Category Archives: geography

Ladybugs Swarm Again in Strawberry Canyon!

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Welcome, friends of the Berkeley Hills and nature lovers!

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Just like last year, we had some powerful October rains, though nothing like record breaker on October 14th of 2009, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported:

The Great October Rainstorm of 2009

“It was the worst October storm the Bay Area has experienced since 1962, when terrible weather famously disrupted the World Series between the Giants and the New York Yankees.

San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Livermore all set rainfall records for a single day in October. Nearly 4 inches fell in downtown Oakland, almost 20 percent of what the city usually gets during an entire year.

And just like last year, after the record storm, I found a number of very large ladybug masses in Strawberry Canyon along the fire trail:  (Note, you can click on any of the images below to see a desktop-sized image.)

Compared to last year’s massing, however, this was a rather modest gathering, maybe several thousand. But in October of 2009, the gathering was monumental!   The swarm thickly covered  plants for at least 20 yards, compared to about 4 feet this time. As I wrote in that post:

I read that a gallon jar will hold from 72,000 to 80,000 ladybugs. If that’s the case, then the number alongside the fire trail had to be way, way over a hundred thousand, maybe two or three hundred thousand! It was astonishing, and somehow touching, to see so many little creatures in a brief moment of community.

This was just one small portion of the huge 2009 swarm, which covered blackberry bushes for over 20 yards!

Perhaps this gathering will grow in the days ahead. I’m very curious to see if the numbers build, and I still wonder, as with the 2009 storm, if the big rains had anything to do with the gathering, or whether the ladybugs always head up into the canyons in late October.

By the way, last year’s post includes a ton of fascinating information and folklore on ladybugs that I think you’ll really enjoy if you haven’t read it yet:

See:  They Are the Ladybugs of the Canyon

One of the best things about the rain, especially the first big rain after nearly half a year of typical summer drought, is how wonderful it smells in the Hills and how vibrant the colors are!  The mosses and lichen, especially, almost seem to glow in deep greens and yellows:

Looking at the moss and lichen, I also found discovered I was being eye-balled by one of the many Fox Squirrels in the Canyon:

“You lookin’ at me?”

This orb spider web was especially beautiful in the sun:

Another beastie you will usually see after a good rain are the beautiful—and often, huge!—banana slugs:

A lot of people go, “Ugh, slimy slugs!” and I know that banana slugs can be a pest, but I you get down on the slugs level, and watch it move, it’s an incredibly graceful animal. It’s very responsive to its environment and is far from stupid, a term I’m reluctant to use looking at any marvel of nature, no matter how humble.

This banana slug was almost 10 inches long and twice as thick as my thumb!

When I find slugs in the middle of the fire trail, I always move them to the side of the trial they were heading for, because, sadly, I’ve seen way too many smooshed slugs by runners and walkers who didn’t see these little wonders.

This particular day, after the rains, I noticed hundreds and hundreds of small, fluttering creatures in the air. Clearly, flying was not their forte, and yet, the air was filled with them. On closer examination, I discovered that they were some kind of termite.  My camera doesn’t have a close-up lens, but they looked very much like this:

Termite Alates

At first, I wondered if they might not be flying ants, but I did a little research and was able to confirm from their body shape and wing structure that they were in fact termites:

I also learned that in areas like ours, which have a distinct dry season, the winged (or “alate”) caste members of termite nests leave in large swarms after the first good soaking rain. The alates are the reproductive caste. They fly off to find a new nesting sight, shed their fragile wings, mate, and start a new colony. I noticed alates all through Strawberry Canyon and over into the Claremont Canyon as well. There must have been tens of thousands of them, fluttering precariously in the air.

I was not the only one noticing this mass exodus. When I came to the sunnier parts of the Canyon, I started seeing lots of Western Fence lizards, running from cover to snap up some hapless alate that landed too close:

Western Fence Lizard hunting alates—and watching me!

There must have been a lot of stuffed Western Fence Lizards that evening, because the alates seemed endless in numbers—natures way of making sure that enough termites survived to carry forward the species.

On my way down Claremont Canyon, I came across this lovely, but rather faded and battered butterfly:

I believe this is a Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta), one of the many lovely butterflies you will often see in the Canyons. (Kudos to Kay Loughman’s wonderful Wild Life in the North Hills website, which has some great images and information to help nature lovers identify plants and animals of our area.)

Yes, the fire trails in the Berkeley Hills can be muddy after a big rain, but there are many rewards for braving the mud. As I said, the fresh smell of the wet earth and vegetation is simply wonderful.  The washed and soaked plants and lichen are so vibrant. I’ve also noticed that, for some reason, one tends to see more wild animals out right after a rain than at other times.

I hope enjoyed this post and that you will take find time to explore for yourself the amazing and beautiful ecosystem, that is the Berkely Hills. Hope to see meet you on the trails some day!

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Berkeley Hills-Blackberries, Ladybugs, and Fence Lizards!

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Today’s post features some of my favorite summer things in Strawberry and Claremont Canyons:

Blackberries!

The first blackberries of the season!

Western Fence Lizards!

Western Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis)

Ladybugs!

Ladybugs on Himalayan Blackberry plants

Now that summer is finally here, after a very rainy winter and cool spring, you’re likely to see lots of these in the canyons and Hills in the months ahead.

The Blackberries of the Berkeley Hills

Blackberries are not hard to find along almost any of the fire trails in either Strawberry or Claremont Canyons.  So far, however, I’ve found the best picking and eating to be along Centennial Road and the fire trail that leads off of it into Strawberry Canyon.

On Centennial Drive, there are blackberries stands all long the pedestrian path up to the fire trail parking lot.

In many places along the trail, and along Centennial Drive the blackberry bushes are really thick.  You have to be careful, though, because most of these plant are growing right on the edge of very steep drop offs.  Trying to reach ripe berries that are tantalizingly out of reach, you can easily step off a cliff.  Be very careful!

Just out of reach! Step off the trail too far, and you’ll tumble into the canyon!

Earlier this spring, you could see hundreds of blackberry flowers, foretelling the bounty to come:

Blackberry flowers are very delicate, with dozens of beautiful golden stamens.

The berries all start out a bright green and then get darker and darker purple as they ripen.  Of course, the darkest colored berries, the ones that look black, are the sweetest and most delectable.  This last hike I had all the berries I could eat, and it’s still early in the season.

Typical cluster of Himalayan blackberries

In researching this post, I discovered, to my surprise, that I’m probably seeing two species of blackberry plants in the canyons:  the California blackberry (Rubus ursinus) and the Himalayan or Armenian blackberry (Rubus armeniacus).  The Himalayan blackberry is actually considered an invasive species.

Since its introduction in the 1880’s, the plant has spread widely and become naturalised.  But because of its tasty fruit, it usually isn’t considered a pest.  It seems to be the dominant blackberry in Strawberry Canyon.

There are two easy ways to tell the difference between the two species.

First: the flowers of the California blackberry (left) are much more slender than that of the Himalayan (right):

Left: California blackberry (Rubus ursinus) Right: Himalayan or Armenian blackberry (Rubus armeniacus)

Second, as is explained at Kay Loughman’s most excellent Wild Life in the North Hills website, the Californian has a three leaves and the Himalayan typically has five leaves.  (The stems of the Himalayan are red and very thorny.)

Three Leaves = California blackberry — Five Leaves = Himalayan blackberry

The Summer Ladybugs of the Canyon

As I was walking up the lower Strawberry Canyon fire trail, I soon encountered hundreds and hundreds of flying ladybugs.  They seemed to congregate in the warmest, sunniest parts of the of the trail, like this:

The ladybugs loved the warm, sunny places along the Strawberry Canyon fire trail, like this. There are actually hundreds of ladybugs in the air at this spot, but my camera couldn’t pick them up!.

I found very few ladybugs on the plants along the trail; most seemed to be flying about.  It was such a scene of intense activity, compared to the very quiet but huge swarms I found on the blackberry plants last fall after the record October rainstorm:

If you’re lucky, in the fall or early winter, you’ll come upon huge ladybug swarms in Strawberry Canyon, like this one I saw last year.

I tried to catch the beautiful insects on camera, but they moved too fast and my humble camera just wasn’t up to the task, even though the air was thick with them.  Here’s a close-up image of a ladybug flying that I collected some years ago doing research. Like all beetles, to fly, the ladybug has to lift her beautiful wing covers in order to free her wings for flight:

If you want to learn a lot more about ladybugs and see beautiful images of other species, be sure to check out my earlier post They are the Lady(bugs)of the Canyon.

On my way out of Strawberry Canyon, I took this shot across the Canyon to UC Berkeley’s historic Cyclotron:

The historic Berkeley Cyclotron and the North Bay on a gorgeous summer day.

The Western Fence Lizard

Once summer arrives, you can find the Western Fence lizard most places in the Berkeley Hills, but you rarely find them in the cooler, deeper parts of the canyons.  They love the warmth and sun of the upper canyon, and you will often find them sunning themselves on canyon trails and roads.

The Western fence lizard enjoys a variety of habitats from grassland to broken chaparral to woodland and coniferous forests, although they avoid harsh deserts.  I came across this one on the paved road near the top of Panoramic Way, above Claremont Canyon.

Western Fence lizards are also known as Blue-bellies, but unless you catch one or are in a vantage point where a displaying male shows off his underside, you might not know they have blue bellies.  I’ve never been able to get close enough to a displaying male with my camera to catch his underside, but here’s a fine image from Wikimedia that shows it:

“Don’t I have a beautiful blue belly? I wonder if that cute babe over there notices!”

The Western fence lizard can be a long as 21 cm (8 inches), though I’ve only seen one that big to date.  Here’s a juvenile I saw on my last hike.  He had just squirmed around because an ant had tickled him:

“Hey, where’d you go? That tickled!”

And here is a larger Blue-belly with very unusual head markings.  It looked like it had dipped its head into ink!

“The ladies find my black head cap irresistible!”

Vistas from the Claremont Canyon

I hiked out of Strawberry Canyon and crossed over to the trails of Claremont Canyon.  From there, I usually head down Panoramic Way or Dwight Way and back through the UC Berkeley campus. The vistas from the tops of the Hills are different every hike and always so wonderful:

Nearing the end of the upper fire trail where it joins Panoramic Way. You can see the Bay Bridge and San Francisco City in the distance.

Milk Thistle and downtown Oakland in the distance

Looking at the Bay Bridge and San Francisco

The Golden Gate Bridge with distant fog

Flowering agave plants in Claremont Canyon

Goodbye, beloved Hills! Heading home!

May all beings be happy. May all beings find the supreme joy that is beyond all sorrow. And may we meet as friends, some day, in the Hills of Great Beauty!

♥♥♥

The Beauty of the Berkeley Hills-Part 2

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This is the second of a two-part series I’m calling “The Beauty of the Berkeley Hills. You can see Part 1 here:

The Beauty of the Berkeley Hills-Part 1

As I said in Rethinking Berkeley, Naturally! I’m going to try to post more often and have less of a “hard science” aspect to these posts, unlike my Extreme Science blog.

In this second part, I’ve included some of the animals you can run into in the Hills—some you see all the time, and others, like the gray fox, are quite illusive. There are also some amazing skies in this series of photos. As a self-confessed weather nut, I never get tired to seeing the play of clouds over the San Francisco Bay and the Hills.

And so, let’s kick off Part 2 with some images of magnificent Bay Area clouds!

If you click on any of the images below, you can see a higher resoltuion 1600 x 1200 image.

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These clouds, of course, are cirrus, which in this area so often are the heralds of distance storms marching in from the North Pacific for Gulf of Alaska. Cirrus clouds typically form above 23,000 feet (about 7,000m), in the cold region of the troposphere and are typically composed of ice crystals.  In the view looking at the North Bay, you can see both the sweeping cirrus unicus and the denser cirrus fibratus.

This sunset was really dramatic and foreboding. I was in the Hills directly above the UCB Campus, looking across the Bay, past the Campanile (lower right) and toward the Golden Gate Bridge.  A big Pacific storm was approaching, as the rapidly lowering sky foretold.  The clouds in this picture are mostly altostratus and altocumulus, which are medium-level clouds.

This is perhaps my all-time favorite summer picture that I’ve taken in Strawberry Canyon.  To me, it captures just about everything I love about the Berkeley Hills—the Eucalyptus and Oak trees, the beautiful golden hills, and a sky with gorgeous, puffy cumulus.  It was hot, it was summer, and I was on my way up Centennial Drive to my beloved fire trails!

The color of the lichen on the trees in Strawberry Canyon are especially deep and brilliant after a rainstorm.  I love how this yellow species contrasts with the moss.

I’m always amazed at the different moods of the Bay throughout the day.  This grey sunset marked the end of yet another heavy late spring rain storm.

California poppies!  Just seeing them makes me smile.  Did you know Native Americans used  poppy leaves medicinally?  They also ate their seeds.  Extract from the California poppy acts as a mild sedative when smoked, although apparently the effect is much milder than that of opium, which contains a much more powerful class of alkaloids.

If you live in the Bay Area, you’ve probably seen one of these little critters. The Eastern Fox Squirrel (Sciurus nigris) is actually a non-native species, probably introduced to California around the beginning of the 20th century.   You can see them throughout the Berkeley Hills, and there’s quite a population of them on the Berkeley campus.  I’ve yet to see a native Western Gray Squirrel on my hikes, but I keep looking for them.

Eastern Fox Squirrel (left) vs. Western Gray Squirrel (right)

I met this young female Fox Squirrel on the North Campus near the Life Science Building.  If you stop and make a “tchi tchi” noise, you can almost always make a Fox Squirrel stop and see if you have some goodie for them.  Having raised a squirrel from the age of a blind pup, I know lots of squirrel communication sounds, and she seemed amazed at my vocabulary!

This fat and muscular male lives in Strawberry Canyon.  He too was intrigued by my squirrel talk, and stopped to observe me, although the squirrels in the Canyon are much more wary of humans than the ones on campus.

A gray fox!  I wrote about this encounter at this post:

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

I made a lot of noise to get the fox to turn lift its sleepy head and turn toward me.  No doubt he wondered what the crazy human was doing! But I was so excited to see a gray fox  that I didn’t want my picture to be nothing but a gray lump on that fallen tree.  I wish I had had a telephoto lens to see more of this magnificent creature, which apparently, is one of the few foxes that can climbs trees.  This one was sleeping at least 20 feet off the ground. (Be sure to click image for close-up!)

Here is a small cluster of ladybugs I saw this spring.  In October of 2009, after our record rainstorm,  I came upon an astonishing gathering of what had to have been hundreds of thousands of ladybugs along the fire trail off Centennial Drive.  I wrote about this amazing ladybug gathering here:

They are the Lady(bugs) of the Canyon

Here is an amazing insect you are apt to run across in the Berkeley Hills, especially after a rain, the aptly named banana slug.  This one was nearly 10 inches long and as big around as a small banana.  Many people find them “gross,” and I know it can be what we humans call a “pest,” but I think it’s a beautiful animal.  I watched this one for about 10 minutes as it gracefully moved about 3 feet from the pavement into some vegetation.

Down on its level, laying on my stomach to watch how its muscles propelled it along on a layer of mucous, I was reminded of a majestic (albeit, miniature) ocean liner as it glided along the pavement.

I came across this small (maybe 10 inch) snake walking down from the North Gate of the UCB campus.  I’m not sure what species it might be, but my best guess is some species of Sharp-tailed Snake (Contia tenuis)—maybe a Forest Sharp-tailed snake.  If some herpetologist wants to weight in, that would be great! It was moving very fast to try to take cover, and I barely caught it on camera before it disappeared into the foliage.

Here’s another view of the Bay and Golden Gate Bridge near sunset.  A Pacific storm was heading our way, and the high cirrus and cirrostratus clouds that appeared in the West at the beginning of the day were beginning to give way to lower level altocumulus and stratocumulus.

The height of some of the redwoods in Strawberry Canyon is astounding.  I estimated that most of the trees in this grove were well over 110-120 feet tall.  Now that I live in Northern California, I hope some day soon to see the coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens), the tallest trees on earth, at Redwood National and State Parks.

I loved how these California poppies found a way to grow out of near solid rock along the upper fire trail at Strawberry Canyon.

When spring arrives in the Berkeley Hills, you really should climb up into them and see for yourself  how deep, rich, and varied the greens are.  After being brown all summer and through much of the winter, the hills are transformed by the winter and spring rains into an emerald wonderland.

One of the delights of walking up the streets that head up into the Berkeley Hills above the City of Berkeley are the little paths and well-kept lanes and walks that connect the lower and higher levels of the hills.  Here’s one of my favorite paths (for privacy, I won’t say where.) If you don’t have a copy, I highly recommend getting the Map of Berkeley Pathways which is put out by the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association.

More spring green near the top of Claremont Canyon.

I’ll end this post with a photo of a glorious sunset taken from the hills right above the UCB campus.  (You can see the Campanile behind  one of the Eucalyptus.)  I hope this two-part series, “The Beauty of the Berkeley Hills” will inspire you to explore the Hills yourself and with loved ones and to always be alert for ways to preserve and protect this amazing natural treasure right at our doorsteps.

May we meet as friends, some day, in the Hills of Great Beauty!

♥♥♥

The Beauty of the Berkeley Hills-Part 1

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Berkeley Hills (red box) – Part of the Pacific Coast Ranges

Having taken the pressure off myself to write a second “science” blog (one of my two other blogs is Goodheart’s Extreme Science) I hope to get out more regular posts about my beloved Berkeley Hills.

But first, a word about that term, “Berkeley Hills.” When I use that term, I mean the geological formation that is part of the Pacific Coast Ranges, not just the hills immediately above the City of Berkeley.

So, peace, dear friends in Oakland, and other beautiful cities abutting these lovely hills! I know how beautiful the hills are above you as well, because I often hike there:

Looking into Claremont Canyon

Here’s how Wikipedia explains it:

The Berkeley Hills are a range of the Pacific Coast Ranges that overlook the northeast side of the valley that surrounds San Francisco Bay. They were previously called the “Contra Costa Range/Hills”, but with the establishment of Berkeley and the University of California, the current usage was applied by geographers and gazetteers.

Tectonically, the Berkeley Hills are bounded by the major Hayward Fault along their western base, and the minor Wildcat Fault on their eastern side. The highest peaks are Vollmer Peak (elevation 1,905 feet/581m), Grizzly Peak (elevation 1,754 feet/535 m) and Round Top (elevation 1,761 feet/537m), an extinct volcano, and William Rust Summit 1,004 feet.

With that clarified, let’s take a look at some of my favorite recent images from the Berkeley Hills.  I hope they inspire you to discover the amazing beauty of the Hills for yourself.  In 15 or 20 minutes, up a trail, and you are in a place of great wonder and beauty, indeed, even a place of Faerie:

The Road Goes Ever On-Tolkien and the Berkeley Hill Trails

If you click on any of the images below, you can see a higher resoltuion 1600 x 1200 image.

Enjoy!

Although my wife and I have only been here a year and a half, I already look forward to seeing the Hills do their dramatic change from emeralds to golds and browns as the virtually rainless summer begins.  This year, because of the very heavy winter and late spring rains, the usual transition was much later than last year.

Summer Grasses and Eucalyptus in Claremont Canyon

This is the near the beginning of the fire trail that runs up the north side of Claremont Canyon.

Fire Trail above Claremont Canyon

Here is a view of the historic UC Berkeley Cyclotron from one of the fire trails in Strawberry Canyon.

Looking Across Strawberry Canyon at the Historic Cyclotron

If you hike late in the Hills, you are often treated to the most beautiful sunsets. Here, I was walking back down from Claremont Canyon toward the Campus.

Sunset over the Berkeley through Eucalyptus

Because of the very heavy winter and spring rains, the Hills were especially lush this year, with explosions of wild flowers everywhere.  This shot looks down into Claremont Canyon from Panoramic Way.

Spring Flowers and Grasses in Claremont Canyon

Many of the trees in lower parts of Strawberry Canyon are covered in beautiful lichen and moss.  I’m always amazed how many species there are and how richly varied the colors can be.

Lichen and Moss in Strawberry Canyon

When the California poppies start to pop up in the Claremont and Strawberry Canyons, and I know spring has really arrived.  I have a special place in my heart for the poppies, because they are part of my earliest childhood memories when my family still lived in California.

California Wild Poppies and Grasses in Claremont Canyon

I am a connoisseur of clouds, and I have to say that the Bay Area has some of the best cirrus clouds I’ve ever seen.  I wish this photo could show more of the incredible traceries and webbing that these particular cirrus had, but at least you can get a feel for it.  I am amazed at how many people don’t really seem to pay attention the sky or clouds.  Some days, the sky can take your breath away. Look up!

Beautiful Cirrus Clouds above Trees near the Life Sciences Building

There are some magnificent Sequoia trees about half-way up the Strawberry fire trail that starts on Centennial Drive.  These hundred-foot plus trees are in the Woodbridge Metcalf Grove, which was planted by University of California students in 1926.  (The little stone marker for this beautiful stand of trees actually reads “Woodbridge Metoale Grove”—not sure why.)

Towering Sequoia near the top of Strawberry Canyon

Spring in Claremont Canyon is just glorious, and the naturalist in me wants to get a good book on the local plants and start learning some names.  I would love any suggestions from readers on good books about the flora or fauna of the area!

Spring in Claremont Canyon

I was really struck by the color of these mushrooms growing on a log.  Again, I wish I could identify species, because I’ve seen so many varieties on my hikes.

Red Fungus after Late Spring Rain

I loved how the moss was growing into the cracks of this rock—one of the more beautiful forms of erosion.

Moss & Small Ferns

More poppies.  Again, when I come upon a clump of these lovely ladies (they always seem like dainty ladies to me), they just make me happy.  I like how the petals close up for the night, or when it’s too cold for them, or too cloudy.  This seems like perfect behavior for the state flower of sunny California.

California Poppies above Strawberry Canyon

One of the things I immediately fell in love with about the Bay Area is how many beautiful trails there are to hike, and how accessible they are.  A ten-minute hike out of Berkeley Campus or East Oakland and you can be in incredible beauty.

Trail Near the top of Panoramic Way

I love the winter storms we have here in the San Francisco Bay area.  The mighty storms from the Pacific are really impressive, though most of them can’t match the fury and grandeur of the Nor’easters I enjoyed (yes, enjoyed, as I confess, I’m a weather nut) when I lived in Boston.

Escape from New England-a weather nut’s confession

Winter Storm Clouds from Lawrence Hall of Science

One of the interesting geological features of this area, and of Southern California, are landslides.  Here’s a small one came across on Panoramic Way after a really heavy rain storm.  You can read more about it here:

Berkeley Hills Landslide

Landslide on Upper Panoramic Way, Berkeley

Here’s one of the beautiful little waterfalls in Strawberry Canyon.  I often stop here and just listen and watch.

Small Waterfall in Strawberry Canyon

This shot was taken coming home after a long hike in Claremont Canyon.  I was thoroughly wet and muddy and happy as a golden lab after a romp in the hills.  As I was coming down Panoramic Way, the storm lifted and I was able to see Oakland and the Bay Bridge, and the City, in the distance.  It was a magical moment.

Coming down Panoramic Way During Rainstorm – the Lights of Oakland in Distance

This was without a doubt one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen some real beauts growing up in the Southwest desert and in New England.  (I’ll share more in a later post.)

Standing on the top of one of the taller hills above Strawberry Canyon, I couldn’t believe my great fortune to be there at that moment, looking at this beautiful Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, and a sky on fire.  I hope you see such a sunset one day.  It is truly a great, great blessing to be alive on this beautiful planet and see its wonders.

Fiery November Sunset Over San Francisco Bay

May we meet as friends, some day, in the Hills of Great Beauty!

♥♥♥

Rethinking Berkeley, Naturally!

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My posts to Berkeley, Naturally! have slowed down to the point where I realize I need to re-think the goals of this blog. Originally, I had hoped to make Berkeley, Naturally! a kind of science/nature blog, similar to my other blog Goodheart’s Extreme Science.

But with three blogs to write for and look after, it’s become apparent to me that I can’t be as ambitious with Berkeley, Naturally! as I had hoped. It will need to be more of a nature/photo blog and less of a science oriented blog, although it will always have a science and nature lover’s perspective.

When I have time, though, I’ll probably still want to do in-depth posts with like these:

They Are the Ladybugs of the Canyon

Berkeley Hills Landslide

Source Area – Where the Slope Gave Way

Escape from New England—A Weather Nut’s Confession

I get up in to the Berkeley Hills three or four times a week, and always take my camera, so I will have lots of images to share, and observations. Stop by and have a look!

The Berkeley Hills are calling!

Berkeley Hills-El Niño Storms Hit Hard

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All my East Coast friends that used to live in the San Francisco Bay Area have told me how much they envy the weather out here—especially when the windchill is say, 20 below zero and snow and ice are everywhere! But they always warn, “True, the weather there is mostly wonderful, but wait until the winter rains come!

Well, they came, and I have to say, I’m impressed! The storms that march in from the North Pacific are indeed amazing, powerful storms, with huge amounts of water and energy.

As a weather buff, I knew this was coming, and in fact, have been looking forward to it. (See “Escape from New England-a weather nut’s confession“)

It’s El Niño Time!

We are in the middle of what’s called a “moderate” El Niño event (technically, the phenomenon is called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation ). The bottom line is ocean temperatures in the Pacific have changed dramatically, shifting global air masses, and allowing far more of the amazing storms that form in the Aleutian Low and in the Northern Pacific to strike all along the California coast.

(I’m going to do an in-depth discussion on El Niño in a later post, but if you’re interested, in the “weather nut’s confession” post, I explain the basic mechanism of storm genesis in this area, and the Aleutian Low is one of the very big players.)

Here Comes the Rain! ( And we need it!)

For now, suffice it to say that the rails are greased for all that moisture and energy that are often blocked off by semi-permanent high pressure to head our way the rest of this winter. And head our way they have! Today marks the passage of the third, and most powerful storm, in string of storms that have pounded both Northern and Southern California with flooding rain, snow, high winds, and even an apparent tornado in the Long Beach area Tuesday afternoon! (See “Rare Mesocyclone/Tornado Hits Southern California” at AccuWeather Ken Clark’s terrific Western US Weather Blog.)

Storm Surf in Pacifica – Paul Sakuma/AP

Petaluma Flooding – Brant Ward – The Chronicle

These last three low pressure systems have caused considerable damage with twenty-foot surf, winds over 80 mph, and flash floods.  Some areas have gotten over 6 inches of rain. Mudslides and debris flows have been a special problem in southern California, as they often are:

Even so, the development of this El Niño is not all bad. For one thing, the surfers at Mavericks, near Half Moon Bay, love the enormous swells that come with these powerful storms:

Storm Surf at Mavericks

But most of all, it’s bringing much-needed rain and snow to California and to the drought-parched Southwest. (The problem in El Niño winters is getting too much rain too fast.)

Here in the Bay Area and the Sierras, the heavy rain and snow are very good news. Due to a drought over the last three years, statewide reservoirs are still just at 74 percent of average to date, so all of this rain is a big boost.

The good news is that the Sierra snowpack, where the bulk of California’s water supply comes from, is now at 96 percent of normal, and will only pile higher with each new storm this winter.

Heavy Sierra Nevada Snows

The prognostication is that this very wet pattern will continue until spring, and if you look out in the north Pacific, you can see the next set of impressive storms are already forming and heading our way:

Pacific Storms Lining Up – The Weather Channel

Storm Scenes on UCB Campus and in the Berkeley Hills

Here in Berkeley, we got several inches of rain and wind gusts over 50 mph. Powerful thunderstorms embedded in the low pressure system actually produced hail, a rarity in this area. I wanted to take  pictures in the Berkeley Hills as each storm system passed through, but I would have needed an underwater camera!  In between storms, I did get some cool storm images. (All the images below are “clickable” for larger versions.)

During a break in the rain, I went out to see how the storm had affected the Berkeley campus.  The newly repaired and renovated Campanile had weathered the storm just fine:

and the campus was  a sea of umbrellas as students scurried to classes:

I did see a fair amount of tree damage from the high winds of the thunderstorms.  The Eucalyptus seemed fine, but I saw a fair amount of lost limbs with the red woods:

The north divide of Strawberry Creek runs in front of the Life Sciences building.  The debris line on the grass shows how high the creek got during the some of the torrential downpours:

Leaving the campus, I headed up Centennial Drive into Strawberry Canyon itself.   The Creek was really full, and even hours after the last heavy downpour, water was pouring into it from its tributaries:

On the hike up into the Canyon, I was once again struck by how beautiful the lichen and moss on the trees look, especially after a rain:

About half-way up the lower Strawberry Canyon  fire trail,  a thunderstorm cell moved through the canyon, and I got totally soaked:

But, I loved it.  Hiking in the rain, or in a storm, in the Berkeley Hills is one of my favorite things to do.  The rain makes everything so clean and  beautiful, and the smells and sounds are so intense.

As I got higher up the fire trail, I crossed over to Claremont Canyon.  Looking out at Oakland, I could see two strong thunderstorms moving through:

Looking north toward El Cerrito, I could see another powerful storm in the northern part of San Francisco Bay:

At this particular moment, San Francisco was in-between thunderstorm cells and catching a small break in the clouds (that line of lights on the right side of the picture, by the way, is University Avenue in Berkeley)

Soon, it was getting pretty dark, so I headed down from the fire trail onto Panoramic Way:

As the darkness closed in, I got one more photo of San Francisco and the Bay:

As the lights of Bay cities came alive, I thought to myself how blessed I am to live in Berkeley and in the Bay Area.  The storms of winter and  El Niño are all just part of the wonder of one of the most beautiful places in the world.

(In my next post, I’m going to show a large mudslide I discovered yesterday in the Berkeley Hills on Panoramic Way and discuss the mechanics of mudslides and debris flows.  Stay tuned!)

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!