Insect pinning with the Insect Sciences Museum of California

By Kevin Hong

Pinned insect with label. Photo: Constance Taylor

Pinned insect with label. Photo: Constance Taylor

Kevin here!

What is insect pinning? Simply put, it is the pinning of caught insect specimens into a case so that the specimens can be studied and displayed. It’s a method for naturalists to survey insect populations within geographical regions, and to learn what lives where. Properly done, each pinned specimen should also have a label with information accurate as possible for the time and space within the insect was caught, such as date, time of day, and latitude / longitude. Besides the advantage of having this information neatly tacked to the specimen, pinning prevents the brittle insect bodies from breaking by freeing the specimen from surface contact or direct handling for further observation.

On August 9th, we met in front of the Joaquin Miller Ranger Station for our insect pinning event led by Eddie Dunbar from the Insect Sciences Museum of California (ISMC). To begin the afternoon, we forayed into the park to hunt for insects toting nets and small, cylindrical vials to hold specimens. Eddie advised us to look in bushes, under rocks and logs, on leaves, windowsills, and car bumpers to find insects. Among the critters we saw in the woods and blackberry bushes were bees, flies, false tarantulas, grass spiders, wood beetles, termites, a tropical centipede, and a Jerusalem cricket.

Eddie Dunbar in the green shirt, talking about where to find insects. Photo: Constance Taylor

Eddie Dunbar in the green shirt, talking about where to find insects. Photo: Constance Taylor

After bug hunting we regrouped at the picnic tables in front of the Joaquin Miller Ranger Station and put our insect specimens into kill jars – jars containing paper towels soaked in ethyl acetate (the active ingredient in nail polish remover) – that would slowly and relatively peacefully incapacitate and kill the insects in preparation for pinning. An alternative method of incapacitation, and probably the best one if you can do it, is to put the container with the bug inside a freezer for about twenty to thirty minutes. The balance of an insect’s being depends on its body temperature relative to its environment’s temperature, so any insect (or spider, or any other sort of arthropod) will slow down and eventually die peacefully after spending enough time in a freezer.

Pinning insects. Photo: Constance Taylor

Pinning insects. Photo: Constance Taylor

Since the focus of this event was to practice technique, the only insects we put in the kill jars were those that occur in great abundance and aren’t in any way threatened as a species.

Leveling an insect and label. Photo: Constance Taylor

Leveling an insect and label. Photo: Constance Taylor

After waiting about fifteen minutes, the insects were ready. Eddie gave us our own insect pinning kits, each containing two clear plastic boxes with Styrofoam floors on the inside for collecting insects, stainless pins, a wood block for making specimens and labels level, forceps, and a loupe. We pinned the insects level and into the Styrofoam bases of our boxes, along with a small strip of flea collar for deterring pests from getting to the specimens. “Dead insects are a surprisingly popular protein source for live ones,” Eddie told us. The flea collar – specifically ones that contain propoxur – prevents pests from getting into your collection. Eddie warned specifically against collars or mothballs with paradichlorobenzene, as they will produce vapors that will weaken the plastic of your collection box.

Insect collecting is a fantastic way to create a record of what lives in an area, but keep in mind that many open spaces, including all of the East Bay Regional Parks, require a collection permit (for this event we were able to collect under the permit held by the ISMC). If you want to record or identify an insect without collecting (i.e. killing) it, you can take a picture of it and post your photo to

Happy bugging!

A couple visiting Oakland decided to pin their experience of the whole day! Photo: Constance Taylor

A couple visiting Oakland decided to pin their experience of the whole day! Photo: Constance Taylor

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Dock fouling organisms at Jack London Square Marina

By Constance Taylor

First of all, what the heck is a fouling organism?

Essentially it’s all the stuff, native or introduced, that attaches itself to human-built structures to the point that it prevents those structures from functioning properly. At Jack London Square Marina, for example, the marine fouling organisms that glue themselves to the floating docks can build up so much that the docks will start sinking! Periodically the docks are scraped off to remove the barnacles, mussels, sponges, tunicates, and everything else that’s taken up residence on the submerged surfaces. They re-colonize fast enough though, and when Ken-ichi Ueda, founder of iNaturalist and fan of fouling organisms, took us to examine the docks on July 12 there were plants and critters aplenty to poke at and examine.

“Make sure to check out the differences between what’s growing on the floating docks versus the stationary structures,” Ken-ichi instructed at the beginning. Organisms on the floating docks are constantly submerged, while the stationary substrate such as the pilings driven into the harbor bed have dry periods when the tide is out. Looking at the floating docks is like being able to see what lives yards down in the depths of the water; anything that needs to be underwater all the time won’t be able to survive drying out during a low tide. Barnacles, mussels, and some algae encrusted the stationary pilings, while the floating docks had a far greater abundance of species underneath.

Adult Caprella mutica.  Photo: National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research

Adult Japanese skeleton shrimp (Caprella mutica). Photo: National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research

Laying on our stomachs and trying to not lose sunglasses and hats in the water, we found native and non-native species alike as we pulled up gobs of sponges and seaweed. Some of the most abundant critters were Japanese skeleton shrimp (Caprella mutica), a transplant that most likely came to Oakland via ballast water dumped in the harbor from shipping traffic. These strange looking crustaceans are omnivores that eat everything from decaying plant matter to each other; in turn, they’re eaten by fish and can act as an important link in the food web between microscopic plankton and larger animals. I pulled up a piece of red seaweed the size of my palm and took a close look… it was crawling with hundreds of itty bitty little skeleton shrimp! Lacking a larval stage, hatchlings come out of their eggs looking like tiny versions of the adults.

Unlike the skeleton shrimp, the many tunicates (also known as sea squirts) we found that day change significantly as they mature from larvae to adult. Hatching from eggs as free swimming, tadpole-like larvae, young tunicates have a nerve cord and rudimentary brain. But once they find a good spot to settle down they plonk headfirst onto their substrate of choice, absorb their tail, nerve cord, and “brain” back into their body, and never move again. Those absorbed parts are recycled into the digestive, circulatory, and reproductive organs the adult tunicates need to spend the rest of their lives as stationary filter feeders. The brain is an expensive luxury the larvae need to find a good home, but is unnecessary when the adult gives up the trappings of a moveable life.

From left to right: vase tunicates (Ciona intestinalis), golden star tunicates (Botryllus schlosseri), and solitary tunicate (Styela clava). Photos: Ken-ichi Ueda

From left to right: Vase tunicates (Ciona intestinalis), Golden Star tunicates (Botryllus schlosseri), and Solitary tunicate (Styela clava). Photos: Ken-ichi Ueda (Vase & Golden Star), Constance Taylor (Solitary)

Red beard sponges, brittle sea stars, spaghetti worms, and dozens of other organisms caked the sides of the dock as I squinted through the sunscreen residue stinging my eyes. Schools of small silvery fish too fast to catch (we tried), darted in front of us as we peered into the water. One crowd-pleasing find was Aplysiopsis enteromorphae, a sea slug that can be found munching algae in intertidal areas.

Aplysiopsis enteromorphae. Photo: Ken-ichi Ueda

Aplysiopsis enteromorphae. Photo: Ken-ichi Ueda


“We found an Elysia!” I heard Ken-ichi call. Oooh! It was the animal I had been hoping to see. Elysia hedgpethi is a frilly, elegant, dark green sea slug flecked with spots of iridescent turquoise that can be found on Bryopsis, a type of algae it likes to eat. E. hedgpethi, also known as Hedgpeth’s Sapsucker, has managed a rare evolutionary feat; it possesses chlorophyll-synthesizing genes that can photosynthesize sunlight into supplemental sugars for itself!

That… is… awesome.

It breaks open algal cells with its radula and sucks out the contents. The ingested chloroplasts move through digestive glands that branch into the parapodia, the ruffles on the sides of its body, and will continue to photosynthesize for up to ten days!

Elysia hedgpethi. Photo: Ken-ichi Ueda

Elysia hedgpethi. Photo: Ken-ichi Ueda


Wild Oaklanders on the dock!  Photo: Constance Taylor

Wild Oaklanders on the dock! Photo: Constance Taylor

So often, hearing a value-laden term like “fouling” can inspire instant antagonism towards entire communities of species. It can cloud our sense of amazement, and we forget to take a closer look at how fantastic these other lives are. I’m certainly not advocating for monocultures of organisms that elbow everything else out of house and home, but studying the dock fouling organisms at Jack London Square Marina and learning some of the different ways they survive in the world is a good reminder that every plant and critter has its own captivating magic, and introducing ourselves to introduced species can be a pretty marvelous way to spend a Saturday.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Map making as a way of knowing

By Paul Belz

Do people really know where we live? “I grew up in a rural area on the east coast,” Judy Goldhaft told an enthusiastic group of seekers. “When I got out here, I was astounded that I didn’t know one tree or one plant. The flowers – where did they come from?”

Judy directs The Planet Drum Foundation, a San Francisco organization that has emphasized bioregional thought since the 1970s. Planet Drum calls a bioregion a unique ecologically defined area. Climate, geology, soils, and landforms define a bioregion, and determine which native plants and animals live there. Human communities also deeply interact with the natural world around them.

Some environmental thinkers see people’s lives as separate from their surroundings and focus on our negative impacts on the earth. Mid twentieth century scientists and activists focused on negative actions such as litigation to prevent people from polluting, overdeveloping, and otherwise harming their world. “It’s what you don’t do to protect the place where you live,” Judy commented.

Planet Drum Foundation definitely recognizes the ways people harm our world, but stresses that we can also connect with our home places. “What are the proactive actions you can take to make your region sustainable? “Judy asked. The excited group mentioned alternative energy, public transit, permaculture and farmers’ markets as positive projects.

Judy stated that our current ecological changes require people to understand their bioregions. “Things are changing faster than they have since the ice ages,” she said. “We have seen the ice age and it is us.” We impact on the world in both large and small scales. Climate change leads to sea level rises; it also contributes to rapid evolution in microorganisms and the development of new diseases. “Microorganisms are very adaptable,” Judy reflected. “We need to be just as adaptable.”

People often create maps that deepen their knowledge and connection with their surroundings, and help them think about sustainable directions for their local cultures. The group examined several bioregional maps. One showed the development of the San Francisco Bay Area between the 1750s and 1990s, including changes in the shoreline.

Another map presented the perspective of people in northern Scandinavia, with the North Pole as the center of the world. This map shared pictures of weavings and musical instruments from the area. “This is more than a map of the land, it’s a map of their culture,” Judy said. A map of the Ish River Watershed included a poem that described all the towns whose names end in “-ish”.

Judy now distributed paper and markers and guided people through the process of bioregional map making. She asked everyone to indicate the direction north on their maps, and to mark an X to show their homes. People drew the dominant water bodies near their neighborhoods – San Francisco Bay, Lake Merritt, and local streams. They added clouds that showed storm’s paths.

The map makers laughed and shared information as they drew landforms, including the highest point in the area. Judy mentioned that streams flowing downhill distribute soils. When several people mentioned that they didn’t know which soils were in their areas, Judy said, “Part of what this map will do for you is to help you figure out what you don’t know. Don’t be afraid to ask.”

Native plants came next. People drew redwoods, California buckeyes, coyote bush, poison oak, poppies, and many others. Judy commented that while eucalyptus trees are an invasive pest in the Shasta bioregion, koalas control these trees’ populations in their native Australia. Microorganisms there break down the acidic leaves that change the chemistry of northern California’s soils.

Now the excited designers added coyotes, red tailed hawks, banana slugs, and other native animals. Judy mentioned that ground squirrels are native to California; early settlers from the eastern United States imported the tree squirrels they missed from home.

The last step was to show human influences on the area. The artists drew the most negative human action, and the most positive. Judy stressed that these suggestions were subjective and unique to each person. She asked each group member to think of a name for their map, one that expressed their feelings towards the bioregion.

Mapmakers now took turns sharing the maps they named “Ever Changing Land”, “Lake Merit Bioregion”, and “The Berkeley Slide.” They showed negative human impacts such as freeways and the lack of public transit, high rises that crowd the Berkeley bay shore, urban runoff into Lake Merritt and other water bodies, and trash that winds up in landfills. Positive impacts included recent improvements to Lake Merritt, daylighting of creeks, Oakland’s pollination corridors, and neighborhoods where citizens debate community issues.

Judy praised the mapmaker’s focus on their surroundings. “Many people – PhDs, activists and many others across the world have developed these maps,” Judy said. “How you use your map will be determined by how you feel about it.

“I think of it as a little like a love affair,” she concluded. “When you meet someone, and you want to instantaneously know everything about them. Maps go on and on, there is so much more information you can add.”

May the relationships deepen!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Buzzin’ Insect Ilustration with Tim Manolis

By Ellen Hong

“I assume that the reason most of you guys are here is either that you already love drawing insects or that you want to learn how to,” naturalist and professional scientific illustrator Tim Manolis said, addressing the dozen eager students, ranging from age 5 to 60, sitting inside the Rotary Nature Center. With no professional bug drawing experience, I was excited to learn a new skill and glad that he decided to get started with the instruction right away.

“So there’s a very different approach to drawing vertebrates vs. invertebrates,” he explained. “When you’re drawing birds or mammals, it pays to know what’s on the inside–the bones, the skeletal system–for example, when drawing the skull, you want to know where the eye sockets are in relation to the jaw.” The opposite is true for insects, however: “What you see on the outside is pretty much what you get.”

Tim then illustrated for us the basic plan of the insect, which includes three main structures: the head, the thorax, and the abdomen.

Basic outline of an insect, drawn by Tim Manolis. Photo: Ellen Hong

Basic outline of an insect, drawn by Tim Manolis. Photo: Ellen Hong


As Tim pointed out, an insect’s head is where all the sensory organs are. The thorax, divided into three segments, is where the legs and wings come off of. The abdomen, made of ten segments, is attached to organs used for reproduction.

As for drawing the legs, Tim told us that it’s pretty difficult to capture exactly how the legs come off the insect’s body. There are many parts of the leg that are important to include: the coxa, femur, tibia, trochanter, and tarsus. It can be tricky to capture all of them correctly.

Tim explaining insect leg structures. Photo: Ellen Hong

                                                                                                                               Tim explaining insect leg structures. Photo: Ellen Hong

It’s also vital to take perspective into account. Whether drawing from the side or from above, insects will look very different from different angles.

For a “standard winged insect,” Tim told us that there are two wings on either side–typically a hard covering on top of a single set of wings. Beetles specifically have Elytra as a hardened forewing, with their main wings used for flight hidden underneath.

Some two-winged insects have halteres, tiny knobbed structures on the wings almost too miniscule to be seen, that are partially vestigial but thought to be used for balance in flight.

Certain types of insects don’t have wings at all, however. Insects that may look like ants may really be female wasps. Especially in insect caste systems, there may be, for example, worker insects that are non-winged while higher-authority insects possess wings.

“Once you have a good idea of an insect’s build/parts, then you can start to look at real insects and identify the structures,” Tim told us. He doesn’t do a lot of field drawing himself, however–mainly because of how difficult it is to do with insects. But according to Tim, dragonflies are the easiest insects to draw live, especially when they’re sitting still.

“Draw as much as you can,” Tim advised about field sketching in general. He said that capturing as many key features as possible is important, especially if we wish to identify the species later on. In his own experience, after drawing a dragonfly hanging from a tree, Tim was able to label the creature as a spot-winged glider because he had incorporated very important details; the dark spots at the tips of the dragonfly’s wings were telling marks.

As for advice on what materials to use when field sketching, Tim said that the best sketchbooks for drawing insects are ones that are pretty small, about 6×8 in. and bounded by rings, so that the pages separate and flip open easily. He doesn’t use anything fancy when it comes to pencils; No. 2 pencils or even mechanical ones are fine. A hand lens is also handy to carry around in the field, and bringing a handheld watercolor set with a plastic vial of water is ideal for any colored drawings. Tim also likes to carry around little orange pill bottles for capturing insects out in the field, so that he can bring them back to draw and release them later.

Beetle used for drawing practice. Photo: Ellen Hong

Beetle used for drawing practice. Photo: Ellen Hong


Bee used for drawing practice. Photo: Ellen Hong

Bee used for drawing practice. Photo: Ellen Hong

It was time for us to practice what we had learned! Tim passed around some clear boxes with insects inside of them and gave us 15 minutes to try our own hand at drawing them. After some practice, Eddie Dunbar–insect expert of the Wild Oakland team–offered to take us out to the pollinator gardens to catch some insects.




Before heading out, Eddie shared his main rules about handling nets:

1) Be careful with your surroundings–watch out for others!
2) No nets over your heads (it’s dangerous!)
3) Don’t drag your net on the floor

After some time in the Mediterranean Garden, the group had captured a pretty good variety of insects for drawing, including some bees and spiders. We got back to the Rotary Nature Center and freely practiced with the live bugs, Tim walking around to help us if needed.

Tim was a wonderful teacher, and the illustration class was a relaxing yet totally fun way to spend my afternoon. Thanks so much to Tim Manolis for his time, and thanks to everyone who came out to the lesson! I hope everyone enjoyed themselves and gained something from the class.

Check out Tim’s field guides if you haven’t already; they’re awesome!

California Natural History Guides by Tim Manolis. Photo: Ellen Hong

California Natural History Guides by Tim Manolis. Photo: Ellen Hong










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

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Saving Knowland Park, an Oakland Treasure

By Paul Belz

Purple needle grass (Nassella pulchra). California's state grass!  The root system can be 20 feet deep, making the plant very drought resistant. Photo: Constance Taylor

Purple needle grass (Nassella pulchra). California’s state grass! The root system can be 20 feet deep, making the plant very drought resistant. Photo: Constance Taylor

“’Subtle’ is a good word for Knowland Park,” Laura Baker told a group of Saturday explorers. “It’s not in your face.” She pointed at purple needle grass, one of fourteen native grass species that grow in this little known preserve. The fact that only 1% of California’s native grasslands remain is one of many reasons to preserve this hidden gem

Wildflowers and shrubs dotted the Park’s steep green slopes as they rolled towards the Bay. Knowland Park lies above I-580 and the Oakland Zoo. It includes five native plant communities: native grasslands, oak woodlands, coastal scrub, riparian corridors, and coastal chaparral. While chaparral that grows near the Pacific is protected from development, inland communities such as Knowland Park’s are vulnerable.

 “The first thing a lot of people say when they first encounter chaparral is, “Ewww!” Laura chuckled. “There’s lots of dead wood, and plants are twisted. This is how they adapt; they twist to capture sunlight. Areas that are overgrown and shaded die off.” Lichens of all colors engulf the shrubs’ stems. These mazes offer fine habitat to thrashers, wren-tits, California towhees, spotted towhees, California quail, and many other birds. They hide and blend in with the chaparral, but their dawn chorus can be deafening.

The City of Oakland technically owns the Park, but it grants administration to the East Bay Zoological Society. This private group plans to expand Oakland Zoo into the Park. A gondola will bring visitors up the hillside to an exhibit on wolves, grizzly bears, and other California animals that have gone extinct due to habitat loss.

Standing in an area that would be developed under the expansion plans. This area would no longer be accessible to hikers or other wildlife. Photo: Constance Taylor

Standing in an area that would be developed under the expansion plans. This area would no longer be accessible to hikers or other wildlife. Photo: Constance Taylor

A fence will block hikers’ access to the coastal chaparral community, which will be paved and covered with forty buildings. Most of these will be the size of single story houses; a visitor’s center and interpretive center will each cover 10,000 square feet. The visitor’s center, which may be three stories tall, might include a restaurant and a gift shop.

Nest of a dusky-footed woodrat high in an oak tree.  Photo: Constance Taylor

Nest of a dusky-footed woodrat high in an oak tree. Photo: Constance Taylor

Laura, who works with Save Knowland Park, suggested that the East Bay Zoological Society feels the exhibit’s educational value will outweigh its environmental impact and that the project will generate income for the Zoo. However, the California Native Plant Society, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Save Knowland Park argue that the expansion is being planned on the most sensitive and biodiverse area of the park- not only are there rare plant communities and threatened grasslands, the preserve is home to the endangered Alameda whip snake. Dusky footed wood rats, which are a species of special concern, also depend on the rare plant communities. The proposed development lies between wildlife migration corridors; gray foxes, coyotes, mountain lions and other species use this this area to find food, mates, and new territory.

The project’s critics feel that there is enough undeveloped area in the current Zoo to give the exhibit a home. One of the hikers commented that she is an enthusiastic zoo member and supporter. Still, she mentioned that ecological models recommend that development be limited in space, and discourage sprawl. She hoped the East Bay Zoological Society would take this recommendation to heart.

Oakland’s City Council must approve the project before it can go forward. Laura commented that many city council members do not know that this issue is unresolved. She recommended that Park supporters contact their representatives. Save Knowland Park and its allies will use hikes and other strategies to educate citizens about the Park.

The hikers discovered native plants such as Indian soap root, sticky monkey flowers, blue eyed grass, and Indian warrior. Pocket gopher mounds covered the grasslands. “We love them!” Laura laughed. “They support enormous diversity. Lizards, salamanders, and snakes live in their burrows. Hawks, coyotes, opossums and others prey on them.”

Left: Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum) is actually an iris, not a grass!  Right: Sun cups (Taraxia ovata) are also native to California and only found in western North America. Photos: Constance Taylor

Left: Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum) is actually an iris, not a grass! Right: Sun cups (Taraxia ovata) are also native to California and only found in western North America. Photos: Constance Taylor

Laura suddenly stopped to point out large puffball fungi that release clouds of spores. These ball shaped mushrooms sometimes create circles called “fairy rings” when the fruiting bodies (mushrooms) grow on the perimeter of the underground mycelium mat. The puffballs die and decay, fertilizing the soil so grasses can increase their range. Mycologists believe one of the fairy rings in Knowland Park might be the largest in the East Bay, and is possibly over one hundred years old, and is the largest !

Giant puffball mushrooms (Calvatia pachyderma) Left: intact puffball.  Right: open puffball with billions of powdery brown spores. Photos: Constance Taylor

Giant puffball mushrooms (Calvatia pachyderma)
Left: intact puffball. Right: open puffball with billions of powdery brown spores. Photos: Constance Taylor

Laura concluded, “We feel the authentic thing is to see the animals’ habitat, catch a brief glance of a coyote chasing a brush rabbit, to know they are here, and to know they are protected.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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 as well!

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

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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

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

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!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment