Identifying the trees of Lake Merritt

By Constance Taylor

If you took a walk around Lake Merritt, how may of the tree species would you be able to identify?

It can be a bit tricky in urban areas because so many of the trees are from different places in the world- you won’t find many Oakland city trees in a “Trees of Western North America” or “Trees of California” guidebook. Most urban California trees are from Asia, Australia, or Europe; in fact, only 6% of commonly planted urban trees are native to California1!

However, there’s a fantastic book called A Californian’s Guide to the Trees Among Us that identifies many of the commonly planted urban trees in the state. It also includes a dichotomous key to help you figure out which species are which so you don’t have to go through the guide page by page to identify a tree you’re standing next to. The funny thing about keys, though, is that they can be notoriously confusing to use. I once heard that keys “are written by people who don’t need them for people who don’t use them”- a joke that usually gets a sympathetic chuckle from anyone who’s ever used a key.

Enter Kristin Tremain, Ivan Parr, and Tammy Lim- Wildlife Society biologists who helped guide us though some key-reading 101! But wait… why would wildlife biologists, who usually deal with studying critters, need to know things about trees? “Trees are nature’s architects,” Kristin explained. “Certain animals- birds and mammals, like to live in certain trees, and to study those animals we have to know where to find them.”

We began with Ivan explaining some basic botanical vocabulary and major features you should look for. For example, is the tree a gymnosperm (conifer), angiosperm (flowering plant), or palm?

Images = Gymnosperm: benjaminreece.com; Angiosperm: internal.champaignschools.org; Palm: idtools.org

 

Leaves are a really important part of tree identification, so we focused on some of the many words describing very specific attributes of leaves.

Is it a simple leaf or a compound leaf?

Photo: www.uwgb.edu

Photo: www.uwgb.edu

 

Are the leaves on the branches opposite, alternate, or whorled?

Image: gallery4share.com

Image: gallery4share.com

 

Are the leaf veins palmate, pinnate, or parallel?

Image: crescentok.com

Image: crescentok.com

 

Are the edges of the leaf smooth, serrated, lobed, or undulate?

Image: localecologist.org

Image: localecologist.org

 

_DSC7848

Wild Oaklanders identifying trees! Photo: Scott Lindemann / Widlife Society

After the brief indoor tutorial, we went outside and used the key in the Ritter book to help us identify the trees in front of the Rotary Nature Center. Although we focused on trees for this event, these identification basics (and vocabulary) work for any plant.

Here’s a bit of advice from me to you if you’re just starting out with plant ID… don’t be discouraged by the new vocab. It’s important to know the words, but don’t worry if most of them are unfamiliar to you. Even experienced botanists often need the internet or a botanical glossary near them when they’re keying plants! The more you encounter the words, the more familiar they’ll become.

Happy identifying!

 

1M. Ritter, A Californian’s Guide to the Trees Among Us (Heyday, 2011), xv

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Edible urban weeds- Oakland’s sidewalk salads

By Paul Belz

The gardens at Laney, managed by the Mindful Garden Collective. Photo: Kristen Rasmussen

The Laney edible garden, managed by the Mindful Garden Collective. Photo: Kristen Rasmussen

Part of the message today is that you already have a vegetable garden, whether you planted one or not,” Philip and Kristen told a group of hopeful foragers. “And if you did plant a garden, it’s growing more food than you sowed. Even if you have a burrito in a bag, you can make it more nutritious by adding some wild oxalis.” The participants gathered on a lawn near the Laney edible garden. This garden is managed by the Mindful Garden,collective, which unites Laney College students and local community members who want to grow healthful food.

Philip Stark is Chair of the Department of Statistics at UC Berkeley, and Kristen Rasmussen is Teaching Faculty in the Nutrition and Toxicology Department at UC Berkeley and the Culinary Institute of America. They’re two of the people behind Berkeley Open Source Food (BOSF), an initiative that encourages the use of wild and feral urban plants as a food source. Kristen also created Rooted Food, a blog with lots of delicious ways to eat these weedy volunteers. Dandelion green pesto, anyone?

BOSF maps the availability of edible weeds in “food deserts,” urban areas far from any grocery store, where commercial fresh produce is hard to find. But free produce is easy to find. “It’s become clear that there’s a lot of incredibly tasty and nutritious food going to waste,” Philip said.

Sharing some sow thistle! Photo: Kristen Rasmussen

Sharing some sow thistle! Photo: Kristen Rasmussen

When asked whether the social dignity factor might prevent low-income individuals from being comfortable picking and eating weeds in their neighborhoods, Philip agreed that it was an issue. “That’s why we’re providing education and outreach, including ‘wild food events,’ where top restaurants demonstrate how delicious these plants are. These plants have been part of human diet for thousands of years; they’ve just fallen out of fashion, unfairly marginalized in favor of row crops and industrial agriculture. We are working to remove the stigma, bringing them back into the food system to improve nutrition and gastronomy. All communities certainly need grocery stores that sell fruits and vegetables. But many plants that volunteer in sidewalks and yards can provide an immediate source of delicious, fresh, healthful food for everyone, wherever they live.”

Not only are edible urban weeds nutritious and tasty, they’re also good for the environment. They have practically zero carbon footprint and don’t require watering. They can also be a food source when disaster strikes. “We’re going to have a big earthquake someday, and it would be nice to have some food afterwards,” Philip joked (sort of).

The bounty: vetch, calendula, and plantain. Photo: Kristen Rasmussen

The bounty: vetch, calendula, and plantain. Photo: Kristen Rasmussen

Interestingly, plants like wild mustard, dandelion, and many other “weeds” were intentionally brought from Eurasia as food, but fell out of favor when commercial agriculture started focusing on mass yields and attractive products. “Often we don’t see plants as food unless they’re wrapped in plastic or in a grocery store,” Philip said. He also noted that people often buy plants that they could be gathering—he recalled a visit to a farmer’s market stand selling dandelion greens for $1.75 a bunch, while across the street was an empty lot with bunches of dandelions he could pick for free! “I haven’t bought greens in years,” he remarked.

People might worry about heavy metals like lead or mercury in urban soils, but so far there’s no evidence that common edible weeds accumulate such substances in their tissues. Still, BOSF is currently studying the levels of toxic contaminants in plant tissue. “We’ve been testing the soil in the food desert areas, and the levels of contaminants are below EPA guidelines,” said Philip. While soil contaminant concentrations aren’t high enough to make these plants toxic, foragers should wash the plants before eating them since tire dust and other residues can be harmful.

Current law permits people to forage only from their own property, although an urban gatherer who approaches neighbors politely may find that they are happy to be rid of their weeds. Philip and Kristen hope that future legislation will allow people to pick edible invasive plants from public lands.

Identifying edible plants we found. Photo: Constance Taylor

Identifying edible plants we found. Photo: Constance Taylor

At the end of the day, the group had found 29 species of edible weeds in one urban lot! Philip and Kristen helped the group identify all the plants. These weeds probably grow in the areas where you live; learn to identify them, and eat well!

Additional Resources

Bay Area Open Source Food: Lots of information about edible urban weeds!

Bay Area Baker’s Dozen Wild Edibles: A field guide for beginners created by BOSF

Rooted Food: A foraging and cooking blog by Kristen Rasmussen, with lots of recipes!

Bay Area Forager: A recently published book that has a wealth of information about edible weeds in the Bay Area! It’s available at local bookstores- if they don’t have it on the shelves, they can order it for you. Support independent bookstores and local authors; please don’t buy it from Amazon!

Species list of edible plants found:

Note: Not all parts of these plants are edible! Please do your research before you decide to eat any of them.

– Nasturtium
– Cleaver
– 2 species of sow thistle
– Italian thistle
– Lamb’s quarters
– Yarrow
– 2 species of plantain
– Lavender
– 2 species of wild mustard
– Bristly oxtongue
– Wild radish
– 2 species of mallow
– 2 species of wild lettuce
– Pineapple weed
– Calendula
– Purslane
– Dock
– Dandelion
– Clover
– Vetch
– Filaree
– Sweet fennel
– Cat’s ear
– California poppy

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

An Intimate Look at the Sausal Creek Watershed

By Paul Belz

Standing inside a fairy ring of redwoods near the headwaters of Sausal Creek. Photo: Revital Katznelson

Standing inside a fairy ring of redwoods near the headwaters of Sausal Creek. Photo: Revital Katznelson

“A creek has two jobs,” Christopher Richard told a group of adventurous hikers in the Sausal Creek watershed. “One is to transport water, and the other is to transport sediment.” Christopher was the Editor, Publisher, Webmaster, and Biologist for the series of San Francisco Bay Area Creek & Watershed maps published by the Oakland Museum of California, and was there with our group to trek around the watershed and examine the health of the Creek and of the surrounding forests.

Ecologists use the term “watershed” to describe an area in which all the water flows off the land, into creeks and ultimately to one location, such as a creek entering the bay. The watershed includes lakes, streams, tributaries, and the surrounding land. Each watershed is a unique system with various habitats corresponding to geology, microclimate, and patterns of development. Each has a particular group of plants and animals. In the Sausal Creek watershed, the more natural tributary, Palo Seco Creek, emerges from a redwood forest and joins Shepard Canyon Creek to form Sausal Creek. This larger stream then flows through, a bay/oak ecosystem, a dogwood corridor, adds charm to backyards, disappears into a culvert, and eventually drains into the San Francisco Bay near the Fruitvale Bridge.

WPA-era concerte culverts installed in Sausal Creek. Photo: Revital Katznelson

WPA-era concerte culverts installed in Sausal Creek. Photo: Revital Katznelson

The hike took us to a stream where we found remnants of culverts the Works Project Administration (WPA) built in the 1930s to channel and direct the stream course. Christopher described how a stream course functions as a kind of conveyor belt with three zones. The zone of erosion is the steep upper area where the stream picks up sand, stones, and even boulders. The stream meanders through the second, flatter zone of transport, depositing some sediment on one bank and eroding the opposite side. The third zone is the area of deposition where the stream merges with a larger water body, slows, and drops its remaining load as a sand bar or delta. Sausal Creek does this when it hits San Francisco Bay.

“A healthy stream system needs to be eroding, at a moderate pace, throughout its headwaters,” Christopher said. “If you come in here and pour concrete over everything, it will starve the lower areas of the sand and gravel. Critters need that sand and gravel for habitat, and fish need that habitat to lay their eggs.” In line with a zealous mandate to stop erosion, the WPA concreted reaches of Sausal Creek in the 1930s. When a hiker asked Christopher why the agency did this, he shrugged and said, “Some of it was hubris, the idea that a human controlled natural situation is a better situation.” Today, these hardened creek beds are collapsing and being removed to restore the creek to more natural function.

Christopher standing near a patch of redwood sorrel. Photo: Revital Katznelson

Christopher standing near a patch of redwood sorrel. Photo: Revital Katznelson

Hiking through rugged wooded ridges along a path that was partly dirt and partly cracked asphalt, Christopher mentioned that the logging companies once hauled redwood logs with oxen along the road that once lay here. Today, upper parts of this area are covered with second growth redwoods. Native redwood sorrel, a small plant with heart-shaped leaflets, covers the ground along with Bermuda buttercup, a similar-looking but invasive non-native plant.

We found many other native plants among the redwoods. One hiker called thimbleberry, with its huge leaves, “nature’s toilet paper”. Fuzzy-leaved hazelnuts thrived in sunny trailside spots; Christopher mentioned that some native Californians may have eaten them more often than acorns. Downstream, coast live oaks and bay laurels replaced redwoods in a drier part of the woodland. California buckeyes, Indian soap root, and honeysuckle also thrived, but introduced English ivy and Scotch broom dominated some hillsides.

In some areas next to the trail, loose soil testified to the hikers and off-leash dogs who had cut across habitat between switchbacks, contributing to unwanted erosion. “Erosion is a Goldilocks issue, because there’s a ‘just right’ amount,” Christopher said. “Too much can mess things up, but not enough is also bad.” We scrambled along the Sausal Creek stream bed, climbing over boulders and broken slabs of WPA concrete structures. “Think of the Dust Bowl – the whole country was mobilized to control erosion,” he said. Urban graffiti and plaques stating “WPA 1938” covered some of these structures. Still, a healthy forest surrounded this area. We found a damselfly that had just emerged from its larval stage in the water and was preparing to fly from a flat rock.

Colorful graffiti and a WPA plaque. Photos: Revital Katznelson

Colorful graffiti and a WPA plaque. Photos: Revital Katznelson

Native creek dogwoods, willows, bay laurel, cow parsnips, and horsetails thrive in an area where Friends of Sausal Creek has worked with the city of Oakland to restore the natural stream corridor. Here, concrete slabs are very scarce, and the Creek tumbles over mossy boulders. Robins and other songbirds called to us as we hiked. We passed one pond where native trout have made their home. Christopher praised Friends of Sausal Creek as a heroic group that has worked hard to help native plants return to this place. “Yeah, the ivy keeps coming back, but in the stream, they’ve created a good foothold for native vegetation,” he said.

Following Sausal Creek into Dimond Park in Oakland’s Fruitvale District, we ended our hike by passing a swimming pool, picnics and a birthday party. The creek enters an underground tunnel here that takes it towards its destination in the San Francisco Bay. Friends of Sausal Creek currently works hard to restore the natural stream course through the Park; this group faces huge challenges, but it has begun to heal this watershed.

Sausal Creek- one of Oakland's most beautiful areas! Photo: Revital Katznelson

Sausal Creek- one of Oakland’s most beautiful areas! Photo: Revital Katznelson

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Assembling the Lake Merritt Neighborhood

By Paul Belz

Judy Goldhaft, co-founder of the Planet Drum Foundation. Photo: Constance Taylor

Judy Goldhaft, co-founder of the Planet Drum Foundation. Photo: Constance Taylor

Planet Drum uses strategies such as map-making workshops to connect people with local environments to highlight connections between human communities and natural ecosystems that surround them. “The part of the biosphere we can most affect is our place,” Judy said. “We need to know what’s there in order to restore or take care of it.”“We’re the Lake Merritt Commons today! We’ll make one map of the area by sharing all the information we have, which will be more than any one of us might know individually.” Judy Goldhaft of San Francisco’s Planet Drum Foundation addressed the group of enthusiastic explorers who had gathered in the Rotary Nature Center to map the multi-layered collage that forms this neighborhood.

We began with a sound mapping activity to explore our sensory connections to the Lake. Each person took a sheet of paper outside and mapped Lake Merritt’s soundscape. We drew N for north on the papers, placed the Rotary Nature Center in the middle, and began to represent sounds in their respective locations. “You have absolute creative leeway to draw any shape or squiggle that represents that sound,” Judy said.

We returned after five minutes, and one participant offered to draw our discoveries on a group map. “I heard flapping wings of birds flying north of the Center,” a map maker said. Others mentioned gulls flying and a raven calling “Awwwk!” south of the center, pigeons cooing to the north, the crash of birds landing on the Lake, the squeak of chains of children’s swings, jogger’s feet, an ice cream cart, and cars.

Discussing maps! Photo: Constance Taylor

Discussing maps! Photo: Constance Taylor

It’s interesting that even though there are so many people around, the sound of birds seem to dominate,” Judy commented. “When I did this exercise in New York City, one person reported hearing a cricket. Others doubted it, but maybe it was really there!

Even if you live in a city, you can peel back the human parts,” she continued. “Underneath that you’ll find the physical landforms of the place where you live.” One San Francisco map Judy had showed the hills and streams without the buildings and streets. “I consider anything that shows where you live and how you feel about it to be a map,” Judy said as the group prepared to create a collective visual map.

The volunteer artist drew an N to indicate the direction north and placed the Nature Center at the center of the paper. After some discussion, the group decided that winter storms approach the area from the Northwest. We agreed that San Francisco Bay was the largest nearby body of water. The Lake is still connected to the Bay, and Oakland has begun to restore native wetlands near the Sailboat House.

Our artist added the East Bay hills, and the streams that flow from these highlands to the Lake. Glen Echo Creek, Trestle Glen Creek, Pleasant Valley Creek, and others bring fresh water that mixes with the Bay’s salt water. Parts of these streams’ courses flow underground, though many activists stress the need to allow them to move unencumbered through neighborhoods.

Drawing our bioregion. Photo: Constance Taylor

Drawing our bioregion. Photo: Constance Taylor

We defined a “bioregion” as a collection of all the life forms that live in a physical place, and began to place native plants in their spaces. Oaks, ceanothus, manzanitas, sage, daisies, and many other native plants thrive in our bioregion.

The group discussed how European grass seeds arrived in sailor’s mattresses. These non-natives, which produce seeds yearly, out-competed native bunchgrasses which reproduce at a far slower rate. Judy commented that since bunchgrasses tend to remain greener throughout the summer, California’s golden hills are actually a sign of the introduced species’ presence.

We also considered eucalyptus trees, which were imported from Australia as windbreaks and as sources of wood for railroad ties. Northern California lacks koalas, which help control these trees’ Australian populations. Their leaves are acidic and they change the soil chemistry to the detriment of native plants, but Monarch butterflies and other local species have adapted to their presence. “We want native plants because they’re the basis of the ecosystem, but we might not want to remove all non-natives, “Judy commented.

We need to remember what else lives with us here in this dry summer, wet winter bioregion,” Judy said. Some of the local animals mentioned were salamanders, western fence lizards, squirrels, monarch and swallowtail butterflies, bees, ants, skunks, raccoons, deer, and the river otter that was spotted at the Lake.

If this is a bioregional map, we need to put people in as well,” Judy said. “I wonder if there are food sources here. Do people forage?” We added the Lake’s community gardens, the food trucks that visit on weekends, and the many ice cream carts; we also added the wetland restoration project as a future food source for non-human species. Children’s Fairyland and the playgrounds near the Lake added yet more layers to our map. Mapmakers mentioned cars, trash that flows down the streams, and residential waste from storm drains as pollution sources.

We’re having a love affair with our region, noticing the wonderful things about it and the things that aren’t so wonderful,” Judy said.

The workshop ended with Judy’s challenge. ‘We didn’t include our houses on these maps,” she said. “How would you tell someone how to find your house without referring to streets and buildings?” We left with eyes and ears opened to the collage that is this neighborhood.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Cuddle puddle ladybug huddle in Redwood Regional Park!

By Paul Belz

“How many ladybug species do you think live in California?” East Bay Regional Parks naturalist Michael Charnofsky asked a group of 100 ladybug seekers.

Convergent lady beetles (Hippodamia convergens). Photo: Lee Aurich

Convergent lady beetles (Hippodamia convergens). Photo: Lee Aurich

“100,000!” an eight year old boy called. Michael laughed and stated that around 175 species live in California, while approximately 5,000 species live across the world. Tens of thousands of red and black spotted convergent ladybugs (Hippodamia convergens) gather every year for the winter in Oakland’s Redwood Regional Park, but nobody really knows for sure why they come to exact certain locations.

Investigators believe that these ladybugs probably spend spring and summer in coastal areas. They pass their time feasting upon soft-bodied insects, especially aphids, small insects that are the bane of local gardeners. “In its lifetime, a ladybug can eat 5,000 aphids,” Michael said. “Aphids are small, but ladybugs aren’t that big either!”

“What are their predators?” a hiker asked.

“One flew in my mouth once!” another hiker exclaimed. “They taste terrible.”

“Most animals would agree,” Michael said. “Ladybugs excrete a yellow substance when they’re scared.” This toxin doesn’t kill the predator, it just tastes lousy. The color red is often a natural warning that an animal is unpalatable. Any animal that’s tried to eat a ladybug will recognize and avoid them in the future.

Looking at the ladybugs clustered on the blackberry bushes by Stream Trail, Photo: Lee Aurich.

Looking at the ladybugs clustered on the blackberry bushes by Stream Trail. Photo: Lee Aurich.

The number of aphids drops as autumn brings cooler weather. Ladybugs, like many animals, use hibernation as a survival strategy during cold times when food is scarce. “To reach their hibernation locations, ladybugs probably follow the wind currents,” Michael said. Investigators believe that ladybugs make use of the winds blowing inland from the coast to migrate to their hibernation locations in cool areas of the coastal range, such as Redwood Regional Park.

Rising air carries them up the slopes of the East Bay hills, and down into Redwood Regional Park. The new arrivals find scent markers from the previous seasons’ ladybugs to find the places where their parents gathered during the previous winter. Hikers often find huge clusters hibernating on fence posts, trail markers, tree stumps, on the ground, under leaf litter, and many other surfaces.

Some researchers speculate that the ladybugs aggregate to stay warm. Michael questioned this hypothesis- “Why would they cluster in this location here if they wanted to stay warm?” he asked. The canyon where the Stream Trail passes through is colder in winter than surrounding areas of Redwood Regional Park, other parts of Oakland, and the coastal areas. Like all ectothermic or “cold blooded” animals, ladybugs’ body temperatures fall when they come to a cooler habitat. They need less energy to live, so they can hibernate and survive without needing to eat.

Cluster of ladybugs at the Prince and Stream Trail junction in 2013 . Photo: Lee Aurich.

Cluster of ladybugs at the Prince and Stream Trail junction in 2013. Photo: Lee Aurich.

The group hiked along the Stream Trail, toward the foot of the Prince Trail where tens of thousands of ladybugs had gathered earlier in the winter. Michael described Redwood Regional Park as a healthy second growth forest. Perhaps some of the world’s largest trees grew here until the region was clear-cut during the 1840s through the 1860s. The forest is protected now. “Maybe in a thousand years it will be similar to the way it was before the 1840s,” Michael said. A chickadee called “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee!” from the shaded forest. Redwood Creek, which supports trout that swim from San Leandro Reservoir, rang with rushing water.

Michael said that the thousands of ladybugs that gathered near Prince Trail had left already, wakened by the early warm weather. Many others remained near a lower meadow. The group photographed them as they clung to fence posts, trail markers, and blackberry shrubs.

They become active and mate on warm, late winter days like this one. They may aggregate so they can find mates. ”When they’re out eating aphids during the summer, they can’t necessarily find each other,” Michael said. “When they gather to hibernate there are lots of other ladybugs to choose from.” This generation will return to the Coast to eat, lay eggs and die. Their children will hatch, eat aphids through the summer, and perhaps return here next autumn to continue the cycle.

The group found a large group of yellow mushrooms with remnants of delicate veils dangling from their caps. “Fairies live around here,” an excited five year old cried. She found no fairies, but was thrilled to find the ladybugs!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Mushrooms in Redwood Regional Park

By Paul Belz

Imagine a redwood forest that is home to strange little life-forms of all shapes and colors. “Mushrooms are interesting to me… because they’re like the flowers of winter. They appear when not a lot of other things are happening in California’s coastal forests,” East Bay Regional Parks naturalist Trent Pearce told a large group at Redwood Regional Park. “Why are mushrooms interesting to you?”

“They look like crazy aliens,” one hiker said.

“They have a hidden side and an emergent side.”

 “They’re not plants or animals.”

 “They sometimes grow in perfect circles.”

Fungi are a separate kingdom of life from plants, animals, and bacteria. The surreal organisms we call ‘mushrooms’ are the fruiting bodies of mycelium, filamentous strands that look like spider webs. Spores, which all fungi use as reproductive cells, develop within the gills or other structures of the fruiting body until wind or animals scatter them. A lucky spore might land in a spot where it can produce its own mycelium, which grows until it touches a compatible mycelium web. The two organisms will share genetic material, and produce new fruiting bodies that will continue the cycle.

Amanita phalloides. Photo: Trent Pearce

Death cap (Amanita phalloides). Photo: Trent Pearce

Trent grinned and showed the crowd a beautiful specimen that is California’s deadliest mushroom, the death cap (Amanita phalloides). When you’re first learning to identify mushrooms, it’s a good idea to start with the most deadly ones so you know what to never eat! This handsome amanita has a large, shiny greenish cap, with white gills on its underside, a ring of tissue around the middle of its stalk, and a bag like structure at the stalk’s base. While all mushrooms are perfectly safe to touch, you’d never want to eat a death cap – they can cause acute liver failure. Mushroom enthusiasts, especially novice ones, must be aware of the death cap.

Our group walked into a redwood grove near the Canyon Meadows Staging area. We quickly found coral fungi, which really do resemble undersea corals, and rabbit-foot inkcap (Coprinopsis lagopus) a mushroom that auto-digests and turns to black mush as it releases its spores. Trent pointed out a group of candy caps (Lactarius rubidus), reddish-brown mushrooms that were growing at the base of a redwood. They are members of the Lactarius genus, a group that oozes milky latex when flesh is disturbed or scratched. Candy caps are known for smelling strongly of maple syrup, and their sweet smell and edibility make them a tasty addition to cookies and other desserts. Trent emphasized that it is illegal to gather mushrooms and take them from East Bay Regional Parks since this activity further disturbs the already beleaguered area.

Redwood rooter (Caulorhiza umbonata). Photo: Trent Pearce

Redwood rooter (Caulorhiza umbonata). Photo: Trent Pearce

Saprotrophic fungi release enzymes that break down organic material like leaf litter and dead wood so they can absorb amino acids and other nutrients. Redwood rooters (Caulorhiza umbonata), which are very common among these trees, are saprobic upon leaf letter. Trent plucked a large one from the soil so he could share the long taproot-like structure that rises from deep within the soil. He pointed out the caps of two redwood rooters. The younger one had a smooth, oval shape, while the older was flatter and frillier since the mycelium had flooded the mushroom with water, making it very photogenic.

Boletes also thrived in damp gorge of Redwood Creek. These mushrooms lack gills; their spores develop in tubes that fill spongy surfaces on the bottom of their caps. Trent shared a Suillus, a slimy bolete that looks quite haggard after a few days. He recommended that mushroom enthusiasts learn to identify the fruiting bodies during different stages of their short lives. Waxy caps, which have thick, widely spaced gills and bright, slimy caps sprouted nearby. Trent promised that the hike would end with a surprising group of waxy caps.

“This is one of the easiest wild mushrooms to identify,” Trent said, showing a broad, white mushroom that grew from a rotting log. The oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus) gets nutrients by breaking down wood from dead trees, but there is also some evidence that it and other saprotrophic fungi can parasitize living plants as well. This is one of the most popular edible mushrooms and many enthusiasts raise it at home on mulch, cardboard – anything that’s wood based. “They grow quickly, almost as soon as a raindrop hits them,” Trent said.

Deadly galerina (Galerina marginata). Photo: Trent Pearce

Deadly galerina (Galerina marginata). Photo: Trent Pearce

Back in the forest, Trent pointed out a deadly galerina (Galerina marginata), a small brown fungi growing from wood. It vaguely resembles a candy cap but produces the same toxins as the death cap, making it deadly poisonous. Since it isn’t a Lactarius, it doesn’t bleed latex and doesn’t smell like maple syrup. People who gather edible fungi must learn to distinguish between these species. It isn’t clear why some fungi are poisonous; the compounds may simply be the byproducts of the organism’s digestive process as it secretes enzymes that break down plant material so the mycelium can absorb  nutrients.

At the walk’s end, Trent enthusiastically shared a group of small, orange waxy caps. “My friend who is writing a book about California’s coastal fungi says these have never been described in the literature,” he said. The parrot mushroom (Gliophorus psittacinus), which has a beautiful green waxy cap, is their closest relative. They may be a subspecies of that fungus, but mycologists suspect they could be a new species since parrot mushrooms show different coloration and cap features. Genetic sequencing will eventually reveal the truth. “This is only their second observation in the East Bay!” Trent said.

Undescribed waxy cap (Gliophorus fenestratus nom. prov.). Photo: Trent Pearce

Undescribed waxy cap (Gliophorus fenestratus nom. prov.). Photo: Trent Pearce

“Mycology is exciting to me,” Trent said, “because there are so many unknowns.” Mycologists estimate that between one and three million fungal species may exist, but only about one hundred thousand have been described by science. “It is hard to find new species of birds or trees, but there could be new species of fungi in your own back yard. You don’t have to have a PhD either, you can make valuable contributions to science with citizen observations.” Keep your eyes open and your camera clicking!

For more fantastic photos of mushrooms, check out Trent’s website: Left Coast Naturalist!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Getting close to our winter guests

By Paul Belz

A group of about thirty curious birders stood at the edge of Lake Merritt, mere feet away from dozens of water birds. “This is the great thing about Lake Merritt,” said Marissa Ortega-Welch, coordinator for the Golden Gate Audubon Society’s Ecological Education Program. We didn’t even need binoculars to see the intricate black and white patterns on the backs of the scaups paddling near our feet.

Scaup on left, close-up of black and white pattern on its back on the right. Photos: Constance Taylor

Scaup on left, close-up of black and white pattern on its back on the right. Photos: Constance Taylor

 

Eared grebes and American coots swam quietly then abruptly dove beak first towards the water’s depths. Egrets and a great blue heron waded on long stick-like legs, and held their slender necks still as they watched the water for passing meals. White pelicans rested on nearby islands while double-crested cormorants sat on buoys, spreading their wings to dry them. Some of these birds live here year round but many are only here during the winter, using Lake Merritt as a rest stop during their migration along the Pacific Flyway

Lake Merritt is an estuary, a former salt marsh wetland that still connects to the San Francisco Bay. It’s influenced by the tides, but a flood gate at 7th Street opens and closes to control the water level. Fresh water from many of Oakland’s streams floats on top of the Bay’s denser salt water, making the water brackish (a combination of fresh and salt water). Mayor Samuel Merritt worked hard to have the Lake proclaimed the nation’s first wildlife refuge in the 1880s, but the legislation may have been less about protecting wildlife and more about protecting humans. The legend goes that Mayor Merritt, who had a house by the Lake, pushed through the no-hunting laws after a bullet shattered his bedroom window! Regardless of why the legislation was passed, ornithologists have since been able to take advantage of this policy to band birds and study their migration routes. For many years, Lake Merritt was the site of the largest bird banding operation on the Pacific Flyway.

“This is my down and dirty method for learning how to identify the Lake’s birds,” Marissa said as she held up a printed silhouettes of bird bodies. She cautioned against using color as the most important clue in identifying ducks and other species, since males and females of the same species can be very different colors. Males are often brightly colored to attract females during mating season, while the drabber females are camouflaged so they can sit on nests without being spotted by predators. Marissa pointed out that the shape of the head, beak, feet, and body are a stronger indication of the species. The observer should notice the animal’s size next; color and patterns can be useful at this point. Marissa said that a bird’s behavior was important, and she recommended the use range maps (found in most field guides) to confirm that a particular bird would likely be in an area.

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)

 

Lobed feet of a coot. Photo: Constance Taylor

Lobed feet of a coot. Photo: Constance Taylor

“There’s one bird here that might fool you with its shape,” Marissa said. The body of an American coot resembles that of a duck, but a close look at their white, pincer-like beaks and their long-toed feet shows that they are members of the rail family. These black birds dive to the Lake’s bottom to grab plants, while ducks often use their flatter beaks to strain the water and filter out their food. Coots’ feet aren’t webbed- their long, lobed toes make them good swimmers and help them walk on mud, where ducks might get stuck.

Canvasbacks swam among the crowd of scaups and coots. Canvasbacks have bills that connect to their heads like slides, and their reddish heads and white backs also make them stand out. “Some people say their backs look like a blank, white canvas,” Marissa said, “but I’ve heard that when hunters went out to get ducks, they’d bring a canvas sack with them to carry back the dead birds. They were told to ‘bring the canvas back’… full of ducks, that is!”

Canvasback swimming with the American coots. Photo: Constance Taylor

Canvasback swimming with the American coots. Photo: Constance Taylor

 

Grebes make up another family of bird that visits Lake Merritt during the winter. Up to 5 species have been spotted on the water at once- the small eared grebe, horned grebe, Western grebe, Clark’s grebe, and pied-billed grebe.

Some birders call grebes “hell divers” since they abruptly slide head first into the water to catch food, and vanish for long minutes. Grebes can be recognized by their broad beaks and relatively long necks. These birds have legs that are positioned so far back on their bodies that they can’t easily walk on land! However, the position of their legs makes them excellent divers and swimmers. They build floating nests to lay eggs and raise their chicks, and spend most of their life on the water. They don’t breed at Lake Merritt, so you probably won’t see a floating nest there… but let us know if you do!

Western and Clark’s grebes are famous for the synchronized dancing of males and females when they prepare to mate. They run across the water together, and bow their heads in a graceful greeting. Marissa mentioned that while these birds sometimes mate in other parts of the Bay Area, they usually wait until they’ve left for their northern range in March or April. Grebes who dance on Lake Merritt are probably practicing their moves for the real thing later on. Click here to see the dance! 

Great and snowy egrets sometimes confuse birders who rely mostly on size. Both species’ bodies are covered with bright white feathers, and both wade on long legs whose similarity to sticks may confuse fish. They stand quietly, and quickly snap snake-like necks forward to grab their prey in long beaks.

Marissa commented that most birds reach their lifelong sizes when they leave their nests; ducks and geese are one exception. Small snowy egrets are not baby great egrets. Snowies grow feather tufts on the backs of their heads, distinguishing it from the great egret’s smoother head. The snowies’ yellow feet and black beaks distinguish them from the larger great egrets, with their black feet and yellow beaks. “Spanish settlers called snowy egrets ‘golden foot’,” Marissa said. “That’s a beautiful name.”

Hank the white pelican lives at Lake Merritt year round because his injured wing prevents him from migrating. We saw him resting on one of the Lake’s islands, along with other white pelicans who join him for part of the year. These huge birds resemble brown pelicans, except for their larger size and white feathers. They swim together, gathering and driving fish in front of them until they dive and catch their prey. This behavior is very different from brown pelicans’, which fly above schools of fish and plunge downward, making big splashes.

Humans built the islands to give birds sheltered places where they can nest and find some peace and quiet. A raptor that Marissa said was probably a red shouldered hawk perched on a tree trunk. A green heron hid in the shadows at an island’s edge while a belted kingfisher sat in another tree. Blue billed ruddy ducks, whose upward pointing tails resemble Dennis the Menace’s distinctive cowlick, joined the throngs of swimming birds. Marissa proved that Lake Merritt is a great place for Oaklanders who want to get to know our water birds. It’s a spot where our world and theirs connect!

For a downloadable PDF of a basic guide to the birds at Lake Merritt, Grow Your Oakland has a great one here.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Emergency Mushroom Walk to SAVE KNOWLAND PARK!

Have fun and sign the petition to Save Knowland Park!

When: Sunday Dec 28, 2014 from 12:00 pm-2:00 pm

Where: Knowland Park- we’ll meet at the Cameron Avenue entrance, a cul-de-sac off of Malcolm Avenue that dead-ends at the park. It’s fine to park on the street or any of the other nearby 1-block cul-de-sacs that are on the south side of the park. Click on the Dec 28 event in the “Upcoming Events” bar to your right for a Google Map location.

Why this is an “emergency” mushroom walk:

Poster created by art student Kaley Bales, inspired by Knowland Park.

Poster created by art student Kaley Bales, inspired by Knowland Park.

We want people to experience this amazing public open space because it’s under imminent threat of development by the Oakland Zoo. Friends of Knowland Park is working hard to get this issue on the ballot so the public can vote on what happens to its public land.

For this referendum effort we need 25,000 physical signatures from registered Oakland voters by January 9, 2015. There’s nothing you can mail in or sign via the internet- that means we need your help now!!! At the walk we’ll have petitions to sign as well as voter registration forms. Bring your friends!

  • To learn more about the issue, go to saveknowland.org or read the October 2014 East Bay Express article “Zoo Gone Wild”.
  • If you’d like to get a petition pack to collect signatures, e-mail knowlandreferendum@gmail.com
  • You can also donate to the referendum effort

And now, the mushrooms!

With the excellent rain we’ve been getting, you’ve probably been seeing the blooms of fungal fruiting bodies (mushrooms) popping up everywhere. We’ll see what’s growing at Knowland Park, and also check out the ancient fairy ring of puffball mushrooms to see what surprises are there! The focus will be on learning to identify the larger mushroom species of the area and learning to read the landscape for where these various heterotrophs hide out and about their many roles in the local ecology.

Knowland Park's giant puffball mushrooms (Calvatia pachyderma) Left: intact puffball.  Right: open puffball with billions of powdery brown spores. Photos: Constance Taylor

Knowland Park’s giant puffball mushrooms (Calvatia pachyderma)
Left: intact puffball. Right: open puffball with billions of powdery brown spores. Photos: Constance Taylor

Please bring guide books if you have them. We will meet rain or shine! Tools that you may want to bring include a small pocket knife to dig with, a paintbrush to brush duff off with, and a jacket. You might also want to bring snacks, water, and dress for rain. There are no bathroom facilities at Knowland!With the excellent rain we’ve been getting, you’ve probably been seeing the blooms of fungal fruiting bodies (mushrooms) popping up everywhere. We’ll see what’s growing at Knowland Park, and also check out the ancient fairy ring of puffball mushrooms to see what surprises are there! The focus will be on learning to identify the larger mushroom species of the area and learning to read the landscape for where these various heterotrophs hide out and about their many roles in the local ecology.

We’ll meet at the Cameron Avenue entrance, a cul-de-sac off of Malcolm Avenue that dead-ends at the park. It’s fine to park on the street or any of the other nearby 1-block cul-de-sacs that are on the south side of the park.

This walk will not include tasting or collection of mushrooms.

Your guide will be Damon Tighe, an amateur mycologist or five years and former research scientist at the Joint Genome Institute, where many fungal genomes have been sequenced for biofuel applications.

Check out our blogs about Wild Oakland’s 2012 and 2013 mushroom walks with Damon Tighe!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Rockin’ Oakland: A Walk Along the Hayward Fault

By Paul Belz

“This is something you’d see in a textbook, right here in Oakland,” Andrew Alden told a group of 50 explorers who stood near the entrance to the Oakland Zoo. He showed a creek that flowed from the hills and turned abruptly to the right as it hit the Hayward Fault and described the creek’s behavior as a sure sign of a right lateral strike-slip fault line. His presentation showed that Oakland’s wildness is always with us, even in a quiet neighborhood.

The Hayward Fault is made up of the Pacific plate on the west and the North American Plate to the east. The North American plate side of the Hayward Fault remains still while the Pacific plate moves horizontally to the north at a rate of about 2 millimeters per year; this behavior defines it as a strike-slip fault.

Hayward Fault image: UC Berkeley Seismological Laboratory. http://seismo.berkeley.edu/hayward/hayward_fault.html Strike-slip image: USGS. http://earthquake.usgs.gov/learn/glossary/?term=strike-slip

Hayward Fault image: UC Berkeley Seismological Laboratory. Strike-slip image: USGS.

 

Like other faults, the Hayward Fault is a geological zone instead of a visible crack in the earth. The Hayward Fault is 100 yards wide, but “Faults are not easy to see,” Andrew said. “They’re easier to see if you’re up in an airplane. You’ll see the alignment of landforms and how streams change directions.”

Our Hayward Fault is part of the San Andreas Fault system that extends from Cape Mendocino in the north to the Gulf of California in the south. The Hayward Fault extends along the base of the East Bay Hills from Alum Rock in San Jose to Point Pinole, about 74 miles. It parallels parts of Interstate 13, cuts straight under Hayward City Hall and the University of California football stadium, and passes through a number of cities including Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond, El Cerrito, Hayward, and Fremont. The Hayward Fault could give us a minute long earthquake with a magnitude of 7.1-7.6, causing the moving block to quickly shift two meters to the north. Another fault lies across the Bay from Point Pinole; if quakes occurred on both regions at once, the earthquake could reach 7.5 magnitude, putting about 150,000 housing units out of commission throughout the Bay Area.

Walking through  Blandon Road to get to our next stop. Photo: Jennifer Luna

Walking through  Blandon Road to get to our next stop. Photo: Jennifer Luna

The group walked through quiet neighborhoods with neat lawns, coast live oaks, and Monterey pine trees. Andrew, a writer and editor who has a degree in geology, pointed out how the curb on Encina Avenue leans northward along the road. He mentioned that motion along the fault often results in cracks in sidewalks, roads, gas lines, and water mains.

Andrew pointed out a steep vacant lot along a hillside, and said that there may have been houses here that had fallen apart because of the fault’s motion. The homes in this neighborhood were largely built between the 1920s and the 1950s, before the 1971 San Fernando earthquake led to zoning restrictions. Now new houses must pass geological site studies to make sure fault motion won’t make them collapse. No one will be able to build on the steep, empty lot!

Earthquakes occur on the Hayward Fault every 150 years on the average. They do not happen regularly- realistically, they can occur every 60 – 300 years. The last quake happened in 1868, 140 years ago. “I like the idea of earthquakes,” Andrew said. “I like the little ones. They’re cool, they’re like the earth talking to me. “ He shook his head when he mentioned the major quakes.

This is a beautiful valley, a real nice place to live,” he continued. “It’s like living on a volcano. You can spend your whole life there and be fine, or you can be there when it goes off. These are chances we all take. If you live here, you know that!”

King Estates Open Space. Photo: Jennifer Luna

King Estates Open Space. Photo: Jennifer Luna

The explorers left the neighborhood and walked into King Estates Open Space. A woman named Ms. Ivy once owned this rolling grassland dotted with coyote bush, poison oak, and the occasional coast live oak tree before the City of Oakland acquired it in 1956. Bald, unforested hills like these were once typical of those parts of Oakland that lie outside of the redwood belt.

Hills and other spectacular changes in elevation are signs of an unsteady earth. 90% 0f the Hayward Fault’s energy is produced by the northward drift of the Pacific plate. The other 10% comes from pressure that pushed these hills upward. Depressions like Lake Temescal result when the two sides of the Fault pull away from each other. Andrew said that the gravel here was an unusual collection of pebbles that had been deposited by an ancient stream. He wanted to study this area to determine their origin point- the fact that they were not completely rounded indicated that the stream was a short one.

Andrew pointed out other features as the group circled back to the hike’s beginning point. Arroyo Viejo and other streams had shifted as much as 60 – 80 miles as the fault block moved north like a conveyer belt. “Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley study places like the Himalayas,” he concluded. “They don’t consider their backyard very interesting, but I think it’s exciting!” Oakland’s geology will give him material to investigate for years!

To learn more, check out Andrew Alden’s blog about Oakland geology here, and Tanya Atwater’s fantastic geoscience animations here!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Speak up to save Knowland Park- Tues, Nov 18 from 5:30-8 pm!

THIS IS IT: Last chance to protect Knowland Park!

Please come to the Oakland City Council meeting on Tues 11/18 from 5:30 – 8 pm.

Where: Oakland City Hall, 1 Frank Ogawa Plaza, Council Chambers, 3rd Floor

Please RSVP here if you can attend: bit.ly/knowlandmeeting.

Beautiful and wild Knowland Park is home to native wildlife that includes rare and threatened species, and it was deeded to the city of Oakland to remain a public park forever. The Oakland Zoo wants to take over the heart of it (77 acres of prime habitat on western ridge) for an exhibit of species that are now regionally extinct due to development, plus a restaurant, gift shop, offices, meeting rooms, and a gondola ride that will transport Zoo visitors uphill to the ridgetop development. This is not conservation. Once the chain-link perimeter fence goes up and the richest portion of Knowland Park is bulldozed, it’s gone forever.

Help us tell City Council they must not vote to give away our public parkland. The Zoo has room to build their project BELOW the ridge. We can still have a great Zoo and save Knowland Park. Note: You can sign up for a 1-minute statement, or if you don’t want to speak, you can cede your time to other speakers.

Please join us in our final appeal to City Council. We need every single supporter to stand with us. Thank you!

Visit www.saveknowland.org for more information.

Knowland Park. Photo: Ken-ichi Ueda

Knowland Park. Photo: Ken-ichi Ueda

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment