Constance Taylor

Lisa explains the basics- just start with two circles! Photo: Constance Taylor

“It’s all about observation,” she explained. “Even though there may be harsh lighting, and the animals may be moving around, your job is to capture your observations.”

Lisa talked about how she always likes starting out her drawings with a light pencil, preferably a non-photo blue pencil. She uses this blue pencil to make the initial sketch, and then she goes over it with pen, and then may add watercolor later on.

“Use materials that aren’t precious to you,” she told us. “Buy the cheapest sketchbook, since you’ll be making hundreds of drawings. Give yourself permission to draw whatever comes out.”

Lisa’s step-by-step instruction for how to draw birds:

    • It’s important to think about grouping, so start from the biggest shapes before making your way to the smaller ones. Start out with the two biggest chunks of shapes: the body and head of the bird. Consider:
      1. Relative size. How big is the head compared to the body? — It may help to ask yourself how many heads can fit into the body.
      2. Relative position. Where does the head fall with respect to the body? How is the head aligned with the edge of the body
    • Next, look at lines and angles. There are 3 major things to look at:
      1. The angle of the wings
      2. The angle of the tail
      3. The angle the forehead makes with the beak

*One of Lisa’s tricks is to think in terms of a clock. What angle would the hour and minute hands make, and what time would it read?

*Also, angles are super important because they’re diagnostic. Capturing the right angles can tell you exactly what type of bird you’re looking at.

    • After all the initial shapes, lines, and angles are on your paper, you can start to add more detail to the face–starting with the eye. Ask yourself where the eye joins the face (angle is important!), and specifically, you can look at the “cheek circle”–the shapes and angles of the feathers covering the bird’s ears.
    • When drawing the wings of the bird, consider the fact that most birds’ wings form the shape of a parallelogram. Look at how long or how short each side of the parallelogram is and draw accordingly.

These were Lisa’s main tips, and she wanted to assure us this: “Will your drawing look real? Will it look like a fine-art illustration? Probably not–but if you observe something that you might not have noticed before, you are successful. You’re keeping a record for later, and that’s what’s important.” She also told us that it may be useful to make little annotations on your drawing–you may note that two lines are the same length or that the bird’s wings form a 45-degree angle with its body.

Practicing sketching.  Photo: Constance Taylor

Practicing sketching. Photo: Constance Taylor

After Lisa’s detailed lesson, it was time to draw! She gave us about 15-20 minutes to try all her tips firsthand, either by sketching some models of ducks she had brought along with her or by attempting to draw some live birds, since there were obviously many of them hanging around Lake Merritt.

From my own experience, drawing the live birds was HARD! Especially with them constantly moving around, I had so much trouble trying to figure out angles and the positions of certain parts of their bodies. It was definitely a challenge! This time to ourselves was really nice, however, and Lisa made sure to come around and check up on each of us, offering some helpful advice along the way.

After this individual drawing time, she gathered us all together again for some time to reflect on our experiences. She wanted to know what our experiences were like and how her tips and strategies worked out for us.

The feedback from the group was great; I gained insight from their comments and questions for Lisa, learning that holding your pencil up to measure angles may be one of the best ways to actually get the accurate angles. Also, it’s useful to define as many angles as you can; it will give you more details to be able to later identify the bird. And to what extent is it useful to stay committed to the initial two circles, the head and the body? “It’s not a huge commitment,” Lisa told us. “You can be flexible.”

Discussing what we learned.  Photo: Constance Taylor

Discussing what we learned. Photo: Constance Taylor

Ultimately, Lisa wanted to leave us with the message that the value in field sketching really is in the observations we make. It’s about really looking at nature, seeing things we hadn’t seen before, and capturing those moments by putting them onto paper.

Thanks to everyone who came out, and thanks so much to Lisa for such a great lesson and a wonderful time! If you’re interested in her work, she’s having an art show at the Albatross Pub in Berkeley from January 30 until June 30. Check out her website lisasindorf.com as well!

Ellen Hong is a senior in high school and interns for Wild Oakland.

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Bioblitz Kids

By Paul Belz

Checking out what's living under the dock.  Photo: Constance Taylor

Checking out what’s living under the dock. Photo: Constance Taylor

A recent Facebook poster said it would be a great day when kids got as excited by scientists as they do by sports figures, musicians, and other celebrities. One person commented, “It will never happen.” Environmental and science educators disagree. Kids’ responses to the recent Bio-blitz at Lake Merritt are a real reason for hope.

One group of elementary school children and their parents lay on their stomachs on a dock to catch some of the Lake’s invertebrates in small nets. They were enthralled by their amphipods, shrimp, and mussels, including one with a small anemone attached to its fist sized shell. Others guided a small submarine that wandered below the Lake’s surface, and sent images to a laptop’s screen. Another group was enchanted by the barnacle larvae and other plankton they watched through microscopes.

Children are scientists. They love to turn over rocks, search the mud on lake and streambed shores, and discover birds’ springtime songs. Their inherent curiosity and sense of wonder about their world stimulates them to explore local environments, and to connect with wildlife and ecosystems around them. Many environmental researchers and activists trace their enthusiasm for nature to close contact with nature during their childhoods. Hands-on activities, such as opportunities to catch invertebrates with nets, observe them, and help release them resonate deeply with children and encourage them to learn more about their world.

Piloting the Remote Operated Vehicles (ROVs) from a pontoon boat.  Photo: Constance Taylor

Piloting the Remote Operated Vehicles (ROVs) from a pontoon boat. Photo: Constance Taylor

Young explorers in the botanical garden watched openmouthed as hummingbirds hovered and darted around them. They helped each other find monarch butterflies. Terry Smith, a science teacher at Piedmont’s Havenscourt School had a table representing the Pollinator Posse. This group encourages residents to install native plant gardens that will provide monarchs and other migrating insects with natural pathways. Terry collects monarch eggs in the garden, and shares them with her students. The young entomologists’ watch caterpillars hatch and eat milkweed until they form chrysalises and emerge as adults. Terry shared butterflies that she would soon release, knowing that her students’ experiences would strengthen their love these creatures.

An excited photographer called Bioblitzers at the garden’s exit and shared two flatworms he’ d found mating under a rock. He took their photo, pointed out their unique hammer shaped heads, and commented that he’d seen related species in the tropics but not in Oakland. He took many photos of the little animals before he released them.. Maybe his excitement came from a childhood visit to an event like the Bioblitz!

Seeing what was found in the waters of Lake Merritt.  Photo: Constance Taylor

Seeing what was found in the waters of Lake Merritt. Photo: Constance Taylor

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A Blitzin’ Day at Lake Merritt

By Ellen Hong

February 23. It was a beautiful Sunday morning in Oakland, a day too nice for anyone to stay indoors. And what better way to spend time outside than to explore the wildlife of Lake Merritt by participating in the Bioblitz?

Using underwater robots, nets, microscopes, and the help of experts, everyone was observing and recording all the plants and animals that live at Lake Merritt. It was awesome to see everyone so excited and enthusiastic about nature, and I couldn’t wait to be a part of it all!

After checking in at the Rotary Nature Center, grabbing a schedule and throwing on a goofy green sash labeled “BIOBLITZ”, I went to the dock at the Lake Merritt boathouse where Rebecca Johnson from the California Academy of Sciences was leaned over the side of the dock, pointing out some of the creatures living in the water. She identified a tunicate clinging to the dock and then showed us a picture of one in her sea-animal identification guide.

Tunicate identification, from the California Academy of Sciences. Photo: Ellen Hong

Tunicate identification, from the California Academy of Sciences. Photo: Ellen Hong

“Tunicates are filter-feeders,” she explained. “They have a basket inside of them that allows them to filter plankton (their food) and let water out.” As some little kids came over and curiously pointed to the mussels Johnson had collected in a bucket, she took them both out and passed them around, explaining that mussels have two shells held together by a muscle, hence the name of the animal. They have a really unique way of eating: they pull a sample of water in through a tube and have special sorters that take in the “good-sized” plankton and releases the water. But that’s not all—once the food is filtered, it’s stuck in a special mucus,twirled around like a spool of thread, and slurped up like spaghetti. How’s that for weird eating?

Mediterranean mussel. Photo: Ellen Hong

Mediterranean mussel. Photo: Ellen Hong

“Have you ever seen a mussel that looks like it’s slightly cracked open? That actually means that it’s eating!” Johnson commented. She held up one of the mussels she had collected and explained that the species we would find at Lake Merritt have most likely come from different parts of the world. The one she was holding was probably from the Mediterranean- since Lake Merritt is so close to the port of Oakland where ships come from all over the world, there are many marine hitchhikers that end up in the bay, some eventually making their way to Lake Merritt.

The vast array of species you can find here is actually what inspired accomplished marine biologist Jim Carlton, a world-class expert on marine invertebrates, to start his career! His beginnings consisted of leaning over the side of that dock, observing what lay in the water, and wondering what it all was and where it come from… just like some of us were doing that Sunday morning.

After about an hour of hanging around the docks, learning from Rebecca and also getting to look into microscopes at some of the plankton samples participants had gathered, I decided it was time to explore a new area. I walked over to the pollinator garden, excited to see and learn more about bees, butterflies, and flowers.

I walked in to see Tora Rocha, the parks supervisor for Oakland Parks and Recreation, pointing out the garden’s incredible Bee Hotel to some fascinated visitors. In case you haven’t seen it, it’s a beautiful structure packed with logs that people have drilled holes into to give bees a safe place to live.

Bee Hotel. Photo: Ellen Hong

Bee Hotel. Photo: Ellen Hong

A man with a backpack, a net, and a huge smile on his face joined the group and exclaimed how awesome the bee hotel was. Introduced as Liam O’Brien, a conservationist from San Francisco who loves butterflies and works to save them, he was fascinated by the intricacy of the hotel.

Suddenly the topic of conversation switched from bees to butterflies, and O’Brien radiated passion as he talked about how upsetting it is that butterflies are at the very bottom of the food chain, 80% of them eaten by birds. His desire to save these butterflies has manifested in a campaign to ban the commercial sale of butterflies in San Francisco.

“The butterflies that get released at weddings and all sorts of other events…that needs to stop,” he said. Simply put, “We don’t think of butterflies as wildlife because they’re so pretty.”

That gave me something to ponder as the group started dispersing. Soon everyone began their iNaturalist quests, snapping photos of various bees and butterflies in the garden. Rocha, O’Brien, and Eddie Dunbar, founder of the Insect Sciences Museum of California, were the perfect team of experts to lead us in the wildlife hunt. The beautiful gulf fritillary butterflies and the tiny white swallowtail eggs I saw nesting on the underside of the leaves of milkweed plants… all I can say is, nature is incredible.

Pointing to a patch of plantain, considered a weed by most people, Rocha commented that “This is the host plant for the buckeye butterfly. We stopped removing these last year and saw so many more buckeyes!” The moral of the story: leave a patch of weeds in your garden; you never know what kind of critters they may foster!

When asked by a bioblitzer about the crops in the garden and whether caterpillars may be an issue, Rocha proudly explained that all Oakland parks are pesticide-free. And to answer the question: “Caterpillars share the food.” The fine netting surrounding the plants protect them from birds, which do more harm than caterpillars anyways, but the caterpillars are not an extreme problem. Caterpillars found on the plants are taken to the pollinator garden so that they can thrive. “It’s all about sharing the space,” Rocha commented.

The group then moved on to the Mediterranean garden, where there were many more bees to be found. I personally fell in love with the gray digger bee, which some like to call the “teddy bear” of bees because it’s covered in fur. It was adorable!

Gray digger bee. Photo: Ellen Hong

Gray digger bee. Photo: Ellen Hong

Although I wasn’t able to participate in every event at the bioblitz (there were also underwater robots to see what was living on the bottom of Lake Merritt, bird identification, and plant identification), I’m glad I could be a part of such an awesome event that got so many people engaged with the ecology around them. I hope everyone who came out to the blitz enjoyed observing, learning about, and appreciating the beauty that is nature!

Check out all the observations from the Bioblitz here!:


Ellen Hong is a senior in high school and interns for Wild Oakland.

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Lake Merritt bioblitz this Sunday, Feb 23!

By Constance Taylor

It’s almost here!  Come to the lake between 9 am – 3 pm on Sunday, Feb 23 to explore all the different habitats in and near our fair urban slough, and catalog what we find for posterity.

Here’s the schedule of events for the day:

bioblitz newest flyer

You can also download the flyer at  http://nerdsfornature.org/lakemerritt.pdf

Some other things to know:

We’ll be cataloging our species observations by using iNaturalist, a website with a smartphone app that allows you to upload and identify the critters we’ll be finding.  You can download the app for free at www.inaturalist.org

No smartphone?  No problem!  Bring a digital camera of some sort to catalog your findings and we’ll upload them to iNaturalist at the wrap session from 3:30 to 4:30 at the Oakland Museum of California.

For more information about the event, you can check out the East Bay Express article about the blitz here or go to the event homepage on the iNaturalist website here.

See you at the blitz!

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Environmental dreamers in Oakland

By Paul Belz

Nik Bertulis outside of Spokeland, one of the many projects hosted by PLACE.  Photo: Constance Taylor

Nik Bertulis outside of Spokeland, one of the many projects hosted by PLACE. Photo: Constance Taylor

Today’s environmental visionaries stress connections between healthy human communities and a healthy planet. Nik Bertulis describes himself as a co-catalyst of PLACE, People Linking Art, Community, and Ecology. He led thirty people through the West Oakland project on a sunny January afternoon.

“This is our zany response to an insane world,” Nik commented. “We’re looking at community scale projects – the E. F. Schumacher ‘Small is Beautiful’ model.”  PLACE occupies a large lot that used to be used to store welding gases before it was a concrete cutting business.  A number of projects operate on the property, and during our afternoon at PLACE Nik outlined some of the many activities happening here.

We walked to the back of the lot, where a solar-powered kiln was built to dry timber.  A woodworker collects sections of trees homeowners have cut, thus saving them from ending up in a landfill. The wood is then placed in a black kiln that heats in the sun, causing the wood’s water to evaporate- a solar powered fan sucks the water vapor from the kiln to release it outside the structure. The kiln cures the wood in two months; the woodworker then uses it to make furniture.

A company that makes solar powered electric bikes makes its home at PLACE. Spokeland, another bicycle project, offers classes and a workspace to fix your own bike  that anyone can use for a $5.  Nik pointed to mobile tea cart that’s being built, which will, hopefully, soon join the local street food community. A rain garden located at PLACE’s lowest point absorbs runoff from the roof and pavement, where soil bacteria and plants are able break down urban pollutants in the water.

Cob doghouse.  Photo: Kelly Johnson, Revolutionary Photography

Cob doghouse. Photo: Kelly Johnson, Revolutionary Photography

The guests met Ginger, the friendly and playful dog who lives in a cob doghouse.  Cob is a medium made from clay, straw, and sand. Cement production is energy intensive and releases large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and cob is increasingly being used as an alternative. Plastic bottles stuffed with other plastic debris can be used as “bricks”  to help with structural support.

Nik showed us a vertical wall where rainwater soaks into felt and provides habitat for a range of succulents- fungi will eventually digest the felt, which is carbon based.  The vertical garden was created after neighbor who lives directly across the street requested that PLACE make a living exhibit for the community to enjoy. Sticky monkey flowers, aloe, borage, poppies, and other plants also thrive at the bottom of the vertical garden, where they absorb the water not taken up by the succulents.

Vertical garden outside of PLACE.  Photo: Constance Taylor

Vertical garden outside of PLACE. Photo: Constance Taylor

PLACE works with a pastor from the church right across the street and a number of other  community members to develop a sustainable neighborhood. The church’s youth group helps with gardening and other projects. Nik mentioned the City Repair Movement, which strives to improve public spaces. Participants install free library boxes (mailbox-sized structures filled with books that are free for the taking), and paint intersections to make them kid-friendly public spaces where motorists are encouraged to slow down. Nik hoped that with time, streets and other public areas can become people-friendly and not just places to drive.

Second Saturdays have become a special time in the neighborhood. PLACE hosts a bluegrass hootenanny in the evenings. Neighbors recently organized an afternoon art walk that will continue on a monthly basis. This neighborhood will keep growing stronger!

Donations fund PLACE, including contributions people make at the monthly Hootenanny and a Tuesday evening tea gathering. Independent educational groups offer classes and pay for the facilities. Wild Oakland is planning a presentation on river otters in the next few months, and PLACE is working on organizing a graywater boot camp, where people can learn strategies for conserving water during the drought and beyond.  PLACE deserves strong attention from Oakland’s citizens. It’s time to be visionary!

You can learn more about PLACE at http://aplaceforsustainableliving.org/

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Classroom Huckleberry

By Paul Belz

A good forager could find many of life’s necessities at Oakland’s Huckleberry Botanical Regional Preserve. There are many excellent reasons why gathering plants for food or other use in regional, state, and national parks is illegal. Still, a walk with a skilled observer provides much information about ways native people and others use these resources.

Neahga Leonard, a conservation biologist by trade, led about forty hikers through Huckleberry Preserve on a cool Sunday in January. “My grandfather was an Iroquois mask maker,” he said. “He made masks and canoes and led dances. My family wanted to keep traditional names in the family. Part of the reason for my interest in human uses of plants is my ancestry.” He stated that he would not focus on medicinal uses of plants since he believes much of the current information is based on inadequate research, but he would mention a few well documented examples.

People make a bad tasting tea from yerba santa. Neahga’s mother gave it to him as a cold remedy. “I don’t know if it cured the colds, or if I got better so I wouldn’t have to drink it!” he laughed. He contrasted this with yerba buena, which provides a delicious tea that tastes like a cross between mint and pine.

The lichen usnea, or ‘old man’s beard’, has powerful anti-bacterial properties. Native Californians have long used it to wrap wounds, as a sanitary bandage, and as a protective wrap for infants. Fringe cup has an unusual folk medicinal use- a tribe near Vancouver used it as a remedy for dreams of having intercourse with dead people. “It’s strange that there was a whole group of people with this problem,” Neahga chuckled.

Huckleberry’s trees gave Neahga a chance to share his deep knowledge of local plants’ many other uses. An Oregon ash, bare of leaves, grew near the beginning of the preserve’s trail. Ash trees are important worldwide, and figure in much folklore. Norse mythology’s Yggdrasil, the World Tree that connects the gods’ realm of Asgard with the rest of creation, is an ash. California’s indigenous people used this tree’s strong wood for bow handles, while other ash species provided flexible wood that’s often used for making baskets.

Madrone colony.  Photo: Neahga Leonard

Madrone colony. Photo: Neahga Leonard

Pacific madrones are easily recognized by red bark that peels away from their trunks, ridding the trees of plants that might use them as a home- these plants add weight and gather water that encourages the growth of fungi. Native people extracted a dye from the bark, and used it to decorate their food. They also ate the berries, but no one is sure of how they prepared them.

Coast live oaks live with bay laurels and in the parks’ drier areas. Gathering acorns from the oaks is best done by shaking the trees to get to the acorns before they’re exposed to insects that live in the ground. Acorns must be leeched in running water to remove toxic tannins. “One of my friends stores them in his toilet’s upper tank to leech them,” Neahga laughed.

He described acorn meal as bland but nutritious. Traditional cooks mix it with meat, berries, fat and other flavorings for a more interesting recipe. Neahga commented that Spanish missionaries cut many oaks so native Californians would need to rely on cultivated crops rather than their historic food.

California Bay Laurel.  Photo: Neahga Leonard

California Bay Laurel. Photo: Neahga Leonard

Tall, multiple-trunked California bay laurels thrive in Huckleberry’s shady, moist areas. Their forms vary with their environments across the west coast; they range from low shrubs resembling piles of rocks in windy areas to tall trees that compete with redwoods for light. The flesh surrounding their seeds is edible, but it quickly rots after it ripens. The seeds themselves are strong tasting but edible, and can also be ground and used as a coffee substitute. Bay laurel leaves include chemicals that are toxic to insects. Indigenous people stored them with acorns and other food to discourage six legged foragers.

Huckleberry Preserve offers a range of microclimates, with differences in moisture and temperature, resulting in habitat for a wide variety of plants. Neahga shared many of the park’s shrubs, and described their uses. Blackberry, thimbleberry, elderberry, and huckleberry provide fruit than can be eaten on its own or used to flavor meat or acorn gruel. The small berries of manzanitas can be dried and crushed, then mixed with water to make a delicious cider.

Basket makers often use flexible twigs from cream bush and hazelnut. Musicians remove the center of elderberry sticks to make flutes. Thimbleberry’s large fuzzy leaves can be used as toilet paper. Toyon’s tough wood is a resource for tools that increase the range and accuracy of spears.

Evergreen Huckleberry.  Photo: Neahga Leonard

Evergreen Huckleberry. Photo: Neahga Leonard

People use huckleberry’s large root balls to make tools and toys; one of Neahga’s friends made him a chess set from this root wood. The lovely, sweetly scented flowers of the California lilac contain a chemical that makes soap lather, and is a good shampoo. “You’ll get flowers in your hair, though!” Neahga laughed.

Fishermen used Douglas iris’ leaves to make fish lines. Cooks steam stinging nettle’s young leaves; Neahga uses them in lasagna. He speculated that the current drought and cold weather could be responsible for the absence of wild fungi and early wildflowers such as pink flowering currant. He shared a range of herbs and other smaller plants. Local ferns, such as the sword fern, contain toxins, and Neahga discouraged their use as food. He described how indigenous people have long used them as bedding. 

Sword fern.  Photo: Neahga Leonard

Sword fern. Photo: Neahga Leonard

Poison oak abounds in the preserve. Native people sometimes burnt its leaves to remove the toxic oils, and used the ashes for tattoos. Neahga mentioned that if he accidentally touches this plant, rubbing mugwort on the exposed area seems to reduce the likelihood of getting a rash. People also apply mud to soak up poison oak’s oils as it dries.

The group hiked on switchbacks for the return to the parking lot. This three hour hike was a wonderful introduction to humans’ need for plants. We depend on this planet, even when we ignore it.

To get in touch with Neahga Leonard or read his articles on plants, natural history, ecology, conservation, and all sorts of neat things, go to www.writingfornature.wordpress.com


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Herons and otters and grebes, oh my!

By Paul Belz

Wilderness areas are precious, and must be preserved. Wildness also thrives everywhere around us, including in a small Oakland park near Interstate 24. Ron Felzer, an instructor in Merritt College’s Environmental Studies Department led a December hike in Temescal Regional Park. He mentioned that Temescal Creek has flowed through this region for ten million years, providing healthy habitat for wildlife, native plants, and Ohlone settlements. The creek used to end at the San Francisco Bay, but the developing Hayward Fault turned it in a new direction.

Hayward fault graphic from park display.

Hayward fault graphic from park display.


Hydraulic engineer Anthony Chabot dammed the creek during the 1860s to form a reservoir for the little town of Oakland.  East Bay voters passed a tax to create the East Bay Regional Park District in 1936.  “Imagine that,” Ron mused, “people voting to tax themselves during the Great Depression!” The 54-acre Chabot Regional Park, Redwood Regional Park, and Tilden Regional Park were the first three preserves.

Fox sparrow.  Photo: Damon Tighe

Fox sparrow. Photo: Damon Tighe

Ron led the thirty hikers to a white alder, a local tree that usually lives on riverbanks, but thrives here because of the park’s sprinkler system. Alders produce fruits that feed many insects; yellow-rumped warblers and Townsend’s warblers eat insect eggs and cocoons that form on the bark. They also fly in wide arcs to catch flying bugs. Many yellow-rumped warblers gathered around us and filled the air with their “Chip! Chip!” Ron was pleased to see a rarer and more brightly colored Townsend’s. “I see about one of them to a hundred yellow-rumped warblers,” he commented.

A Stellar’s jay squawked from a coast live oak. These evergreen oaks have small, tough leaves that hold water during summer droughts. Stellar’s jays and their cousins the scrub jays bury their acorns to hide them from other animals that feast on them. Jays are members of the corvid family, which includes the common raven that flew past calling “Rawwwnnnkkk!” Ron mentioned that ravens are bigger than the closely related crows. The smaller birds, who yell “Cawww! Cawww!” resemble large blackbirds, and their feathers look like they’ve been neatly trimmed.

Lake Temescal was full of aquatic birds. We easily spotted a great blue heron, followed by the slightly smaller great egret. Ron pointed to a juvenile black crowned night heron. Black crowned night herons are gray and white as adults; young ones are brown so they can blend with aquatic plants. They prey on smaller animals such as insects, crayfish, and small fish. This one seemed unconcerned with the fact that we hikers were using binoculars to stare at it.

Ron shared facts about the many ducks that drifted through the lake. Mallards are dabbling ducks; they point their tails in the air as they grab plants that grow on the lake’s bottom. Buffleheads, goldeneyes, and ruddy ducks dive to find their food. They limit their air when they dive by shutting down most of their bodies. Their heads stay active to propel them, and their heads work to find and grab food.

Dabbling ducks’ legs are located around the middle of the body. This adaptation lets them swim and walk on land. Diving ducks’ legs are located towards the rear of their bodies; they are restricted to water. Ron showed us some brownish gray pied billed grebes. These little birds are not ducks, but they also dive to forage. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen one on land,” Ron reflected, and mentioned that they build floating nests.

Ron described coots’ unique adaptations. Their long, frilled toes allow them to dive; their legs are located in the middle of their bodies, allowing them to walk on land. These black birds with white beaks live in marshes, and sometimes gather on golf courses. They are members of the rail family. Clapper rails, Virginia rails and other members of this family tend to be secretive, but “coots seem frustrated if you don’t stare at them,” Ron laughed as several swam close to the shore.

A spotted sandpiper surprised us as it foraged for insects in the grass. This species and its relatives visit California’s coastal areas by the thousands in winter. One hiker asked Ron why they would migrate from Alaska. He mentioned that insect eaters can find food for twenty four hours during the Arctic summer, but migrate southward when days grow short. “You’d have to have been around for 11,000 years to see exactly how these patterns developed,” he reflected.

A hiker recently photographed an otter in Lake Temescal. “We’d see it if it were here now,” Ron said, “They’re very active.” He wasn’t sure of how the otter wound up in this spot, but speculated that it followed Temescal Creek. Otters are appearing in other East Bay habitats, including Tilden Regional Park!

“The park district is one of many reasons why I live here,” Ron said. He knows treasures when he sees them. Let’s remember to celebrate small wild places!

Lake Temescal.  Photo: Constance Taylor

Lake Temescal. Photo: Constance Taylor

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Celebrating mushroom season

By Paul Belz

Lake Merritt shares many of its treasures in autumn and winter. Birders know these are the seasons when canvasbacks, grebes, buffleheads, and other migratory birds appear in hoards. Observant guests will also find that these are the seasons for the weirdly beautiful organisms we call wild fungi.

Damon Tighe led a group of about fifty curious fungus seekers on a Lake Merritt exploratory hike on December 7. An experienced amateur mycologist, Damon mentioned that he became interested in wild mushrooms after a Sierra backpacking trip where he did not bring enough food. “Besides, they’re like winter flowers,” he said. “They’ll start popping up everywhere after the rain.”

The mycelium, the main part of all fungi, resembles a tangled spider web. It can spread for acres under the soil and live for many years. When conditions are right, the mycelium produces mushrooms or other fruiting bodies. “The mycelium is like the apple tree, and the mushrooms are like apples,” Damon said. The similarity ends here. Plants reproduce through complex seeds; fungi rely on single celled spores, which are scattered by wind, squirrels, banana slugs and other animals that feast on mushrooms.

Another difference with plants is that fungi have no chlorophyll, so they aren’t able to make their own food through photosynthesis- they have to get their energy from an external source. The mycelium of parasitic fungi live inside plants and take some of their energy, saprophytic fungi break down dead organisms to absorb nutrients, and mycorrhizal mycelium attaches to the roots of plants were it helps absorb water and nutrients from the soil while receiving sugars from the plant in return.

We quickly found a pleated inky cap (Parasola plicatilis), a dark colored mushroom that digests itself after its first day of life. This strategy helps it scatter spores “You can eat these, but you can’t drink alcohol for three days afterwards- they inhibit your ability to break down alcohol,” said Damon.

Pleated inky cap (Parasola plicatilis). Photo: Damon Tighe

Pleated inky cap (Parasola plicatilis). Photo: Damon Tighe

“Eating mushrooms that grow in the city isn’t a good idea. There are lots of heavy metals in the soil,” Damon said.  He recommended that foragers search for mushrooms higher in the hills; water that flows downhill hasn’t deposited as many chemicals there.

We found several species that foragers can find in other areas. Honey mushrooms (Armillaria mellea) grew in a cluster from a dead stump. Damon told us that these mushrooms have good tasting caps, and enthusiasts can pull the stalks apart and eat them like string cheese. The prince mushroom (Agaricus augustus) is a large gilled mushroom that has a golden, flat-topped cap when it emerges. “It looks like a marshmallow and smells like almond extract,” Damon laughed.

prince mushroom

Prince mushroom (Agaricus augustus). Photo: Damon Tighe

Foragers need to be able to identify to identify toxic fungi. Many mushroom hunters have mistaken the death cap (Amanita phalloides) for puffballs or edible species from other countries. Damon also pointed out members of the “Lose Your Lunch Bunch”, which cause nausea and other digestive problems, but not death. The yellow stainer (Agaricus xanthodermus) has a cap that turns yellow in places where you stroke it. “I’d never recommend eating a mushroom that stains yellow,” Damon said. This mushroom also has a distinct chemical smell- “It smells like public washroom soap!” one hiker grimaced.

Different morphologies of a death cap (Amanita phalloides). Photo: Constance Taylor

Different morphologies of a death cap (Amanita phalloides). Photo: Constance Taylor

A jack-o’-lantern mushroom (Omphalotus olivascens), another fungus you don’t want to eat, grew from a dead stump. The gills of these big, orange mushrooms bioluminesce, a strategy they may use to attract spore-scattering flies.


Jack o’ lantern mushrooms (Omphalotus olicascens). Photo: Damon Tighe

Other mushrooms use strong smells as signals to insects. This year’s dry conditions prevented us from finding lattice stinkhorns (Clathrus ruber); Damon hoped they would appear after steady rain. “They smell like dead bodies,” Damon told us. Large openings in their light bulb shaped forms let flies enter to eat the fungus and gather its spores.

Mature lattice stinkhorn (Clathrus ruber). Photo: Constance Taylor

Mature lattice stinkhorn (Clathrus ruber). Photo: Constance Taylor

Damon was pleased to show us an earth star (Geastrum saccatum). Triangular, pointed structures lift the wrinkled brown center from the soil and expose them to breezes. Wind strikes the little puffballs and causes it to release spores in groups like puffs of smoke.

Earth stars (Geastrum saccatum). Photo: Damon Tighe

Earth stars (Geastrum saccatum). Photo: Damon Tighe

“Amateurs have made some of the most important discoveries about fungi in the past few years,” Damon said as the walk came to its end. He recommended David Arora’s All the Rain Promises and More as an excellent field guide, and Arora’s Mushrooms Demystified as a more complex and detailed book. Keep your eyes open for wild fungi – you may find something new!

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Winter birds at Lake Merritt

By Constance Taylor

When it comes to bird identification, where’s a beginner to start?

“General shape is a good thing to look for when you’re first scanning a lot of birds,” said Marissa Ortega-Welch, our walk leader for the November 2013 bird identification walk around Lake Merritt.  She showed us a number of silhouettes of various water birds, showing us the main physical differences between grebes, ducks, egrets, gulls, and cormorants.

Cormorant, duck, grebe, egret/heron, gull (photos: 123rf.com, naturemappingfoundation.org, gograph,com, johnrakestraw.net)

Cormorant, duck, grebe, egret/heron, gull (photos: 123rf.com, naturemappingfoundation.org, gograph,com, johnrakestraw.net)


Looking out onto the water and seeing birds with blunt, rounded bills and relatively short necks, we decided we were looking at a bunch of ducks.  The binoculars confirmed!  Buffleheads, Barrow’s goldeneye, common goldeneye, canvasbacks and ruddy ducks swam into view as we watched from the shore.

Barrow’s goldeneye, canvasback, ruddy duck (photos: Rick Leche, JAC6FLIKR, Chris & Lara Pawluk)

Barrow’s goldeneye, canvasback, ruddy duck (photos: Rick Leche, JAC6FLIKR, Chris & Lara Pawluk)


“At least five grebe species can be found at Lake Merritt- the pied-billed, western, Clark’s, eared, and horned,” Marissa told us as we saw a few pied-billed grebes.  Grebes are diving birds with their legs placed very far back on their body, making them ill-adapted for walking on land but excellent at swimming and catching fish.  Grebes tend to live most of their lives in the water, even building floating nests to avoid being out of their element.

Eared grebe, horned grebe, pied-billed (photos: Jerryoldenettel, rainbirder, K Schneider)

Eared grebe, horned grebe, pied-billed grebe (photos: Jerryoldenettel, rainbirder, K Schneider)

western grebes_flythebirdpath_crop

Western Grebes, courtship display (photo: flythebirdpath)

For a fantastic guide of migrating birds you’ll find around Lake Merritt during the winter, go here…


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“Ecology of California Redwood National and State Parks” with Ron Felzer

In addition to leading our upcoming “Natural History of Lake Temescal” walk on December 15, Ron Felzer, instructor extraordinaire at Merritt College, has another one of his fantastic classes coming up!  Learn all about the natural history of the Redwood national and state parks of Northern California, from geologic history to current conservation efforts focused on the Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens).  Instructions for how to sign up for the class are on the flyer.

Click on flyer for a larger version

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