Tag Archives: wonder

Beautiful San Francisco Bay Sunset from Berkeley’s Cyclotron Road

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Watching the sun set over the San Francisco Bay is one of the great pleasures of climbing in the Berkeley Hills near sundown.  Some evenings, when the cloud are just right and not too dense or thick, the sunset can take your breath away.

This sunset, in March, was one such sunset.  When I saw the the combination of altocumulus and cirrocumulus clouds moving in during the day, I suspected I was in for a treat that evening. So, as the sun began to set, I  headed up Hearst Ave from the North Gate  to the lovely hills just above Cyclotron Road—one of my favorite spots to watch sunsets.  As you can see, I wasn’t disappointed!

The changing sky and cloud colors were just magical!

I’ve put the images in sequential order to show how the colors shifted and changed, minute to minute.

About halfway through the image gallery, there is a nice sequence of the sun disappearing over San Francisco.

The gallery ends with some lovely images of silhouettes of Eucalyptus trees and the famous Berkeley Campanile (Sather Tower).

For your viewing enjoyment, the images in the gallery are all 1600×1200.  Feel free to download them for  your personal use.

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Krishnamurti on a Nature Walk

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Krishnamurti 1I just posted to one of my sister blogs, Metta Refuge, about the great spiritual teacher and visionary J. Krishnamurti. The post is called “Krishnamurti-An Uncompromising Teacher.” If you’re interested in being more present, more alive to the beauty of life and nature, I think you’ll find it worth a look.

I mention him at my Berkeley blog, because I want to share some of his nature writings about his walks in the hills around Ojai, California.

As was the case with Krishnamurti on his walks, my walks in the Berkeley Hills are a kind of meditation. Maybe they are for you too. Meditation in its essence simply means being totally present and mindful. It means being alive to what is, without additional thought or preconception, without reference to the past, and with great love and openness to everything, just as it is.

In one sense, this kind of free, “choiceless awareness,” to use Krishnamurti’s term, is at odds with being a scientific observer. I love bringing my knowledge of the earth and life sciences to my walk. But I sometimes find I really miss out if all I do on a hike is note and catalog. Seeing a “Eucalyptus tree,” I can miss seeing the tree itself, just as it is prior to thought and naming.

So, on my walks, I first seek to establish a basic presence and mindful.  I let go, get in touch with my breath, and relax into mindful presence. I seek to drop all thinking and just accept and love what I see—free of thought or labels.  I want to be present enough to really see a tree or animal before I “tag” it with scientific names and knowledge, When I’m “on my game,” I seem to move effortlessly back and forth between being a “scientist” and a “meditator,” and what is interesting is that with deep absorption, they just become one thing, me being me, at one with nature.

Well, enough “dharma talk.” Let’s listen in on Krishnamurti as he recounts one of his Ojai walks—his wise words apply just as much to hikes in our beloved Berkeley Hills as the Hills of Ojai.

(Note: You can click on any of the images below to see a large image.)

Krishnamurti To Himself
Ojai California Friday 11Th March, 1983

Krishnamurit Nature Walk 1 “It was really a most lovely clear beautiful morning. There was dew on every leaf. And as the sun rose slowly, quietly spreading over the beautiful land, there was great peace in this valley. The trees were full of oranges, small ones but many. Gradually the sun lit every tree and every orange. When you sat on that veranda overlooking the valley, there were the long shadows of the morning. The shadow is as beautiful as the tree. We wanted to go out, not in a car, but out among the trees, smell the fresh air and the scent of many oranges and the flowers, and hear the sound of the earth.

Later on one climbed right to the very top of the hill, overlooking the wide valley. The earth doesn’t belong to anyone. It is the land upon which all of us are to live for many years, ploughing, reaping and destroying.

You are always a guest on this earth and have the austerity of a guest. Austerity is far deeper than owning only a few things. The very word austerity has been spoilt by the monks, by the sannyasis, by the hermits. Sitting on that high hill alone in the solitude of many things, many rocks and little animals and ants, that word had no meaning.

Krishnamurti Nature Walk 3Over the hills in the far distance was the wide, shining, sparkling sea. We have broken up the earth as yours and mine – your nation, my nation, your flag and his flag, this particular religion and the religion of the distant man. The world, the earth, is divided, broken up. And for it we fight and wrangle, and the politicians exult in their power to maintain this division, never looking at the world as a whole. They haven’t got the global mind. They never feel nor ever perceive the immense possibility of having no nationality, no division, they can never perceive the ugliness of their power, their position and their sense of importance.

They are like you or another, only they occupy the seat of power with their petty little desires and ambitions, and so maintain apparently, as long as man has been on this earth, the tribal attitude towards life. They don’t have a mind that is not committed to any issue, to any ideals, ideologies – a mind that steps beyond the division of race, culture, that the religions man has invented.

Krishnamurti Nature Walk 6Governments must exist as long as man is not a light to himself, as long as he does not live his daily life with order, care, diligently working, watching, learning. He would rather be told what to do. He has been told what to do by the ancients, by the priests, by the gurus, and he accepts their orders, their peculiar destructive disciplines as though they were gods on this earth, as though they knew all the implications of this extraordinarily complex life.

Sitting there, high above all the trees, on a rock that has its own sound like every living thing on this earth, and watching the blue sky, clear, spotless, one wonders how long it will take for man to learn to live on this earth without wrangles, rows, wars and conflict. Man has created the conflict by his division of the earth, linguistically, culturally, superficially. One wonders how long man, who has evolved through so many centuries of pain and grief, anxiety and pleasure, fear and conflict, will take to live a different way of life.

Lynx in TreeAs you sat quietly without movement, a bob cat, a lynx, came down. As the wind was blowing up the valley it was not aware of the smell of that human being. It was purring, rubbing itself against a rock, its small tail up, and enjoying the marvel of the earth. Then it disappeared down the hill among the bushes. It was protecting its lair, its cave or its sleeping place. It was protecting what it needs, protecting its own kittens, and watching for danger. It was afraid of man more than anything else, man who believes in god, man who prays, the man of wealth with his gun, with his casual killing. You could almost smell that bob cat as it passed by you. You were so motionless, so utterly still that it never even looked at you; you were part of that rock, part of the environment.

Why, one wonders, does man not realize that one can live peacefully, without wars, without violence; how long will it take him, how many centuries upon centuries to realize this? From the past centuries of a thousand yesterdays, he has not learned. What he is now will be his future.

Krishnamurti Nature Walk 4It was getting too hot on that rock. You could feel the gathering heat through your trousers so you got up and went down and followed the lynx which had long since disappeared. There were other creatures: the gopher, the king snake, and a rattler (rattle-snake). They were silently going about their business. The morning air disappeared; gradually the sun was in the West. It would take an hour or two before it set behind those hills with the marvelous shape of the rock and the evening colors of blue and red and yellow. Then the night would begin, the night sounds would fill the air; only late in the night would there be utter silence. The roots of heaven are of great emptiness, for in emptiness there is energy, incalculable, vast and profound.”

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Surprised by Turkeys in the Berkeley Hills!

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Last Friday the rain gods were busy, so instead of tramping the mud on the fire trails, I decided to take a walk up Centennial Drive to the Lawrence Hall of Science (LHS) in the Berkeley Hills above UCB campus.

Maybe it’s because I grew up in the desert, but I love walking and hiking in the rain. The colors of the plants and earth seem more vivid, and the gray skies somehow make the green hills seem even more green. I’ve also noticed that I usually see more wildlife on a rainy day than a sunny one. Maybe it’s because there are fewer humans out, or maybe some animals like foraging in the rain.

So, I expected to see some animals on the hike, but was happily surprised to come upon this on Stadium Rim Way just above the California Memorial Stadium:

Wild Turkeys—not your typical Thanksgiving gobbler!

Wild turkeys! I am a huge fan of this native American bird. I consider it the American peacock:

But I didn’t always appreciate what amazing birds turkeys really are. Like a lot of people, my early impressions of turkeys were from the standpoint of Thanksgiving. I remember being told as a kid that turkeys were so dumb, they’d look up in the sky during rain and drown, and other nonsense. (See the debunking Snopes site: http://www.snopes.com/critters/wild/turkey.asp)

The problem is, as the Snopes article points out: “Domesticated turkeys are not necessarily ‘stupid,’ but because they have been bred in captivity for so many generations, they lack the survival skills of their wild cousins: They’re weak, they’re fat, they’re not agile, they can’t run very fast, and they can’t fly.”

[Update 2010-02-04 – There’s a fascinating article on the domestication of wild turkeys at ScienceNOW called the Turkeys: So Good People Tamed Them Twice.  It explains what molecular anthropologists have been able to figure out about who first domesticated turkeys and when it occured.]

The turkey—one remarkable bird

The wild turkey is the very antithesis of our domesticated Thanksgiving bird. It’s wicked smart (“cunning” is a term hunters often use), illusive, and agile. And it’s a big, powerful bird.

An adult wild tom turkey typically weighs between 10 and 25 lbs and can be over 4 feet tall.  That’s one big bird!  Females typically weigh half as much and can be up to three feet tall.  The wingspan of turkeys range from four to nearly five feet.  The record-sized adult male wild turkey, according to the National Wildlife Turkey Federation, was 38 lb!

Despite its size, a wild turkey can run over 20 mph and uses that five-foot wingspan to hits speeds of 55 mph in flight. The wild turkey can defend itself, too. The spurs on a 20 lb. tom turkey make it a formidable foe, as many a hapless dog has found out when cornering one.

The turkeys one encounters in the Berkeley Hills are fairly used to humans, and it’s amazing how close you can get to them. This rafter (flock) of turkeys seemed to be all the same size and age —they seemed to be from the same brood. They walked up Stadium Rim Way for several hundred feet and then nonchalantly moved up the hill away from the Stadium, feeding as they went.

Centennial Road—beautiful lichen and black-tailed deer

As you head up Centennial Road up Strawberry Canyon, you’ll see some wonderful examples of lichens on most of the trees. I plan on doing an in-depth post about lichens later. They are fascinating plants, but identifying lichens is much more difficult than identifying vascular plants. Each lichen is a complete microscopic world with unique characteristics, and they can be very hard to tell apart.

The rain made the vivid green and yellow of two species of lichen quite striking:

About a quarter of a mile from the Berkeley Botanical Garden, I spotted two black-tailed deer grazing on the new grass that’s been springing up with our late fall rains:

Late Fall storm from Lawrence Hall of Science

It’s a pretty steep hike up to the Lawrence Hall of Science, but the view is always worth it. Even on a stormy day, unless you’re fogged in, the vistas can be wonderful, especially if you’re a fan of dramatic clouds.  In these shots, you can see Sather Tower just coming out of the low clouds, with the distant San Francisco Bay mostly hidden:

Compare these views to this one from midsummer:

And here’s a view looking over to Oakland:

That golden stream in the distance is Highway 24, the Grove Shafter Freeway, curving through Oakland. This picture doesn’t do it justice; It looked like a river of molten gold—magical!

Going home—caressing clouds and a talisman

On the way back down Centennial Drive from LHS, the rain lifted some, and there were beautiful views of Strawberry Canyon. I alway love to watch the interplay between low clouds, fogs, and the Berkeley Hills.

Finally, in the grass along the road, I found one this lone feather, a final reminder of the rafter of turkeys I’d seen earlier. For me, it was a talisman of a remarkable bird that makes the Berkeley Hills such a wonderful place to explore.

 

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

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The Road goes ever on and on

Down from the door where it began.

Now far ahead the Road has gone,

And I must follow, if I can,

Pursuing it with eager feet,

Until it joins some larger way

Where many paths and errands meet.

And whither then? I cannot say.”

~ J. R. R. Tolkien

When hiking in the Berkeley Hills, I often think of this poem from The Lord of the Rings. In some places, I half expect to see a Hobbit or Ranger trampling along the trail. (Click images for larger version.)

The Road Goes Ever On

In other dark places, I wonder if a Ring Wraith might not be lurking behind some tree or rock.

Ring Wraith Moon

And in some, I can almost feel the presence of the Elves, the beauty of the trees, light, and sky is so breath-taking.

Elven Skies

It was my happy privilege to read The Lord of the Rings while stationed in the Army in Augsburg, Germany. The trilogy was transformative for me, because somehow, reading it gave me back the “magic” of nature, the wonder of it. I’d somehow lost this feeling over the years through a combination of materialistic reductionism and a starkly dualistic religion that made this world at best a counterfeit of some abstract glorious realm that transcended material life.

As the wonders of the Tolkien’s story-telling unfolded, I felt my heart open up again to the beauty of nature all around me. In the incredible beauty of Black Forest trails, I was in Middle-Earth!

Bavarian Road

The charm of Bavaria, the rustic houses and even the dress of the people you’d meet on the trails, all lent themselves to the feel you’d stepped into a fairy tale. I can only image that the Cotswolds of England could more feel like Middle-Earth in the look and atmosphere.

I often marveled at this transformation of my heart. Yes, the story was beautiful, and wondrous, but why did it change my perception of nature so much?

Then, sometime later, I read Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories” and everything made sense.

What happened to me was what happened to Tolkien himself, though the “magic” of words: “It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.”

It was the wonder of the “mundane”—of stone, wood, tree, and grass, and the simple pleasures of food and true companions—that Tolkien’s story gave back to me, and it has never left. Genuine presence, being here and now, is “fairy,” is “magic.” It does transform everything into “Middle-Earth”—or the Pure Lands of Buddhism or the kingdom of heaven of Christianity and Islam.

As Tolkien says so beautifully:

“Far more powerful and poignant is the effect [of joy] in a serious tale of Faerie. In such stories, when the sudden turn comes, we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through.”

jan@messersmith.nameMadang Sunrise – Jan Messersmith♥♥♥

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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!

♥♥♥

Berkeley Hills-Observations and Thoughts-July 1, 2010

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The Trail Goes Ever On

I’ve decided to include a journal of some of my walks and share my observations and thoughts about my hikes in the Hills here on Berkeley, Naturally!

This is the first entry, appropriately enough, on the first day of July. (I’ll date these by my post date, not by the day of my walk.)  May all my readers have a great 4th of July weekend!

July 1, 2010

Wonders on this hike:

Amazing blue skies. Golden, shimmering summer grasses dancing in the warm wind caressing the Hills. The warmth of the sun coming through my T-shirt and making me wonderfully hot as I labored up the slopes. The cool breeze from the Bay evaporating my sweat.

Plum trees are already dropping their sweet fruit—yummy treats on  some of the streets and trails. Also, the first ripe blackberries are starting to show up among their green brethren. I picked and ate a handful. There will be many, many more to enjoy throughout the summer and into the fall.

Western Fence Lizard, stopping his duel to check me out

Spent 10 minutes watching a Western Fence lizard defend its territory against another male. Much head-bobbing, rapid body push-ups, and posturing; no violence.

Plaintive red-tailed hawk, sitting in the shadow of the tree

Saw a very young red-tailed hawk crying plaintively in a tree—for its mother?

Came upon a black beetle on the trail just as a runner was coming; stood between the beetle and the runner so the little hunter wouldn’t be crushed. Waited until beetle moved off the trail, foraging for food.

Hiked into a huge stand of wild rosemary. Made some cuttings to bring home to Sarah and for spices for our cooking.

Coming down Panoramic Way, met a wonderful tortoise-shell cat who demanded that she be stroked and petted until she’d had enough—and then plopped over in the sun as if to say, “OK, your job is done. I won’t be needing you until the next time we meet.”

Then met a wonderful old woman who saw me loving the cat. She said she’d loved her earlier and that the cat lived in the area. But, she didn’t know her name. I showed her the cut rosemary; she drew a big, long breath of it, and said, “Wonderful!” I told her where she could find it and she beamed. She ambled very, very slowly up the hill. I thought she was a miracle of beauty and grace.

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!

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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!

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They are the Lady(bugs) of the Canyon

Standard

“Trina takes her paints and her threads
And she weaves a pattern all her own
Annie bakes her cakes and her breads
And she gathers flowers for her home
For her home she gathers flowers
And Estrella, dear companion
Colors up the sunshine hours
Pouring music down the canyon-
Coloring the sunshine hours
They are the ladies of the canyon”
~ Joni Mitchell, Ladies of the Canyon

The Big October Rainstorm

A couple of days after the big October 2009 rainstorm, I headed up Centennial Drive to catch the fire trail up into the the hills of Strawberry Canyon.

Heading Up Centennial Drive to the Fire Trail

The Fire Trailhead on Centennial Drive

As San Francisco Bay Area residents will recall, that October 13th storm was epic—the heaviest October rain in nearly 50 years! San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Livermore all set rainfall records for a single day in October.

The Big Rain of October 2009

Nearly 4 inches fell in downtown Oakland, almost 20 percent of what the city usually gets during an entire year! In the Santa Cruz Mountains, rainfall totals approached 10 inches, and Angel Island record 77 mph gusts. At one point, 193,000 residents were without power!

The fire trail up Strawberry Canyon showed a lot of erosion, and there was still heavy runoff in Strawberry Creek itself. Especially near the higher part of the fire trail, where the winds had been higher, there were good-sized tree limbs littering the trail.  Interested to see what I’d find, I started up the trail head, only to come upon:

In Strawberry Canyon, an Amazing Sight!

I hadn’t gone far up the trail from the Centennial Drive parking lot, when I noticed something very unusual looking on the alongside the trail.  Something that was subtly moving. Lots and lots of something was moving:

Ladybugs! But not just hundreds, but thousands of them. I could scarcely believe me eyes, the plants were so thick with them.  The more I looked, the more I found:

Hundreds of Thousands of Ladybugs!

I had heard of lady bug gatherings, but I had never seen one myself, and this one was massive. They were mostly in blackberry bushes along the trail, and for at least 20 yards, the plants were thickly coated with them.  (I wish I could convey more of the extent of the swarm, but because the ladybugs were in the bushes, they disappeared in any distant photo I tried to take.)

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! It was astonishing, and somehow touching, to see so many little creatures in a brief moment of community.

The Most Beloved Bug in the World

What we call the ladybug is a beetle of the family coccinellidae. In the UK, Ireland, Australia, Pakistan, and South Africa they are known as ladybirds.

“Ladybug, ladybird, by any name, I’m wonderful!”

If there is a more beloved insect in the world than the ladybug, I don’t know what it would be. It is certainly the all-time favorite insect of children. Few English-speaking people haven’t heard the nursery rhyme, Ladybird, Ladybird:

Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home
Your house is on fire and your children are gone
All except one, and that’s Little Anne
For she has crept under the warming pan.

I remember as a child being rather troubled by this poem. Why is her house on fire? And where have all her children gone? Poor ladybug! At least Little Anne was able to escape unharmed!

“Hey, where did everybody go?”

Here’s another ladybug poem I learned as a child, which some of you may know:

Five Little Ladybugs

Five little ladybugs climbing up a door
One flew away then there were four

Four little ladybugs sitting on a tree
One flew away then there were three

Three Little ladybugs landed on a shoe
One flew away then there were two

Two little ladybugs looking for some fun
One flew away and then there was one

One little ladybug sitting in the sun
She flew away and then there were none

Ladybug Names and Folklore

The beloved ladybug, or ladybird, seems to have some sort of affinity in people’s minds with cows and, well, God. In Ireland, Wales, and Russia, the beetle is called “God’s Little Cow.” In Croatia they are called “God’s Little Sheep.” In Romania, the ladybug is the “Lord’s Cow,” the “Lord’s Oxen,” and even “God’s Hen!” The French call it “the Good Lord’s animal.”

Moo! Moo! Moooooooo!

How did the humble ladybug attain such godliness—and “cow-ness” in the eyes of people all over the world? I did lots of research, but couldn’t find anything definitive. But there is something about a group on them on a plant does somewhat remind me of cows grazing.

Or maybe it’s cow-like the spots? Who knows!

God’s Cow? Wait, that’s me!

Not only does the ladybug have many Godly names, it also has much happy folklore associated with it. As Wikipedia notes:

“In France, ladybirds are considered to be bringers of good weather. In parts of Northern Europe, tradition says that one’s wish is granted if a ladybird lands on oneself (this tradition lives on in North America, where children capture a ladybug, make a wish, and then “blow it away” back home to make the wish come true). In Italy, it is said by some that if a ladybird flies into one’s bedroom, it is considered good luck.

In central Europe, a ladybird crawling across a girl’s hand is thought to mean she will get married within the year. In some cultures they are referred to as fortune bugs. In Russia, a popular children’s rhyme exists with a call to fly to the sky and bring back bread; similarly, in Denmark a ladybird, called a mariehøne (“Mary’s hen”), is asked by children to fly to “our lord in heaven and ask for fairer weather in the morning.”

And of course, Ladybugs are famous for being friends of gardeners and farmers:

“OK, which way to the aphids?”

They have a voracious appetite for aphids and scale insects, especially when the ladybug is in the larval stage:

“Love dem little aphids; aphid’s what I likes to eat”

I remember seeing these little monsters when I was a kid and never realizing they were going to metamorphose into my beloved ladybug!

“Hey, I may be ugly now, but wait until I grow up!”

Some Scientific Facts about Ladybugs

Ladybugs, coccinellidae, are small insects, ranging from 1 mm to 10 mm (0.04 to 0.4 inches). They are commonly scarlet but can also be yellow and orange:

and most, but not all, have their trademark small black spots on their wing covers.

Like your typical beetle, they have black legs, head and antennae. There are 450 species native to North America and over 5,000 species worldwide.

Most coccinellids are predators, and of course are famous for eating aphids and scale insects, as mentioned above:

Aphid: “Hey were did Ed go? He was here just a minute ago!”

But they will also eat eggs and larvae of their own species if prey is scarce. In fact, some species of ladybugs lay infertile eggs with their fertile eggs, apparently to give the larvae something to eat when they are getting started. Momma ladybug is also smart enough to lay her eggs near the prey her larvae need to feed upon. In her lifetime, the female ladybug can lay more than 1000 eggs.

Ladybug Life Cycle – butterflynature.com

The bright, beautiful colors of ladybugs has a purpose: it’s a warning to predators that they taste awful and are even poisonous. Once a predator tastes a ladybug and gets a mouthful of its powerful alkaloid poison, it is not likely to try another one! When attacked, a ladybug will play “dead” and leak foul-smelling toxins from it joints. Some species will even spray a toxin from their abdomen that is venomous to mammals and other insects.

This warning signal is called aposematism, which comes from apo– away, and sematic– sign/meaning. It’s an evolutionary adaptation that benefits both predator and prey, since the warning signal keeps them both from harm.

Monarch butterflies, which we often see passing through the Berkeley Hills, also use aposematism, since they are very nasty tasting.

Aposematism—”Don’t eat me-I don’t taste good!”

The warning signal doesn’t have to be a bright color—the rattlesnakes rattle is an example of sound aposematism, and so is the bad odor of a stink bug.

The Mystery of the Mass Gathering of Ladybugs in Strawberry Canyon

I had heard that ladybug overwinter in huge groups, massing together for warmth (and security, I suppose, given their nasty taste and smell when attacked.) But the incredible mass of ladybugs I found in Strawberry Canyon that day seemed somewhat anomalous to me.

Typically, coccinellids gather on the south (sunny) side of large objects like houses or trees. When they can, they get out of the weather altogether, which can result in them invading houses in the winter, to the dismay of owners:

“Dude, check out the new winter digs!”

These ladybugs were all out in the open, along the side of the trail, and there they would be exposed to rain and the weather. My guess was that the once-in-fifty-year rain had flushed or flooded them out of some overwintering spot. Or maybe, the huge rain has sent the ladybugs of the Bay Area up to the canyon to find their usual overwintering spot. After about 3 days, the mass gathering dispersed. I came up one day, and they were all gone, as mysteriously as they had come.  The ladybugs had “flown away home” and even “Little Anne” was nowhere to be seen!

In the past few weeks, I have started finding small masses of ladybugs here and there in Strawberry Canyon. Their appearance seems to be totally dependent on how warm it has been, which makes sense, since they don’t like to fly when it’s cooler than 55 F°.

Ladybugs of Late Winter

Another Moment of “Faerie” in the Berkeley Hills

Seeing that mass gathering after the October storm may have been a once-in-a-lifetime event. I don’t know. I’ll sure keep my eyes open next fall and early winter for another mass gathering.

What I do know is that seeing hundreds of thousands of beautiful ladybugs coating the blackberry busheswas yet another magical, “faerie” moment in my beloved Berkeley Hills, as I discussed in The Road Goes Ever On-the Berkeley Hill Trails.

If you are ever out hiking about in the Berkeley Hills, keep your eyes open. You bound to see them if you look closely. They are the Ladies of the Canyon!

Here are some great ladybug info links:

http://everything-ladybug.com/ladybug-life-cycle.html

http://www.ladybuglady.com/LadybugsFAQ.htm

http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/bugs/ladybug.html

http://www.ca.uky.edu/entomology/entfacts/ef105.asp

And here are some great accounts of ladybug swarm encounters:

http://richwolf.wordpress.com/2009/07/18/the-attack-of-the-ladybugs/

http://naturefiles.wordpress.com/2009/08/14/lady-bug-swarm-turns-green-mountain-red/

And here is a truly astounding, MUST SEE YouTube video of a truly stupendous ladybug swarm:

Ladybugs Invade & Go Wild – Invasion Covers Home And Trees

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