Monthly Archives: December 2009

Gray Fox in Strawberry Canyon and a Mother Fox’s Wisdom

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Yesterday, I headed up Centennial Road along Strawberry Canyon to take some more lichen and moss photographs. As I was walking along the trail by the road, I looked down in into the canyon and saw something seemed out of place on the big branch of a fallen tree.

Here’s what I saw:

(Note: you can click on any image to get a very large one you can download if you wish.)

At first, I couldn’t tell what kind of animal might be sleeping there. It certainly was a fairly large animal, but all I could see was a ball of fur. So, I called out, and it lifted up its head to listen. It was a gray fox!

I was really excited! This was my first fox sighting since I had moved West, and my first large predator sighting in the Berkeley Hills. In the East, the red fox is dominant, and I had seen a number of those in my time there, but never a gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus).  The fox never stood up so I could see more of it, but here’s a close-up of it looking up when I made a noise:

Not a red fox

This beautiful animal is easily distinguishable from the red fox, which is indeed quite reddish and has those characteristic “black stockings” on its feet.

A tree-climbing fox!

One of the things that surprised me about the gray fox was how high in the fallen tree it was, and how inaccessible it was. How the heck did it get up there? When I did some research, I came upon this fact at Wikipedia:

“The gray fox’s ability to climb trees is shared only with the Asian raccoon dog among canids. Its strong, hooked claws allow it to scramble up trees to escape predators such as the domestic dog or the coyote, or to reach tree-bound or arboreal food sources. It descends primarily by jumping from branch to branch, or by descending slowly backwards as a house cat.”

So, that explained it! The gray fox is a tree climber! I had no idea any fox could climb a tree. I watched the fox for about 10 minutes, and it seemed hunkered down for a good sleep. (The gray fox is mainly nocturnal though it’s also out at dawn or dusk.)

A Berkeley mountain-man hippie

As I was watching the fox, along came a fellow which I could only describe as a Berkeley “character.” He was dressed like a mountain-man hippie, with long hair in a ponytail and a big beard. As he approached, I asked him if he wanted to see a fox, and of course, he said yes. (I now wished I’d taken the fellow’s picture, as you’ll soon understand.)

As he admired the fox, he told me about encounters he’d had with foxes and how much he admired them. Then he said, “You want to hear a really great fox story? It’s a true one; it happened to an old girlfriend of mine.”

He sat down like he was an old friend and went on to tell his remarkable story.  The man was clearly a natural-born storyteller, but the way he  told his story had the ring of truth. As best as I can remember, here’s what he said:

A true story about a wise mother fox

“It happened in Colorado, up in the mountains where my girlfriend lived. One day she went out to her back porch, and she saw a gray fox standing, holding up a hurt leg. The fox didn’t run away when she saw it, even though it was close, but sat there, expectant like.”

“After the fox and my girlfriend sized each other up for a while, the fox then stood up, and turned to limp away. But it stopped and looked over its shoulder as if to say, ‘Well, are you coming?’

“So, my girl friend got her coat, and followed. The foxes leg was badly hurt, but it could still outpace my girl friend through the scrub brush. But each time she fell behind the fox would stop and patiently wait for her to catch up. As soon as she caught up, the fox moved on.”

A surprise in the woods

“To her surprise, the fox led her directly to a litter of fox kits, three of them. It was a mother fox, and the wounded fox had led her right to her den. The fox sat down at some distance, and watched, as if to say, ‘Well, there they are! I’m hurt and I want you to take them back with you and take care of them.'”

“The fox watched intently while my girl friend gathered up the kits and then followed her back to house. My girlfriend made a place for them near her house, where they’d be safe. The mother fox seemed satisfied, and then again, she looked at my girlfriend and seemed to say, “Well, can’t you see that they’re hungry? I haven’t been able hunt.”

“My girlfriend went inside and got some milk, which she gave to the pups. And then she got some meat, and threw it to the mother, who gobbled it down. After a while, the mother fox came over to the kits, and with a sigh, lay down with them.”

A refuge for a wounded mother fox

“And that’s the way it went. For 3 months, my girlfriend fed the fox while its leg mended, and soon, the mother was strong enough to give her own milk again. My girlfriend played with the kits everyday, and the mother never minded, although she always kept her distance.”

“The thee kits grew up fast, got teeth, and started to forage around themselves, though they always welcomed food from my girlfriend. And then one day, it was clear that the mother fox was going to leave. Although she trusted my girlfriend, she was obviously nervous being near humans.”

“One morning, my girlfriend came out, and the mother and kits were gone. She cried, and really missed them, but she knew that the wise mother had done the right thing.”

A final goodbye and thank-you

“Months later, in the late fall, with the first early snow, my girlfriend was out hiking, and suddenly, she saw a fox. Was it her fox? She stopped, and watched as the fox came to her—with a slight limp! It was the mother fox!  The fox came very close, and for  a long time, she  just sat there and looked into my girlfriend’s eyes, which were filled with tears. She said she felt the fox was thanking her. And then, the fox turned tail, and trotted off, with the slight limp from the old injury.”

“My girlfriend never saw the mother fox again, but did see other foxes from time to time, and she wondered if any of them were the kits grown up. Actually, she was glad the kits had ‘gone wild’ and were wary of humans. That was the safest thing for them so near to humans with guns. But to this day, she has a special love for foxes, and often thinks of the wise mother fox who came to her for help.”

“And that, my friend, is a true story. There’s more to animals than meets the eyes, eh?”

I agreed that indeed there is, and said good-bye to my mountain-man hippie storyteller.  I watched him lumber off, amazed at how often people can amaze you with their hidden depths.  Then, I turned and watched the gray fox sleeping for a while longer, thinking about the wise injured mother fox.

From all I know about animals, and from my own experiences with wounded animals over the years, I bet it happened just as my storyteller said. With that happy thought, and with a big love for my storyteller, for that sleeping fox, and for all the creatures in the canyon, I headed up the trail and into the hills.

A postscript: If this story of the mother fox moved you, you might also enjoy another true story of some amazing animals at my Metta Refuge blog.  The post is called The Compassion of the Swans.  You can read it here:

http://mettarefuge.wordpress.com/2009/12/08/the-compassion-of-the-swans/

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Escape from New England-a weather nut’s confession

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It all began in the Mojave Desert

I’m a weather nut. Have been since I was a little boy. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the Mojave desert. Except for the often spectacular heat, the weather in my home town of Las Vegas is deadly dull.

Sure, we would get our annual summer “monsoon” thunderstorms as moist air pushed up from Baja and Mexico:

The lightning from them could be truly spectacular and delighted a little boy’s heart:

And yes, ever four or five years a strong winter storm would leave an inch or more of snow in the Vegas Valley:

We kids loved it, but lots of people freaked out, and there was always a spate of car crashes as people not used to ice on the roads drove like Vegans usually do—way too fast.

But for extreme weather, that’s about it. Except for the heat. (You really can cook eggs on the sidewalk in the height of summer. I did it as a kid on a number of 115 degree °F days.)

Now for some real weather!

So, when I moved to Boston in the mid-’70s, I was in weather nut heaven! Finally, some real weather. In New England you have it all: rainstorms, snow storms, wind storms, blizzards, nor’easters, flash floods, heat waves, brutal cold snaps, and even the occasional tornado and hurricane! How many places can you think of that have blizzards and hurricanes and tornadoes? New England gets them all! (Yes, that’s the Statue of Liberty with a tornado in the distance!)

Here’s some shots of the Great Blizzard of ’78.  I’ll never forget walking around the eerily quiet streets of Boston at the level of the rooftops of the cars buried in the drifts:

As Mark Twain famously noted:

“There is a sumptuous variety about the New England weather that compels the stranger’s admiration — and regret. The weather is always doing something there; always attending strictly to business; always getting up new designs and trying them on the people to see how they will go.”

The Dynamic Duo of New England Weather

The reason New England gets all of this weather is because it happens to be located near the semipermanent low pressure area called the Icelandic Low.  Much of the time in winter this low pressure area looks something like this, as huge storm systems develop in it:

Located  between Iceland and southern Greenland, the Icelandic low pulls all the weather of North America towards it, and thus, toward New England. If New England weather sucks, it’s because the Icelandic Low sucks—all the weather masses of North America toward it.

But the Icelandic Low has a partner in crime—the Azores or Bermuda High:

This huge semipermanent area of subtropical high pressure is the other pole of what is called the North Atlantic Oscillation. In the summer, the high pressure area tends to move toward North America.   Its clockwise rotating air pumps warm, moist air up the Atlantic coast to New England. This is why a place that gets blizzards and below zero weather also gets sweltering, humid 90 degree °F heat in the summer. Don’t you just love it?

Not only that, the Azores High’s clockwise rotation tends to create tropical waves off of Africa and send them toward North America. These pressure waves often become tropical storms, and sometimes, hurricanes. The Azores High sends them all toward the Caribbean and North America. When the high moves even further west, it will even shunt hurricanes up the East Coast, and that’s why New England can also get hurricanes.  Here’s a typical track of a hurricane sweeping around the Azores High and roaring up the Atlantic Coast toward New England and the distant Icelandic Low.

This double-whammy of the Icelandic Low and the Bermuda High is why there’s always some weather mass or storm merrily marching through New England.

If you love weather, and lots of it, move to New England!

So, if I love weather, why did I leave New England?

As an amateur meteorologist, I loved my time in New England. I relished her nor’easters, hurricanes, blizzards, cold snaps, snow storms, and heat spells.  The clouds were often magnificent and came in every variety. Over time, however, the long, cold New England winters started to get to me as the initial novelty of them for a desert boy wore off.

I loved fall in New England; still do. It’s New England’s best and most beautiful season.  Here’s an image of Malden in the fall of 2008, my last Fall in the Boston area. (click for a nice large image)

But I more and more, I was dreading the winters.

It wasn’t just how early winters started and how long they lasted. It wasn’t just the damp, penetrating wind-driven cold. (Forget it Chicago, Boston is the real windy city!) The coup de grace was day after day of grey, overcast skies. I need sun! I need to see blue skies, even in winter—even if howling winds make the windchill 20 below!  Just gimme some sun!  And after three decades in New England, I just needed a new place that (for me) reflected a brighter, happier outlook on life (not that one can’t be happy in New England; I’m talking about the physical environment.)

As a final send-off, just before we left for California, New England got in one last nor’easter.  Not a record setter, but afterwards, the snow and slush all froze, and it was bitter cold until we took the Amtrak Zephyr to the Golden West. Adios New England!

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So, here I am in Berkeley, with my dear wife—blue skies galore, even in winter, and no 20 below windchill! Yes, I know the Bay area has its winter rainy season. I know it can be rainy for days, even weeks. (We arrived in the middle of winter when we moved here.) I now know what the fogs of summer are all about (not nearly as bad as advertised.)

But Bay area weather at its worst is just not in the same league as bad weather in New England. In New England, you get more of everything—more cold, more clouds, more rain, more heat, more humidity, more wind, more….just more! And less—less sunny days, less time you can spend outside, less comfortable weather.

The Glorious Weather and Climate of the San Francisco Bay area

So, now I turn my weather eyes to the amazing climate and weather of the San Francisco Bay area. It may not be as “exciting” weather-wise here, but there’s plenty going on, and the big picture is very interesting.

We have our own version of the Icelandic Low up in the Aleutians off the coast of Alaska.  But instead of pulling continental weather to it, this semipermanent low pressure area spins off storm after storm, creating most of the weather in the North America, and indeed, much of the weather in the Northern Hemisphere.  It’s called the Aleutian Low, and its monumental storms are some of the biggest and most powerful on Earth.

In winter, these huge storms spin out of the Gulf of Alaska and crash into Canada,  the Northwest, and Northern California.  After dropping huge quantities of rain and snow, they still have enough moisture and energy to move on and create rain and snowstorms across the entire country.

And of course, in California, we feel the powerful effects of  the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, often  abbreviated by meteorologists as ENSO.  El Niño not only has dramatic effects on California weather, it affects weather all over the world. As a newcomer here, I’ve not personally experienced an El Niño event, but as a long-time student of weather, I sure know how damaging they can be here in California:

I’ll be talking a lot more about all of this fascinating weather stuff in future posts. But for now, I’m just going to kick back and enjoy this sunny Berkeley day in early December. Wow, I can wear my t-shirt outside! Wow, I don’t have to wear my heavy New England winter jacket. Wow, the wind isn’t freezing my face off!  This year in Boston, it snowed heavily in October, and at night there, it’s already in the low 30s and high 20s °F.

My New England friends tell me they are having a warm spell right now, after the “summer that wasn’t.” (Boy, do I remember a lot of those!)   But, alas, they are still doomed.  Winter is coming, and there’s no stopping it!

Dear New England, I loved you, but your long, cold, dark winters will grind me down no more!  I’ve found my personal paradise here in Berkeley and the Berkeley Hills.  And I’m here to stay!

Why I Love the Berkeley Hills

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Why I Love the Berkeley Hills

(A point of geography: the term Berkeley Hills applies to one of ranges of the Pacific Coast Ranges.  These hills used to be called the Contra Costa Hills.  Therefore the term “Berkeley Hills” includes those hills above Oakland as well as those above Berkeley.  “Berkeley Hills” is a geographic term (a toponym, to be exact) and has nothing to do with political or city boundaries. I  just want my good neighbors in Oakland to know they are not being left out when I speak of the Berkeley Hills!)

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I’ve been so busy getting my dharma journal, Metta Refuge, up and running, I just haven’t had time to get anything posted here at “The Nature of Berkeley!”

But today, the first day of December, that changes! I thought the least I could do was post some introductory images from my hikes in Strawberry and Claremont Canyons. I wanted folks to see why I’m so in love with the Berkeley Hills area and why I feel so grateful to live here.

I’m also working on my first post about an animal you’ll often run across in the Hills. It’s actually a much-loved insect (yes, insect!) More on that later!

For now, here on some images that will give visitors to this blog a feel for our beautiful ecosystem here in the East Bay. If you click on any of the small images below, you’ll get a much larger one you can download for your desktop image or wallpaper. Enjoy!  (©Steve Goodheart)

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I took these next two photos this summer in Strawberry Canyon. The grasses are brown because it’s been nearly five months since the last substantial rain, and the Great October Rainstorm of 2009 is still months away.

After 33 years in Boston, I can’t tell you what a marvel it is go a whole summer without a trace of rain!  As a boy growing up in the Mojave desert, I was used to long rainless periods, but even in the desert, we had summer “monsoon” thunderstorms.  The Bay area’s “Mediterranean” climate and summer drought are fascinating, and I look forward to discussing how they shape this ecosystem.

These next two photos were just two weeks after our amazing October rain storm. (The heaviest October rain in 47 years!) What a difference!

As a newcomer to the area, I was amazed at how fast the hills “greened up.” The plants in this area have some amazing adaptations to the Mediterranean climate we have here, and I’ll be writing a lot about that in later posts.  Here’s a nice shot looking across Strawberry Canyon to the historical UC Berkeley Cyclotron.

My favorite trees in the Canyons are the somewhat controversial Eucalyptus, which were introduced to this area in the 1850s. These beautiful trees dominate much of the terrain in the Canyons.

One of the best things about living in Berkeley is being so close to wonderful hiking and fire trails. Here are some images from some of my favorite hikes.

Once you gain some altitude into the hills, you are often rewarded with beautiful vistas of San Francisco Bay and unobstructed skies.

There are a huge range of plants in the Strawberry and Claremont Canyons. Here are two of my favorites: lichens and some wild (unripe) blackberries:

Many of the trees on the steeper slopes have a real battle with gravity and erosion. (I’ll be writing much more about Berkeley Hills plants and their challenges in later posts.)

Finally, hiking in the hills you’ll definitely come across wild animals. I’ll never forget the first time I came upon a flock of wild turkeys in Strawberry Canyon. (Alas, I’ve yet to have my camera with me when I’ve come across them.) There are many kinds of birds, too, including large raptors. But the toughest, most aggressive bird you’ll come across in the Canyons is the smallest! Meet the pound-for-pound champ, the Rufous Hummingbird:

You’ll also run across reptiles on your hikes. I’ve seen several kinds of garter snakes, and along the sunnier trails, you’ll almost see always some Western Fence lizards:

And some of the creatures you’ll find in the Hills are just, well, fantastic:

I hope you enjoyed my first “Berkeley, Naturally” post. With my other blog established, I hope to get into a rhythm and post here several times a week.

Happy trails! Steve