Archive for January, 2014

Living with Mountain Lions
Guest Speaker: Zara McDonald
7:30pm, Thursday, Feb 20th, 2014
FREE at the Randall Museum, 199 Museum Way, San Francisco, CA 

Mountain Lions are keystone predators and play a critical role in maintaining the health and biodiversity of our ecosystems. Zara McDonald, President of the Felidae Fund, will discuss their ecology, history, and the challenges of sharing habitats with them.

Cougaroriginally posted to Flickr as Those Eyes, by Art G.

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Book Review: The Devil’s Cormorant – a Natural History

Richard J. King is–as one can tell fairly on, and admits to in depth at the end of the book–a cormorant fan; a cormorant apologist one might even say. But his book is an interestingly balanced look at various cormorant species their natural history, and their interactions both positive and negative with humans.

Cormorant versus Cormorant

I was actually a bit shocked about how negative some people were about the birds, and about my ignorance of the negative culture associated with the bird. The depth of this hatred seems partially cultural — often referred to as a sea crow or sea raven, has like the corvids, had them gluttony, death, and the devil through history and literature.

Like corvids they do get some appreciation from some parts of the worlds. In Asia, they have been semi-domesticated as fisherman — putting their “gluttonous” ways to good use.

Their gluttony is the source of modern day hatred — sport fisherman (england and the midwest) and fish farmers (the south and in europe) in particular see them as a threat, and the spread of double-crested cormorants in particular has caused consternation. The case of the fish farmers is the strongest as the birds have proved to be difficult to keep out and wily enough to evade and ignore some attempts to keep them out.

Sport fisherman have gone so far as to massacre breeding cormorants in the Great Lakes and elsewhere when they felt their case was being ignored by authorities. Their case often casting the cormorant as an invasive species and eating above and beyond what other birds eat, seem a little more suspect.

In the Northwest, great lengths have been gone through to adjust bird populations (not just Cormorants) to allow for more young Salmon to reach the sea. Interestingly it is mostly inland fisherman who see them as a threat — ocean fisherman see birds as an indicator that there is fish to catch. The data showing cormorants as a villain in lakes (eating through populations of fish people want to catch) seems pretty thin from the perspective of this book. It does show the difficulties that managing agencies have in meeting the expectations and desires of people on all sides of the equation.

On a more positive note, in Peru, a particular species of Cormorant provides for quite a living mining its guano — this proved to be one of the more interesting stories in the book, where clipper ships returning from San Francisco in the mid 1800s would stop off at these islands to top off on this particular guano which was considered to be some of the best fertilizer in the world. It’s fame set off a run on the guano, horrible labor practices with imported Chinese indentured servants were instituted, political disputes flared, and of course, finally, collapse. All the birds run off or killed, and the islands mined down. Later it started to be harvested in a more sustainable manner which allowed the birds to bounce back, unfortunately the amazing runs of herring were also discovered at the same time, and the eventual collapse of those fisheries led to a second collapse in the cormorant population. It’s only recently with the rise of organic farming, and the return of some of the fish,  has their been another resurgence of cormorants.

All of this “unnatural” history is peppered with the various species’ natural history along with the men and women who first came across them (and often ate them — the question of how the various species tasted is a constant through the book).

They are in short amazing birds, and this book is a great insight into their character and ours.

Find on Amazon: The Devil’s Cormorant: A Natural History

* The photo is from a the Borken River in Eungella National Park, Queensland, Australia: two cormorants of different species squabbling over a rock in a platypus’ pool

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Around the Bay: Man-Made Sites of Interest in the San Francisco Bay Region published by the Center for Land Use Interpretation is a fascinating trip around the edge of the San Francisco Bay. I’ve lived in the bay area for 16 years and knew about a good number of them in the South Bay in particular — but the farther I travelled through this book the more interesting it became.

Not that it is entirely comforting: the number of landfills, chemical plants, explosive plants that we built at the edge of the water — where no doubt things were dumped, poured, and leached into the bay for ages before there was any protection — is entirely depressing. Many of these things have made some transition to offices and parks, others remain with contaminated dirt or like the Selby Works Site have a enormous asphalt slab to cap the contamination that lies beneath.

Still it is a fascinating glimpse at the history of this enormous place — from the eye of naturalist, I might have wanted to see more about the natural history of these places — but that is clearly not the goal of the book.

The only real criticism I’d have is I would have loved to see an inset map for each location. Even though I am fairly familiar with the shape of the bay, and the direction of the circuit is obvious — it would be good to know where exactly each thing was — and what might have been passed over as you travel around.

Even more ambitious perhaps, it would be cool to see a link to more information online, where more information and historical photographs might be examined.

All in all though, if your a fan of San Francisco Bay this book is well worth having around as a reference and resource.

Find the book on Amazon — Around the Bay: Man-Made Sites of Interest in the San Francisco Bay Region (The Center for Land Use Interpretation American Regional Landscape Series)

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Fog and the Future of Redwoods

Fog and the Future of Redwoods
Guest Speaker: Emily Burns
7:30pm, Thursday, Jan 23rd, 2014
FREE at the Randall Museum, 199 Museum Way, San Francisco, CA 

Redwood ecologist Emily Burns will describe how climate change is affecting the growth of our ancient redwood forests. From less fog to warmer weather, see how the tallest and largest trees on Earth are responding to today’s novel climate.


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Filmmaker Lance Milbrand — who spoke with us on November 21st, 2013, has some pretty amazing footage: newts paddling through a stream, hanging from twigs, laying eggs, newt eggs hatching. Some of this is in some part due to the amazing technology we have on hand to film, but to a larger degree it comes from Lance’s patience and persistence — laying still in a cold stream in a dry suit, camera at the ready, working to get the shot he wanted.

He showed three films that night — one about a recent trip to yellowstone, with bears, rutting elks (the more dangerous beast), a hunting coyote, and a beautiful landscape; two films about newts — a children’s music video (see end of post) and a portion of a longer piece about the newt lifecycle.

The patience and persistence doesn’t necessarily end at the camera — there’s is also editing, and of course distribution. We hope that Lance finds a way to finish this great little educational film about these strange little creatures, our neighbors here in the San Francisco Bay area.

You can find more about Lance and his films on his website: milbrandcinema.com

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