Guest Speaker: Megan Prelinger 
7pm, Monday April 18th, 2016
FREE Green Apple Books on the Park, 1231 9th Ave, San Francisco, CA 

In 2010, Megan Prelinger and collaborators Rick Prelinger and Stacy Kozakavich were invited by the Exploratorium to develop exhibits for the Museum’s planned Bay Observatory gallery. The Bay Observatory opened to the public in 2013, featuring dozens of research-based exhibits that combine the Museum’s legacy imperative to integrate art and science for the benefit of public understanding with a fresh imperative to explore the waterfront and the natural environment. In response to the Exploratorium’s prompt to “animate the Library in the service of understanding San Francisco Bay,” Megan and her collaborators created a series of graphic atlases that explain that histories of the watersheds and the shorelines, both natural history and the built environment. Watersheds and Shorelines are two of five atlases that also include Islands and the two urban atlases, San Francisco and East Bay. All are installed as permanent exhibits in the Bay Observatory, along with a public access mini library of Bay Area landscape history. In her April 18 presentation, Megan will show slides and discuss the research and outcomes behind the Watersheds atlas and the Shorelines atlas. Watersheds traces the flow of water from the mountains to the mouth of the Bay, and Shorelines traces the landscape of the water’s edge of both San Pablo Bay and San Francisco Bay.

Megan Prelinger is a cultural historian and naturalist. She is co-founder along with Rick Prelinger of the Prelinger Library and architect of its information design. The library is an independent landscape-based research library in San Francisco that has been open to the public since 2004. She is the author of several books, most recently Inside the Machine: Art and Invention in the Electronic Age (W.W. Norton, 2015), and the 2013 and 2014 Watersheds, Shorelines, and Islands historical atlases, all permanent exhibits in the Exploratorium’s Bay Observatory gallery.

The good news is that I’ve finally heard back from the Randall, and they would be happy to have our lecture series.

The bad news is that it is no longer free. Not that it was ever actually free — it’s just that previously, they just took our door money that we collected the night of no matter the amount. The Randall (of SF Parks and Rec) want to move to a more business-like relationship, which I can understand.

On the face of it, it is not that much: $127 for the 3 hours we would occupy the building (accounting for a little setup time, a little take down time, and a little socializing).

Typically, we averaged probably around $60/lecture which is obviously not enough to cover that time, let alone the measly speakers fee that we afforded (~50), nor the $90 that I spent 2 times a year to do some mail marketing, nor the occasional Facebook ad (which I self-funded).

Most speakers had never really expected the fee, but we still need a little more nonetheless. The easiest solution might be to move to a paid ticketed system and charge for something like a $5 or $10 dollar ticket, or something sliding scale. To do that I might need a way to be more than just a guy running a lecture series, but a small organization (with a non-profit sponsor) that can claim 501C(3) status.

If you’ve any ideas, please send them my way!

A Long Hiatus

I apologize for the long hiatus of events. Last year was a difficult one in many respects, and it ended no better.

Furthermore, the anticipated opening of the Randall is still a ways in the distance (trouble with electrical from what I glean from my source), September at earliest. Having my hopes pinned on a March return and having not secure other space,  I’m now recalibrating my thoughts on the matter.

Please stay tuned for future events.

If in the meantime, you are looking at getting your natural history on, I highly recommend the good folks at California Center for Natural History (CCNH) and the citizen science organizers of the California Academy of Science.

One of the things I have loved about running the San Francisco Natural History series is getting to know a bunch of our audience over time. It’s been a little sad for me — since we have not been at the Randall, or had as regular of meetings — that I have not seen many of them of late.

Today, I learned in Jake Sigg’s newsletter that one of our regulars will not be returning. Lurilla Harris died Thursday, June 9th, tragically killed by a Paratransit bus shortly after she had disembarked from one (more details are linked at the bottom).


Lurilla Harris is not a person one would likely forget once you met her. She came in to the Randall with her walker, often early, with a big hat, and settled into a seat in the first row of the theater. She often came in cracking jokes as she said hello to us, the speakers, and her other friends and acquaintances among the audience. She was not shy of offering her opinion (she was active in many communities — and her voice will partially live on in the minutes of many a San Francisco community meetings), asking for more details, or just telling the speaker that they should speak up.

She might leave a little early to be on time for the bus that came to pick her up, and might on occasion fall asleep, but I was amazed by how many times she was there. It seems especially sad to me that the service that she used so often, and that brought her to our talks, was ultimately the cause of her death.

I can only hope that after 80 years (she was 86 when she died) that I will still have half her curiosity, humor, and drive to make things better.

To learn a little bit more about Lurilla, there is a little biography from an 1987 issue of the Bernal Journal of which she was an editor: Lurilla harris wears a lot of hats. The SDA also remembers her. There’s more about her death in the SF Examiner (there are more detailed accounts elsewhere, but I could not bear to post them).

She will be missed.

A memorial will be held for Lurilla on Tuesday, July 19, 2016, Noon to 2 pm, at the Unitarian Universalist Church, 1187 Franklin Street, in the Martin Luther King room.

I unfortunately will be out of the country that day, but hope some from our naturalist community make it out to help remember her.


Joan Hamilton joined us on March 22nd at The Rotary Nature Center in Oakland. You can read her article on the fire and its after effects on Bay Nature Magazine’s website and other related articles. All with more details and better pictures than my summary below.


Investigating the after effects of the Morgan fire on Mount Diablo was the best article assignment Hamilton said she has ever had. For two years (and another year on now) it brought her to Mount Diablo to witness what happens after a fire here in California. She had been working in Perkin’s Canyon on an audio guide, but now that project was literally toast. But Mount Diablo has a fire interval of 40 to 70 years, so this was pretty much a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study the effects of fire in-depth.

“Nature is pulling back the curtain. Let the play begin. We’ll see who shows up and gives the best performance.”
— Nomad Ecology botanist Heath Bartosh

The fire started on September 8th 2013 when a young man doing target practice hit a rock which sparked a grass fire which then lit a grey pine and then from then took off through the mountain.

Joan visited a few days after the fire, and the ground was still smoking, oak leaves were toasted, meadows were black, and the chaparral burnt. They found themselves being bit on the necks and hands by beetles a species that firefighters know well. The beetles only show up after fire, looking to lay their eggs in the smoldering trees. Apparently, way back mid-20th-century, used to show up at Cal games, drawn to cigarette smoke.

The fire had gone clear to the top of the mountain. Fire fighters had dumped lots of fire retardant to keep it from going over the summit, but they spent much of their effort (hundreds of firefighters, 6 planes, and 25 bulldozers) protecting homes and communities outside the park. The state park wanted the fire to take its natural course inside the park.

On first look, it seemed like it might have been too much. Some oaks had burned down to the roots, and slopes seemed like they might erode away from lack of vegetation. But even that first visit they noticed that rodents were already at work disturbing the burnt soil.

By the 9th day, plants were poking out: grass, vetch, mustard and others. At 6 weeks, shrubs were beginning to resprout at their base. By April, there was skullcap, baccarus, deerweed, and a fire follower called whispering bells (because of the sounds it makes when it is dried up).

Researchers Heath Bartosh and Brian Peterson decided to do a study of this “fleeting abundance” to see what wildflowers would come up three years running after a fire. They set up a series of 1m square research areas across the mountain listing every species and the % of cover. They did this out of curiosity not because someone was paying them.

What they found were 28 opportunists — species like the Mt. Diablo globe lilly — which were are commonly found there, but came on strong because of the extra space and sunlight the fire afforded them. But there were also 17 fire followers like the whispering bells, and golden ear drops. The species that everyone wanted to see, the flame poppy, was elusive at first, but eventually showed itself.

The second year made the work of this research difficult as a native morning glory flourished (they referred to it as trip vine). There was also some nice surprises: Kellog’s climbing snapdragon which hadn’t been seen 80 years, and the sleepy catchfly which hadn’t been seen in 125 years. Bulb plants went crazy: mariposa lilies, fremont star lily. California poppy, Mt Diablo jewel fire were both abundant.

The burnt chaparral was where the diversity seemed richest.

There were other researchers out there as well. Mandi McElroy got a grant for remote cameras and began a study of mammals on the mountain. The cameras have so far caught the obvious ones: black tailed deer, wild pigs, and coyote. But it will take a while longer to sort out the effect on smaller animals. The pigs seem to be doing well from what they have seen so far.

Entomologist Kip Will began a 5 year study of arthropods in the area. Setting out to trap insects on land in the air, day and night, to be as an detailed as possible to get baseline data. So far, beetles are two times as numerous in burned areas, and 16 new species of moth have been recorded on the mountain including the sphinx moth with a whopping 4” wingspan.

Lindsey Hendricks began looking at the effects of the fire on the previously dominant Chamise, looking at growing chamise in different fire affected soils. It turns out the Chamise likes it hot. It only sprouted in soil that was moderately to severely burned soil. In unburned soil the enormous numbers of seeds that chamise produces simply did not germinate.

At the tree level, the oaks came back. Only small handful did not survive the fire. In some cases, the trees were resprouting from the trunk and biggest branches. A lot of big grey pines on the other hand did not make it… Their chemical makeup is such that they burn up quicker and easier than other pines having a chemical similar to gasoline. But they are coming back from seed.

There were few problems with invasives, even in areas where they thought it was more at risk (the bulldozed zones in particular), erosion turned out to not be a problem because the root systems of many plants were still intact holding the soil together (and until this year we had below level rainfall probably did not hurt).

All in all seeing the mountain change from year to year was an amazing opportunity for Hamilton. She had a few suggestions for places to go if you want to check out the burn sites:

  • The North Peak Trail from Devil’s Elbow down to Prospectors Gap. From there, you can either head up to North Peak or down to the park boundary along the Prospectors Gap fire road.
  • Green Ranch Road from Oak Knoll picnic area down to Rhine Canyon and Frog Pond.
  • Perkins Canyon on Ray Morgan Road and Perkins Canyon Trail.

Trent Pearce joined us February 25th, 2016 at the Lake Merritt Rotary Nature Center to introduce us to the Kingdom of Fungi, focusing on mushrooms. As with many of our lectures, I didn’t really know how little I knew.


First of all, Trent asked what are Fungi? We can say they are not plants… they are in fact closer relatives to humans than plants are. They are consumers of other things, they don’t produce their own food. They also have chitin in their cell walls. Chitin is a sugar that is also found in insect exoskeletons, and is what provides structural support to the organism.

The Fungi kingdom includes yeasts, chytrids (the fungus causing problems for amphibians), molds, lichens, and mushrooms. Fungi split off from animals on the order of 650-900 million years ago. Our common unicellular ancestor has carried on as choanoflagellates (of which there are about 125 species). For a long time Fungi were considered by science as part of the Plant Kingdom. The inventor of our current scientific classification of organisms Carl Linnaeus in ~1735 only had plants and animals separated out as kingdoms. It wasn’t until 1959, when Robert Whitaker separated them out as their own things.

What we know of as mushrooms are only part of the whole organism. They are the fruiting bodies of the larger organization that lies mostly out of site.

The continuous organization is made out of strands called hyphae, which collectively grow into mycelium, which once or twice a year, put up fruiting bodies in order to reproduce.

The fruiting bodies thrust up out of the ground and when they are fully grown release spores from their gills. The spores spread out and mix with the spores from other fruiting bodies. There isn’t just a male female dynamic going on, but something considerably more complicated with some species having up to 20,000 sexual combinations. When the spores meet and match they grow into hyphae and combine, and if all works out, grow into mycelium, and the cycle continues.

The fruiting body grows by being inflated with water pressure, provided by the below ground mycelium network. With the right circumstances you can put a mushroom onto a wet paper towel and have it expand.

These fungus have extracellular digestion. Generally this means that enzymes and acids are excreted from the ends of mycelium, to produce simple sugars, amino acids and fatty acids, but a whole host of bio products gets created which are what makes fungus sometimes a positive thing (thing alcohol from yeast, and antibiotics) but also deadly (thing of all the poisonous mushrooms out there). All of these things are purposed to help protect the fungi in one fashion or another.

There are three general ecological strategies that mushroom fall under: decomposers, parasites, and mutualists.

Decomposers decompose everything from leaf litter to wood. Wood specialists fall into one of 2 types: white rot which digest lignin and leave cellulose, and brown rot which does the opposite eating the cellulose but leaving the lignin. Often these are the mushrooms that look like little shelves on rotting logs, and they sometimes specialize in the wood that they consume.

Other mushrooms are parasites — it might be wood rot fungus that evolved to have a go at live wood. There are both generalist and specialists. Honey mushrooms are generalists, but a type of Ganoderma focuses on Bay Laurel and can often be found at the base of these tress. There are also mushroom parasites that attack insects and turn them into zombies to get the insect into a favorable position for spore dispersal (for example: Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. Some of these mushrooms actually have medicinal uses.

Mutualism is the other broad category of life strategy mushrooms employ. The best example of this is ectomycorrhizal fungi which grow around tree roots. The mushrooms provide nutrients (breaking things down into nutrients) and water to the tree (the mushrooms serve to extend the surface area of the root system). In exchange, the tree provides sugars. Many of these mushrooms have specific hosts… chanterelles live along with hardwoods like oaks. Amonita like pine. The presence of these fungus can have an impact on how well trees germinate.

There are also a couple reproductive strategies that different fungus employ: ascomycetes and basidiomycetes. Ascomycetes is employed by yeast, leaf molds, cup fungus and others. The organism produces strands called asci which are fluid filled and contain the spores. These are pressurized until they explode shooting the spores out (up to 30cm — which may not seem a lot, but these are tiny things). Examples of mushrooms that do this are earth tongue, scarlet cup, elven saddle, and orange peel fungus.

Basidiomycetes grow typically 4 spores on things called Basidia. The spores here are ejected through a process employing water tension… where water collecting on two different surfaces meet, and the release of water tension and the change of center of mass discharges the spores. It’s been estimated that spores are shot off with an acceleration of 10,000g’s! (Money, N.P. 1998. More g’s than the Space Shuttle: ballistospore discharge. Mycologia 90:547-558.)

With a quick guide to anatomy, Trent went on through a bunch of major groups of mushroom, with some first notions of how to identify things. The annulus (ring) is something that covers the gills while the mushroom is coming out of the ground, the remnants of it can sometimes be seen. The stipe the stem, and the volva is an egg like structure that some mushrooms grow out of (mainly Amanita). Any problem with the table below is probably my note taking error, not Trent’s mistake.

Type Cap Gills Annulus Spore Stipe Vulva Notes
Agaricus Dull colored cap Pink brown gills Persistent Dark brown Button/portabella mushrooms amongst others
Amanita Can be colorful White gills Can be persistent or absent Have a Volva Many of these are poisonous
Boletes Dense fleshy Pore layer not gills Absent Variable Grow from soil
Suillus Often slimy Pore layer Annulus present, but often degraded Variable Grow from soil
Cantharellus Atypical trumpet shapes Blunt many forked gills Absent Reduced Grow from the soil, resistent to rot
Russula White cream Attached white gills Yellow Brittle. Flesh breaks cleanly like chalk. Has elongated cellular structre.
Lactarius Has concentric rings Absent White to yellow “Bleed” latex. An oak associate. Brittle.
Hygrophoraceae (Waxy Caps) Orange and Green slimy/waxy cap Absent White Grow in the duff near redwoods and sometimes oak.
Polypores Shelf like growth Pores Absent No stem Parasites and wood rooters. The are hard, made out of the material they consume, and most are perrenial.

The great thing about mycology, Trent offered, is that amateurs are still doing the bulk of the discovery, and that there is still much to know about Mushrooms.

If all this peaks your interest, Trent advises a few things:

  1. Get a book. He gave a few possibilities: Mushrooms Demystified, All that Rain Promises and More, Field Guide to Mushrooms, and later this year Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast (the author is a local amateur mycologist)
  2. Get out and find mushrooms, measure, document, and try and identify
  3. Share your observations (iNaturalist or MushroomObserver.org). There are great online communities who can help.

There are also plenty of local mushroom groups, and online resources like the Santa Cruz Mycoflora Project.

Learning to ID is an important thing especially if you are looking to eat mushrooms. Immigrants are often victims of mushroom poisoning because the mushrooms they grew up with can resemble deadly ones here, but even knowledgable people can make mistakes, and if you are looking for a cautionary tale, KQED has one for you here.

Trent in the winter time can often be found leading mushroom walks in the East Bay hills, and year round leading other fun naturalist events. See more at EBRPD’s event calendar.

Adrian (1)-2
Guest Speaker: Joan Hamilton 
7pm, Tuesday Mar 22nd, 2016
FREE Lake Merritt Rotary Nature Center, Oakland, CA 
Since September 2013, Joan Hamilton has been documenting Mount Diablo’s recovery from the Morgan fire. Come see how various parts of the mountain changed over time–and what scientists are learning from the 3,100-acre conflagration. 
Hamilton is a freelance writer and editor who writes regularly for Bay Nature magazine. She  also produces Audible Mount Diablo–a series of downloadable hiking guides–and is a former editor-in-chief of Sierra magazine. 


Welcoming the Fungi Kingdom
Guest Speaker: Trent Pearce 
7pm, Thursday Feb 25th, 2016
FREE Lake Merritt Rotary Nature Center, Oakland, CA 

Winter rains bring forth the Kingdom Fungi! Delve into this strange world with Naturalist Trent Pearce of the East Bay Regional Park District. Learn what differentiates fungi from plants and animals, and meet a few of our common fungal genera.

Trent joined the Park District in 2010, working at Ardenwood Historic Farm before coming to the Tilden Nature Area. Natural history has long been his passion; for the preceding six years he served as an interpreter for California State Parks and an environmental educator in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Trent is an autodidactic mycologist, photographer, and an avid birder.


The Location

Lake Merritt’s Rotary Nature Center is at 600 Bellevue Avenue in Oakland. On the Northern shore of Lake Merritt (between it’s two “arms”). Part of the City of Oakland’s Office of Parks and Recreation, the Center is an interpretive museum, providing education about the natural environment while overseeing America’s oldest wildlife refuge and Oakland open spaces. A City of Oakland, Office of Parks and Recreation entity.

We are grateful for their offer of their space. An otter appeared briefly in the Lake a couple years ago — we hope they’ll come back for longer sometime in the future!

The Nature Center is about a 20 minute walk from 19th St BART station. Closest bus line from the direction of BART is the NL or the 12. There is street parking.

Our first ever video recorded lecture — thanks to the San Francisco Public Library for hosting us, and providing this. Don’t get used to it though, most of our venues are not so high tech 🙂

Gregory Rosenthal joined us October 19th, 2015 to share his research into the early days of San Francisco. He started out as a scholar of China — but was looking for a place that China and the U.S. connected and landed upon Hawaii.

Kapalakiko — the transliteration of San Francisco in Hawaiian — was one node of a large Hawaiian diaspora in the mid to late 1800s. Hawaiian’s worked all around the Pacific — the large majority as whalers, in the arctic (where they were — perhaps unexpectedly — reliably the best workers), gathering guano, and active as workers and boatmen in California, with large numbers working the gold fields of California (Sutter had 10 Hawaiians in his employ).

This all evidenced by a number of Hawaiian language papers that were in circulation throughout the Pacific — which served as an important source of material for Gregory’s research. 90% percent of Hawaiian’s were literate in Hawaiian, and the papers served to connect the population that spread out over such large distances.

The 1860 census of San Francisco found that Hawaiians were the largest population next to whites. They weren’t just workers though — they were also landowners — although along with Mexicans — many had their land confiscated over time. While they were literate in Hawaiian — the “kanaka” — the term used for Hawaiian workers — weren’t necessarily literate in English and their employers often used this to their advantage (writing contracts in English without fully disclosing their contents).

He’s worked to bring their names back and humanize their story — helping to make San Francisco what it was from the very beginning.

Back in the Bay

River Otters:  Back on the Bay Area Map!
Guest Speaker: Robyn Aston, River Otter Ecology Project
7pm November 19th, 2015
FREE Lake Merritt Rotary Nature Center, Oakland, CA 

River otters are charismatic carnivores, and make wonderful ambassadors for river and wetland restoration and conservation efforts. Once extirpated in the SF Bay Area, little is known about their current population, range, and seasonal eating habits. The River Otter Ecology Project has taken on the challenge of discovering and documenting their ecological niche, with the goal of informing land use decisions and preserving habitat for these lively aquatic mammals.

Join us as we discuss what we know, what needs to be discovered, and just how we manage to research elusive, secretive mammals who slide into the water and disappear when approached. We will show slides and videos from our “otter-cams,” and discuss the project and the role that citizen science plays in this otterly exciting work!

More about Robert “Robyn” Aston

The River Otter Ecology Project (ROEP)
Otter Specialist Group, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

Robyn Aston, interested in otters from an early age, has a degree in Biology, and is currently a volunteer with ROEP. His duties include working in the field, maintaining a River Otter research database, and presenting to schools, universities, and special interest groups. Along with many of the world’s leading “otter-ologists,” he, and ROEP Director Megan Isadore, are members of the IUCN’s Otter Specialist Group.


The Location

Lake Merritt’s Rotary Nature Center is at 600 Bellevue Avenue in Oakland. On the Northern shore of Lake Merritt (between it’s two “arms”). Part of the City of Oakland’s Office of Parks and Recreation, the Center is an interpretive museum, providing education about the natural environment while overseeing America’s oldest wildlife refuge and Oakland open spaces. A City of Oakland, Office of Parks and Recreation entity.

We are grateful for their offer of their space. An otter appeared briefly in the Lake a couple years ago — we hope they’ll come back for longer sometime in the future!

The Nature Center is about a 20 minute walk from 19th St BART station. Closest bus line from the direction of BART is the NL or the 12. There is street parking.