Las Gallinas Sewer Ponds with Michael – 12/10/18JW

The Las Gallinas Valley Sanitary District is a low profile place fun to hike and a stellar place to observe birds at the end of Smith Ranch Road. The land was obtained by the district in 1956 to replace a failing waste water plant in Santa Venetia to serve the northern San Rafael area. The district is well know for The Sewer Band, LGVST Non-Marching Band, celebrating 60 years of performance and community service.

This area was an original Mexican land grant of 21,679 acres given in 1844 by Governor Manuel Micheltorena to Timothy Murphy and called Rancho San Pedro, Santa Margarita y Las Gallinas. Las Gallinas means “the hens” so at last we have gotten to the birds. Michael observed a flock of starlings in a tree by the parking lot and shared with us the daunting and amazing history of this bird in America with Shakespeare named as a co-conspirator. The European Starling was one of numerous birds that were transported to the United States and beyond by 19th century enthusiasts who wanted to bring familiar birds and plants to their new world homes.
One particularly dedicated devotee of this “migration” was Eugene Schieffelin, “a 19th-century drug manufacturer and Shakespeare fanatic . . who had not properly
understood the law of unintended consequences when he unveiled his master plan.” Just 32 of the original 100 starlings survived after being set free in Central Park in New York City in the 1890s to become a population of about 200 million in North America today. Amazingly the small gene pool did not seem to get in the way.

From the BBC News magazine: “Ironically, starlings are only mentioned once by Shakespeare – in Henry IV Part 1 Hotspur is in rebellion against the King and is thinking of ways to torment him. In Act1 Scene 3 he fantasizes about teaching a starling to say “Mortimer” – one of the king’s enemies. “Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but Mortimer, and give it to him to keep his anger still in motion,” Shakespeare wrote. This link is from a newsletter of the Social Justice Foundation which I just discovered. Their website is well worth exploring. The Social Justice Fund Northwest awards grants for progressive social change.

And don’t miss this remarkable video of murmuration included in the All About Birds article.

I also discovered a superb blog about Poetry and Literature at the Library of Congress by Peter Armenti. He invited a guest poster, AbbyYochelson, who is a reference specialist at the Library’s Main Reading Room, to write “Shakespeare Is For the Birds”. She has done remarkable research with some challenging conclusions.
“ . . I could not prove the link between Mr. Schieffelen or the American Acclimatization Society and Shakespeare with any primary sources. I’m still wondering where all those article authors got their source as no citations were provided, but my imagination conjures a scene of Mr. Schieffelen arguing eloquently for the importance of William Shakespeare—with or without birds.”

In this instance, this isn’t a hot-button issue but “received knowledge” needs to be questioned on occasion.

The day started misty and seemed to signal the possibility of rain but we are just re-learning about rain.

One of the pond islands with a lonely palm tree in its profile. The California Fan Palm is the only one native to the state and is found in isolated areas of the Sonoran and Mojave deserts in the southeastern part of the state. It’s foot print extends to southwestern Arizona and northern Baja California. All the other palms have been imported. Another place they’re found is at In-N-Out Burger franchises planted in an “X” shape. Founder Harry Snyder’s favorite movie was the 1963 comedy classic “It’s a Mad,Mad,Mad,Mad World” in which the cast searches for buried treasure hidden beneath crossed palm trees. Maybe hamburgers are the treasures now?

Palms have been used extensively in business and real estate developments in southern and northern California. Canary Island Palms were chosen to line San Francisco’s Embarcadero after the freeway was torn down following the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. Unfortunately, now many of the trees have contracted a highly contagious fungal disease, Fusarium Wilt, that can ultimately kill them – 34 of the 220 trees had the disease and that was in 2013. To replace them will cost about $35,000 each. A different kind of palm is being used for the replacement, Mexican Fan Palms, less likely to be infected by Fusarium Wilt. “Palms in Twilight” article – Poetic and finely descriptive writing by LA Times staff writer Emily Green

A Snowy Egret perch in the morning mist. For all of his elegance, his call is quite surprising.

Two Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) sketch delicate wakes on the glassy surface. Audubon comments that these birds were brought from in Europe as an ornamental addition to parks and estates in North America. It continues, sadly, that in some places this huge and majestic bird has become common enough to be unpopular and is considered a pest.

Some birds in flight grab out attention as we approach a blooming Eucalyptus tree where the search is on for a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes this bird beautifully. “A tiny bird seemingly overflowing with energy, the Ruby-crowned Kinglet forages almost frantically thought lower branches of shrubs and trees. Its habit of constantly flicking its wings is a key identification clue.”

Pat and I came back on Tuesday looking for the kinglet and were treated to an Ana’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna) sipping some nectar. “This hardy little bird is a permanent resident along our Pacific Coast, staying through the winter in many areas where no other hummingbirds are present. More vocal than most hummingbirds, males have a buzzy song, often given while perched.”

Michael is reading to us from the Birder’s Handbook by Paul Ehrlich and others. Ehrlich you’ll recall is famous for his prescient book, “The Population Bomb”. In line with crossing the “t’s” I wondered if Paul Ehrlich and Paul R. Ehrlich were the same person and was happy to see on Wikipedia that they are indeed.
Here Michael is reading about the diurnal (daytime) hunting birds who have dark face feathers (like line backers) and brow ridges to aid their hunt in the brightness of sunlight to dissipate the glare. Nocturnal would describe night time activities and crepuscular refers to animals active during the in-between times of dawn and dusk – twilight actors.

Michael also told us about the efficiency of the bird respiratory system which is explained succinctly in this NYT archive
Should you want to get a master’s degree on this subject, you could start with this article: I like the dinosaur connection with breathing in birds and the info-graphic of Eleanor Lutz in “3 Different Ways to Breathe”.

He also talked about the bird migrations in the northern hemisphere with often phenomenally long flights from colder climates to warm, food rich locations. He pointed out that this is only true in the northern hemisphere where there is a destination in Central and South America as well as in Africa. Here is a fascinating video of the northern hemisphere migratory patterns:

River Otters are resident in the ponds here, we saw a couple of them swimming on a far side. Here Michael pointed out an otter trail through the foliage, there was otter scat at the top of the trail confirming its use.
We’ve been fortunate to see River Otters at Pt. Reyes National Seashore off Chimney rock, in a pond on the Estero Trail and where else?

The Black-crowned Night Herons were very happily ensconced on this other small island in the first pond. Michael mentioned that this bird is the most widespread heron in the world . . . “breeding on every continent except Antarctica and Australia, where the genus is represented by the Nankeen(or Rufous) Night-Heron. . . .
“Although widespread and common in North America, its coloration and behavior, as well as its nocturnal and crepuscular feeding habits – – especially outside the breeding season – – render it less noticeable than many diurnal herons.”

A Red-winged Blackbird with just a suggestion of his blazing red-orange epaulettes in his favorite environment – cattails.

Canada Geese coming in for a not so graceful landing, usually I recall water landings which are as smooth as a Pan Am Clipper. We saw them here and heard their fine honking often during the day. Michael reminds us occasionally that it isn’t “Canadian Geese”, it’s Canada Geese. “This big “Honker: is among our best-known waterfowl. In many regions flights of Canada Geese passing over in V-formation — northbound in spring, southbound in fall — are universally recognized as signs of the changing seasons.”

We’re looping another pond and feeling the flatland of San Pablo Bay. Someone suggested that we might help our much maligned utility, PG&E, by adopting one of their enormous transmission towers. We could pick up around it, mow the the weeds, keep it tidy and the view from the top would be awesome. But then on further thought the possibility of being sued for the “ownership” we’d taken, we thought, “Maybe not.”

Lunch on the rocks, we started out with the fog still hanging on and then on top we relaxed in the arriving sunshine.

As we finished lunch, we were treated to the passing of a delightful dog-walker with a fine affinity group.

Pat and I were lucky to spot a Common Merganser on Tuesday, most uncommon to us. These amazing birds have some remarkable feathering variations. The adult breeding male has completely different presentation compared to the one here which is an adult breeding female. I love the hairdo and it seems particularly apropos when you might see her with enormous numbers of ducklings.
Here’s the latest news from Lake Bemidji, Minnesota dated July 24, 2018:

I kept waiting for this American Kestrel to turn around but it was not in the program on Tuesday. Even with a bit of fuzziness you can appreciate his markings, those gray feathers are an adult males. Here’s a beautiful and surreal video of a Kestrel in flight. Here’s a brief commentary by the inimitable David Attenborough

Since raptors don’t always accommodate us by flying to a nearby perch, there’s an Audubon quiz that helps us id them in the air.

These Mallards next to the path almost look like decoys in the sunshine, the vivid green of the male’s head is muted in some shadows.

The distinctive profile of our totemic mountain in Marin County, Mount Tamalpais. We’ve loved the brilliant and beautiful films of Gary Yost on a number of occasions. Here is a superb one on the mountain: “Mt. Tamalpais Sunrise to Moonset”

Carl Nolte, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter who has worked there since 1961- a phenomenon in himself, writes of Mt. Tam in an article from Sept. 29, 2018:
“Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County is not impressive as mountains go. It’s no Mount Rainier, the centerpiece of the Pacific Northwest, no Mount Shasta, ‘as lonely as God and as white as the winter moon,’ as poet Joaquin Miller called it. The east peak of Tamalpais is only 2,571 feet above sea level. It would not be much of a hill in the Sierra Nevada.
But Tamalpais has something else, It looms over the rolling Marin hills, just north of the Golden Gate, easily visible from most parts of San Francisco. It has a unique
curving profile that romantics claim resembles a sleeping maiden. Tamalpais is swept with wispy fog on summer days and fierce winter winds. It has redwood forests and small towns at its feet.” Here’s the rest of the article with some good background on Gary Yost.

There’s a small airport on Smith Ranch Road. Another bird overhead, this beautiful Pilatus PC-12 NG just took off from there heading east. European Business Air News calls this plane: “PC-12 — The ultimate aerial SUV”

Mute Swan saluting the sunshine

Wind power overtaken by a solar array.

Double-crested Cormorant and gull. Sibley writes that the cormorant’s voice is usually silent away from the nest site. But then when he’s home there’s, “Hoarse bullfroglike grunting; and clear spoken yaaa yah ya.”

We pass a Chinese Pistache tree full of berries much enjoyed by the birds and Inge.

Next time to try for the bird but I like the blur, shall we call it soft focus, too.

We could reconsider adopting a transmission tower and then have the fun of this long walk to get there.

From Tuesday, you weren’t forgetting. This ambidextrous Great Egret was perching and balancing in a little dance on a fence overlooking the tules with just
maybe some ulterior motives in mind.

Michael relayed that these magnificent birds were almost exterminated because of the plume trade in the late 1800s, thankfully they recovered rapidly with protection a little into the 20th century.

A Great Egret, Ardea alba, is the symbol of the National Audubon Society. From the Wikipedia entry notes: “The name of venerable Shariputra, one of Buddha’s followers, signifies “the son of the egret” (among other possibilities), his mother is said to have had eyes like a great egret.”

The back of Michael’s car when we returned – thanks to Michael for another great hike and the birds add their seal of approval.

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