Spring in the Sierras

Sierras overlook, California

Every season  in the Sierra Nevada Mountains is full of wonder and beauty, and right now the glories of spring are everywhere.

 

This mountain range reaches north-south, spanning 400 miles (640 km) on the eastern side of California. See map below. The Giant Sequoias, the largest trees in the world; Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous U.S.; and Yosemite National Park, are a few remarkable features of the Sierra Nevadas.

 

Two weekends ago we visited the northern section of the Sierras, near Lake Tahoe and Gold Country.

 

Bear River Falls, Discovery Trail, CA (Bernese Mountain Dog, named Storm, soaking in one of his favorite places, friends’ dog)

In the upper alpine elevations there was reportedly still snow on the ground. Lower, in the montane forests where these photos were taken, the last snow fell two months ago and is gone now…and the woodlands are waking up.

Ponderosa Pine

The rivers and waterfalls boisterously cascaded with frigid, clear, mountain water — snow melt from the peaks. Most of California’s water supply depends on this snow melt, so it’s always great to see the spring waters running strong.

 

We hiked through mixed conifer forests where redwood, oak, pine, and fir trees towered overhead. Bigleaf maple trees had begun their seed production.

 

The understory was coming alive with wild dogwoods in different stages of leafing out, opening their tender white flowers, technically leaves. The yellow button flower in the center attracts insects, for pollination.

 

Wild Pacific Dogwood tree, Cornus nuttallii aka Mountain Dogwood

 

Pacific Dogwood flower

 

Bigleaf Maple

 

Deer Creek, CA

 

On the forest floor wildflowers were bursting through the needle duff. Wild trillium were a special find, and clumps of bleeding hearts, abundant. The gooseberries, a type of currant, will be a tasty treat for forest mammals and birds.

Wild Trillium

Wild Bleeding Hearts, Dicentra formosa

Wild Gooseberry, Ribes

 

Caterpillars, birds and reptiles were emerging, vibrating with life. They have much to do to prepare for the new season.

Belted Kingfisher

 

Springtime doesn’t last too long in the Sierras, but when it’s here, life is vibrant.

 

Written by Jet Eliot

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

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California and the Sierra Nevadas. Graphic courtesy Wikipedia.

 

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Historic San Francisco Murals

Coit Tower, California by Maxine Albro

There are Depression-Era murals decorating many spots throughout San Francisco and the Bay Area, here are photos and information outlining the four major displays.

 

Funded in the 1930s by the U.S. Government under President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, these murals employed thousands of artists during the Great Depression.

 

Murals were featured nationwide, under numerous programs, between 1933 and 1943. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) and Federal Art Project (FAP) were a few of the New Deal art programs.

Coit Tower

The four major murals in San Francisco are open to the public, and free: Coit Tower, Rincon Center, Maritime Museum, and Beach Chalet.

 

A fascinating and informative element of the murals is the history. Most depict everyday life in the 1930s and 1940s, highlighting topics of the times: economy, politics, lifestyle, daily activity, and culture, to name a few.

 

Rincon Center, The Golden Gate Bridge by Anton Refregier

There were numerous artists involved in each mural. One major artist was awarded the project, created the design, and oversaw it; and several co-artists contributed.

 

Most artists in these projects were unknown, though a few later came into popularity like Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock.

 

In San Francisco’s Coit Tower site (1934), 26 artists and 19 artist-assistants were employed; featuring 27 murals covering 3,691 square feet (343 sq. m). Many of the artists for this site were students of Diego Rivera.

 

Coit Tower, City Life by Victor Arnautoff

 

The other three mural sites had fewer lead artists. Rincon Center (1941) was led by Anton Refregier; Maritime Museum (then called Aquatic Park Bathhouse) (1938), artists Hilaire Hiler and Sargent Johnson; Beach Chalet (1936), artist Lucien Labaudt.

 

While most projects were murals, there were also tile mosaics, bas relief friezes, wood carvings, sculptures, and more. Large in scope, they occupy wall space from floor to ceiling, with extensive lengths of entire walls.

Beach Chalet staircase carvings, Sea Creatures by Michael von Meyer

The overall theme was “American scenes” and enabled Americans of all social classes to view original art…then and now.

 

Mural artists used three different painting techniques: fresco (painting onto wet plaster); egg tempera (combining egg yolk with color pigment); and oil on canvas.

 

Rincon Center, San Francisco as a Cultural Center by Anton Refregier. SF luminaries (L to R): L.Crabtree, F.Norris, L.Burbank, R.L.Stevenson, M.Twain, B.Harte, H.Bancroft, J. London

 

Beach Chalet, Baker Beach by Lucien Labaudt

Did the artists make good money? I’ve read many different accounts on payment. With several programs and thousands of artists, numbers vary. My understanding is that they made enough to stay fed and clothed, and working.

 

In addition to these four featured venues, there are numerous other murals in San Francisco and throughout the Bay Area.

 

Diego Rivera’s “Pan American Unity” mural (1940) at SF City College, for example, is considered one of the most important works of public art in San Francisco, and will be featured in 2020 at the SF Museum of Modern Art. Diego Rivera Mural Project

 

Also in San Francisco: Mission High School, George Washington High School, Presidio Chapel, SF Art Institute, and many other schools and locales.

WPA Art Mural Sites in San Francisco

 

Here are Before and After photos from the Maritime Museum.

Maritime Museum, veranda tile mosaic, Sea Forms by Mohammed Zyani. Mosaic artist Zyani in center. Before Photo, taken Feb. 1938

Maritime Museum rear veranda, Sea Forms. After Photo. The same mosaic, displayed in photo center. The view off this veranda, if you turn around and face out, is beach, bay, boats, and Alcatraz.

 

Maritime Museum, Undersea mural by Hilaire Hiler. Before Photo taken May, 1938

 

Maritime Museum mural, Undersea mural. After Photo (swordfish portion).

 

This bold and colorful public art has often been controversial, sometimes at the time of the unveiling, and in later years, too. The murals are good for raising awareness and expressing opinions.

 

After over 80 years on display, restoration has become crucial. Graffiti, aging, seismic damage, and leaking roofs have taken their toll. Fortunately, communities and organizations have recognized the historical value, and funding and talented artists have been engaged.

 

There’s magic in standing in front of these paintings that tower over us, the walls that came to life eight decades ago, embracing everyday life…then and now.

 

Written by Jet Eliot

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Resource: “Depression-Era Murals of the Bay Area” by Veronico, Morello, Casadonte, and Collins (2014), including both 1938 photos of Maritime Museum art featured here.

WPA Art Directory by State

Beach Chalet staircase, by Lucien Labaudt

 

The Berry-Searching Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing in Madrone Tree, Calif.

Here’s a songbird we have in abundance in the U.S., and they are personally one of my favorite American birds. Always in search of berries, the cedar waxwing is often found flying in flocks.

 

They live and breed in North America, are also found in Central America and parts of South America.   See map below.

 

One of North America’s most stunning native birds, they have a sleek black eye mask, bright yellow tail tip, tidy crest, and a lemony belly. To add to their elegance, the feathers are silky-looking in gentle shades of tan and gray. They are named for the red tips that adults have on some feathers–look like they’re dipped in red wax.

 

Cedar Waxwing flock over San Francisco Bay

A medium-sized bird, with a diet of berries and insects, they can be found in gardens, orchards, suburbs, cities, towns, and rural countrysides…wherever there are berries.

 

Many people who are relatively familiar with common songbirds, have never heard of the cedar waxwing. That is probably because this bird does not visit feeders, and they are often quiet.

Cedar Waxwing flock

I have been enamored of cedar waxwings for over two decades, and I still stop in my tracks when I hear them overhead, look for the flock. Parking lots, town centers, berry-lined highways.

 

I like to point this bird out to friends who are not into birds. In response, the friend will look up, unimpressed, and say, “Hmm,” because all they’re seeing is another brown bird flying by.

 

Next I show my friend a close-up photo of the bird, and then they are wowed, and want to see the bird again. Often they say, “What’s it called again?” in earnest interest.

 

Cedar Waxwing juvenile

A gregarious bird, cedar waxwings are rarely seen alone. Sometimes you will see them foraging in small flocks, often in large flocks. Congregating in the sky much like starlings or blackbirds, small flocks join up  with other small flocks until there are hundreds of them flying in one graceful, swerving cloud.

 

Lately there’s been a flock of 500 that zooms by our balcony dozens of times a day. They like the cotoneaster shrubs in the landscaping.

 

More info at Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 

 

 

Other than a high-pitched thin whistle call that is out of hearing range for many people, they are quite silent as the flock synchronistically descends into a berry tree, shaking the branches, and plucking the fruit.

 

What a thrill to look up and see a bouquet of these chic birds dancing the skies.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

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Cedar Waxwing range map. Courtesy Wikipedia. Yellow=breeding; Green=Year-round; Blue=Wintering

 

Mud-Nesting Swallows

San Francisco Bay cove

There are many different kinds of bird nests, and one that I find especially interesting is the mud nest. I came upon cliff swallows building their mud nests last week in a cove of San Francisco Bay.

 

I was walking in a residential neighborhood at the shoreline, when I noticed two or three dozen cliff swallows swooping around the water’s edge. That day we had particularly low tides. In fact, in the four months I’ve been traversing this path, I have never seen so much exposed mud.

 

Cliff swallow pair gathering mud

 

The swallows were taking advantage of the mud opportunity afforded by this perigee phase of the moon (unusually close to earth).

 

In an area where there are usually ducks and cormorants swimming in the lapping water, this sight of the swallows fluttering in the mud slowed my disciplined pace.

 

I watched as the swallows used their bills to dig up little dabs of mud. Bills loaded with mud, they flew off to a nearby waterfront house; all flew to the same place, the underside of one house.

 

Superior flyers that they are, the swallows didn’t even pause at the extensive nets lining the underside, presumably installed to prevent this very activity. They effortlessly navigated through the net holes to the house’s beams.

Cliff swallows gathering mud from the shoreline

One after another, each individual delivered their mud pellets, turned around and glided right back to the tidal mud, and scooped up more. This went on for at least 15 minutes.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow at cove

There was no way to see or photograph the nests without a boat. But cliff swallow nests look like this.

 

Cliff swallow and nest. Photo: Mike’s Birds, courtesy Wikipedia.

They’re gourd-shaped, mud enclosures with a single opening.

 

Named for their behavior of building on cliffs, the cliff swallow has adapted, in the absence of cliffs, to building on human structures. They build under bridges, on highway overpasses, and other man-made structures, like houses.

 

Sometimes cliff swallows build fresh new nests, and sometimes they use old nests. They are colonial nesters and their living quarters can grow quite expansive. This swallow is known for their big communities, the species of the legend, the returning swallows of San Juan Capistrano.

 

There are about 80 species of swallows across the globe, occupying every continent except Antarctica. They don’t all build mud nests. The violet-green swallow, for example, is a cavity nester. I have witnessed their nest-building skills every spring in nest boxes on our property.

Violet-green swallow on nest box

Barn swallows, the most widespread swallow in the world, also collect mud pieces for use in their nests. As their name suggests, they typically build in a barn or stable. Their mud nests are cup-shaped, usually built on a beam. Just like the cliff swallows, barn swallows require fresh mud for their nesting venue, and consequently nest near water.

Barn swallow nestlings, Pierce Point Ranch, Pt. Reyes, CA

Another swallow we encountered that day at the waterfront were the northern rough-winged swallows. They prefer to nest around water too, but build tunnels in the ground instead of nests.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow pair

Wherever you are, it’s always rewarding to observe birds building nests–the materials they choose, the places they set up house, and the devotion they declare in starting a new generation.

 

A toast to the mud-nesters: here’s mud in your eye.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified

 

Celebrating Earth Day, Las Gallinas Ponds

Mute swan with cygnets

For Earth Day this year I am happy to introduce you to the Las Gallinas Ponds, a place I have been visiting for nearly 20 years. This trio of shallow lakes is a humble but noteworthy example of how a large community has learned to integrate wildlife and human needs.

 

Las Gallinas is an Earth Day story. For over half a century humans and wildlife have been inhabiting this same functional space. It is more than just a park. It is an important facility in the San Rafael community, covering 400 acres and serving 30,000 residents.

 

As you walk around the three lakes and gaze upon the marsh and fields, you are greeted by birdsong and vast, open wilderness. Over 188 birds species live here, as well as mammals, reptiles, butterflies, and other wildlife.

 

Las Gallinas Ponds, San Rafael, California

Pair of Common Mergansers

 

This marsh on California Bay Area’s San Pablo Bay has a pedestrian walkway that winds around each lake. It is flat and wide, and a magnet for neighborhood walkers, joggers, bikers, and wildlife enthusiasts. It accommodates wheelchairs, strollers, and people of all ages; and is surrounded by mountains and bay.

 

Two of the ponds have small islands where black-crowned night herons, egrets, ducks and geese gather. In winter the waters are covered with migrating waterfowl.

 

Cattails and reeds host marsh wrens, bitterns, rails, and gallinules; while songbirds flit in the surrounding trees. I always see at least five different species of raptors cruising the open sky, including peregrine falcon, merlin, harriers, kites, and red-tailed hawks.

Snowy Egret

A few weeks ago, on Easter Sunday, we heard about a pair of mute swans on a nest, from other trail walkers.

 

We found the nest and waited patiently, knowing that eventually the mother would stand up, turn the incubating eggs. And when she did, she revealed a nest of five large eggs.

 

Mute Swan Wikipedia. 

When the swan stood up, we saw her eggs. Look closely underneath the swan.

The next Sunday when we returned, we found two fluffy cygnets tucked underneath Mom’s large wing.

 

That day we saw so much springtime:  wildflowers in profusion, mating cinnamon teal, the absence of most of the winter migrators, and the arrival of swallows by the hundreds.

Mating Cinnamon Teal

 

I truly love to be here at the ponds. But I do not bring friends unless they are hardy outdoor people…because it is actually a sewage treatment facility. Birders go wherever the birds are, but not everyone is so undiscriminating.

 

The ponds are holding tanks for human waste, called reclamation ponds. There are 200 acres of wastewater storage, freshwater storage, and pasture irrigation fields. There is also a field of nearly 3,000 solar panels for generating electricity. See diagrams at the end.

 

This sanitation plant not only opens their grounds to the public, but they also provide generous numbers of picnic tables and benches, maintain the grounds for visitors, and host school groups. There’s even a bowl of water for dogs. Their website is also inviting, with funny educational videos.  Check out “Can’t Flush This Song” and “Recycled Water Taste Test.”

 

When you first arrive, it looks like the processing plant that it is. There are many large tanks with huge churning arms, and lots of pipes in all sizes. Hundreds of gulls, red-winged blackbirds, and starlings hover over the stirring tanks.

 

The processing station only occupies the front section, and in two minutes you don’t even notice. The trail extends alongside the ponds, stretching out for several miles.

 

Northern Mockingbird

By this past Sunday, the third one in a row, we were nervous about what we might find at the swan nest. Who, we wondered, had been successful: the swan family or the predators? There are river otters, badgers, and coyote here who would love to crack into a big swan egg.

 

Wildlife check list at Las Gallinas Ponds

American White Pelican

Good news. The two cygnets were still around, had even grown a bit, and they were earnestly paddling beside their parents. I don’t know about the other three eggs.

 

People laugh when I tell them I go to the sewage ponds for my birthday. They think I’m kidding.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

LGVSD Pond Poster

Courtesy Las Gallinas Valley Sanitary District

Solar Power Project

Solar Power Project. Courtesy Las Gallinas Valley Sanitary District

 

Camera Obscura, San Francisco

Camera Obscura, San Francisco

Of all the beautiful spots to visit in San Francisco, this is one of my favorites. A giant walk-in camera taking 360-degree real-time images of the sea. For a $2.00 entry fee, we are given the gifts of seaside panorama and peace.

 

Named Camera Obscura, for the Latin translation “dark room,” it operates on the photographic “pinhole image” concept that dates back centuries, based on a natural optical phenomenon.

 

Rays of light travel in a straight line, a law of optics. When rays of bright light pass through a small opening, like a pinhole, they reappear reversed and inverted. By using a dark room, two lenses, a mirror, and a surface, the images turn right-side up and appear before you.

 

The small building is perched above Ocean Beach in San Francisco, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It is on the register of National Historic Places.

Front view.

The mirror is in the triangle at the top, lenses below it, and the turret rotates.

 

San Francisco’s Camera Obscura website:  giantcamera.com

Wikipedia Camera Obscura information

 

 

Image on screen inside the Camera Obscura

The concept of capturing light into images, like the Camera Obscura, is similar to the human eye. From Wiki: “The human eye … works much like a camera obscura with an opening (pupil), a biconvex lens and a surface where the image is formed (retina).”

 

The oldest mention of this phenomenon dates back to 5th Century China.

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Camera Obscura Effect. Courtesy Wikipedia

In the 16th century, philosophers, scientists, astronomers, and artists used the light tool for viewing eclipses, studying light, and even drawing. Before mirrors and lenses, they simply used the light and the pinhole. It was a fascinating topic of interest for scholars, and interpreted as an invention of the devil for others.

Diagram courtesy Camera Obscura, San Franciso

By the 18th century, the Camera Obscura had gained popularity for education and entertainment. Often parks or scenic spots had one, like New York City’s Central Park, and also Coney Island. Old Camera Obscuras that no longer exist. Just as it was used for science, art, and entertainment; it was also used for training in wars.

 

Camera Obscuras are the first cameras. Photography pioneers like Fox Talbot, Niepce, and Daguerre created cameras by modifying Camera Obscuras. Soon after, when light-sensitive plates and film were invented, the Camera Obscura was no longer necessary.

Ocean Beach

Ocean waves on screen

 

Today there are Camera Obscuras in the U.S., England, Scotland, Wales, and other countries. Some are old, some are new. There are private Camera Obscuras and public ones; less than ten public ones exist in the U.S. The Wikipedia link provides all locations.

 

This one in San Francisco was built by Floyd Jennings in 1946 for a popular amusement park in the 1900s, Playland at the Beach. When Playland closed in 1972, the structure was relocated to its present location, behind the Cliff House at Ocean Beach.

 

For those of us who can never get enough of Camera Obscuras, a good website to feed your fix is brought to us by Jack and Beverly Wilgus, scholars of this phenomenon:  Magic Mirror of Life

 

You might wonder, why would this be anything great these days when you have a phone in your pocket that takes excellent photos? Or easy-access live cams? Or why would you go inside a building when you have the whole outdoor image in full view?

 

Because with the Camera Obscura, you are in the camera. Inside the camera.

Outside it is noisy from the wind and the crashing waves, and sometimes blindingly bright from the vast, open sea.

 

You walk through the curious saloon-style doors and enter a world of magic. At first you can’t see anything, going from the brightness of day to darkness.

 

But then your eyes quickly adjust, and your body relaxes in the darkness and peace. You’re in a special little cocoon.

 

On the screen before you are the ocean waves silently lapping against the beach. Surfers in wet suits, dogs and dog owners walking the beach, cars moving down the Great Highway. The image slowly rotates, constantly changing, just like life…only softer and gentler.

 

Way out in the distance are ships sailing the sea. Closer in are large boulders covered with cormorants and gulls.

 

In that dark and hushed room you enjoy a few magical moments of gentle light and silence, and see the profoundness of life as it is unfolds.

 

Photo credit: As indicated

Video clip on San Francisco’s Camera Obscura

 

Camera Obscura, San Francisco

 

Welcoming Rebirth

Wild Gooseberry

I often highlight spring wildflowers that surround my home around Easter weekend, but this year is different, because our home was in the center of the firestorm that raged through Northern California last October.

 

Wikipedia 2017 Northern California Wildfires

 

All the wildflower photos here are from previous springs in my home forest; except the last two, post-fire.

Gold Wire and Ladybug

Mission Bells aka Chocolate Lily, Fritillaria affinis

 

Six months have gone by, and we are still living in temporary housing in the next county. There are many problems in the area with infrastructure, not enough repair crews, debris removal, and interminable delays. We all struggle here, in various ways.

Douglas Iris, Iris douglasiana

 

Shooting Stars, Dodecathion

 

For us on our rural property, our electrical system was incinerated, so it has to be rebuilt. There is a house, but it is not habitable. Nothing physical has been done in six months, except one pile of ash and debris (once a cottage) was removed.

 

There’s plenty of activity, exhaustingly so, but it’s all paperwork and talk.

Indian Warrior, pedicularis densiflora

Redwood lily, Lilium rubescens

 

The good news started this week, when the hallowed electrical pole was at last installed.

California poppy, Eschscholzia californica

Canyon Delphinium, Delphinium nudicaule

 

Meanwhile, autumn turned to winter and the holidays came and went…and spring is right on time.

 

Although hundreds of thousands of damaged trees lie covering the ground and choking the growth urge, still, there is a stirring from underground.

 

The wildflowers are rallying.

Elegant Clarkia, Clarkia unguiculata

Western Azalea, Rhododendron occidentale

 

Wildflowers never stay for long, they are short-lived. I have seen seasons where they only came out for two days before the rains pounded them down, or the sun parched them.

Western Houndstongue, Cynoglossum grande

Beargrass, Xerophyllum tenax

 

While there is a lot to love about wildflowers, with their bright colors and harbinger ways, what I love most about them is their wildness, their impermanence.

 

They say, “Look at me now. Not tomorrow or on the weekend.”

 

They are fleeting, as nature can be, and they say, “Look at me now, because I may not be here another day.”

Golden Violet, Viola pedunculata

 

I stand there in the rubble, looking for signs of spring. Shoots of grass are peeking through the scarred earth, the songbirds are cavorting and looking to nest, and some of the survivor trees are beginning to leaf.

 

The wildflowers, the birds, and wild mammals, too–they train us to be present in the world, wake up, and take notice of the glory that surrounds us.

 

Ferns, post-fire

 

Lilies, post-fire

 

As the earth awakens in this recently ravaged corner of the world, I listen to the sweet trill of the finch’s song, my eyes scanning the deadened forest for signs of life.

 

And somehow, I guess from studying the forest for all these years, I know that it’s going to be okay.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander