Cormorants and More, Richardson Bay

Cormorants in San Francisco Bay

Because they are common and widespread, sometimes I take cormorants for granted.  Then one day I found myself living on the San Francisco Bay, in temporary housing, and I witnessed some unique behavior.

 

In the Bay Area the double-crested cormorant is the prevalent species. They spend their day swimming and flying in search of fish, and can often be seen diving underwater for prey. They are excellent divers, and have webbed feet for fast underwater propulsion.

 

Wikipedia Double-crested Cormorant

 

On my first day here, standing on the balcony overlooking the bay, I noticed a very large flock of cormorants down at the water. There were hundreds of the black sea birds, and they were synchronistically flying in the same direction. They swirled together in a great dance, slightly above the water’s surface.

 

Most of us have observed individual cormorants on land, spreading their wings, drying out. But this enormous flock all swooping together was new to me.

I had many other tasks to contend with, while we sort out the remains of our fire-damaged property, so I was soon off to something else. But throughout the week I continued to notice this phenomenon. I was seeing it almost every day, and always in the early morning.

Cormorants, SF Bay, Streets of San Francisco in background

Cormorants are colonial nesters, and at night they roost in large groups. From the balcony I noticed they have a favorite sea wall, where they congregate. When they take off in the morning, they often do so together.

 

Then I learned why they fly together:  for better fishing.

 

Although they do not always flock in groups this large, when it does occur, they form a line. The line of birds, close to the water, follow the fish underwater and chase them. More cormorants opportunistically join the flock, sometimes thousands.

 

They often fly in a “V” shape and there is a hierarchy to the front line; sometimes there are hundreds, sometimes just a dozen. They surge and swoosh and make abrupt directional changes, always following the fish underwater.

 

If the fish escape the flying predators, the cormorants quickly disperse.

 

But if the cormorants are triumphant and succeed in snatching the fish, then there is much splashing.

 

Ornithological Study on the Cormorant Fishing Activity 

 

Double-crested Cormorant

I went down to the water one morning this week to photograph the big flocks. I didn’t find the huge flocks, but I watched thousands of cormorants heading out for a day of fishing.

 

And while I was photographing the cormorants, I spotted a sea lion. I was watching the sea lion, waiting for it to re-surface after a dive, when the most marvelous thing happened.

 

A whale surfaced right in front of me. It gave the characteristic sigh sound, of breathing air, and breached the water’s surface. I enjoyed one second of seeing the whale’s barnacled back, and then it disappeared. Based on the size and color, and since it is their migration time, I am quite certain it was a gray whale.

 

These are a few of the riches of Richardson Bay, a marine sanctuary on the northern edge of the San Francisco Bay. I’m going to be here for at least three months, and am looking forward to sharing more with you.

 

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted

Double-crested Cormorants in Richardson Bay, SF Bay. Photo: Richard Hinz

 

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Eucalyptus in the Bay Area

Eucalyptus trees, eucalyptus globulus, Berkeley, CA

A tree that is native to Australia, the eucalyptus also thrives in the San Francisco Bay Area. This has been a fiercely contested topic for over thirty years.

 

I am still a vagabond after the fires last month destroyed parts of our home, spent this past weekend at a friend’s in the Berkeley/East Bay area. This part of the Bay Area has many eucalyptus trees. One day I took a walk through a large cemetery. It was filled with eucalyptus trees, and I was reminded of the controversy.

 

Some people like the eucalyptus trees. The pungent fragrance, exotic multi-colored trunks, and tall stature are pleasing. The tree produces a sweet nectar that draws hummingbirds, and other birds. It has seed pods and seasonal flowers, and elegant pointy leaves. It has beneficial medicinal value, too.

Eucalyptus tree trunk, Berkeley, CA. Ground debris has been cleaned up by groundskeepers.

 

I am always happy to see the flocks of yellow-rumped warblers that invariably visit groves of eucalyptus. The cheerful birds dance around in the tall treetops.

 

Other people despise the tree. The bark sheds in long strips, and sometimes limbs drop off too, making it a danger. Bark and pods and leaves litter the ground. Fire Departments all over California curse the flammability of the tree.

 

Moreover, a non-native invasive, they can overtake the native flora, and corresponding fauna as well. Due to its ability to readily re-sprout, it is nearly impossible to fully eradicate without use of strong pesticides.

 

Lawsuits, protests, campaigns, and debates have sparked the community for decades.

 

Eucalyptus leaves, Berkeley, CA

 

Atlantic magazine article about the debate. 

 

As with much of Bay Area history, the California Gold Rush of the 1850s started the trend when the population dramatically increased. Lumber was needed to build housing. By the early 1900s entrepreneurs, like Frank C. Havens, a real estate developer, were certain this fast-growing tree was the perfect solution for quick lumber.  He imported eucalyptus seedlings from Australia, and planted millions of trees all over the Bay Area.

 

Soon after, he discovered that the wood was too young for lumber use. The wood bent, cracked, and shrank.

 

In today’s bigger picture, there are 700+ species of eucalyptus, native to Australia and surroundings. There they call it “the gum tree.” Gum trees are everywhere. The leaves are the koala’s main diet.

 

A farmer and his dog, Kangaroo Isl., Aus.; in a grove of gum trees

 

One day while in Australia, we were looking for koalas in this grove (above). A ranger had told us we would find koalas here, and we had spent an hour searching for them, but found nothing. Then a farmer drove up (we were on his property), asked us if we needed help. We told him what we were doing, he leaned out of the front window, pointed up and showed us three koalas sleeping in the trees.

 

Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree (Blue-winged Kookaburra, Queensland, Australia)

 

Eucalyptus globulus, also known as the Tasmanian Blue Gum, is the prevalent species in the Bay Area. They usually range in height from 98-180 feet tall (30-55 m).

 

The get-rich-quick themes of yesteryear have caused problems for native plants of today. All over the world there are theories and plans for eradicating invasive non-natives, making more hospitable space for native species; not just for eucalyptus trees, but for many plants and animals.

 

But as I stood underneath the Berkeley eucalyptus trees this past weekend, I filled my lungs with the refreshing aroma, and thanked them for their strength and beauty.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo, Aus., in gum tree

 

Coming Home

Our road

After a half month of mandatory absence, evacuating in a blur under raining ash and advancing fires, residents were allowed entry into their homes this week. One of the most disturbing days of my life.

 

We all have disturbing days. The longer we live, the more pain and sorrow we collect, watching loved ones leave this world, and worse. But I’ll not go into the details of that deeply painful day, I’ll let the photos tell that story.

Our road

This section of forest, above, used to be my “favorite maple” section. Big Leaf Maple trees, they wore big yellow lobed leaves every autumn, and bright green new leaves each spring.

 

There’s a sunrise unfolding as I write this from my temporary housing. It’s a stunning view of the San Francisco Bay, I’ll show you in a minute.

 

We lost all our out-buildings (three), but not the house. All tools, winter clothes, luggage, some office equipment; plus irreplaceable items like the Christmas ornaments we have collected for 30 years from all over the world, and 40 years of my journals.

 

Before and After of Athena’s Work Studio.

Before:

Studio “Before”

After:

Studio “After”

 

This week we’re staying on an inlet of the bay; and as we file claims, cancel accounts and trips, and inquire into temporary apartments, the tide flows in, and the tide flows out.

 

I’ve counted 27 bird species here this week, and one day a sea lion came to visit.

 

Before and After of Our Electrical Panel. The “before” photo was originally taken for the bird nest tucked in the center. A Pacific-slope Flycatcher raised four chicks there in 2006.

Before:

Electrical Panel “Before.” Flycatcher nest in center

After:

Electrical Panel “After”

 

We cannot return to our house for a few months until the electrical, plumbing, and septic systems are fixed. We were up there twice this week. On Monday, the first day, we walked around in goggles and face masks, wandered from one melted mass to another. The charred trees wavered overhead in the wind, threatening to topple.

 

On Thursday, when we returned, we found five men from the power company sitting in our driveway, one was eating potato chips. It was their lunchtime and they were there to cut down trees for the new power line.

 

San Francisco skyline and the Bay Bridge at dawn this week

 

Every day here in our Airbnb there’s a snowy egret that cruises in, and a kingfisher who arrives and departs with a rattle and a swoop. Willets linger on the rocks. Three Canada Geese spend every night here, and every morning they honk as they lift their big bodies into the sky.

 

Each day brings a new dawn, no matter where we are.  And the longer we live, the more glorious sunrises we have.

 

Willets, Richardson Bay

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Gracious thanks for all your warm comments, encouragement, and support, my friends and loved ones.

 

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.

 

 

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).

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Fighting Fire in San Francisco

The San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 1906 claimed over 3,000 lives. Even the fire chief, Dennis T. Sullivan, was fatally wounded that day when the chimney of a neighboring building collapsed on him.

 

The earthquake and subsequent fires, though devastating, shaped the city for future safety and fire prevention.

 

That day, 90% of the destruction occurred after the initial 7.8 earthquake, in fires. There were over 30 fires, destroying approximately 25,000 buildings on 490 city blocks.  Complicated by ruptured water mains and quaking disasters all over the Bay Area, the city’s conflagration lasted three days, levelled 80% of the city.

 

Wikipedia 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.

 

The hydrant that saved a neighborhood in 1906

Over a century has passed since then, and residents are often assured there will never be anything so catastrophic again. An annual celebration of the survival of the city occurs every April 18 at 5:12 a.m., the time the 1906 earthquake hit.

 

A post I wrote last year about the celebration: Celebrating Survival. 

 

Protective laws and regulations, neighborhood preparedness, and numerous preventative systems are in place.

 

If you drive around San Francisco, for example, every once in awhile you will find an intersection with a large circle made of bricks. There are 177 of them. Measuring 32 feet (9.75M) in diameter, the circle indicates there is a huge underground concrete vault filled with 75,000 gallons (284,000 L) of water; reserved for any emergency.  (Photo at end.)

 

 

San Francisco Painted Ladies

With neighborhood houses typically built abutting each other, in a region that only gets rainfall during half the year (if that), this city relies heavily on their fire department.

 

San Francisco is only 47 square miles in size, yet it has 51 neighborhood fire stations. SFFD Wikipedia info. 

Fireboat

 

I researched residential fires in San Francisco for my recently published mystery novel. I learned a lot about the devastation of fire. I visited fire stations, peered in, took notes, talked to firefighters.

First fire engine built in Calif., from 1855. Courtesy SFFD.

One day I visited San Francisco’s Fire Museum. It is a small add-on section to a busy fire station, located in the Pacific Hts. neighborhood. Museum info here.

 

That day they were getting ready for a public event, and the station was lively with firefighters moving fire trucks, preparing the space for visitors.

 

 

The glass case displays were loaded with memorabilia, old equipment and hoses, and old photos. There were numerous old trucks, shiny and in mint condition.

 

About a dozen people were moving a big old truck, and as they did, they proudly reminisced about using that truck to help in “the Loma Prieta” (large 1989 earthquake) when all the newer trucks were out fighting fires.

 

I stood on the sideline, intrigued by it all, staying out of the way. They talked in a language that was filled with codes and details of which I was unfamiliar. They moved with swiftness and strength, and worked together in comradery and unity.

 

I have more respect than ever for firefighters. They carry a heavy responsibility, these warriors of fire; and they do so with grace and pride.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified

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This intersection has an underground water vault. Photo: Travis Grathwell, localwiki.org

 

Earth Day Success Story

Bodega Bay

When you look at this photo, and then the next one, you can see what Bodega Bay is in 2017 (color photo), compared to what it was about to become in 1963 (B/W photo)–a nuclear power plant.

 

HOLE IN THE HEAD: BEFORE

PGandE Nuclear Reactor Plant Project, Bodega Bay, CA. 1963. Photo by Karl Kortum, Courtesy Sonoma Co. Museum

If it hadn’t been for a determined group of ruffled citizens, outraged residents, and concerned scientists, this sparkling northern California bay would be filled today with backwater from a nuclear reactor site…or worse.

 

Great Egret fishing at Bodega Bay

 

It was the perfect location for a nuclear reactor plant, slated to be the biggest nuclear generator in history. Requiring abundant water to moderate the internal heat of fission, the nuclear plant was positioned to tower over the Pacific Ocean where it could use the ocean waters as a convenient coolant.

Western Gull, Bodega Bay

California’s powerful utility company, PG and E, had already applied for the permit, dug the pit, installed rebar, and set up for construction. Having begun the project in 1958, the power company was gaining momentum by the early 1960s.

Bodega Bay oceanside

Then came the heroes. There were many of them–they changed the course of history in Bodega Bay. Harold Gilliam, Karl and Bill Kortum, Joel Hedgpeth, David Pesonen, Doris Sloan, Hazel Mitchell, and Rose Gaffney — to name a few.

 

There was also a geophysicist, Pierre Saint-Amand, who did seismology tests and concluded that building a nuclear plant atop the active San Andreas Fault was a terrible idea.

 

These people didn’t know it then, but they were early environmentalists.

 

They spread the word. Hearings, protests, surveys, investigations, and lobbying ensued.

 

In 1964 the power company withdrew its application and left the site.  Read the full story here.

 

Bodega Bay Harbor Marina

Killdeer and seaweed at Bodega Bay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Originally it was called Campbell Cove, at Bodega Head; then it was touted as Atomic Park. When the utility company dug the 70-foot hole, the new name became Hole in the Head. And it’s still called that today.

 

Bodega Bay Hole in the Head

Soon the hole filled up with rainwater, and native shrubs and plants began to grow. Today, over half a century later, it is a tranquil little pond.

 

One day I stood there and counted five different species of raptors overhead at one time. The raptors like the updraft from the hillside.

 

Bodega Bay clamming

Bodega Bay and the Pacific Ocean host a vast wealth of marine mammals year-round, including harbor seal pups and migrating gray whales. Clean and cool waters are lively with invertebrates, crustaceans, salmon and steelhead; Dungeness crab are the holiday draw.

 

Marbled Godwit

Over 200 bird species come to Bodega Bay, including migrating shorebirds like the marbled godwit; they spend the winter months here on the Pacific Flyway.

 

Before there even was an Earth Day, or anything called environmentalists, here lived a courageous community who fought to keep the earth intact.  Fortunately for us, they won.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted.

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bodega head

Bodega Bay, Pacific Ocean. Photo: Richard James, coastodian.org, courtesy Bay Nature Mag.