Our Forest, Our Cycles

Oak Titmouse

It is Day 12 of the California Wine Country fires, and I am one of the 15,000 people who remain under mandatory evacuation. Not only do burned trees continue to fall posing danger, but the electrical poles are gone. (See fire facts, at the end.)

 

Two weeks ago I lived in a forest, and that forest was my life, and the people and wild animals, trees, and plants there continue to call to me, even as I sleep elsewhere. So today I show you some of the wildlife from better times, with the fervent hope that they have found refuge somewhere, somehow.

Jackrabbit

Varied Thrush, California

The good news is that our house is still standing. Many of our neighbors lost their homes, and one neighbor lost his life. Gale-force winds combined with very dry earth conditions were the cause.

 

Our weather patterns in Northern California are different than many places. We do not have rain all summer, and this is how it has been as long as I have lived here (30+ years). We mow the grass once, sometimes twice, and then by July it stops growing.

 

The rains come in winter, slow down around March, then by around April or May they stop, and do not start again until the following November or December.

 

Some years it doesn’t rain in winter, those are the drought years. We had 4-6 years of drought until this past winter when it rained record amounts. The abundance of rain produced more vegetation, and it was glorious. We had more wildflowers than we’d seen in years, and the wildlife were more plentiful too, benefitting from the wealth of more plants, bugs, and moisture.

Indian Warrior

Shooting Stars

But when the summer came, like in all years, the grasses dried up. This year, as a result of the lively spring, we had more grasses than previous years.

 

You live long enough in one place, you see the weather patterns shift, you watch the cycles. I find this to be one of the pure joys of life on earth…the cycles.

Western skink (juvenile), California

Mountain Quail, California (male)

Gardeners notice the subtleties in their plantings, farmers adjust to the cycles daily, and wildlife lovers watch the variables in species.

 

In our forest we had more bugs this spring, which brought in more birds, and they were prolifically nesting. This brought in more hawks and mammals, all hunting. The spring frog-mating season was twice as long.

Adult Pacific Tree Frog

Northern Alligator Lizard, California

Striped Racer, Calif.

By September the berry trees were producing for a promising winter of red berries, and the numerous species of oaks were loaded with acorns. October was rife with busy woodpeckers and gray squirrels burying acorns.

 

But then we had a parching week-long heat wave. The deciduous trees didn’t lose their leaves gradually, instead the leaves burned up from the daily 100+ degree (F) temperatures.

 

After that the winds came in, huge trees blew over, brought down live electrical wires, and other mayhem ensued, with disastrous results.

Gold Wire and Ladybug

We’ll see what the winter brings. I am delighted to be here, living, to watch. And the good news is:  the earth heals, and so do her inhabitants.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

My humble thanks to each and every one of you who wrote kind and loving messages this past week. You brought sunshine during this difficult time.

 

Fire Facts:

There have been 250 wildfires in the Wine Country since October 8, burning 245,000 acres. Eleven thousand firefighters battled the fires, 100,000 people were evacuated, 42 people lost their lives (per Cal Fire). Most fires have now been 80% or more contained.

 

 

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Fire in the Wine Country

California Quail

It’s been a firestorm in Northern California this past week, and I got caught in the middle of it.

 

We are safe and unhurt, Athena and I, but we had to leave our house behind. And on this day, the fifth day after mandatory evacuation, I do not know if it is a structure or ashes.

 

Until the fires stop, we cannot know or return. There is much chaos and uncertainty. And the fires, unfortunately, are spreading.

 

I have had better days, and I have had worse.

 

It’s a one-lane road in a forest, and the forest was ablaze as we drove through huge, billowing plumes of smoke. Someone, I don’t know who, had chainsawed a downed tree in the road that otherwise would have blocked our escape.

 

There was no way to know if the rest of the road was open, but it was the only way out, so we just kept going.

 

Then we came upon a fireman in a fire truck. It was still not light out yet, about 6 a.m. I was at the steering wheel, and his deep voice assured, “It is safe to go down.”

 

So we drove on, we and our neighbors, a calm parade of three cars.

 

Violet-green Swallow, male

We went next to Whole Foods, in search of breakfast and a bathroom. They were normally open at this time, but the store was closed. Not enough staff, the employee at the door explained, because so many people were being evacuated.

 

He added, “If you are in an emergency situation, come in and take what you need. There are no registers on, just take it.” So we did.

 

He would not take our money and said, “Be safe” as he unlocked the doors and let us out.

 

There’s been an outpouring of kindness that just keeps coming. Friends are letting us stay in their extra unit.

 

Other friends took us out to dinner, and family, colleagues, friends-of-friends, and people we don’t even know have offered free accommodations. Emails and texts and messages from friends around the world, guiding us with their love and support.

 

Family who live far away have stayed in touch every day, sending love and kindness, songs and cheerful photos, offering to give us whatever we need.

Red-breasted Nuthatch, California

Great Horned Owlet, California

Coyote, California

According to the New York Times, there are 8,000 firefighters using more than 550 fire engines, 73 helicopters, and more than 30 airplanes…and more.  They’re working long hours, going days without sleep, and endangering their lives.

 

I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know we are surrounded by goodness, and we will work it out.

 

Photos from the forest, in better times: Athena Alexander

I will not be responding to comments until things get more stable. Thank you, my friends, as always.

 

Owls All Around

Barred Owl, Texas

Everything about owls is remarkable. Large eyes with binocular vision, facial disks around the eyes that funnel sound more acutely, ears that are asymmetric for better sound coverage, feathers structured for silent flight, a neck that can rotate, and powerful talons for skull-crushing.

 

There are over 200 species of owls in the world, living on all continents except Antarctica.

 

They are classified into two different families, Strigidae and Tytonidae,  with about 19 owl species in North America, 42 in Africa, and 13 in Europe. South America, 55; India, 30; Australia, 11. Sources differ in numbers. (Range map below.)

Giant Eagle Owl, aka Verreaux’s Owl; Botswana, Africa

 

 

Great Horned Owlet, California

 

Pearl-spotted Owlet, Zambia, Africa

 

Wikipedia overview on Owls.

 

With hundreds of owl species there are many exceptions, but for the most part, they are nocturnal birds. Carnivorous, preying on rodents, small mammals, and insects, many species can be seen hunting at dawn or dusk.

 

Although all owls have a similar shape, they vary widely in size. I have seen the world’s lightest owl, no bigger than the size of my hand, appropriately called the Elf Owl (in Arizona). They weigh 1.4 ounces (40 g). I’ve also seen the largest owl in Africa, the Giant Eagle Owl, pictured second above. It was 26 inches tall (66 cm).

 

Great Horned Owl, California

 

Barn Owl. Photo: Peter Trimming, British Wildlife Centre. Courtesy Wikipedia.

The most common owl worldwide is the barn owl, in a family of its own, Tytonidae.

 

You can’t hear a thing when an owl flies. Each leading feather is serrated, making the wingbeat silent. The rest of the flight feathers have soft, velvety edges absorbing any other sound during movement. This allows the owl to surprise and capture prey.

 

I’ve been out in the dark looking for owls when one has flown past me and I didn’t even know it.

 

Great Horned Owls, Alaska

 

Although owls are elusive and often camouflaged, it is possible to see them in the wild. I’ve provided two links, below, for locating the owls in your area.

 

I have spent many hours “owling” at night with guides, but have also found many species while hiking without a guide. They’re usually in the woods, you have to look up in the trees and be quiet. Cities with large parks have owls too.

 

A good way to become familiar with the owl species in your area is to visit your local raptor or bird rescue centers, they often rehabilitate injured owls. They may have information, too, where wild owls have been spotted.

 

I once lived near a small natural history museum–Randall Museum–in San Francisco, visited their permanently-injured owls frequently.

 

Great Horned Owl and owlet on nest, California

 

Rufous Owl, Australia

 

Our guide’s gear for owling, in Australia.

 

The subject of much folklore, owls have mystified humans for centuries. They are mesmerizing to watch, magical to hear, and possessing skills like no other bird.

 

When you do see an owl, you don’t forget it.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander, all owls in the wild (except Wikipedia barn owl)

The Owl Pages — owls worldwide. Enter your country in the Search bar.

owling.com — North and Central American owls

 

Mottled Owl, Belize, perched under a palm frond

 

Black and White Owl, Costa Rica

 

Range map of Owls of the World. Courtesy Wikipedia

 

The Rush for Gold

Empire Mine, Grass Valley, California

It was a big day on January 24, 1848 when the first California gold was discovered at a saw mill in Coloma. Let’s take a trip to the “Gold Country,” where dozens of small gold towns still exist in the Sierra Nevada foothills. We’re going to Grass Valley and  Nevada City.

 

That original gold flake brought 300,000 people to California, half by sea, half by land; an unprecedented surge for those days. (That gold flake, by the way, can be viewed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.)

 

Eons before, 400 million years ago, California was at the bottom of a sea, and underwater volcanoes deposited gold and other minerals onto the sea floor. Next, tectonic forces drove the minerals to the earth’s surface. Eventually the minerals eroded and were deposited in gravel alongside rivers.

 

Prospectors at first could sift through riverbed gravel with a shallow pan, finding gold nuggets and flakes.  See map below.

Gold Mine Shaft

After the surface gold had disappeared, mining followed. Gold was extracted from quartz by “hardrock” mining. Men were lowered in buckets into deep shafts to chip and drill through the rock, and later sled-like “slips” and cages were invented for miners to enter the earth.

Empire Mine, circa 1890

The rocks were detonated, and blasted rock was loaded into rail carts, ore cars, and brought up. Extracted ore went to the stamp mill where it was crushed, mixed with water, and processed, then further processed in the refinery.

 

Empire Mine miners on sled-like “slip,” before descending into the mines

Empire Mine, Athena on the same sled-like “slip”

Empire Mine Stamp Mill. Each stamp was mechanically lifted and dropped over 100 times per minute to crush the rock.

The Empire Mine, in Grass Valley, is a State Park with remnants of the mine still open for touring. This complex had 56 shafts extending over 8,000 feet (2,438 m) deep, with 367 miles of excavations. Mining stopped in 1956 when it became too expensive to extract.

Empire Mine Model. Colors indicate gold.

I liked the Mine Model. It looks like a modern model that was built for tourists. But it is actually what engineers and geologists constructed in 1938, as an important working tool.

 

It gives a thorough view of the underground environment, where they could find the gold. All the squiggly colored lines are gold veins. As you can imagine, it was closely guarded and studiously analyzed.

 

Empire Mine quartz, gold in front center

 

The California Gold Rush (1848-1855) was a lucrative time for some folks, and a cruel time for others. Native American Nisenan were forcibly removed and displaced, exposed to disease; miners were exposed to chemicals and disease, their work was devastating to their health; fatal accidents occurred; the earth was ravaged.

 

When I hiked in the area two weeks ago, it was easy to see the quartz veins in the granite boulders, and minerals bleeding through the rocks. I wondered if people still search for gold. I learned that yes, there are still people who pan for gold, but there is no rush like in the old days; basically, for dreamers.

 

Quartz vein in granite: diagonal white line upper center to right

 

All these years later, there are still tectonic forces here, and minerals continue to be important to all living creatures…mining continues around the world. We wouldn’t have mobile phones without minerals.

 

Hirschman’s Pond, Nevada City, California

One day we hiked an area that we learned was on much higher ground in the old days. It had been extensively dug up by two brothers during prospecting days. The hole that they dug was now filled in with a century of rainfall–a scenic, quiet pond with surrounding trails.

 

Ponderosa pines whistled above us in the wind, and a pair of belted kingfishers dipped into the water for fish.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted

For a mystery with California history, read my latest novel Golden Gate Graveyard.

Paperback or E-book

 

 

 

California Goldfields. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

 

 

 

Hitchcock Lives On in the Bay Area

Hitchcock, circa 1943, courtesy “Footsteps in the Fog”

In celebration of Alfred Hitchcock’s birthday this weekend, here are photos and scenes from his San Francisco Bay Area films. Born in England on August 13, 1899, he became a successful film director in British cinema, then came to the U.S. in 1939.

 

After buying a 200-acre Bay Area ranch in 1940, the “Master of Suspense” spent many years living and working in northern California. Three of his films were set here, and many scenes from other movies as well–Rebecca, Suspicion, Psycho, Marnie, Topaz, and Family Plot.

Hitchcock’s Bay Area, courtesy “Footsteps in the Fog”

 

Hitchcock’s film and television productions. 

Alfred Hitchcock Wikipedia. 

 

The three Bay Area films span a 150-mile radius of San Francisco. Over a half century later, film buffs, tourists, and Bay Area residents still enjoy visiting these sites.

Hitchcock, Santa Rosa Courthouse Square, 1942; courtesy “Footsteps in the Fog”

1 – “Shadow of a Doubt” was set in Santa Rosa, California, about a 1.5 hour drive north of San Francisco. Hitchcock considered this film his finest.

 

Filmed during the early 1940s, it was heavily impacted by WWII. There were blackout orders restricting nighttime filming. Also, the War Production Office required Hitchcock to limit his set construction budget to $3,000 (from “Footsteps in the Fog”).

Santa Rosa Calif., Old Courthouse Square, photo by F. Schulenberg, 2012

 

Therefore, in order to curtail set costs, Hitchcock resolved to use the town as the movie set. At the time, this was a new innovation, filming in the town square and other public places.

 

He chose Santa Rosa, a quaint and quiet town, for the backdrop of his dark psychological thriller.

 

Released in 1943 and starring Joseph Cotton and Teresa Wright, the screenplay was written by Thornton Wilder.

 

Much of Santa Rosa, and many local residents too, appear in the film. Santa Rosa’s downtown, railroad depot, Courthouse Square, public library, church, bank, and spacious tree-lined neighborhoods take center stage.

 

The railroad depot, the “Newton House,” and other buildings can still be seen today in Santa Rosa.

 

Santa Rosa railroad depot, 2016. Today it is a Visitor Center.

“Shadow of a Doubt” filming, at Santa Rosa railroad depot, early 1940s. Hitchcock seated in dark suit, front left-center. Courtesy “Footsteps in the Fog”

“Newton Family” house where Shadow of a Doubt was filmed, 2017

 

2 – “The Birds”, a 1963 horror-thriller, is set primarily in and around Bodega Bay; approximately a two-hour drive north of San Francisco. There are also scenes in San Francisco, including his cameo appearance at the pet store with his true-life pets, a pair of Sealyham terriers.

List of Alfred Hitchcock cameo appearances. 

 

 

Alfred Hitchcock filming “The Birds”

Starring Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Jessica Tandy, and Suzanne Pleshette, the story is loosely based on a 1961 bird incident in nearby Capitola, California; and a novel with the same title written by Daphne du Maurier.

 

Around the time of “The Birds” filming, Capitola experienced a brief scare when birds called Sooty Shearwaters slammed into, and died, on rooftops. Shearwaters are birds of the sea, on land only during nesting, and ill-suited for landing. Because they cannot land properly, they do actually slam into whatever is in their way.

 

I once went birding on an island covered with nesting shearwaters, and one of my birding mates was slammed in the back really hard by a shearwater.

 

It is a bizarre thing to witness…and who else but Hitchcock would create a thriller out of this?

 

Bodega Bay Overview

The Tides pier, Bodega Bay, 2016. Western Gull.

Today you can still visit The Tides Restaurant and Wharf, where the film was largely set; they proudly display old film posters.

 

In Hitchcock humor, there are stuffed crows in the rafters.

 

Staged scene at The Tides Restaurant in Bodega Bay, 2017

“Potter School” and the general store called Diekmann’s also still exist.

 

“The Birds” schoolhouse, aka Potter School, Bodega, 2013

 

When I was on the Bodega Bay pier of the Tides Restaurant last fall, an unusually large flock of marbled godwits flew over us; Hitchcock’s story immediately shot to my mind as I looked tentatively at the bird-darkened sky.

 

3 – “Vertigo”, released in 1958, was filmed all over San Francisco and in outlying Bay Area venues. Starring Jimmy Stewart, Kim Novak, and Barbara Bel Geddes, this story is a haunting one, highlighted by a brilliant musical score by Bernard Herrmann.

 

Movie buffs soak up San Francisco Vertigo tours, re-living the fictional story of this psychological thriller. Vertigo captures the charm and romance of 1950s San Francisco; featuring the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco Bay, panoramic skylines, winding streets,  redwood trees, and rocky cliffs.

 

Fort Point and Golden Gate Bridge, SF, 2017

 

Kim Novak in Vertigo, at Fort Point, SF, circa 1958, courtesy Wikipedia

 

Scenes include visits to the Palace of Fine Arts and the Legion of Honor.

Palace of Fine Arts, SF, 2016

 

Legion of Honor, SF, 2017

James Stewart as “Scottie” at The Legion of Honor, circa 1958, courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

 

Two local California missions, which look the same as when Hitchcock filmed here, are also embraced in this story. The crew filmed at Mission Dolores in San Francisco, where I have also set a scene from my own novel.

 

Mission Dolores, San Francisco, 2014

 

Hitchcock at SF Mission Dolores, 1957, courtesy “Footsteps in the Fog”

 

Hitchcock and Stewart in Mission Dolores Cemetery, circa 1958, courtesy “Footsteps in the Fog”

 

Mission Dolores Cemetery, 2014

 

Mission Dolores Cemetery, 2014

 

And the second mission, Mission San Juan Bautiste, is in the town of the same name, about 90 miles south of San Francisco. The famous bell tower, where several shocking scenes take place, was added via special effects.

 

Mission San Juan Bautista, 2011. The “Vertigo” Bell Tower was added to the mission via special effects.

 

Hitchcock films have a way of grabbing hold of our human frailties, and exploring our deepest fears.

 

Enjoy a toast this weekend to Sir Alfred’s mastery.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified. Thanks to Kraft and Leventhal’s book “Footsteps in the Fog” (2002).

Another mystery of suspense based in San Francisco written by Yours Truly.

Kindle $6.99

or Paperback $20 

 

 

 

A Butterfly’s Life

Anise Swallowtail Butterfly on fennel

This butterfly species, the anise swallowtail, graces our yard every summer. They start life on the wild fennel that grows in a corner.

 

Over the years, I have had the pleasure of watching all the stages of this butterfly’s life.

Anise Swallowtail caterpillar

It begins when the female deposits eggs on the host plant, the fennel. The eggs hatch and tiny caterpillars–each one about the width of your pinkie–feed on the plant.

 

The caterpillars, also called larvae, have jaws.  (Butterflies don’t have jaws, they have proboscis for drinking nectar.) They chew and chew and chew until their body grows so much the skin literally splits open.

 

Underneath this now-split skin is a new, more flexible skin that has been forming. The caterpillar continues chewing, and growing, until the skin splits again. This process, called molting, repeats four or five times.

 

Each skin is differently colored. At first they are black and white; the next caterpillar stage (aka instar) is orange and black. For the grand finale, the caterpillar is magnificent in green, orange, black, and blue.

 

More info here: Wikipedia Anise Swallowtail Butterfly. 

 

Finally, in its last and fifth instar, the caterpillar once again splits the skin, but this time it spins one or two threads of silk, and attaches to a plant; forms the pupa or chrysalis. (See Life Cycle diagram below.)

 

Anise Swallowtail Chrysalis or Pupa

 

Eventually the chrysalis ruptures and the winged insect crawls out. The flow of blood stops, the wings take some time to firm up, and the new butterfly flies away.

 

Anise Swallowtail: Butterfly on right, empty chrysalis on left

 

When we first moved to our rural property, I cut back the fennel, because it is an invasive plant and not native to our forest. Here in California and along the west coast, fennel is everywhere–abandoned lots, roadside ditches. I saw it yesterday on the freeway; four lanes of traffic speeding in each direction, and growing out of the median was fennel.

 

Fortunately for me, our fennel grew back the next spring, and that summer I found stunning caterpillars on it.

 

Since then I have pampered the fennel, and in late June, like clockwork, we find the caterpillars. They inhabit the plant stalks and eat the fronds, one little feathery piece at a time, voraciously devouring the plant.

 

In Native American and other cultures, the butterfly symbolizes transformation and change. Change is a key component to life on earth.

 

I don’t think there’s a creature more graceful and elegant for reminding us that change can be beautiful.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

There are over 550 species of swallowtail butterflies; here are two other species that drink nectar on our property:

Pipevine Swallowtail

Western Tiger Swallowtail

 

Courtesy Wikipedia

 

New Cooper’s Hawks

Adult Cooper’s Hawk, in mid-March in the oak tree

Hawks are fierce hunters; they fly and perch noiselessly, hunt swiftly and quietly. But the chicks, of course, are not that way; they haven’t learned how to be  warriors yet.

 

Dependent, hungry, and inexperienced, the chicks have squawky voices and incessant demands: “feed me feed me feed me.”

 

Cooper’s Hawk fledgling, early July

 

It was the Cooper’s Hawk chick that gave away the secret of the well-hidden nest I found, high up in a madrone tree.

 

Just as I looked up to examine the unusual sound, a parent swooped into the nest with food. This quieted the chick. The little guys hadn’t learned stealth yet, and the parents know too well the importance of it.

 

Stealth is the key to survival in nature.

 

This coyote, in the vicinity of the hawk nest, would find a hawk chick tasty

 

Accipiter cooperii are medium-sized hawks, native to North America.  They live and breed primarily in forests, preying on birds and small mammals. Adult pairs breed once a year, and live in the wild as long as 12 years.

 

Cooper’s Hawk info. 

 

It was back in mid-March when I began noticing the Cooper’s Hawk here every day.  Temperatures were in the 30s and 40s (F.), there was even snow. The hawk perched every day in the same bare-leafed oak tree. Quiet and still, it mostly watched.

 

Eventually the cold days gave way to spring, and leaves started to bud and unfurl on the hawk’s oak tree. The raptor apparently preferred bare trees, because he or she moved, began perching on a nearby dead pine tree.

 

Once in awhile a bold hummingbird would harass the hawk, rather ridiculously, scolding it to move on. But nothing ever happened.

 

Then in June things changed. The hawk moved from that favorite spot in the pine tree–began perching near the bird feeders, instead. There were close-calls when the hawk nearly got a pigeon or mourning dove; and more frequently we were finding signs of a kill, evidenced by gray dove feathers scattered in the yard.

 

California Quail

 

Then there was the breakfast incident.

 

We were eating breakfast outside when a terrified California quail, sounding his alarm call, flew by us. Just behind him, the Cooper’s Hawk sailed effortlessly by, gaining on the quail.

 

Quail are heavy ground birds and don’t fly much. Cooper’s Hawks are agile fliers, silent and fast, bearing down dramatically on their prey.  When they reach the prey, they capture it with the talons and squeeze the bird to death.

 

The two birds disappeared around a bend.

 

Ten minutes later, during tea and scones, the hawk flew over our heads with the plucked prey in his talons.

 

When a raptor is taking food away from the kill-site, it usually means there are hungry chicks waiting in the nest.

 

Cooper’s Hawk nest in madrone tree

 

It was the next day when I found the nest in the treetop, spotted the noisy chicks.

 

There were two chicks, and they were pretty big, nearly adult size. One was still in the nest; the other sat perched in a nearby tree. Neither could fly, but the older one could hop around.

 

Cooper’s Hawk fledgling, early July

A few weeks have passed and the nest is abandoned. But the chicks are still here.

 

The parents are quiet and hidden, there’s no evidence of them being around, but that’s the way it should be.

 

The chicks, well, they’re still learning. They hunt together, and I always hear them at dinnertime. The two siblings have high-pitched whistling calls, and they never stop making noise.

 

Instead of perching quietly and watching, they fly around conversing with one another through the trees. And yesterday they landed together on our deck railing.

 

We all have things to learn, even ferocious raptors.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander