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JA NUARY – M A R C H 2 0 1 3


Land of the Salamander

Big Break: Gateway to the Delta The King of Solano Open Space Making the Most of Mud


c o n t e n t s

january–march 2013

Features 22


CLIMATE CHANGE : M A K I N G T H E M O ST OF MUD H el p i ng M a r s h es Su rvive Ri si n g Ti d e s

Mud just doesn’t get any respect. At least not until now. The region’s grand effort to restore Bay wetlands for wildlife habitat is faced with a serious shortage of clean sediment — just when we need it to raise the level of sites targeted for restoration in the face of sea level rise. So planners and scientists are getting creative as they study the stuff and find new ways to get it where it needs to go. by Ariel Rubissow Okamoto

Sally Rae Kimmel

Brian Freiermuth,

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 2008


LAND OF T HE SALAMANDE R The Marvels of an Anc i e nt Order Our continent may be celebrated for its eagles and bison, but it’s in salamanders that we can claim real distinction: more species than any other continent. Here in the Bay Area, we’re blessed with everything from the ubiquitous slender salamander, perhaps the region’s most plentiful land vertebrate, to the very rare Santa Cruz black salamander. by David Rains Wallace

GATE WAY TO TH E DE LTA Opening the Door s at Big Brea k To many Bay Area residents, the Delta is an amorphous place, perhaps just a battleground in another water war or a backdrop on the road to somewhere else. But the new visitor center at Big Break Regional Shoreline in Oakley opens the doors onto this major ecosystem at the eastern portal of the Bay Area, with naturalist programs and new exhibits about a region important for wildlife and people alike. by Robin Meadows

Departments 4 Bay View

and eats primordial ooze? Our smallest sandpipers. by Joe Eaton

Letter from the publisher

5 Letters from our Readers 6 Ear to the Ground News from the conservation community and the natural world

8 Conservation in Action Piece by piece, Save Mount Diablo volunteers are reassembling the Diablo ecosystem. by Daniel McGlynn

10 Signs of the Season What weighs less than four quarters, migrates thousands of miles,

On the Trail 12 Song of the Meadowlark The Sweet Soundtrack of the King-Swett Ranches Discover an open space island that forms the heart of an ambitious open space vision for Solano County. by Aleta George 16 Elsewhere… Point Isabel, Sign Hill, El Sereno

34 First Person Kerry Kriger makes a frog’s day. Interview by Paul Epstein

44 Families Afield: Exploring Nature with Kids A Mission Creek mission with the Urbia Adventure League by Barbara Corff and Damien Raffa

45 Ask the Naturalist Who’s afraid of serpentinite? by Michael Ellis

46 Naturalist’s Notebook Ebony and ivory go together like cormorants and egrets. by John Muir Laws

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bay v iew letter from the publisher


n January 1997, I broached the idea of a magazine about nature in the Bay Area to Malcolm Margolin, then (and still) publisher of Heyday Books. The concept came out of a series of weekday hikes I’d been taking after leaving my previous job. It occurred to me that Bay Area nature, with all its richness and diversity, merited its own magazine. Fortunately, Malcolm was enthusiastic, and we launched Bay Nature four years later. But back in 1997, just a few days after my first meeting with Malcolm, I took another one of those hikes, this time to Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve in the Oakland hills. Sibley’s open grassland hillsides are pocked by some old quarry pits, now better known for the spiral labyrinths that have been created out of the rocks left behind. On that cold, gray January day, I decided to descend into the largest of the pits to check out a seasonal wetland that had formed near the maze. There were tules growing in the center of the small pond, but the margins were relatively open. As I approached I could see movement in the muddy water, but it wasn’t until I was at the edge that I could make out the cause: dozens of newts, many of them coupled — one newt firmly clamped onto the back of another, both swishing their tails in unison in a fine display of balletic synchronized swimming. I’d seen newts crossing trails before, but I’d never seen them in the water engaged in this kind of behavior, which I later confirmed to be “amplexus” (newt

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by david loeb


Santa Rosa–based Michael Ellis (p. 45) leads nature trips with Footloose Forays ( Barbara Corff and Damien Raffa (p. 44) are cofounders of Urbia (, a San Francisco–based group that produces and promotes nature quest guides for kids. Joe Eaton (p. 10) lives in Berkeley and writes for the San Francisco Chronicle and Estuary News. Paul Epstein (p. 34) hikes, geocaches, and letterboxes. He delights in Joshua trees and wishes to visit Ayers Rock.

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mating). I sat there in the damp cold for half an hour, thoroughly enjoying the show. When I returned nine days later, most of the newts were gone, but there were thousands of egg sacs attached to submerged vegetation, the reproductive fruit of the previous week’s activity. I was so taken with the whole thing that I wrote a story about it for Terrain, the former magazine of the Berkeley Ecology Center. It became my first published article on Bay Area nature. (Check it out at I was reminded of all this as we worked on David Rains Wallace’s essay on Bay Area salamanders (and newts) for the current issue. So I decided to go back out to Sibley to check on the newts. This time it was a glorious winter’s day on Thanksgiving weekend, and the park was filled with people and dogs enjoying post-holiday outings. I headed straight to the quarry. Things change over 15 years, and the area where the open water had been was full of willows and tules. There was some water underneath the vegetation, but I couldn’t detect any movement nor locate any egg masses. Too early in the season? Not enough open water? I’ll just have to go back after another rainstorm to find out. But it was too beautiful a day to just head home, so I climbed to the top of one of the hills. Looking past Mount Diablo and across the Delta, I could clearly make out the snow-covered peaks of the Sierra. Turning west, I could see out across the Bay to the Golden Gate and Point Bonita. So, no newts, but instead a splendid panoramic view of the whole San Francisco Bay watershed, from top to bottom. As I like to say, just get out there, and something wonderful might take you by surprise. And if it’s wintertime, near water, well, it might just be newts. Jessica Hahn-Taylor (p. 16) lives in San Francisco, where she writes the blog Hill Babies (, about hiking with a child in the Bay Area. Samantha Juda (pp. 16 and 38) is a Santa Clara University student studying journalism and environmental studies. Conservation photographer Sebastian Kennerknecht (cover) shoots wildlife worldwide. See his work at Naturalist and illustrator John Muir Laws (p. 46) is the author of The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada and the new Laws Guide to Drawing Birds. Info:

BayNature Exploring, celebrating, and understanding the natural world of the San Francisco Bay Area

Volume 13, Issue 1 january–march 2013 Publisher David Loeb Editorial Director Dan Rademacher Online Editor Alison Hawkes Development Officer Judith Katz Marketing & Outreach Director Beth Slatkin Office Manager Jenny Stampp Advertising Director Ellen Weis Design & Production David Bullen Contributing Editor Sue Rosenthal Copy Editors Cynthia Rubin, Marianne Dresser Board of Directors Larry Orman (President), Malcolm Margolin (Emeritus), Carol Baird, Christopher Dann, Catherine Fox, Tracy Grubbs, Bruce Hartsough, David Loeb, John Raeside, Bob Schildgen, Nancy Westcott Volunteers/Interns Harriette Atkins, Paul Epstein, Jill Fidler, Kirk Hansen, Allison Hughes, Samantha Juda, Jackson Karlenzig, Heather Mack, Courtney Quirin, Ann Sieck, David Wichner Bay Nature is published quarterly by the Bay Nature Institute, 1328 6th Street #2, Berkeley, CA 94710 Subscriptions: $53.95/three years; $39.95/two years; $21.95/one year; (888)422-9628, P.O. Box 92408, Long Beach, CA 90809 Advertising: (510)528-8550 x202/ Editorial & Business Office: 1328 6th Street #2, Berkeley, CA 94710 (510)528-8550; (510)528-8117 (fax) issn 1531-5193 No part of this magazine may be reproduced without written permission from Bay Nature and its contributors. © 2013 Bay Nature Printed by Commerce Printing (Sacramento, CA) using soy-based inks and alternative energy. FPO UNION BUG

Front cover: A yellow-eyed ensatina at Wilder Ranch State Park in Santa Cruz. These lungless salamanders, found in damp woods, are not toxic, but predators leave them alone because their orange coloring mimics that of poisonous California newts. [Sebastian Kennerknecht,] Heather Mack (p. 36) is an avid runner, cyclist, and beachcomber. She’s blogged for SPUR and been published by the Sierra Club and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Daniel McGlynn (p. 8) is an independent journalist who covers science and the environment. Ann Sieck (p. 16) wants to make sure people with disabilities, including those who use wheelchairs, can find parks and trails they can enjoy, so for years she’s been reporting what she finds at

le tter s To the Editor, I just read the article on red-shouldered hawks by Allen Fish in your October– December 2012 edition. I’m skeptical of his statement that their varied diet includes “crawdads and sticklebacks.” That would require hunting over water like an osprey. I have never seen such behavior. The Birder’s Handbook (Ehrlich, et al.) lists only terrestrial prey in their diet. Would the author please provide some source of verification of his claim? Love the mag and have every issue.

Ed Walsh, San Francisco

Allen Fish responds: The varied diet of redshouldered hawks is well established, and it’s not so much that they hunt over open water as an osprey does, but more that they lurk at the edges of swamps, bottomlands, lakes, rivulets, and, in California, riparian zones. Specific reference is made to crawdads as redshoulder prey in Birds of North America

(find a free summarized version at allaboutbirds. org): “small mammals and birds, reptiles and amphibians. Crayfish also important at times in some regions.” The account also documents that redshoulders may fly “directly from the forest and snatch prey from the water’s surface.” It doesn’t specify what the prey were, but frogs and snakes, as well as birds such as coots, would be fair game. Several photographers have sent me photos of a redshoulder standing in a few inches of water at the edge of a pond or stream and grabbing fish with its beak. The fish in a photo from Golden Gate Park was a three-spined stickleback. Thanks for your query, and good hawking! To the Editor, The picture of Bald Knob (October– December 2012, page 14) in your article is not Bald Knob. It is a peak between Purisima Creek and Arroyo Leon, north of Bald Knob. The picture was taken from the top of Harkins Ridge Trail looking west. It would be very hard to get a picture of Bald Knob from the east.

Jeff Crofton, Half Moon Bay Contact us at

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e ar to t he g ro u nd n e w s f r o m t h e c o m m u n i t y a n d t h e n at u r a l w o r l d After working with Aleta George on this column since 2005, we’re changing the format to include reporting from a range of writers, including updates on stories from “It was a pleasure and a privilege to write Ear to the Ground for the past seven years,” says Aleta, who will keep writing for us (see page 12). “Thanks to all of you who study, protect, and cherish this amazing place we live in.” And thanks to you, Aleta!


his winter marks the first rainy season in more than a decade that steelhead haven’t perished in large numbers at Pescadero Marsh State Beach, about 15 miles south of Half Moon Bay. For the previous 11 years, and 13 of the last 17, federally protected steelhead trout have died here due to a fatal mix of low oxygen and quickly changing water levels, says Patrick Rutten, field supervisor for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Restoration Center in Santa Rosa. Each fall, a sandbar forms across the mouth of the lagoon where it meets the

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ocean at the bottom of Pescadero Creek. In the ensuing weeks, small amounts of freshwater flow in from upstream, but mostly the lagoon sits stagnant, with a layer of oxygen-depleted (anoxic) water building at its bottom. Fish can usually avoid that anoxic zone, but when the rains start and increased stream flow naturally breaches the sandbar, the upper layer of oxygen-rich water rushes out so quickly that the fish are left with nowhere to go but into a zone where they can’t breathe. In 2010, 243 steelhead died here after the sandbar broke in late November.

“Those fish are listed under the Endangered Species Act, and they are very big, healthy fish,” says Rutten. So something had to change, and this year, he coordinated an effort to partially drain the lagoon before the bottom layer became anoxic. Draining a lagoon on a steelhead stream is not something federal officials would normally allow, since young steelhead survive much better if they can rest in a lagoon before entering the ocean. But this was a special case. “This was the first management action on that lagoon in 18 years,” says Rutten. “We took a calculated risk. The temperatures went from hot and dead on the bottom to cold and oxygen-rich.” Rutten’s team at first tried to breach the sandbar by hand, with shovels, but when that proved ineffective, he brought in a backhoe, paid for by the local chapter of the Native Sons of the Golden West, a fraternal organization whose roots go back to the Gold Rush. Pete Congdon, with the Coastal Alliance for Species Enhancement, a local advocacy group, is looking ahead to the next steps for the steelhead here. “We have a lot of obstacles to overcome, and this is just the first remedial test,” he says. “It was very successful. The marsh complex seems happy and healthy.” Next, he says, come plans to open more of the upper watershed to migrating steelhead. Learn more at [Dan Rademacher]


ising 3,486 feet above Los Gatos in the South Bay, Mount Umunhum may well be the Bay Area’s tallest mountain you’ve never heard of. At least I hadn’t until the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (mrosd) announced plans for a $13 million overhaul of the peak’s summit. Mount Umunhum (Um-un-um, “resting place of the hummingbirds” in the language of the Ohlone people) will at (continued on page 36)

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by daniel mcglynn

co n s er vat ion in a c t i o n

George Phillips, Save Mount Diablo

Piecing Together the Diablo Landscape

Volunteers help care for plantings on a new Save Mount

On a warm autmn morning, a halfdozen volunteers are watering young native plants on a piece of land known as Marsh Creek iv, just outside Clayton. The land, on the banks of its namesake creek, is one of several properties owned by Save Mount Diablo (smd), a Walnut Creek–based group that’s been advocating for Mount Diablo and its surroundings since 1971 — and, thanks to a dedicated group of volunteers, lately getting more and more sophisticated about restoring the lands it protects. John Gallagher, an smd board member and head of the group’s volunteer stewardship committee, is standing beside Marsh Creek at the site of a restoration project planned by fellow board member Heath Bartosh, a professional botanist. Beyond routine maintenance, such as mowing and fence repair, the plan here is to plant long-lived natives such as valley oak, sycamore, California rose, and coyote bush. “The organization has grown enough in the last five years that in addition to some simple cleanup,” says Gallagher, “we can actually make some of these properties more valuable as open space.” Reestablishing native plant communib ay n at u r e

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Diablo property near Marsh Creek.

ties and building trails will ease the burden on public agencies, such as the East Bay Regional Park District (ebrpd) and California State Parks, that will eventually own and manage these lands. “We are buying these properties with the intent of folding them into somebody’s open space, whatever agency would be appropriate,” says Gallagher. With public agencies often strapped for funds, particularly for stewardship, Save Mount Diablo’s ability to mobilize experienced volunteers is critical. And, of course, there is no way a nonprofit or a cash-strapped agency could hope to accomplish this kind of healing of a natural landscape without hundreds of hours contributed by volunteers. Compared to some of their other acquisitions, like nearby Irish Canyon or Thomas Ranch, both hundreds of acres, the 2.65-acre Marsh Creek parcel seemed inconsequential when smd purchased it in 2008. But the property has great creek access and a cattle culvert that runs under Marsh Creek road, providing safe passage for wildlife. Since 2008, smd has purchased other

nearby tracts along the creek, so what was once an isolated parcel is now part of a larger zone of preserved land, including this critical watershed corridor from Mount Diablo to the Delta. “It’s like putting a puzzle back together,” says Save Mount Diablo staffer Beryl Anderson. “When Save Mount Diablo was founded, [there was] about 7,000 acres of public land on top of the mountain. Today the puzzle consists of 110,000 acres of open space and 40 parks.” Volunteer stewards have been a crucial part of that effort from the beginning, but here at Marsh Creek, they took the restoration work further than ever before. Another of their recent acquisitions, the Thomas “Home” Ranch, has been the focus of various development schemes for several decades. Standing on a rise behind the ranch’s small house and several historic barns, Gallagher points to the view below: “We are only a mile from the urban limit line of Pittsburg. This is a perfect spot to put a Walmart, a Target, a Safeway, or housing. I mean, this is perfect: It’s flat and there is a major road right there.” The land also happens to be a piece of that larger puzzle, in this case a protected corridor connecting Mount Diablo State Park to Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve. When the property went up for public auction in 2011, a private party outbid the regional park district. Due to budget constraints and bureaucratic procedure, ebrpd was unable to offer more for the property. That’s when smd jumped in and paid $1.4 million. Local resident Gloria Thomas’s family owned the land for 150 years. “Gloria Thomas fought the developers,” says Gallagher. “She wanted this place preserved.” As soon as the deal was done, the stewardship committee got to work on projects ranging from cleaning debris out of the barns to pulling trash out of a roadside creek. “The stewards put in a lot of time,” Gallagher says. “Something like 1,000 hours of work all centered right here. Soon this will all become part of the park district’s holdings.”  Learn more:

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Peeps, the Smallest Sandpipers They’re known as peeps for their high-pitched voices. They’re the runts of the Scolopacidae, the shorebird family that includes sandpipers, yellowlegs, willets, turnstones, curlews, godwits, dowitchers, and phalaropes. The aptly named least sandpiper (Calidris minutilla) is sparrow-size and weighs about three-quarters of an ounce (equal to a dollar in quarters); the western sandpiper (C. mauri) is only a bit larger.

Sebastian Kennerknecht,

Those two species are by far our most common peeps. But it can be a challenge to tell them apart. Westerns tend to forage at the water’s edge, leasts on drier ground, but they frequently overlap and mixed flocks are not uncommon. “Leasts are more likely to be back in the tidal channels, in more vegetated areas,” says prbo Conservation Science biologist Dave Shuford. “They tend to occur in smaller flocks and are less prone to flush, more likely to freeze when a raptor goes over.” Both engage in dazzling synchronized flight, often provoked by a passing raptor. William L. Dawson (Birds of California) describes the flight of a western sandpiper flock: “[T]hey weave and twist about, now flashing in the sunlight, now darkening to invisibility, charge and recharge, feint and flee, all as a single bird.” Both of these tiny birds commute from Arctic breeding grounds. Many end up in San Francisco Bay and other California estuaries for the winter; some continue on to Panama, Brazil, or Peru. Radiotelemetry research in the 1990s mapped the western’s travels. “In the spring, 90 percent of the westerns going north to breed funnel through Alaska’s Copper River Delta,” says prbo’s Matt Reiter. Males winter farther north than females, so most wintering westerns in b ay n at u r e

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Peep feeding schedules are tidedriven. Stacy Moskal, also with usgs, says they’ll work nights: “They’re not visual foragers; they use their bills as sensory organs. They’ll forage as long as they can feel something.” Separating least from western in the field is a challenge, but doing so in winter is a snap compared with sorting out spring and fall plumages, which, as Peter Matthiessen writes in The Wind Birds, “assert themselves in such disorder that no two birds in 10 of the same species look alike.” For identification, I’ll defer to local birding guru Rich Stallcup, writing in 1988: “The tiny ones that have a short, sharp bill, a blurry brown wash across the breast, and a patterned brown back are Least Sandpipers. . . . The tiny ones that have a slightly drooped bill, are bright white below, and have unpatterned, light least gray backs are Western Sandpipers.” Leasts have yellow legs, westerns black, but beware muddylegged leasts. In November 2011, observers fanned out across the Bay and coastal California in the third annual Pacific Flyway Shorebird Survey. Western sandpipers have historically been the most abundant shorebird in the survey, with 103,000 tallied in 2008. But local counts over two decades show westerns declining, while leasts have increased. Westerns are also down elsewhere in their range. Reiter says possible reasons include habitat loss (including changes in the Bay of Panama, a major wintering area) and climate change (birds arriving on the breeding grounds too late for spring’s insect bounty). Ironically, some researchers implicate the rebounding peregrine falcon. A Canadian study suggests northbound westerns are spending less time feeding at stopover sites with high predation risks. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, even if it’s biofilm.  Steve Tucker


by joe eaton

California are males. Prior to their migration, westerns lay on muscle and fat and even reshape their internal organs for western the journey — about eight days from here to the Copper River, plus rest stops. For years, scientists thought migrating peeps fed exclusively on small marine invertebrates. Then a Japanese researcher discovered that western sandpipers also consume biofilm, a community of microorganisms dominated by photosynthetic algae: edible primordial ooze. Biofilm, common on mudflats, had been regarded as snail chow at best. But videos showed westerns using spines on their tongues to form it into swallowable boluses. U.S. Geological Survey biologist John Takekawa says biofilm appears to be a supplemental food for northbound migrants. Least sandpipers also have the tongues for it, but no one knows for sure if they eat biofilm.

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Sally Rae Kimmel

th e swe et so un d t r ack of t he k i n g-swett r an ch e s

Jim Walsh (left) leads group hikes each month at the King-Swett Ranches, which cover almost


Jim Walsh had his eyes to the sky during the 2010 Great Backyard Bird Count at King Ranch in southern Solano County when a cloud of western meadowlarks flushed from the grass and circled above his head. Their bright yellow breasts flashed while he estimated a count. When he entered the number into his computer at the end of the day, the automated program spat back, “Are you sure?” Walsh’s estimate of at least 3,000 birds was off the charts. King Ranch is part of a protected expanse of hills and valleys nestled between the cities of Vallejo, Benicia, and Fairfield. You get a sense of the 3,956-acre King-Swett Ranches as you drive eastbound on Interstate 80. After leaving the developed flatlands of Vallejo and passing the turnoff for Highway 37, you press the accelerator to climb into a range of mostly undeveloped hills while admiring the volcanic b ay n at u r e

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outcrop to your right. This taste of the rural inner coast range lasts for several miles before you drop into Fairfield and the flat span of the Central Valley. The spread of cities, and the inevitability of cities blending into one another, prompted officials from Vallejo, Benicia, Fairfield, and Solano County to collaborate in the early 1990s on a plan to protect a 10,000-acre open space buffer between the county’s three largest cities. They made it part of their mission to protect natural resources, preserve agriculture, and provide public recreation for this swath of land they dubbed the Solano Open Space Area. They reached 50 percent of their acquisition goal when the Solano Land Trust purchased the King-Swett Ranches in 2005. (The land trust’s 1,039acre Lynch Canyon west of i-80, purchased in 1996, also falls within the Solano Open Space Area.)

4,000 acres between Interstates 80, 680, and 780 in Solano County.

Even though the land is protected and the Solano Land Trust has a public access plan ready to go, the gates remain locked most of the time. “We have been successful in finding capital funds for acquisition,” says Bob Berman, a longtime open space advocate and a Solano Land Trust board member. “The dire Joseph DiDonato, Wildlife Consulting & Photography


on the trail

Callippe silverspot butterfly nectaring on a buckeye flower. The callippe silverspot is a federally endangered insect whose presence has been confirmed at these properties.

th e tr ail

the lack of tree cover is likely due to human activity and not the natural state of affairs. First, if the soil had always eroded at the same rate it does without the protection of trees today, the parent rock would be exposed everywhere instead of just in patches. Second, oaks don’t grow from seed in isolation, and the current distribution of oaks on the property is consistent with deforestation rather than natural dispersal. And third, patches of oak woodland understory, such as poison oak, appear


Tom Muehleisen, Suisun Nature Photography

(above) Meadowlarks could be considered the avian ambassadors of the grasslands at King-Swett. (below) Though much of the property is open grassland, there are stands of oaks. One researcher says their distribution suggests the property once had many more trees.

here. One day at King Ranch, as Walsh was telling hikers that they were likely to see a golden eagle, a bald eagle flew overhead. Hawks and eagles are the Blue Angels here, but meadowlarks are the ambassadors, their yellow chests decorated with a black “ribbon,” their outer white tail feathers flipping like tuxedo tails. In the dozen or more times that I’ve visited, I’ve never failed to hear their song. If there is a soundtrack to the King-Swett Ranches, its dominant note is that of the meadowlark, synonymous with grasslands. Today, nonnative grassland is the primary habitat at King-Swett Ranch, but that may not have always been the case. In a 2007 botanical survey for the Solano Land Trust, botanist Samantha Hillaire observed that the property to the south of King Ranch includes oak woodlands with a mixture of coast live oak, blue oak, California buckeye, valley oak, elderberry, and California bay laurel. Extensive sheep and cattle grazing in the 1800s and early 1900s likely altered the habitat here. Ted Swiecki at Phytosphere Research points to clues on the land to show that

Bud Turner, WildLight Photography

need now is to find a permanent source of funding for operation and maintenance.” Solano County is alone in the Bay Area in its lack of some sort of countywide open space or park district with dedicated funds. For now, you can explore the King-Swett Ranches on monthly docent-led tours, best described as explorations rather than clearly defined hikes. While there are some ranch roads and trails on parts of the 4,000 acres, there are just as many routes that follow cattle trails or have no trails at all. (It’s fun, but wear your hiking boots with ankle support.) Jim Walsh has been leading these hikes for eight years. Upon meeting his group on the first Saturday of each month, he gives an overview of the three separate ranches here — King (1,617 acres), Eastern Swett (1,433 acres), and Vallejo Swett (906 acres). Then he describes any exciting things he’s seen lately and lets the hikers choose what to explore. On a recent fall hike at Vallejo Swett, we set off on a trail choked with yellow star thistle; popped down to a gully to see what kind of fish were in the pool (we couldn’t tell); followed the gully until it turned into a mature creek lined with coast live oak, arroyo willow, and black walnut; climbed a steep hill without trails to the upper reservoir; crossed the open grassland bowl of the ranch to explore the serpentine outcrop on the northwest corner; and returned on a paved road cracked open by weeds and weather. We chalked up a nice array of bird sightings: flocks of crows carrying unshelled walnuts; Lincoln’s, Savannah, and grasshopper sparrows; Say’s and black phoebes; red-shouldered and redtailed hawks; northern harrier; osprey; a snowy egret; and hundreds of meadowlarks. We also looked for Swainson’s hawks, overwintering burrowing owls, and eagles, all birds that have been seen

randomly on the properties, unshaded by oaks. A few tenacious trees still stand. A stunted, old blue oak, now protected by a cage, sits atop a windy hill at King Ranch, and a cluster of valley oak clings to a steep slope at Eastern Swett. The riparian corridors host more variety: bay laurel, coast live oak, black walnut, arroyo willow, and buckeyes. Buckeye flowers provide nectar for butterflies including the callippe silverspot, a federally endangered insect whose presence has been confirmed on all three ranches. The larval plant food for this butterfly is Johnny-jump-up, a native Viola, but the adults feast on nectar from mints, thistles, and buckeyes. According to entomologist Richard Arnold, who conducted a survey for the Solano Land Trust in 2007, Johnny-jump-up grows on about 400 acres here. Several special plant communities occur on the properties. A 2006 botanical j a n ua ry – m a rc h 2 0 1 3

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the hills. If you were to dig through the soil, she said, you’d find sedimentary sandstone, not volcanic rock. We continued south on a trail that hugs a steep slope above what she calls Fault Line Creek and stopped to pick acorns from a coast live oak. The low-hanging branches made the acorns easy to reach, and our timing meant that the ripe nuts pulled easily from their crowns. Wickham will store The King-Swett Ranches are rich in raptor species, from ospreys (like this the acorns in a refrigerator, one) that hunt over nearby Suisun Marsh to golden eagles soaring over the modern way, and use the open hills. them to plant more trees as part of the several research and stewardterrain. On the east side of the fault, ship projects that she supervises. At King large rocks were strewn across the brown Ranch, where a spring-fed pond provides grasses, and volcanic outcrops poked out a home for federally endangered redof steep-sided hills. On the west side, no legged frogs, the land trust (with mitigaboulders were visible on the surface of tion funds from Pacific Gas & Electric) fenced the pond and 16 surrounding FAIRFIELD To Sacramento King-Swett Ranches acres, removed artichoke thistle by hand, Rd. To Napa elia Cord and planted 100 native trees. Cattle graz80 29 King-Swett Ranches 12 ing is strategically used at the start and (Public access only via tours) Re d Top end of the rainy season to keep nonnaSolano Open Space Area Rd. (private–no public access) tive grasses down. “We’re seeing a marLynch Canyon Other Parks and Open Space Open Space velous regime of wetland and riparian 680 Park Trails d R grasses, including creeping wild rye,” Bay Area Ridge Trail and ary cG San Francisco Bay Trail M Wickham says. SO AMERICAN CANYON At Eastern Swett, the valley oak trees LA Park and Ride N American Ca O nyon Rd. and their seedlings are monitored by de n br O ooke P Solano Community College professor King elia Sloug Cord Ranch John Nogue and his biology class. S u Hiddenbrooke l p Open Space Eastern h Another frog pond at King Ranch is Swett NE Quadrant the domain of two volunteers, Maggie 37 Ranch Open Space 680 Vallejo Ingalls and Linda Sonner, who have Columb us Swett To Novato Pk wy Ranch successfully removed cocklebur and . Blue Rock artichoke thistle around the pond and Springs Park S lo u gh Hanns 29 its three-acre uplands. Memorial Park Tennessee St. “The greatest threat to the property is weeds, ” says Wickham, who this year VA L L E J O Lake H e rma Vallejo– n R found two species of noxious weeds new d. Benicia Lake Buffer Herman Lake Beni to the property. Until recently, artichoke Park cia Rose Herman Rd . Dr. 780 thistle covered these lands. Several years 80 St. nd y ago, the land trust joined a regional effort Ba Benicia State n to eradicate the plant. It’s now mostly Recreation u is Area Su gone from King Ranch and Vallejo Swett, BENICIA Mi but the thistle has a 10-year seed bank, lita 2 Miles 0 1 ry Car We qui st so the weed monitors must continue to ne N 0 1 z 2 Kilometers St be vigilant. That may not be enough. ra CROCKETT it To Oakland “There is no money for weeding right To Martinez & Walnut Creek

survey shows 62 acres of serpentine grassland, which supports a bouquet of native bunchgrasses and wildflowers. A spring walk to the serpentine outcrop at the western edge of Vallejo Swett reveals blue dicks, silver puffs, California poppies, tidytips, Tiburon buckwheat, yarrow, bush monkeyflower, and California bee plant. Sue Wickham, Solano Land Trust’s project manager, never visits the properties without a canvas bag to fill with acorns or seeds from narrow-leaved milkweed and other native plants. One warm fall day, Wickham and I set out to pick acorns at King Ranch. Along the way, she showed me evidence of the Green Valley fault, including a wide break between houses in Cordelia to the north, where mandatory setbacks reflect the trace line of the fault that runs through the development. Looking south, she showed me the differences in


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Sebastian Kennerknecht,

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Sally Rae Kimmel

now,” says Wickham, “but we can’t expect volunteers to do it all.” Having a park district could help by providing specialized staff and steady, sustainable funds, she says. Of course, this whole region was once open space, part of a vast 84,000acre cattle ranch owned by General Mariano Vallejo. The property was subsequently broken up into smaller ranches, which remained in private hands for decades until pg&e bought the land in 1980 for a potential residential development or wind turbine site. (An outhouse held down with steel cables testifies to the wind’s power at King Ranch.) Neither option proved feasible, so the utility sold the property to the land trust. The land trust then conducted a survey of the land’s natural resources and

View from King Ranch across I-680 down to the extensive marshes around Suisun and Cordelia sloughs, the eastern edge of a large swath of open space stretching northwest to I-80 and beyond.

hired landscape planner Randy Anderson to prepare a public access plan. “I have worked on a lot of different open space projects, and none had as many important resources as this property does,” Anderson said in 2007. He reiterated the importance of having staff rangers to manage people and protect resources and suggested the property be declared a nature preserve. The board has approved an access plan with 30 miles of trails for hiking, biking, equestrian use, and pack-in camping. But it will need money and a partnership to proceed. “Land trusts aren’t set up to be park districts,” says Marilyn Farley, who led the trust when King-Swett was purchased. The idea of a countywide park system is gaining support at the grassroots level, says Duane Kromm, a former county supervisor. To illustrate, he points to the recent acquisition of Rockville Trails, the 1,500acre open space purchased by the Solano Land Trust. “The community came together and pulled off this huge multimillion-dollar fundraising effort,” says Kromm. Acorns on a coast live oak. Sonoma Land Trust staffer Sue Wickham collects acorns at King Ranch for propagation during restoration

Sally Rae Kimmel

For Rockville Trails, the land trust factored maintenance and management into its fundraising goals. “Of all the properties that could be potentially folded into a magnificent park district, such as Lynch Canyon, Lake Herman, Rockville Park, Rockville Trails, and others, the King-Swett Ranches are unique,” says Berman. “The thing that’s so great about them is their close proximity to three cities, Vallejo, Benicia, and Fairfield.” Now that’s something to sing about. Getting there

The Solano Land Trust offers guided hikes on the first Saturday of each month. Head east on I-80; exit at American Canyon/Hiddenbrooke Parkway. Meet at the park-and-ride. Details at  Solano County resident Aleta George, a frequent Bay Nature contributor, writes about nature and culture. Her work has also been published in Smithsonian and High Country News.

king-swett exploration

Saturday, March 2, 10 a.m.–2 p.m. Join us for a guided hike at King-Swett Ranches. Attendance limited. RSVP and details:, (510)528-8550 x205.


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elsewhere . . . e ast bay




s o uth bay

Samantha Juda

Ann Sieck

Jessica Hahn-Taylor


Point Isabel Bay Trail

Sign Hill Park

El Sereno Open Space Preserve

The completed sections of the San Francisco Bay Trail (which will someday encircle the whole Bay) are a mixed bag for a hiker, since most of them are on or near busy roads and every kind of human activity. But the stretch extending from Point Isabel to Marina Bay is well worth a visit. If you’re a birder, several visits. Highway 580 is only a few hundred yards away, but the busy habitats of Hoffman and Stege marshes are much closer. Avocets nest on mudflats above the tide line and other waders feed along sloughs close to the trail. Or look to the Bay, where in fall and winter migrating shorebirds rest in the shallows or scurry along the water’s edge, near curious driftwood sculptures and abandoned piers. At high tide I watched a white pelican scoop up and swallow one fish after another. Turn inland at the bayfront condominiums and look for mallards, egrets, and herons along Meeker Tidal Creek. The trail loops past the Rosie the Riveter Memorial and back along the shore. The pickleweed marsh is perfect for clapper rails, though they’re hard to spot, but on all but the foggiest days you will see the Golden Gate Bridge, Mount Tamalpais, the Bay Bridge, San Francisco, Brooks Island, and the East Bay hills. Or watch happy free-range pooches and their people in the 23-acre dog park at the East Bay Regional Park District’s Point Isabel. The park’s outdoor Sit and Stay Cafe is a pleasant place to refuel. Getting there: Take AC Transit (#25, L, LC), or, from Central Avenue in El Cerrito, turn right on Rydin Road. Bikes and leashed dogs are permitted; water and toilets provided. [Ann Sieck]

Whose curiosity isn’t piqued by the 60-foot letters spelling “Industrial City” in the shadow of San Bruno Mountain? They conjure the foundries of South San Francisco’s past. But now Sign Hill’s 30 acres are a great place to hike. The five trails here total under two miles, but give yourself hours to explore these grasslands that sustain endangered butterflies and at least one coyote. Ridge Trail leads from the trailhead to a superb vista, but look north to find hummingbird sage, silver leaf lupine, and Lindley’s lupine. Continue on Letters Trail, traversing the letters’ base and descending through coyote bush to a grove of toyon, pine, and cypress, with an understory of flannel bush, coast silk tassel, and ceanothus. Eucalyptus Loop meanders under towering blue gums and acacia. Seubert and Iris Hill trails are short but steep. I favor descending Iris Hill’s switchbacks and stairway through live oaks, pines, and redwoods. Seubert Trail summits at a sun-dappled, ferny grove where raptors roost. Though Sign Hill has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1996, the park’s north side is privately owned and slated for development. Learn more at and Getting there: Take 101 south to exit 425c or north to exit 425b. Turn onto Sister Cities Boulevard, left on Stonegate Drive and Ridgeview Court, dead-ending at a parking lot with a kiosk.

If you’re in the South Bay, the views from atop 2,250-foot Mount El Sereno make El Sereno Preserve worth a slow, winding drive up Montevina Road from Highway 17. From the park’s south trailhead, Aquinas Trail takes you along the first major ridge southwest of San Jose, with spectacular vistas of Lexington Reservoir, the Santa Cruz Mountains, and the Santa Clara Valley. The mountain’s name harks back to a time when this area was near the northwestern corner of a massive Spanish land grant that ended at San Tomas Aquinas Creek, which flows through Saratoga. As you explore the preserve’s 7.5 miles of trails, you’ll snake through fragrant stands of California bay laurel, never quite eluding the periodic glimpses of suburban neighborhoods below. On the mountain’s less-populated south side, bay woodlands give way to chaparral. Listen for the rustle of birds and other wildlife that you’ll only occasionally spot moving about in the chamise, coyote bush, and yerba santa shrubs. Getting there: For parking without a permit take the Bear Creek/Montevina Road exit off Highway 17. Follow 3 the curving Montevina Road for over 10 minutes until you reach the preserve gate, and park in the roadside pullout. Permit-only parking is available on the northern side of the preserve near the Overlook Trailhead. Permits should be requested at least two days in advance (info at No facilities.

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[Jessica Hahn-Taylor]

d i s c o v e r m a n y m o r e t r a i l s at b ay n at u r e . o r g /t r a i l f i n d e r b ay n at u r e

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[Samantha Juda]

Los Vaqueros Watershed’s North Side and Interpretive Center Have Reopened Come visit us!

Hike to the top of the enlarged Los Vaqueros Dam! For the latest activity schedule, email

John Muir Interpretive Center

Saturdays and Sundays 9:00 am–4:00 pm 925-240-2440 Directions: Drive to 100 Walnut Blvd., Byron, then drive about a mile to the southern end of Walnut Blvd. For more information, visit or call 925-688-8010

Like us on Facebook at “Los Vaqueros Interpretive Center.”

Point Reyes Hostel Celebrating 40 years of welcoming guests to Point Reyes National Seashore

(415) 663-8811 Dorm beds, $24 Private rooms, $82–$120 All ages welcome. We are a nonprofit, certified green business.

NOW OPEN! Our newest and greenest facility is built to LEED Silver standards, and features private rooms that sleep up to 5 people.

Photos by Cheri M. Larsh

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climate Change: Dispatches from the Home Front by Ariel Rubissow Okamoto

Cris Benton,

Making the Most of Mud: Helping Marshes Survive Rising Tides

“Dispatches From the Home Front” is a series of articles highlighting groundbreaking efforts by Bay Area institutions, agencies, and nonprofit groups to understand and adapt to the impact of climate change on Bay Area ecosystems. The series is produced in partnership with the Bay Area Ecosystem Climate Change Consortium (


an Francisco Bay is clearing up. Its waters may never have the sparkle of a receding wave on Maui. But someday you might be able to walk out into the Bay till your belly button gets wet and still see your feet. As it turns out, however, this might not be such a good thing. The Bay’s turbidity — its dirty, muddy, cloudy quality —  is legendary among estuarine scientists. That’s why in 1999, when they conducted their annual monitoring of suspended sediment in Central Valley river flows into the Bay, they were shocked to find half as much as in the prior year. The sediment in question is mostly tiny mineral particles of silt and clay that can drift in the water or settle onto wet surfaces and make “mud.” The finding wasn’t a data glitch; sediment concentrations have stayed lower ever since. And it’s so big, scientists call it a “step change.” While this step change may be intriguing to scientists —  it has inspired a raft of new research — most people might be excused for not getting too worked up over having less mud in the Bay. Still, for marsh managers, it’s becoming topic number one.

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“Mud is San Francisco Bay’s habitat engineer; it’s the foundation of our subtidal, mudflat, and marsh habitats,” says Amy Hutzel, Bay Area program manager at the State Coastal Conservancy, an agency that has itself engineered a lot of wetlands. As the conservancy and its partners restore thousands of acres of wetlands around the Bay, they’ve been counting on waves and tides to keep depositing plenty of sediment on our shorelines for decades to come. Hutzel doesn’t mince words on the sediment subject: “We can’t let any more mud go to waste. As we’re out there dredging our ports, marinas, and flood control channels, as we’re digging up dirt around the Bay to do construction, we need to make the best use of every bit of dirt we can to help sustain our habitats and wildlife.” The drop in sediment supply wouldn’t be such a concern if sea level rise wasn’t coming at San Francisco Bay like a freight train, at least on a geologic timescale. The National Research Council predicts a regional rise in relative sea level of 17 to 66 inches by 2100, and researchers agree that the rate of rise will pick up speed around the middle of this century. While today’s marshes naturally keep pace with sea level rise by trapping sediment, growing plants, and expanding up and out, by mid-century the water will start to get higher faster than the marshes can. “We’ve got two major stressors on our wetlands on different trajectories. We have sea level rise, which is accelerating, and the suspended sediment supply in the Bay, which is diminishing,” says Jeremy Lowe, Climate Change Director for esa-pwa, a consulting firm that’s been restoring wetlands since the 1970s. “Current accretion rates will probably keep our big marsh plains

Herb Lingl,

(left) Kite aerial photos show the progression following the opening of former salt pond A21 to tidal action in March 2006: By April 2008 (far left) fresh sediment had blanketed the site; by September 2009 (middle), vegetation had started to colonize the raised edges of channels; and by October 2010 (right) the site appeared fully vegetated. (right) A plume of sediment stirred up by wind-wave action in San Pablo Bay is moved by tidal currents under the Richmond Bridge toward the Tiburon peninsula.

upstream. Then, starting in the 1850s, hydraulic gold mining blasted whole hillsides’ worth of sediment into foothill streams and down into the Bay. But soon after all this dirt was unleashed, humans got busy putting obstacles in its path. So there’s a lot of sediment now stuck behind dams, held in place by riprap, or buried under concrete. “Estuaries are natural sediment sinks, but for all these reasons less and less sediment is reaching the Bay from the watershed,” says the region’s preeminent mud scientist, David Schoellhamer of the U.S. Geological Survey. Judging from the step change he saw in 1999, he thinks the mining debris is finally washing out of the system, and his usgs colleague Bruce Jaffe has shown that the San Pablo Bay floor, where mining sediments were deposited for many decades, is now eroding. These two mudrakers are among several dozen scientists from the usgs, the University of San Francisco, prbo Conservation

Science, the San Francisco Estuary Institute, and other organizations who have contributed research papers to a forthcoming special issue of Marine Geology on Bay sediment. The 20 papers explore everything from where the Bay’s sediment supply comes from (“provenance”) to how it moves through the water (“transport”) and where it ends up (“deposition” and “accretion”). They account for factors such as surf zone dynamics, tides, waves, topography and something called “flocculation”— fine grains don’t usually drift all alone but clump together into “flocs,” which amass more rapidly (“settling velocity”) on the marsh plain than individual grains do. Heady stuff. Despite the complexities, scientists do seem to be getting a handle on changes in the Bay’s sediment supply. Whereas historically the supply coming down from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and through the Delta outpaced the supply from local Bay tributaries by a factor of eight to one, today sediment loads from local watersheds make up more than half the supply. Meanwhile, the average amount of sediment floating around in Bay waters has dropped by one-third, from 75 to 48 milligrams per liter (mg/l), according to Schoellhamer. Of course, some areas of the Bay are more sedimentrich than others, and in these spots wetlands may fare better as the waters rise. Two good places seem to be the shorelines in the shallower northern and southern reaches. According to studies by environmental scientist John Callaway at the University of San Francisco, natural marshes typically accumulate about three to five millimeters of sediment per year, while current rates of sea Tom Gandesbery

going into 2050 or 2070, but if some of these higher sea level acceleration rates come to fruition, our marshes won’t be able to keep up.” So why has the Bay’s mud supply shrunk? Historically, sediment got into the water via erosion and runoff

A key step in the Hamilton Field restoration project: Sediment dredged from the Port of Oakland is pumped onto the marsh plain from the end of a five-mile-long U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 2008

pipeline. In a quieter moment, a great and a snowy egret perch on the pipeline.

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(above) In March 2006, an excavator opened a breach in the levee between former salt pond A19 and Coyote Creek. (right) Measuring sediment deposition and elevation changes in the South Bay (at Greco Island) in 2009. About 35 millimeters of sediment had accumulated since 2000, keeping pace with sea level rise.

level rise are two to three millimeters per year. Newly restored low-elevation ponds in sediment-rich areas build up much faster than natural marshes. In former salt pond a21 near Alviso in the South Bay, Callaway measured an accumulation of 10 centimeters in the year after the levee was breached, letting the tides get to work importing sediment. Unfortunately, such fast accumulation rates aren’t sustained once the deep spots fill in. Information like this on local accretion rates, as well as other data on specific shorelines, is now being fed into a variety of computer models. A team led by prbo’s Diana Stralberg, for example, ran 70 scenarios for climate-changed marsh development over the next 100 years in 15 subregions of the Bay. The resulting prognosis for long-term marsh sustainability under a high-sea-level-rise scenario: “bleak,” if sediment supply continues to dwindle. Bleak or not, anyone with a home, bike path, or business on the bayshore, as well as those relying on our sea-level airports and freeways, desperately needs every wetland we can get. Having a buffer of wetlands between urban development and the Bay promises to mute, dampen, and absorb the shock of sea level rise and extreme storms. As such, getting shorted on the sediment side has driven restoration managers to think creatively about how and where to get more dirt. At the former Hamilton Kite aerial view northwest over pond A21, showing areas of open water, exposed mudflat, and emergent marsh vegetation in the former salt pond.

Air Base near Novato in Marin, the Coastal Conservancy and Army Corps of Engineers are transforming 650 acres once frequented by fighter jets into a mosaic of wetland habitats. The site encompasses a wild fringe marsh at the edge of the Bay, thick with pickleweed and cordgrass, then a big levee, and inside that, a flat lunar landscape that, until recently, was significantly below sea level. A key and novel ingredient in the plan was to use what everyone else was trying to get rid of at the time. With the help of nearly six million cubic yards of Bay mud dredged from the Port of Oakland to deepen the harbor, engineers were able to build Hamilton up to a level where marsh plants imported by tides could eventually take root. To get that sediment from the bottom of an Oakland shipping channel to a field in Novato took some doing. Engineers had to build a five-milelong pipeline from the Bay onto the former air base, and put it up on blocks in places so that endangered clapper rails and marsh mice could move freely under it. At one end, in a spot deep enough for scows to navigate, stood an off-loader with a crew where dredged sediment could be dropped off, mixed into a slurry, and then pumped into the pipeline and onto the marsh. Planners are sure that when the new marsh is opened to the tides in 2013, it will be a success. But the price tag for the offloader turned out to be pretty steep. So the conservancy is looking at alternatives for the Bel Marin Keys phase of the Hamilton project. One is an “aquatic transfer facility”— basically a depression dug in the bottom of the Bay, where dredgers could dump the sediment for storage until it’s needed later for restoration work. In the South Bay, wetland designers have also had to get creative about getting sediment. To restore Bair Island, an ecological diamond in the ring of South Bay marshes that make up the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, the first step was to build up the sunken inner island. “If we had just breached the levee, it would have been deep water for a couple of decades,” says John Bourgeois, director of the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project. Judy Irving, Pelican Media


Mark Bittner, Pelican Media

Cris Benton,

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Looking around for sediment, planners recently secured a completely new source, and it’s not from the bottom of a local harbor. In what Bourgeois calls a win-win arrangement, contracts were signed with some local “dirt brokers” happy to have a closer, cheaper place to dump material from their upland construction sites than landfills. The dirt brokers will not only test the dirt for contaminants before trucking it to the Bay, but also bring their dozers and Cats back later to do maintenance — always a problem for the cash poor refuge — and pay for continued monitoring. Planners also want to use the dirt to experiment with some more specialized adaptations to sea level rise—upland transition zones for marshes hemmed in by levees and urban development. Instead of an abrupt transition between the marsh and the levee, they want to build a gradual gentle slope on the Bay side. “We’re hoping to find some magic balance, some optimal slope that will provide room for our special-status plant species and escape cover for our endangered birds and mice, while allowing marsh transgression with sea level rise,” Bourgeois says. These tales of mud and science are just the molehill in a mountain of attention now being paid to the sediment management question baywide. At the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (bcdc), planners are working to update regional dredging and disposal priorities in light of sea level rise. And local engineers are brainstorming ways to feed more sedi(continued on page 43) ment to wetlands.


to Stories of the Coast podcast with the late Peter Douglas produced in partnership with KRCB


the extraordinary California Coastal Trail on Coastwalk’s Camping and 30 years of volunteer led camping Hiking Expeditions on our expeditions “No Pack” Backpacks, Celebrating 30 years of Coastal Hiking Family Adventures and more

Adventures 30 years of Hiking and Advocacy


w w w. c oas twa l k. o r g Volunteer led camping expeditions since 1983

Make a difference today Help the East Bay Regional Park District expand accessibility for all and keep parklands healthy, wildlife thriving, and trails enjoyable. Donate to the Regional Parks Foundation. P.O. Box 21074 Crestmont Station Oakland, CA 94620 510-544-2202 Federal Tax ID: # 23-7011877

Your Regional Parks make living in the East Bay particularly special for outdoor enthusiasts. Show your support with a donation to keep our parks and people healthy. Donate online at: or call 510-544-2202.

Land Salamander of the

I n t he 1 9 80s,

Dan Suzio,

the BBC produced a nature series about North America called Land of the Eagle. The title is charismatic but it makes little sense biologically: Our two eagle species belong to genera common

elsewhere. The series should have been called Land of the Salamander, because North America has more kinds of salamanders — the tailed, mostly four-legged amphibians of the order Caudata —  than any other continent, and some of our species are like very ancient ones, suggesting the order might have arisen on some ancestral version of our continent. I wasn’t aware of our salamander supremacy when growing up in New England, but they were my favorites in the Golden Nature Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians. Finding such secretive but colorful little creatures under logs or in ponds fascinated me. Local red-backed salamanders and red-spotted newts were like old friends, while distant kinds seemed exotic. Out west lived giant, worm, tiger, and tree salamanders, the last of which particularly caught my imagination.

by David Rains Wallace

T h e Ma r v e l s o f a n An c i e n t O r d e r Ben Witzke,

(far left) An arboreal salamander. (left) Pacific giant salamander by a creek in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The Pacific giant can grow to 12 inches, but it’s rarely seen in daytime. (above) The Santa Cruz black salamander, also hard to spot, is isolated from a related species that ranges from Sonoma to Del Norte counties. (right) Tiny slender salamanders, on the other hand, are so be the region’s most numerous land vertebrates.

“The Tree Salamander of the Pacific Coast frequently lives in water soaked cavities of trees,” said the guide. “Sometimes a whole colony is found in one of these holes, where eggs are laid, also.” A picture showed elfin creatures climbing around in hilly oak woodland. Another book said they’d been found 60 feet up in red tree vole nests, and that as many as 25 lived in one colony. Another said they had prehensile tails, like opossums. They seemed marvelous. Childhood fascinations can be disappointing in adulthood, but this one wasn’t. I first arrived on the Pacific Coast one rainy night in December 1968. Driving north through Marin County, I saw little creatures crossing the road. When I pulled over for a closer look, I saw that they were tree salamanders just like those in the Golden Guide, only better: the headlights showed irides-

© Robert Clay

ubiquitous that they might

cent gold and silver mottling on their skins where the book had shown drab brown. I was immediately sold on a place where an early fascination could be so quickly fulfilled — or partly fulfilled. In the past decades I’ve seen many tree salamanders, now more commonly called arboreal salamanders (Aneides lugubris). They even inhabit my garden in Berkeley. I’ve never actually seen one in a tree, but that would involve climbing the hollow, rotten ones they frequent on rainy nights. I prefer to take salamanders’ arboreal side on faith. The idea of salamanders in trees still seems marvelous. Salamander marvels go back a long way. Ancient European legends held that Salamandra salamandra, a species related to newts, could live in fire because of its bright black and yellow markings and because individuals sometimes crawled out of logs in fireplaces. Asian lore said that salamanders of mountain lakes could control the weather — a source of dragon legends. California Native American mythology also ascribes magical powers to mountain lake salamanders. Some are thought to protect water purity. Not all Bay Area species inspire such mythic grandeur, but their evolutionary adaptations are pretty amazing. Arboreal salamanders belong to a family called the Plethodontidae, “many-toothed,” because they have so many tiny teeth. They are also called the lungless salamanders because, unlike other kinds, they have lost their lungs in the course of their evolution. (The fish from which amphibians evolved had lungs.) Many of these lungless species live fully terrestrial lives, which seems odd since salamanders that do have lungs must spend part of their lives in water. But plethodontids thrive on land by absorbing oxygen through their moist skins and mouths. Plethodontids are like most other kinds of salamanders in that they mate by internal fertilization—of a particular sort. Instead of injecting sperm into a female, a male secretes it into a

Brian Freiermuth,

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Slender salamanders, also called

gelatinous packet called a spermatophore that he deposits in front of the female after attracting her by doing little dances (called leibspiel) or rubbing a sexually stimulating gland located on his chin against her snout. If this foreplay is adequate, she picks up the spermatophore with her cloaca and it dissolves inside her and fertilizes her eggs. It isn’t always adequate: I’ve seen breeding places dotted with rejected spermatophores. Plethodontids do differ from all other kinds of salamanders in the way their young develop after fertilization. Like frog tadpoles, the gilled larvae of most other salamander families need to live in water as they develop into adults after hatching. But plethodontids go through the gilled larval stage inside the egg and hatch as tiny versions of their lungless, gill-less parents.

worm salamanders, are common residents in backyards.

Damon Tighe

Dan Suzio,


Ben Witzke,

Some plethodontid genera are fully terrestrial: Females lay their eggs underground, often guarding them until they hatch. This uniquely terrestrial group is the most numerous and diverse one in North America, and it has produced the planet’s only tropical salamanders by invading Central and South America and evolving over a hundred species there. Some of these take their arboreal lifestyle to extremes, spending their lives in the rain forest canopy. Since the group overran America so successfully, it would seem logical that they’d have overrun Eurasia too. But Old World plethodontids are rare. One genus known from Italy and southern France is related to species halfway across the globe here in the Sierra Nevada and Cascades. UC Berkeley Professor David Wake, an authority on salamander evolution, has posited that plethodontids originated in North America and spread into Eurasia during the Cretaceous Period, the late dinosaur age. The genus in Italy and France was the only known Eurasian plethodontid until 2005, when an Illinois high school teacher turned over a rock in South Korea and found a completely new one — a nearly unprecedented event given the new genus’s isolated location. David Wake, who described the species, calls it “the most exciting and unexpected discovery of my career.” Other new plethodontids keep turning up in America. In 2001, the Scott Bar salamander was discovered at the confluence of the Klamath and Scott rivers. All Bay Area plethodontid species are fully terrestrial, which is why, unlike waterbreeding amphibians, they survive in my garden. Arboreal salamanders aren’t even the most numerous ones there. The California slender salamander, Batrachoseps attenuatus, is almost as ubiquitous as the earthworm. It’s also called the worm salamander because of its elongated body and tiny legs. Both arboreals and slenders prefer to keep out of sight,

(top) California newts mating, a process called amplexus. (middle) Newt eggs, with tiny larvae, in a pond at the bottom of a large quarry pit at Sibley Regional Volcanic Preserve in Oakland. (right) A newt larva. The frills behind its eyes are gills, and it has yet to grow legs. When it has developed legs and lungs, it will leave the water to spend most of its life under logs or in a burrow. Dan Suzio,

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Damon Tighe

Yellow-eyed ensatina. These lungless salamanders live entirely terrestrial lives, but you’ll rarely see them outside of wild areas with little human development.

but I know they’re here when I put out recycling bins in winter. Arboreals sometimes hide underneath, and I often find several slenders coiled there like tiny snakes. Given their numbers in my yard, arboreal and slender salamander numbers in the region must be staggering. A 1956 study of geographic variation in both species on undeveloped islands in the Bay estimated populations of 7,000 slender salamanders and 1,900 arboreals per acre on little Red Rock Island just south of the Richmond Bridge. (Sea level rise after the last ice age probably isolated the salamanders on the islands, although some may have arrived by “waif dispersal” on floating debris.) So they play a big part in the ecosystem, particularly since they are edible. Predators from bears to shrews eat them: I once found an arboreal salamander faced off against a robin on a doorstep in Berkeley. Arboreals can bite hard with their tiny teeth so I don’t know which would have won if I hadn’t scared the robin away. Like lizards, salamanders can escape prey by losing their tails and growing new ones. Unlike all other vertebrates, they can also grow new limbs. Salamanders, predators in their turn, hunt mainly by sight. They have color vision and can see into the ultraviolet end of the spectrum. Terrestrial species roam at night to grab prey with their toothy jaws or sticky tongues. Anything nonpoisonous is acceptable — spiders, insects, worms, pill bugs, slugs. Large salamanders have been known to eat mice and birds. Aquatic species can also detect prey with a vibration-sensing lateral line organ inherited from fish ancestors. Salamander hearing is probably not good: They lack external ears and have only vestigial inner ears. Not all Bay Area plethodontids are easy to find. Another Aneides subspecies, the Santa Cruz black salamander (A. flavipunctatus niger), occurs in the South Bay, but its habitat needs are more specialized: It prefers moist forest environments such as streamsides. Probably because of this specialization, the Santa Rough-skinned newts look drab from above but have bright orange bellies, an advertisement of their acute toxicity.

Cruz subspecies is isolated from another black salamander, A. f. flavipunctatus, that occurs from Sonoma north to Del Norte County. I have seen some members of the other genus of plethodontid that lives here, Ensatina, but never in urban areas. They can be persistent when found. There was a certain log beside the creek in Redwood Regional Park under which, for several years, I could be sure of greeting one Ensatina individual. Nobody knows why Ensatina shuns urbanization — or why slender and arboreal salamanders don’t. David Wake suspects that despite its distaste for civilization, the local Ensatina subspecies, the yellow-eyed salamander (E. escholtzi xanthopicta), is second only to the slender salamander in numbers locally. A unique trait may help to explain this. Its coloring, brown on top and orange underneath with yellow eye markings, is very like that of the California newt (Taricha torosa), which has highly toxic skin. When disturbed, yellow-eyed salamanders even mimic newt behavior by assuming postures that display their orange undersides. This may be an example of Batesian mimicry, whereby an edible animal evolves through natural selection to resemble a poisonous one. California newt skin is lethal because it contains an alkaloid called tetrodotoxin that is more toxic than cyanide. The story of a camper who died from accidentally boiling one in the morning coffeepot is an “urban legend” that happens to be true. Mature newts’ only known predator is the common garter snake. Some individual snakes can metabolically neutralize the poison. Newt toxicity varies by location: the Bay Area is a “hotspot,” perhaps because local garter snakes have developed an unusual immunity to the toxins, touching off a biological arms race. A student of Wake’s, Shawn Kuchta, studied Ensatina mimicry on lands owned by the East Bay Municipal Utility District, putting out several hundred soft plasticine models of the yelloweyed salamander and of another Ensatina subspecies, the Oregon salamander (E. e. oregonensis), that lives farther north and has a beige belly and black eyes —  nothing like a California newt. The experiment showed that although the Oregon salamander’s coloration makes it less conspicuous than the yellow-eyed, predators attacked twice as many of the Oregon models as the Dan Suzio,

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Sebastian Kennerknecht,


yellow-eyed ones. In other experiments, captive scrub jays prunewts. They mate largely in underground springs, where they dently preferred Oregon salamanders over yellow-eyed ones. Sevalso lay their eggs. On the other hand, their gilled larvae can be eral other Ensatina subspecies overlap with the California newt’s easy to see in forest streams, since they may grow to adult length range, but none mimic the newt in the same way. before they mature and move underground. Batesian mimics tend to be less common or less bold than the The other Bay Area family is the Ambystomidae, which is our toxic organisms they imitate, and yellow-eyed salamanders follow most vulnerable group because of its specialized habitat needs. this rule. They largely come out at night, whereas California newts The tiger salamander, named for its yellow and black blotches, are a frequent daytime sight here in the rainy season. The newt occurs in much of North America, but the California species family, the Salamandridae, is the world’s most widely distributed (Ambystoma californiense) is isolated from the others. It favors salamander family, occurring in North America, Eurasia, and grassland, breeding in vernal pools and stream oxbows, which North Africa. California newts live along the coast from Humare increasingly rare in the Bay Area. Remaining populations live boldt to San Diego counties and in the Sierra Nevada. The Bay mainly in nature preserves and wildlife refuges. The Sonoma Area also has another species, the rough-skinned newt (T. granuCounty population is listed as endangered, and populations in losa), which occurs from British Columbia south to Santa Cruz the East Bay and Santa Clara County are considered threatened. County. Poisonous skin probably has a lot to do with newt sucMy Golden Guide didn’t mention the rarest of all salamancess because, unlike plethodontids, they need water for breeding, ders here — the long-toed salamander (Ambystoma macrodactylum). Various subspecies occurring from so they must come out in the open British Columbia to northeast to mate. California are fairly common, but Bay Area newt adults spend the the Santa Cruz subspecies (A. m. dry summer months underground croceum) breeds only in a few ponds in places like ground squirrel burin northern Monterey and southrows, awaiting the winter rains to ern Santa Cruz counties. It wasn’t emerge and move into the water. discovered until 1954, and Caltrans Males emerge first and develop nearly exterminated it in the 1960s aquatic features — their skin gets smoother and their tails broaden, by bulldozing most of its main becoming more finlike. As females breeding pond while widening arrive, the males are ready to comHighway 1. Living beside a major pete for them and do so vigorcommuter highway, it too is on ously. Ponds teem with “newt the endangered list. California tiger salamanders, which have specialized habitat needs, are listed as balls” as gangs of sex-crazed males Natural climate change probathreatened under the Endangered Species Act. engulf females. A winner clasps a bly caused the isolation of the female behind her front legs and strokes her snout with his sexCalifornia tiger salamander, Santa Cruz black salamander, and ual stimulant gland, then swims in front of her and deposits his Santa Cruz long-toed salamander. During the last ice age, when spermatophore. She lays her fertilized eggs in clusters she attaches weather was cooler and wetter, suitable habitat would have linked to water plants or submerged twigs, and the gilled larvae hatch, Bay Area populations with other ones to the east and north. As grow, and move to land within a few months. weather warmed and dried, habitat loss presumably extirpated Newt larvae are shyer than adults because their skin poison populations in between. David Wake thinks changing climates hasn’t developed. Biologists think adult newts acquire the toxin caused the spotty distribution of many other salamander species. by ingesting bacteria that produce it. The only place in the Bay He fears that rapid human-caused climate change will combine Area that I’ve actually seen newt larvae is one shady, sandywith habitat destruction, pollution, and other factors to extirbottomed corner of a vernal pond at Henry Coe State Park. pate more salamander populations. The pale, red-gilled creatures seemed fragile compared to their On the other hand, salamanders have been around for hunrobust, lascivious parents, but newts remain common, so the dreds of millions of years, whereas civilization has existed for larvae must be good at catching aquatic invertebrates and avoidfive thousand. According to some computer models, humans’ ing predators like giant water beetles and dragonfly nymphs. resource demand will exceed supply in about a hundred years, a The Bay Area’s two other salamander families occur only in dim prospect for “sustainable growth.” So I wouldn’t count salaNorth America. They depend on water for reproduction and are manders out. If as prophesied the world ends in fire instead of not poisonous; they survive by staying out of sight. Our most flood next time, their mythic reputation for creeping out of the spectacular species, classified in a family by itself, is the Pacific flames alive may prove true.  giant salamander (Dicamptodon ensatus), which can grow to 12 David Rains Wallace has published many books and articles on natural history and inches. Santa Cruz County is the southern extent of its range, conservation. His latest book, Chuckwalla Land: The Riddle of California’s since it prefers heavy forest, and adults are a rare sight in dayDesert (UC Press, 2011), received a 2012 Commonwealth Club of California time. Their sexual privacy policy is the opposite of that of the Gold Medal for Literature. b ay n at u r e

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habitats of

the East Bay Regiona l Parks This story is part of a series exploring significant natural habitats and resources of the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD), many of which are encountered in other parts of the Bay Area as well. The series is sponsored by EBRPD, which manages 65 parks, reserves, and trails covering more than 100,000 acres in Alameda and Contra Costa counties (

by Robin Meadows


ateway to the

Opening the Doors at Big Break I’m in another world from the moment I step into the East Bay Regional Park District’s Big Break Regional Shoreline. Here on the edge of the Delta in eastern Contra Costa County, birds sing and soar overhead, cottonwood leaves rustle in the breeze, and on a clear day you can see across the Delta’s vast expanse of water and low-lying islands all the way to the Sierra Nevada.

northern shovelers

striped bass

muskrat green heron

great egret


beaver osprey

cinnamon teal

chinook salmon cormorants


river otter

Swainson’s hawk

Delta Sally Rae Kimmel

If you’re not entirely sure what the Delta is, you’re in good company. According to a recent poll by the Southern California Water Committee, an education and advocacy nonprofit, nearly 80 percent of Californians are unfamiliar with this region and its importance. Moreover, even a short answer is a mouthful. The 1,150-square-mile Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta is the largest estuary on the west coast of the Americas, providing critical habitat for wildlife such as chinook salmon, ospreys, and river otters. The Delta drains nearly half of California, funneling rain and snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada across the Central Valley and out into San Francisco Bay. It also helps supply water for 25 million people (two-thirds of the state’s population) as well as for much of the state’s agriculture. This vital part of California remains surprisingly little-known to many people in the Bay Area, perhaps because most of the Delta’s dry land is privately held and much of the region is accessible only by boat. But Big Break Regional Shoreline offers a superb public access point along the Delta’s western edge, and it’s now home to the park district’s first completely new visitor center site in nearly 40 years. (above) Big Break Regional Shoreline, near Oakley, was once an asparagus farm, but a levee break in 1928 started its transformation into a tidal wetland. (right) A green heron. (left) Wildlife here is quite diverse, from chinook salmon on their way to spawning grounds on Marsh Creek to beavers and otters to herons, egrets, and osprey. This composite view is from the park’s fishing pier. Cormorants sunning themselves on old industrial cranes are a common sight; to see the other wildlife, you’ll have to visit many times.

The Delta is central to the state in just about every way imaginable. “It’s a meld of the Bay Area and the Central Valley,” explains East Bay Regional Park District naturalist Mike Moran, whose fascination with the Delta began 18 years ago when he was a graduate student in wildland resource science at UC Berkeley. “Geography, climate, politics and, of course, water all come together here.” Big Break sits on the San Joaquin River just before it joins the Sacramento River at the neck of the Delta. This region was originally a huge tidal marsh with more than 1,000 miles of tidal channels that wound their way around ever-shifting islands of sediment. But beginning about 150 years ago, settlers built levees to exclude water so they could farm the rich peat soil and replaced most of the zigzagging tidal channels with an irregular grid of diked canals. The Delta now has nearly 60 man-made islands, most of which are below sea level due to compaction of the peat soils (subsidence), totaling about 550,000 acres. “Big Break is a microcosm of the Delta,” Moran says. From where we’re standing here in the park, we can see water, wetlands, and riparian willow thickets alive with fish, birds, and mammals. But we can also see a corporation yard filled with heavy equipment on one edge of the park, a row of houses crowding up against another edge, and a wind farm across the water. And what’s now water and marsh was once an asparagus farm. A levee Steve Tucker

Logan Parsons,

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(above) Mount Diablo rises behind the new Big Break Visitor Center, which features an outdoor relief map of the Delta and will eventually include new interactive exhibits inside. (left) Big Break from the air. The shoreline’s picnic areas and pier are visible at the center of the image. (below) Nev and Nari Thompson float their

Pat Kelly,

miniature tule boats in a bucket of Delta water.

up a tidal wetland,” Moran says. “It’s natural reclamation with no planting.” He points out water-loving natives, from tules and cattails to willows and cottonwoods. Nonnative species, which abound in the Delta, are moving in too, offering the opportunity to experiment with ways of controlling them. Despite its wholesale transformation, the Delta is habitat for more than 500 species of wildlife, including 20 listed as endangered or threatened by either the state or federal agencies. The San Joaquin kit fox lives in the Delta, and so does the Delta smelt, a three-inch silver fish found nowhere else. Big Break attracts beavers, muskrats, and otters. “It’s critter heaven,” Moran says, adding that “the birding is fantastic.” The park is home to about 70 species of birds, including bald eagles and green herons. In just a few minutes, we see a dozen birds b ay n at u r e

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including, to my delight, a green heron. This is my first California sighting of one of these beauties, whose rich chestnut neck sets off its iridescent green-black feathers. There’s also an osprey nest on a construction crane in the corporation yard next to the park. Soon, Big Break’s native species may have even more suitable habitat. Nearly 1,200 acres around Dutch Slough, just east of the park, are slated to be restored from rangeland for dairy cows to tidal wetlands. The area is one of the few parts of the Delta that has not subsided much and so still has topographic diversity. “It’s hugely exciting,” Moran says. “They’re going to blow out levees and let Marsh Creek flow naturally.” Marsh Creek is a major Contra Costa County watershed that drains into Big Break, dividing the wetlands here from the future tidal marsh around Dutch Slough, so restoration around the slough will be a boon to Big Break — and to the chinook salmon that run up Marsh Creek. This kind of connection is key to boosting wildlife habitat in the Delta. “One of the great challenges of ecological restoration is how to make functional links between restored areas,” Grossinger says. “You want to avoid pockets of restoration.” Robin Meadows


break in 1928 let the San Joaquin River flood the subsided land and gave Big Break its name. Though it seems more natural 80 years after the flood, Big Break today is nothing like it was before the Delta’s conversion. Most of the 1,650-acre park is open water about five feet deep instead of the shallow tidal marsh that formerly dominated this part of the Delta. But the park’s open water is fringed by marsh, and even this small remnant is important because only some three percent of the Delta’s original tidal wetlands remain. “This is a rare piece of tidal wetland,” says Robin Grossinger of the San Francisco Estuary Institute, who coauthored a recent study using historical records to reconstruct a picture of the Delta before European settlement. Big Break is also in the part of the Delta where salt water from the Bay mixes with fresh water from the mountains, creating even more diversity of habitats and wildlife. This fringe of marsh at Big Break is a restoration project in progress. “We broadened a deep slough, opening

For the people of Oakley, the park and new visitor center at Big Break have been a long time coming. “I’ve waited 25 years for this,” says Loni Cronin, whose yard backs up to Big Break. The park has its

Sally Rae Kimmel

and wanted to come to the opening,” says Ed Thompson, Nev and Nari’s dad. A certified green building, the visitor center has ample room for educational displays that are expected to be in place within a year or two and, perhaps best of all, a lab for hands-on science education. “This is a dream come true,” Oakley mayor Kevin Romick tells me at the open house. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for students here to get in touch with the Delta, which will help with the message that we live in a vital waterway that’s important to protect.” Several families who live nearby are here to learn about the owls of Big Break. The park has resident barn and great horned owls, as well as habitat suitable for burrowing owls, an at-risk species that lives in nearby parts of the Delta. All ages from youngsters to grandparents pack the science lab, where East Bay parks naturalist Eddie Willis soon has them acting like owls. Explaining that owls’ round faces help focus the sounds of prey, he demonstrates by cupping his hands around his face as his audience follows along. The visitor center lab will be a boon to local teachers as well as the Delta Science Center, which offers a fifthgrade program on the ecology and species of the Delta that is aligned with state formal education standards. “We’ve been bringing the Delta to the classroom but now we’ll be able to bring kids out to the Delta,” says Executive Director Gehlke. “They’ll be able to say, ‘Oh, I know where and what the Delta is.’” Middle school teacher Sheri Schermerz, who lives in Oakley, is jazzed about the high-powered microscope that reveals the many tiny creatures living in the Delta’s water. “My students will love this,” she says. “The lab will give them handson, real-life experience.” Larger creatures — stuffed birds as well as carnivore pelts and skulls — are on display in the meeting room at the other end of

Sally Rae Kimmel

roots in a plan for a local facility on the water to provide education and access to the Delta, where most of the land along the shore is privately owned. “It took years to raise the money, but we really felt the Delta’s story needed to be told,” says park district General Manager Robert Doyle. Indeed, the project required about $10 million, from acquisition of the land to building and opening the visitor center. “Before East Bay parks got the property, Big Break was completely closed off,” says Roni Gehlke, executive director of the Delta Science Center, an Oakley-based nonprofit that helped spearhead the plan and now holds periodic education events at various venues. “Now kids can come find out about the plants and animals living right down the street from their houses.” A September visitor center open house is full of kids doing just that. Nev Thompson, who’s almost five years old, and her big sister Nari, who’s six, just made miniature tule boats and are floating them in a bucket of Delta water. Their boats forgotten, the girls start scooping water into hand-held magnifiers in search of tiny aquatic creatures. Nari shows me her catch: “Look! I found a sea snail!” Unmagnified, the object of her excitement is the size of a grain of rice. The magnifier reveals a tiny snail with a rich brown shell shaped in an elegant, long spiral, part of the rich stew of small creatures that underpin the Delta’s food web. The Thompsons, who live in San Ramon, have been following the visitor The wind farms of eastern Solano County across the river form the backdrop for this tranquil aquatic scene at Big Break. center’s construction. “My kids love nature j a n ua ry – m a rc h 2 0 1 3

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a creative, engaging way,” says Andrea Swensrud, kqed’s science education project supervisor. Upcoming projects include an interactive e-book that uses Big Break to tell the story of the Delta.

The open house is capped with a short walk from the visitor center down to the water. East Bay Parks naturalist Kevin Damstra takes us past the restored tidal marsh Moran showed me and onto a small Delta island with a 100-foot-long observation pier and a cove for launching kayaks. The island also has a 3-d map of the Delta embedded in the walkway. Representing some 700,000 acres, the 1,200-square-foot map is detailed enough for Oakley residents to find where they live. The map is built on a slight slope and has shallow waterways that, like the real Delta, drain toward the Bay when it rains. Around the map are three paths representing the Delta’s major waterways: The path from the visitor center to Moran also uses Big Break the map is the San Joaquin River, the path to introduce classroom from the map to the kayak-launching cove teachers to the ecological is the Carquinez Strait, and the path to the wonders of the Delta. pier is the Sacramento River. Standing on “Our big thing is to get the pier, Damstra recalls an early morning them into the field,” he when he saw seven river otters jumping off says. Starting at Big a rusted dredge into the water. Break, teachers explore “The great thing about this park is that the Delta on foot and in (above) Beavers are one of several aquatic mammal species that have taken up residence in Big Break’s “critter it’s always open,” says kayaks as part of the the Delta Science heaven.” (below) Green-winged teal are among the 70 species of birds recorded here. Birdlife is especially rich in four-day Sacramento– Center’s Gehlke, who winter, when migrating and overwintering waterfowl are most abundant. San Joaquin Delta Instilives a short walk tute, which is aligned with middle- and highaway. “You can enjoy school state standards. “Our goal is to teach it any time.” Actually, teachers so they can inspire their students to it’s closed dusk to learn about the importance of the Delta in dawn and parking their lives,” explains John Promani, part of the doesn’t open till 8 education team at the California Institute for a.m., but the park Biodiversity, which helped establish the Delta is accessible pretty program. much whenever most Besides immersing themselves in the Delta, of us would care to teachers take part in hands-on activities they visit. Me? I’ll be back can share with their students. One of the most soon to watch otters popular is a photo scavenger hunt to seek out playing as the sun places that illustrate Delta-related issues the teachers have learned rises over the shining blue waters in this amazing — and now finally accessible — part of the Delta.  about in the program. “Teachers go out and photo-document things like subsidence, water diversions, and migrating waterfowl,” Moran says. “Seeing what these issues look like on-site Robin Meadows is a Fairfield-based science writer. She enjoys spotting quail, great horned owls, and gray foxes in her own backyard, next to Rockville Hills Regional reinforces what they’ve learned.” Besides incorporating these Park. photos into their classroom lessons, teachers can bring their students to Big Break to hold their own photo scavenger hunts. Teachers also learn how to augment their lessons with multibird-watching at big break media explorations of the Delta developed by Quest, kqed’s Saturday, February 23, 10 a.m.–noon science journalism and education program. These explorations Join Bay Nature staff and naturalist Mike Moran as we explore the shoreline and marshes of Big Break. Attendance limited. include an interactive map of the entire Delta and a virtual hike RSVP and details: or (510)528-8550 x205. at Big Break. “We’re bringing information to our community in David Jesus,

Steve Tucker


the visitor center. Big Break naturalist Mike Moran asks us how we know what kinds of animals live in Big Break when we hardly ever see them. Shouted-out guesses include by their tracks and by the types of habitats in the park. “Those are good ideas, but poop — or scat — is best,” Moran says. “That’s what scientists use.” Passing out samples in ziplock bags, he shows us that scat from bobcats and the rest of the cat family has clean edges. In contrast, scat from foxes and the rest of the dog family tapers to a point. Otter scat is so full of crawdad shells that it’s orange when fresh. Then Moran’s nine-year-old son, Duncan, brings us an exciting find: scat fresh from the park! The tapered ends say dog family, but is it from a small pet dog or a fox? Breaking the scat open, Moran finds bits and pieces that tell him it’s probably fox scat. We all peer in for a closer look.

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lands at Sharp Park Golf Course in Pacifica and kills federally protected California red-legged frogs in the process. [Editor: San Francisco–based Wild Equity Institute ( has sued the city over illegal take (harming or killing a protected species) by stranding red-legged frog egg masses when draining wetlands at the golf course. The city has disputed the charges.] The Board of Supervisors

land or the water they can have trouble. Because they live in the water they’re very susceptible to waterborne diseases, which can spread quickly. Many of them are susceptible to chytrid fungus [a particularly deadly infection], especially in the Sierra Nevada. PE: How likely is it that frogs will disappear? KK: Not likely — if people take action and help save the frogs. Our web page ( lists many ways to help, including simple things like slowing down when driving on wet nights. If we assume every car owner on the planet might run over one frog per year, that would be 700 million killed annually. So a few more careful drivers would make a big difference.

voted three times to turn the land over to the National Park Service, but that was vetoed by Mayor Ed Lee. PE: Why are frogs so sensitive to changes in the environment? KK: They have permeable skin. They drink and breathe through their skin, so they can absorb pollution and pesticides through their skin. They’re amphibious, so if anything goes wrong with either the

Don’t eat frog legs. America is the third-largest importer, and San Francisco is the frog leg–eating capital of the Western Hemisphere. California imports about three million nonnative live bullfrogs each year. The vast majority go to San Francisco for food. Frogs are not just served in French cuisine, but also Asian cuisines, roadhouse cooking, and Tex-Mex. We’re pleased that we got

How to Make a Frog’s Day Interview with Kerry Kriger, by Paul Epstein In 2008, Kerry Kriger founded Santa Cruz–based Save the Frogs, which he says is the nation’s only public charity dedicated exclusively to amphibian conservation. An ardent traveler and musician, Kriger has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a doctorate in environmental science. PE: Why are frogs important to you? KK: I spent a lot of time with frogs during my Ph.D. research in eastern Australia. I went all through the rain forest, looking for frogs. I think frogs are awesome, but I found out frogs were rapidly disappearing, and not a lot was getting done to help them. There are also lots of reasons frogs are important to humans and the planet. They are an integral part of the food web; they’re food for fish, snakes, dragonflies. Lots of animals depend on them. Frogs do us a favor by eating mosquitoes and ticks. Frogs are bioindicators, which means that if they’re having problems, then something is wrong in the environment. Conversely, if we’re able to keep frogs safe, then we must be doing something right. Right now they’re telling us we’re doing something wrong and need to take action. PE: What is your favorite Bay Area frog species, and why? KK: My favorite around here is the California red-legged frog. They’re in most need of our help. They also bear our state’s name, and I’m a big fan of California. They have a century-long history of persecution: They were almost eaten to extinction by the forty-niners. These days they’re eaten by the invasive American bullfrogs that we import by the millions for frog legs, pets, dissections, and jumping contests. The “Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” made famous by Mark Twain used to be a California red-legged frog, but now in those contests, it’s usually a nonnative American bullfrog. San Francisco illegally drains wetb ay n at u r e

j a n ua ry – m a rc h 2 0 1 3

courtesy Kerry Kriger


First Person

Restaurant Gary Danko to stop serving wild-caught Florida pig frogs. PE: Why did you decide to start a nonprofit advocacy group rather than pursue a career in field science or academics? KK: I realized that not much was being done to educate the public about amphibian extinctions. Educating people is the key to long-term success. There wasn’t any nonprofit group to protect amphibians, no one getting legislation to protect frogs or to purchase habitat. I thought that getting some of those things taken care of would be the most valuable thing I could do for amphibian conservation. PE: How did Save the Frogs Day come about? KK: I started it in 2009 because I thought it would probably be a lot easier to get teachers involved in encouraging students to save frogs if there were an official Save the Frogs day. It’s also a way to get politicians educated. We’ve gotten Save the Frogs Day officially recognized by the governors of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. We’re working on getting Governor Jerry Brown to recognize the fifth annual Save the Frogs Day (April 27, 2013). This year, our goal is to have 300 educational events in 50 countries, so we encourage all schools and environmental groups to take part. PE: What is the coolest amphibian species you have ever seen? KK: My favorite is the southern orangeeyed tree frog. It is one of the main frogs I studied during my PhD research. They’ve got a cool call and they live on the sides of cliffs by waterfalls. They come out when it’s pouring rain. They’ve got really amazing eyes and a lot of personality. PE: Where are some good places in the Bay Area for people to see native frogs? KK: You can go out to Mori Point next to Sharp Park to see California redlegged frogs. In the Marin Headlands, some of those ponds have Pacific chorus frogs. Sunol Wilderness in the East Bay has maybe five or six different species of amphibians.

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mrosd is beginning to demolish dozens of military structures around the summit that were part of the Almaden Air Force Station, an early-warning radar station during the Cold War. The iconic concrete block at the peak (aka “the


cube”) — the base of the former longrange radar tower — will remain. mrosd purchased the property from the federal government in 1986, but it’s taken a quarter-century to secure the $3.2 million needed for a now-completed toxic cleanup. Now, the district is focusing on habitat restoration and preparations for public access, including bike riding, horseback riding, and hang gliding, in addition to hiking. There was considerable discussion about whether to dismantle the widely visible radar tower, but in October 2012, the mrosd board responded to public support for the tower and set aside $414,000 to stabilize the concrete block. Supporters will need to raise more money in the next five years to maintain it. [Alison Hawkes ]


vile-looking invasive species is lurking in Point Reyes National Seashore, covering hard surfaces in slippery muck and prompting concern from environmentalists. Colloquially dubbed “marine vomit”


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for its slimy, mucilaginous appearance, the marine invertebrate Didemnun vexillum, a sea squirt, is as ugly as it is fastgrowing. While much about D. vex is not U.S. Geological Survey


last be opened to the public after more than 50 years as a military facility. The fourth-highest peak in the Santa Cruz Mountains, it has a viewshed of 2,000 square miles on a clear day, stretching from Monterey Bay to Mount Tamalpais. “This is the biggest project the district has ever tackled,” said mrosd General Manager Stephen Abbors on a media tour of the summit last fall.

(continued from page 6)

fully understood, similar species have wreaked havoc in other parts of the world and could potentially harm marine life in healthy marine ecosystems like Tomales Bay and Drakes Estero. One thing that is crystal clear about D. vex has been its ability to fuel the heated debate over the estero’s commercial oyster farm, whose lease was terminated on November 30, 2012. The estero’s soft bottom doesn’t provide many of the solid surfaces on which D. vex grows best, but the infrastructure of (continued on page 38)

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Company did. The hard substrate of wooden oyster racks, as well as boats, hulls, docks, pilings, and the oysters themselves, are ideal habitat for the gelatinous goop, which is made up of thousands of saclike creatures clustered underneath a membrane. More worrisome and significant is the recent discovery of D. vex by UC Davis marine biologist Ted Grosholz on the estero’s floor and on blades of eelgrass, a key plant that creates important habitat here. “I’ve seen it living on oyster racks, but when it was spotted on the floor, that was a huge alarm,” says Julia Stalker, a biologist who works on invasive species throughout the Bay Area. “That means it can spread to the bottom and threaten the eelgrass population, which is one of the great resources of the estero.” Eelgrass is known as an ecosystem engineer. It pulls sediment out of the water, is a primary food source for many marine animals, provides shelter, and serves as a nursery for species like herring, which lay their eggs on the blades. Some fear that D. vex will smother the eelgrass beds, but Grosholz cautions that it’s too soon to tell. “Introduced species continually pose a threat,” says Grosholz. “It’s really difficult to predict which ones will and which ones won’t, and this particular species remains under-studied.” Still, the fear persists that Drakes Estero could end up like other areas affected by D. vex. In New Zealand, an attempt to eradicate an outbreak was unsuccessful because it was undertaken after the species had become established. “With invasive species, if you wait too long, it becomes too late to fix it,” says Stalker. “And if it isn’t too late, it can be too expensive.” [Heather Mack]


hen it comes to public perceptions of pollution in the Bay Area, the oil refineries that stretch from Richmond to Vallejo get the lion’s share of attention. But local regulators out to cut mercury pollution have set their sights on a quarry called Lehigh Southwest Permanente, tucked into the otherwise wooded hills of Cupertino. This quarry was once the nation’s largest producer of Portland cement, the critical ingredient in concrete for roads, bridges, foundations, and just about any building. Today, the facility still supplies 50 percent of our region’s Portland cement, and it has the dubious distinction of being far and away our biggest mercury emitter. KQED Quest


(continued from page 36) the Drakes Bay Oyster

thing that the [air district] is taking the situation seriously and trying to make sure that Lehigh reduces its mercury emissions,” says Abigail Blodgett, an attorney for Baykeeper, a San Franciscobased pollution watchdog group. Airborne mercury can contaminate waterways, causing reproductive problems for aquatic life. The heavy metal concentrates up the food chain, worsening the impact on predators and, eventually, humans. That’s why health officials recommend limits on the consumption of Bay-caught fish. The company says that the air district’s requirement that it reduce mercury emissions now would “put the facility at a significant disadvantage with the rest of the cement industry.” Nevertheless, Lehigh has started improving its operations with new technology that reduces mercury emissions, a move the company says is a first in California. [Samantha Juda]

I During the Gold Rush, mercury was used to separate gold from ore and mercury mining was a major industry in San Jose. Today, Lehigh is the major emitter since it makes cement out of limestone, a rock with high levels of naturally occurring mercury. Nationwide, Portland cement manufacturing is the third largest source of mercury emissions, behind coalfired power plants and industrial boilers. New regulations from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District will require the Lehigh plant to strictly limit mercury emissions, as well as other pollutants, and to continuously monitor those emissions during production. “The Bay is already greatly impaired by the presence of mercury, so it’s a good

n March, some of the nation’s foremost experts on the legacy of Aldo Leopold, the pioneering author and conservationist, will gather for the first time on the West Coast, at the fourth Geography of Hope conference in Point Reyes Station. This year’s event is anchored by a screening of the Emmy Award–winning film Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time, written by Berkeley-based Stephen Most and narrated by Leopold biographer Curt Meine. The film takes its title from the famous passage in Leopold’s seminal Sand County Almanac, when the author recalled the death of a wolf he’d just shot: “I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But (continued on page 43)

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Be a Real Conservative Buying goods made yesteryear conserves resources from then and now. It doesn’t make new pollution from manufacturing. It’s a conservative thing to do. We have 3 acres; well organized; (almost) all used.

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By making tax-deductible contributions above and beyond the price of a regular subscription, Friends of Bay Nature invest in the continued growth and development of Bay Nature magazine and the Bay Nature Institute, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation. Bay Nature Sustainers are businesses and organizations that make an annual tax-deductible donation of funds or in-kind services of $500 or more. (Contact Bay Nature Funders are foundations, agencies, and institutions that have provided funding for general support, specific editorial content, or other programs over the past 12 months. (Contact The Friends of Bay Nature list includes donations received between September 4 and November 29, 2012. Donors of $500 or more become members of the Publisher’s Circle and receive invitations to special events and outings. Call (510)528-8550 x205 or email for more information. Thank you for your interest and support! Friends of Bay Nature $2,500+ Christopher & Kathryn Dann

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after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.” Today, Marin County’s first-of-itskind nonlethal coyote control program is one of many local descendents of Leopold’s land ethic. “So many of Leopold’s ideas and approaches have been put into action here in West Marin,” says Elisabeth Ptak, one of the event’s organizers. The literary conference will also feature poet Robert Hass, an Inverness resident, and longtime West Marin resident and author John Francis. Jointly sponsored by Point Reyes Books, the Aldo Leopold Foundation, the Center for Humans and Nature, and the U.S. Forest Service, the conference runs from March 15 to 17. Full weekend tickets are $150 until January 15, $200 thereafter. Individual tickets will be available for two evening events, including the movie screening. Details at [Dan Rademacher]  (Leopold, continued from page 38)

(Mud, continued from page 21) When talking with any of these planners, engineers, and scientists, the sense of urgency is hard to miss. No one wants to see a negative step change in marsh acreage occur in mid-century because we didn’t give the region’s wetlands a good foundation for adaptation. And that foundation must come from dirt — in whatever form. “Bay mud, especially from our harbors, used to be considered ‘toxic’ spoils to be gotten rid of as expeditiously as possible,” notes bcdc chief deputy director Steve Goldbeck. “Now it’s a scarce resource and everybody’s trying to figure out how to get more of it and move it around. It’s really changed how we perceive sediment in the coastal management world.” 

Ariel Rubissow Okamoto, the editor of Estuary News, the bimonthly newsletter of the San Francisco Estuary Partnership, is also the author of The Natural History of San Francisco Bay (UC Press, 2011) and of numerous articles on Bay Area watersheds. Funding for “Dispatches From the Home Front” has been provided by the State Coastal Conservancy, The Nature Conservancy, and Pacific Gas & Electric Company.

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with URBIA Adventure League

concept and design by Barbara Corff & Damien Raffa

MIssIoN cReeK MysteRy!

A deeper sense of place is the biggest prize when you go on this activity-packed urban treasure hunt. Plan for at least an hour to explore Mission Creek, just two blocks west of the San Francisco Giants’ ballpark. Print the Activity Page at and head out.


A large bay stretched almost a mile inland from today’s shoreline. Between salt marshes, fresh creeks flowed into the Bay. Over the years, a mixture of chert rock excavated from nearby hills, sand from an ancient dune along Market Street, and rubble from the 1906 Great Earthquake was used to fill in the waters to make way for a growing city. anise Swallowtail Black-crowned night heron


It’s pretty rare to find the original creeks and lakes of San Francisco, and next to impossible to find the original shoreline of the Bay. This is a good place to unravel the story of how they got covered up, but also how they still shape life today. There is a surprising variety of “Bay Nature” thriving here.

A BAy BecoMes A chANNeL

Who’s LIvINg heRe todAy? The Drawbridge

= activity stop

el n an

The Hill


The Dock


The Bio-swale

The Pavilion (start here and walk counterclockwise I o L N A se around the channel)

LU fL B IN eIh g dts A

toN eR h


KLeWee Ic


Butterfly Zone ed

ch What are r “refugia”? Look for the n c eek io s is m grassy structures sticking out of the marsh. These floating shelters protect the endangered marshes California Clapper Rail. This map shows only a Scientists monitor the1891 shelters regularly where once for nesting birds,channel trackingremaining the Clapper creeks fed tidal marshes and Rails with radio collars. the Bay. Indigenous plants and animals have prevailed here by adapting to changes.



.. .

Bay (pink)


is si o n







NoR t



I es

g IN


ov h



Ask the Naturalist m i c h a e l

Young adventurers on the dock

“Most exciting is the sporadic arrival of the schools of sardines, anchovies, or shiner surf perch. We hear the splashing and exhalations of California sea lions as they dive and encircle the fish. Soon there are divebombing brown pelicans and squadrons of cormorants while the herons and egrets patrol the shores.” ~Ginny Stearns, Mission Creek Conservancy (and houseboat resident)

Fun Family event When: Saturday, January 19 drop in 10 a.m. to noon Where: Mission Creek Park Pavilion What: A family event with Bay Nature, Mission Creek Conservancy, and the URBIA team. Exploratory tools provided! For more information and to RSVP visit stamp space!

When you have completed this adventure, look for a hidden box below the Butterfly Zone bulletin board with the creature photos!

Special thanks to Ali Sant and her students in the 2012 California College of the Arts course “Nature in the City,” Ginny Stearns, and The Seed Fund. For more outdoor adventure fun visit

Q: Should we be worried about asbestos in serpentine soil? A: The answer is yes, we actually should worry about exposure to serpentine soil, especially airborne dust. Serpentinite is a unique and beautiful rock that’s rare in most of the world. Here in California, however, we have North America’s largest exposures and we’ve made it our official state rock. Serpentine soil habitats are often home to many native species that have adapted to some of its odd properties. The word serpentine refers to the mottled, snakelike pattern sometimes seen on the rock. The Greek physician Dioscorides suggested ground-up serpentinite as a prevention for snakebite. Not a healthy idea, as you’ll soon learn. The source material of serpentinite, peridotite, is a rock made of upwelled magma containing large amounts of iron. Our local serpentinite formed when there was still subduction happening here (one plate diving under another) more than 30 million years ago. As the oceanic plate dove under the continent, the peridotite was subjected to intense pressure. But because this occurred near the surface underwater, temperatures stayed low. And that’s what makes this rock special: It stayed cool under pressure. (Wish I could do that!) Early geologists in California recognized the economic resources in serpentinite. Mercury, nickel, chromium, and magnesite were often found near its outcroppings, along with naturally occurring asbestos particles — microscopic needlelike crystals of magnesium-iron silicate. There are several forms of asbestos, but the most common type here is chrysotile. Due to its unique properties (tensile strength, flexibility, and heat and chemical resistance), asbestos has a number of valuable economic uses: acoustic tiles, fireproofing, caulking, brake pads, and filters (for removing fine particles from chemicals, wine, and other liquids). But those slender crystals have a

e l l i s downside: They can become lodged in a person’s lungs or abdominal cavity and, over the course of two or three decades, lead to asbestosis or peritoneal mesothelioma (irritation of the abdomen). It’s not clear how many fibers are needed to cause lung cancer or other diseases, but any exposure involves some risk of disease. Children may be at higher risk due to their higher metabolic rate and longer time for disease to develop. To reduce dangerous exposure to the dust, leave serpentine outcroppings undisturbed. As long as the asbestos fibers remain stabilized in the rock, they pose no hazard. All the more reason to leave them alone and just admire both the beautiful rocks and the diverse native wildflowers that thrive on the soil created by this distinctly Californian rock.  Send your questions to

See what’s growing | Visit the Garden UC Botanical Garden

510-643-2755 | 200 Centennial Drive, Berkeley, CA 94720-5045


Daily | 9 am - 5 pm

No admission after 4:30 pm


The Garden Shop & Plant Deck Open Daily until 4:30 pm Agathis australis - Kauri Tree - Female cones | Photo by James Gaither

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m u i r

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on Pier 96 in San Francisco


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Why Bother Recycling?

Let the Earth turn. Watch the methane clouds lap the poles at

Landfilling is the largest human-generated source of methane, a greenhouse gas 17–100 times more potent than CO2. The shorter the timespan, the higher the number. Much more is produced and escapes into the air while filling the landfill than can be captured after equipment is in place. Watch NASA’s 1999 animation of the Earth; green shows Urban Ore salvages for reuse at Berkeley’s transfer station. People also bring us things and call for pickups. We conserve about 7,000 tons a year and sell the reusable goods in retail sales. We’re open until 7:00PM (receiving closes at 5:00) 360 days a year at 900 Murray, near Ashby @ 7th, Berkeley.

the methane clouds at the melting poles. Don’t waste discards. They’re resources that were cut or mined, refined, made into something, and shipped around the world. Nearly all materials can be recovered and reused, recycled, or composted today – if handled well. Reuse and recycle at home and at work. Talk about it to your friends.

URBAN RE To End the Age of Waste h t t p : //u r b a n o r e . c o m

Bay Nature, January-March 2013  

Find ourt all about the salamanders and newts that live right around you. Take a trip to the grasslands of Solano County. Find out why mud i...

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