Skaggs Island with Michael – 23 March 2015

Here are the minutes from the last “meeting”, your additions and corrections are always most welcome – keep me on the straight and narrow, thanks much. Lew

Alcatraz and Angel Island are well known for their locations in San Francisco Bay. But how does Skaggs Island fit into their universe? Found in the northern part of the greater bay known as San Pablo Bay, Skaggs at once shows just how big the Bay used to be as well as sharing a history of the start of Safeway Markets and cold war derring do.

Skaggs Island, an area below water level, was hewn from the Bay with hand-built levees. The new land was used to raise salt tolerant oat hay for the horse population of San Francisco. Eventually the property was sold to M. B. Skaggs, a hugely successful owner of a cash and carry grocery store chain that eventually formed the start of Safeway Markets. In 1941 the Navy took over the property for a US Naval Radio Station paying Skaggs $53. an acre for his 3310 acres. A smaller portion of 1092 acres was sold to William Haire. The Navy agreed to keep Haire’s purchase “dry and farmable by pumping out water and maintaining levees”. The Navy then proceeded to develop the Skaggs property making it into an enormous listening post for cold war “games”. ttp://

Now fortunately the tide is returning to these areas that had been appropriated from the Bay. The tidal mudflats, salt water marshes and the fresh water wetlands are coming back. A mosaic of governmental and private organizations have combined to make this restoration a reality.

Skaggs Island southern entrance is off Highway 37 and just past another of our hiking destinations at Boggs Island

Our reception committee of one is already checking out the mudflats. This adult American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana) is decked out in his breeding plumage.

Michael is talking about “reclamation”, a word that can mean different things depending on your orientation. Was the original gold mining baron who leveed the land here reclaiming it from the Bay or are we and the various conservation organizations now the real reclaimers?

Putting a finer point on it

As we walked along, there was a sulfury smell from the wall of wild radishes.
In the background is a wooden causeway for accessing the huge power transmission poles that march across the area.

Cousin of our welcoming Avocet, a Black-Necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus) finds something of interest – long red legs in the morning sun.

Along with wooden causeways, these enormous electrical towers march across this land. In the background we can see the distinctive outline of Mt. Tamalpais and a FedEx truck intent on his deliveries.
It was on a stormy night on October 25th, 1991 that Bill Graham, Melissa Gold and the pilot of the helicopter, Steve Kahn crashed into one of these transmission towers and were all killed.’s-golden-road-blog-bill-graham-20-years-gone

Note the reference to “your” wildlife.

We found a Great Egret feather and Michael was able to identify which wing and what location for us from its size and curve.

Friendly guy from Marin/Sonoma Mosquito & Vector Control District greeted us warmly and then walked off like a cowboy with two six guns, arms at the ready, mosquitoes be warned.

A line of Eucalyptus over towards Boggs Island and the beautiful multicolored greens of the marsh. Is that Mt. Burdell?

Not quite a bridge to nowhere but a very substantial crossing for a flooded marsh – maybe, just maybe DOD money.

Armand enjoys some tracks in the dried mud below the bridge.

How many bees can you spot in the picture? The abatement guy warned us about a nest of honey bees on the far side of the bridge. This provided an occasion for Michael, who used to raise bees, to share some amazing information about their hives and lives. You’ve seen beekeepers smoking the hive areas when they are working with the bees. This triggers a pattern with them anticipating fire and the need to flee.
In order to prepare for the journey they eat honey for energy and this “meal” mellows them out so that the keeper can work with the hive without being stung. When the keeper’s box becomes too crowded, he can always add another level to accommodate the population increase.
But when this is in the wild, it triggers an exodus of part of the hive and the swarm begins seeking a new location. It’s the “old” queen and not the new one who takes off in this quest with a large group of worker bees.

Michael was remembering this moment on one of our hikes at Rush Creek Open Space Preserve, this one on 5 May 2008. The visual aid almost above his head is one of these honey bee swarms en route to a new home.

We come to an unadvertised gate but no matter, improvisation is what life is all about.

Sentinel beyond the gate

Michael talked to us about his recent trip to Baja California, Armando and Bridget were on board. He sent us some swell videos of petting Gray Whales, the amazing flying Mobulas (Manta Rays) and the distinctive flukes of diving whales.

Here he also shared some wonderful experiences – rare and remarkable moments on this trip observing Sperm Whales. They dive dramatically straight down into the total darkness of the deep ocean unlike other whales that dive diagonally. When they reach 500 to 1000 meters, they seem to be in their hunting “ground” – they are perhaps capable of even 2500 meters. Michael talked of struggles with giant squid in these dark recesses and scars on the sides of the whale’s bodies from these duels in the depths. When the Sperm Whale finds its prey by echolocation, the whale concentrates sound using its spermaceti organ for a blast towards its target, stunning it into submission.

Michael also talked about the deep ocean communication between these whales. The sounds of one pod have a unique language that members of the group recognize and the sound can be carried as if on a deep transmission line for miles, er, kilometers. He compared these deep communications to that of African Elephants which have great dexterity with remarkably deep sound thresholds that we are unable to hear but that can travel for many miles and be understood by other elephants. There’s a close “kinship” between these enormous and magnificent creatures of sea and land.

Here’s a detailed description of Sperm Whales designed for teachers by an equally whimsical and fictitious Dr. Galapagos. Then some marine recordings of the Sperm Whale and a rich link on the sounds of the African Elephant.

Off to lunch through this mix of natives and exotics.

Ladybug Beetle hard at work in the shrubbery along the way –

Picnicking in the high grass

Fixer upper with great views, native landscaping, lovely weathered look and a motivated seller.

Mud shining in the sunlight, what mudflats are all about. Sorry, I have to give a link to the glorious mud of Flanders and Swann’s delightful “The Hippopotamus Song” which I may have mentioned before:

We had a view from the bridge, now one of the bridge.

Returning footsteps which are hard to leave on macadam.

Wrapping it up or is it rapping it up?

The return, it’s all a blur.

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