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.



The Glory of Spring

Shooting Stars

One of my favorite places to be in spring is home, especially in April as the earth is waking up. Here is a sampling of what we have seen in the past two weekends of this springtime celebration.



Northern California had enormous precipitation this past winter; devastating for some communities, but plentiful for all. As a result, we have had abundant new growth.


While there have been many gorgeous flowering fruit trees and landscaped plants in town, I especially love the spring show in the forest mountains.  Wildflowers have begun their emergence, trees express their accelerated growth, and the wildlife have new goals.


Indian Warrior


Violet-green Swallow, male; newly arrived for the spring

The bird populations change, too.


Year-round birds start to sing differently, busy with the activity of attracting a mate and starting a family.


California Quail, a year-round bird

Migratory birds that wintered here are leaving for the season, headed north to nest in their homeland. Hermit Thrushes are gone now, and every day I hear a few less Kinglets.

Black-headed Grosbeak (male); a highly anticipated spring arrival

Other migratory birds that left us in fall, are gradually returning for the warm months. The Bluebirds and Violet-green Swallows have come back, vying for the nest boxes as usual; the Olive-Sided Flycatchers have not yet returned, and I haven’t heard the California Thrasher either…but they will come along when it gets a little warmer.


They all remind me that cold, dreary days really are going to recede.


And all I need to hear is the first “spic,” to know that the Black-headed Grosbeak has returned.


Pacific Chorus Frog

Then there’s the nightly symphonics of the Pacific Chorus Frog at the neighbor’s pond. This little frog, about the size of my thumb, in concert with thousands of others, creates such a cacophony in the dark!


Lately I’ve been hearing Great Horned Owls dueting at night. Click here for this owl’s call.


Wild Violet

During the drought, some wildflowers didn’t bloom, some oaks didn’t produce acorns. It is their way of conserving energy.


This year the wildflowers are abundant. But true to wildflowers, they come and go with each day, depending on the severity of the wind and rain.


We can have a big patch of Indian Warriors one day, and a few days later they have already started melting back into the earth.


Miner’s Lettuce

Some of the flowers are bright and bold, others are subtle, like Miner’s Lettuce.


And the poison oak–although it is beautiful in shiny new, red leaves, is already chest-high in some places, and as daunting as ever. This plant is virulent every year regardless of drought.

Poison Oak

Western Bluebird (male)








Western Fence Lizard

Every season I am reminded of the  heavenly glories of life on earth. But the hope and brightness of spring, well, it a supreme pleasure.


Have a happy weekend, my friends~~


All photos by Athena Alexander.

Easter Bunny




Summer Successes

Black-headed Grosbeak (male), California

Black-headed Grosbeak (male), California

Although we are still experiencing high temperatures where I live, the northern hemisphere has assumed an autumn angle, and the new season is underway.


Here are a few glimpses of our northern California summer wildlife.


Violet-green Swallow, male, California

Violet-green Swallow, male, California

The black-headed grosbeaks arrived from Mexico for the summer, as usual.  We had several dozen pair and they produced many young.


Numerous other bird species nested here as well.


We were especially aware of the pacific-slope flycatchers because one pair nested right outside our back door.


Day 15, flycatcher nestlings

Day 15, flycatcher nestlings

They had two broods in a row.


The California quail were a special treat.  They are stealthy when their chicks are born, because as ground birds they are extremely vulnerable.


California Quail, California

California Quail, California

They do, however, take undercover paths to our feeder and water sources, and on two great days we saw a dozen chicks in their puffball stage.  No photos of that, but a memory so great I smile as I type.


Reptiles and amphibians were suitably abundant, and mammals too.


Coyote, California

Coyote, California

We were thrilled when coyote showed up repeatedly, because for the last five years they haven’t been here.


On my morning walks there are a few wild plum bushes that belong to no one, miles away from any structure.


plums-caI try a plum every year, and this year they were especially tasty.  So every day I would enjoy one as I walked.  (Too small for baking.)


Once they had ripened, I noticed deer tracks and found that the deer were eating the low fruit, but the high fruit remain untouched.  Thereafter I would eat my one, and then pick five high ones, and set them on the ground.


The next day they would all be eaten and I would find the pits.


Canyon Bat, Calif.

Canyon Bat, Calif.

From the tracks and scat, I discovered that mostly native fox were enjoying the plums. This was a thrill.


All the summer residents have gone, but I still see numerous bats every dawn.


Gray Squirrel

Gray Squirrel

The winter bird migrants have not arrived yet, but we have lots of madrone and toyon trees loaded with berries awaiting their arrival.


The earth keeps spinning, the seasons keep shifting, and every day is a new gift.


Western Fence Lizard

Western Fence Lizard

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander


Western Skink

Western skink, Calif.

Western skink, Calif.

A lizard found on every continent except Antartica, there are more than 1,500 species of skinks.


Where I live in northern California, we have the western skink species, measuring 4-8 inches (10-12 cm) long, including the tail.


A common species, the western skink occurs in western U.S. and Canada, see map below.   More info here and here.


True to their lizard nature, they like to bask in the sun; and have an insectivorous diet including spiders, moths, beetles and other insects.


As experts at burrowing, they are not often seen.  With a long list of predators, Plestiodon skiltonianus are most safe underground, or under rocks and leaf litter.


When attacked, the skink can perform autotomy, i.e., self amputation, of the tail appendage.  This mechanism distracts the predator long enough for the skink to escape.  The tail continues wriggling while the rest of the reptile has escaped.  Eventually the tail will regenerate, though it is sometimes deformed.



Western skink, California

The western skink has an especially beautiful tail, an azure feature that is often described as “neon.”  As the skink ages, the color can fade.


Their movement more closely resembles a snake than a lizard, because their appendages are very short.  Winding and swift, they undulate across the earth in a speedy blur.


Arid summer days in California, where there is no humidity, produce dry leaf debris on our forest floors.  After the sun has been up for an hour or more, the reptiles begin their basking.


On my morning walks when I hear a soft rustle in the leaf debris, I always stop to see what will scurry out…hoping to see the dazzling blue of this shy and resplendent creature.


Plestiodon skiltonianus distribution.png

Plestiodon skiltonianus range map. Courtesy Wikipedia

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander


Anniversary of a Whoppin’ Earthquake

Loma Prieta, Marina District, cars , 11.25.89

Loma Prieta, Marina District, cars , 11.25.89

I looked out the high-rise work window and saw a huge dust cloud and a freshly-fallen pile of bricks.  Then a first floor plate glass window exploded.


This week is the anniversary, I’m celebrating survival and human resolve.  That day, October 17, 1989, I was working in San Francisco’s Financial District.   When the earthquake hit, the cubicle walls were rocking so violently there was nothing solid to guide me to the doorway.  File cabinet drawers flew open, desktops emptied–so much screaming and shaking.


Marina District, SF, 11.25.89

Marina District, SF, 11.25.89

But is it really safe to go outside?  The answer came quickly when I smelled fire inside the building.


I was sandwiched in a mob of shocked colleagues, doing our best to exit.  But it was slow going for the hundreds of us, due to a bottleneck jam where a three foot wall medallion had crashed to the floor.  We kept walking and made it to the sidewalk.


There were no cell phones then, and all electrical was down.  All public transportation was unavailable.   Emergency professionals were tending to gas leaks and fires.  Glass, bricks, and heavy falling objects were a danger.  Aftershocks and more crashing buildings were anticipated.  Thousands of us wandered down the middle of Market Street.  My partner and I were headed on foot to our neighborhood, several miles away.


After about a half hour, a natural order started to develop.  It was odd, but it was order.  There were a few homeless people directing traffic, for instance, and folks with pick-up trucks offered rides to anyone who wanted to hop on.  (We did.)


At that point we only knew to get home, out of the chaos that was everywhere.  Some people were calm, but some people were hysterical.  Some blocks seemed safe, other blocks were rubble, the dust still rising.  Soon it would be dark, and it would be best to be home…if there was still a home.


Cypress St. Viaduct, Oakland, courtesy Wikipedia

We did not know parts of the Bay Bridge and Nimitz Freeway had collapsed, people had been killed.  We did not know the earthquake had interrupted the World Series and all the country knew.  All we knew was what was in front of us.


That night there was not a spark of light across the entire city landscape.  There was an occasional six inch glow from a  battery-operated television on front steps, where we could get a glimpse of the news.


With each new day we all learned more as we talked in the long grocery lines, or to neighbors on the street.  Everyone became neighbors as we shared news, worried about loved ones, considered alternatives.  But then another aftershock would hit, and logic and plans were  lost in the jolt.


Marina District, SF, 11.25.89

Marina District, SF, 11.25.89

Later they called it the Loma Prieta Earthquake.   Measured 6.9 on the Richter scale.  It would be weeks before the human toll was tallied at 63 deaths and 3,757 injuries; and years before all the buildings and bridges would be torn down or repaired.


Later I read there had been looting, and brawls, but that’s not what I saw.  What I saw were people sharing what they had:  their pick-up truck, television, radio, flashlight, sofa, comfort, sweet stories.  What I saw were scared people being courageous and helpful and patient in a very trying situation.


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander, unless noted


Flycatcher Lessons

Pacific-slope flycatcher eggs

Pacific-slope flycatcher eggs

Here in northern California right now many birds are being born.  Thinking back on all the years I have watched more and more baby birds coming into this world, I realized I have learned some important life lessons from them.  Take this pacific-slope flycatcher.  For 8 years in a row the female has built her mossy nest on our front door beam.  Almost every year chicks have hatched and fledged; but it’s different every year, and some years are harder than others (Life Lesson #1). 

Here’s what else I’ve learned: 

Pacific-slope flycatcher mother

Pacific-slope flycatcher mother


#2.  Home is where the heart is.  This little bird is only about 5 inches long but she manages to fly 1,900 miles from Mexico to our front porch year after year.  I’m sure this couple is just as happy when they reach our porch beam, as we are, the human couple, when we hear that first seet of the spring.  But then one day in late summer they will be gone, off to their winter home.

#3.  We get by with a little help from our friends.  In 2005 the nest was an absolute mess, it was too small for the brood and poorly constructed.  When temperatures hit one hundred one day, while we were at work a chick either fell or got pushed out of the nest.  When I came home I found a drooping, half-dead, panting chick on the door step.  I brought the chick a bottle cap of water.

#4.  Diet is everything.  I watched that little guy revive from a few sips of water and was so encouraged that I decided to find him some food.  Hmmm, I thought, a flycatcher must eat flies.  Armed with a flyswatter, I found a big fly, swatted it dead, and hand delivered it to the panting chick.  Don’t you know, within an hour the fly was consumed, and the flycatcher’s little head had lifted.  We slipped him back into the nest and life was restored.

Pacific-slope flycatcher nestlings

Pacific-slope flycatcher nestlings

#5.  Tenacity is critical.  One year I heard a thump outside the front door and found the nest on the deck, four little chicks were frantically scattering.  They looked like those wind-up chicks in novelty stores at Easter time.  It would have been comical if there weren’t four lives at stake.  One chick dropped between the deck slats, fell down below where snakes reside.  With a long arm, quick action and the concerted effort of my partner and me, we managed to gather the chicks.  But with the drop, the nest had become bottomless.  Fortunately, the year before we had installed a bird platform beside the beam, so we returned this rumpled mass to the platform.  All the birds survived.

All of us living, breathing beings keep going.  Another lesson:  life goes on.  What have you learned from the creatures around you?

Pacific-slope flycatcher adult singing of life

Pacific-slope flycatcher adult singing of life

Unrattled by a Rattler

Western Rattlesnake

Western Rattlesnake

Last Tuesday I found this rattlesnake outside my back door in the morning and outside my front door in the afternoon.  Saw the same individual at the front door again on Wednesday. 


Here in northern California, all winter long they stay burrowed in the earth enjoying a protected subterranean sleeping life while us mammals endure the rain and chilly temperatures.  Then in April or May, depending how warm and dry it is, they come out looking for food and a mate to get the new season underway.  This is when we see them, and they’re frisky, active, and prevalent.  This time of year can be unnerving, but if you learn how to cohabit with this magnificent serpent you’re fine.  After these two spring months pass we don’t see them again except for an occasional surprise encounter. 


This is a venomous viper, so it works best to learn their patterns and boundaries and be respectful.  Some people around here kill every rattlesnake they see, but to me that translates they are afraid of it.  We have lived on this property 11 years and there have always been rattlesnakes here, but we have never killed one.  Have never had an incident of getting bit ever.  It is a symbiotic relationship, which goes on a lot in nature if you allow it.  We don’t bother the rattlers, they don’t bother us, and they keep our mouse population blessedly in check. 


When we moved here the mice were a problem.  Then we found out the previous owner killed every rattler.  Now, the only time the mice are a problem is in the early spring when they want to build nests under the hood of our cars.  The snakes haven’t woken up yet.  We have to use mouse traps under the hood because, let’s face it, you can’t have mice eating away your filters and wires.  But once the snakes are awake the mouse traps go back in the shed until next spring. 


The western rattlesnake, pictured here, lives in all the western states of the U.S.; this individual is in a sub-species called Northern Pacific and resides in western CA as well as WA, OR and ID.  They like dry, warm habitats.  This one I saw was the first sighting of the season and it was hidden in grass so I couldn’t see the rattle.  I had my foot in mid-air to step onto a cinderblock, when I noticed something inside the cinderblock.   The sun reflected shininess off of a reptile head.  I thought it was a harmless lizard.  Then when it didn’t scurry away like a lizard I paused and stepped back.  Its forked tongue shot out at me, sensing me as I sensed him.  Even though the rattle was hidden, I knew it was a rattlesnake by the triangular-shaped head.  I moved back to safety, observed from a distance with my binoculars, and saw why it hadn’t moved.  It had just eaten something pretty big, couldn’t move until he did some digesting.  The center of his body was widely misshapen and stretched out several inches wider than the rest of the body.  Through the binoculars I saw light-colored fur beside him and realized he had just eaten a chipmunk.  The chipmunks like to hang out in that little corner…or at least they did. 


No other viper on earth has rattles.  The rattles are loosely interlocking segments at the end of the tail.  Each year when they shed their skin they grow a new rattle.  But they don’t necessarily have one rattle for every year of life because a youth sometimes adds 3 or 4 segments in a year, and older snakes don’t always add a new rattle.  This individual is probably 8 or 10 years old.  I try not to get so close that I get rattled at, because that’s the danger sign.  Once my partner and I each had huge armloads of weeds we were carrying and we didn’t see the fella; he rattled at us and we immediately stopped, stepped back, gave him his space.  He didn’t retreat so we did.  It is a very cool sound, a hollow clatter, something like a dry gourd. 


We’ll be careful in the next few months especially—kick a rock or fallen limb before lifting it, keep the grass short where walking.  Mostly it’s about being attentive.  Being attentive is a remarkable tool for any species, and being respectful goes a long way too.  Happy Spring!