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

 

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.

Pinhole-camera.svg

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

 

Angel Island, Yesterday and Today

Angel Island, SF Bay

This island in the middle of San Francisco Bay is a playground for residents and visitors, a wilderness for wildlife, and a California Historical Landmark revealing a rich history.

 

As it has been for centuries, the only way to get to Angel Island is by boat. Most people take the public ferry system; private boat access is also available. Ferry schedules vary by season, info below.

Angel Island Tiburon Ferry arriving at Angel Island, Tiburon in background

 

The boat ride is an adventure in itself, and sets the scene for a day of merriment. Notice the jellyfish photo at the end of the post–we saw it while on board in the Tiburon harbor.

 

Once on the island, most people hike or bike or take the tram to explore this 1.2 square mile (3.107 km2) island, usually staying just for the day. There is also camping, and some student and scout groups do overnight trips. Occasionally there are public events, like the upcoming marathon in June.

 

Ayala Cove, Angel Island

Links:

Wikipedia overview

Angel Island State Park, access and activities

Angel Island Conservancy, history and upcoming events

 

In addition to recreational outdoor activities, there are plenty of spots to picnic and admire the spectacular views.

Angel Island view, looking out at Alcatraz and SF skyline

Angel Island view, looking at Golden Gate Bridge

Angel Island has a diverse history.

 

Thousands of years ago, the Coast Miwok Native Americans inhabited much of the Bay Area, including Angel Island. They lived by hunting and gathering, and came to the island on boats made of reeds. They established camps, hunted and fished; typically occupying the island for the summer months.

 

In 1775 the first-known Spanish ship arrived in the main cove. The commander was Lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala, and the island’s main docking port is named after him. He named the island “Isla de los Angeles.”

 

Thereafter many different ships stopped in Ayala Cove to gather wood and replenish.

 

Western Bluebird on Angel Island

From “Two Years Before the Mast” by Richard Henry Dana, Jr.:

In 1835 the island was “covered with trees to the water’s edge.” He tells about his days of gathering wood on Angel Island, difficulties with the weather and tide in landing, frost in the night, and sleeping on a bed of wet logs.

 

“…before sunrise, in the grey of the morning, we had to wade off, nearly up to our hips in water, to load the skiff with the wood by arms-full.”

 

The seafarers called it “Wood Island.”

Richard Henry Dana, Jr. — 1842

 

Angel Island then became a Mexican Ranch, for a short time. For much of the 1800s, the island was government-owned, using the island for many purposes.

 

Mount Livermore

Angel Island, ca. 1880. Courtesy California Parks, http://www.150.parks.ca.gov

 

Located in the middle of the bay, with a 788-foot (240 m) mountain look-out, it was considered a good place for defending the Bay Area.

 

Artillery and military structures were built here for the American Civil War, the Spanish American War, and both world wars. Remnants of historic buildings remain on the island today.

 

There are Angel Island maps like this posted all over the island for hikers and bikers

By the 1950s, most military operations had ceased, but the U.S. Government still owned the island.

 

Then along came Caroline Livermore, a successful conservationist. She spearheaded the movement to raise funds and purchase the island from the government; turn it into a park.

Brown Creeper, Angel Island

 

It was in 1955 when Angel Island became a park, eventually leading to its current status as a California State Park. Angel Island’s highest peak is named after her.

Caroline Livermore

Caroline Sealy Livermore, 1885-1968. Courtesy California Parks, http://www.150.parks.ca.gov

 

Angel Island has been a park for over half a century. Many individuals, organizations, and civic services have worked diligently to protect and support this sweet island.

 

As we playfully de-board the boat, stepping onto the island for a day of fun, how lucky we are to have this park in the middle of the bay to enjoy the sea air, and give our minds the day off.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified

Jellyfish we saw in Tiburon Harbor from the ferry boat (ghostly image in near-center of photo)

 

Angel Island from Alcatraz

 

Underneath the Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, CA

Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge is always notable no matter how many times you’ve experienced it. Another extra special delight is going under the bridge.

 

Public tours, private charters, and privately-owned watercraft cruise beneath the orange span every day. Tourist or resident, we all like to visit the waters under this famous bridge.

I was on a birdwatching boat recently on the San Francisco Bay. Even though it was January, we had lucked out with the weather and the waters were calm and the sun was bright. Coastal bird flocks were our destination.

 

While still docked, the guide said, “I have a surprise for you.”

 

We were a boat-load of birders heading out to see what the herring were attracting. What could be more exciting than this?

 

“The Captain says the water is calm enough, we can go under the Golden Gate Bridge today.”

 

Everyone cheered.

 

When you’re on the bridge there is one prevailing sound: the traffic. Six lanes of fast-moving traffic and a constant thu-dud…thu-dud…thu-dud of vehicles speeding across the highway grates. It’s wonderful.

 

But when you’re under the bridge, all you hear are the wind and the water.

 

Harbor seals relaxed in the sun near their prime-real-estate beach caves. Western grebes, black oystercatchers, and western gulls were busy all around us.

Harbor Seals

From the water, the bridge is 220 feet (67 m) above you, and seems so far away.

 

The water under the bridge is turbulent, and there are always warnings to beware. The majority of the under-bridge adventurers are experienced boaters, but sometimes a few reckless individuals are there to catch a thrill, too.

Surfers at the Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco

There are many factors here at the conjunction of the San Francisco Bay and Pacific Ocean that make the water dangerous.

 

There are two different kinds of water. The Bay water is runoff from the surrounding land, it is earth-warmed and carries silt. Contrastingly, the Pacific Ocean is cold, nutrient-rich water stirred by upwellings and tides. The two different water types clash here and funnel through a narrow land constriction, thereby creating a tumultuous disturbance.

 

In addition, underneath the water is an ever-changing sea floor. Tectonics, dredging, tidal currents, and many other alterations have re-shaped the underwater landscape year after year. U.S. Geological Service images, click here.

Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands

Black Oystercatchers more interested in barnacles than the Bridge

Defunct military forts stand at each end of the Golden Gate Bridge, these are also good spots for getting a close-up underneath view. Fort Point and Fort Baker.  Both are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Golden Gate Bridge from Fort Point, San Francisco, California

Post I wrote about Fort Point. 

Golden Gate Bridge Facts

 

If you have ever visited this iconic bridge, you know the specialness to which I refer. We each leave a little bit of our heart in San Francisco.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay

 

Yacht club, Angel Island silhouetted in background

Otis Redding was watching the tides roll in on “Frisco Bay” in 1967, and here we are, fifty years later, still celebrating the tides of the San Francisco Bay.

 

At this time of year, a popular attraction and holiday tradition are the decorated boats. I noticed every night after Thanksgiving, increasing numbers of moored boats were colorfully lit.

Tiburon overview, the marina with decorated boats (center)

 

As we move further into December, the lighted boat parades kick off the holiday season. San Francisco’s boat parade is tonight on Fisherman’s Wharf, we went to the Sausalito Lighted Boat Parade last weekend.

 

It was a really fun event. There was music, decorations, a judging panel for the parade entries, kids’ activities, and an after-party with food, drink, and dancing. Various boat tours were offered as well. After the parade, fireworks capped off the night.

 

Athena and I and our friends were content five piers away from the blaring music, on a small pier with a front-row view. It was the houseboat pier; houseboat dwellers use it to ferry to their floating houses.

 

Before the parade started,  I was entertained by the houseboat dwellers bantering, talking. They stood in the dark, surrounded by a circle of small, inflatable boats tied around the pier.

Sausalito Boat Parade

One man went back and forth numerous times with several full backpacks. Our little wooden pier trembled with each of his heavy steps, as if we were all on a boat together. I think he had just done his laundry ashore. When he paddled away into the dark night, his tiny boat was loaded down, and the bay water was precariously close to seeping in.

 

That night the harbor hosted houseboat dwellers, parade watchers, and yacht owners…we were an eclectic group. A drone buzzed over our heads.

 

Then the parade started. Some boats were brightly lit, even gaudy, some were elegant and simple. Some had a theme, like a circus, or lighted marine mammals; others were covered with every light and bauble they could find with no particular theme. There were about 40 or 50 lit boats, and they were all beautiful as they slowly cruised by.

Sausalito Boat Parade

One of my favorites was a boisterous boat brimming with people, colored lights, and a mariachi band.

 

Although the moving boats were a delight to observe, nighttime photography was nearly impossible. So a few nights later Athena and I visited two yacht club marinas to photograph the festooned boats anchored in the harbor.

 

Here was the real richness of the night sea: the sound of clanking masts and sloshing water, rippling reflections, the briny aroma, the docks covered with coiled ropes.

 

That night there were no parties or celebrations, just boats quietly bobbing.

 

Otis Redding was living on a houseboat in Sausalito when he wrote the lyrics for “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay.” He, too, probably used a small boat to get to his houseboat, transporting his laundered clothes.

 

All of us, in our different lifestyles, years apart…we sit on the docks of the bay, watching the ships roll in and the tides roll out.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Otis Redding singing “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”

Otis Redding (2).png

Otis Redding, 1967, courtesy Wikipedia

 

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

 

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