Footloose Forays

Footloose Forays is a small travel business begun in 1983 while I was still in graduate school at San Francisco State University. It has grown slowly and organically through the intervening years. I have taken over 10,000 people on various natural history outings ranging from 4-hour night hikes on Mt. Tam to three week adventures in Ecuador. I have enjoyed nearly every minute of this work. The Buddhists refer to the importance of right livelihood and I have been lucky enough to find that. I lead every single trip. Footloose Forays = Michael Ellis. I have no staff except when I enlist my lovely son to help me. I have a very high repeat business and most trips fill up way in advance. One of the many blessings is the lovely relationships that I have with my fellow naturalists all over the world.

Currently I am concentrating on international travel and only offer a few of my favorite Footloose Forays trips in this country, mostly week-long camping in the mountains or deserts. If any of these trips interest you please feel free to contact me.

In addition to my own natural history forays, I often lead trips for a number of Bay Area organizations. I have a BS in Botany and Masters in Marine Biology, though I firmly believe that formal schooling is only a small part of the educational process. I have been a regular contributor to the KQED-FM Perspective Series since 1988 and write the Ask the Naturalist column for Bay Nature Magazine.

Latest News


July, 2014

Hello everyone:

 First some business. Outings that still have room - Natural History/Natural Mystery in western Sonoma County (but nearly full.)  The Mono Lake weekend is now from October 3 to 5 (I changed the date from September so I could attend a Hula Hoop camp in Santa Cruz, CA!). The Birds Birds Birds trips in December all have room. The 2015 adventures to Ecuador (Galapagos and the Amazon) and Tanzania (the Serengeti!) trips are full with long waiting lists.  However there is room in both of these trips in 2016. Contact me if you are interested because, believe it or not, they are already filling. The boat trip into the Sea of Cortez in April 2015 has plenty of room. And both Turkey trips next May and June are slowly filling but still have room.

  OK my update. From July 19 to July 26 I will be in the Lakes Basin region in the northern Sierra Nevada for my annual trip to that wonderful part of the world. Wildflowers galore, black bears, golden-mantled ground squirrels, high Sierra birds, refreshing lakes. But you must act quickly for this one. If not this year then next, because it is one of my favorite places and I do it every year.

 Personal note: I had a wonderful trip to Turkey, which included a full week of rest and relaxation along the Turquoise Coast. It was wonderful to have very little to do except sleep, swim and eat. This is a usually a challenge for me but I rose (or not) to the occasion. We also were in Istanbul for Ramadan, which was very exciting. This is the most important of all the Muslim holidays. It was quite festive around the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sophia.  Families came from all over Istanbul and outlying areas and gathered with all of their food laid out on the grass waiting for the call from the mosque to break their daily fast. Was so much fun. I love Turkey and look forward to being back there next spring.

 I flew back to California for one day and then immediately went to Memphis to be with my sister. She is recovering very well from pancreatic surgery. Although diabetes is a new paradigm for her and it takes a while to adjust. Her son Patrick has been very very helpful. He should be a nurse.

Hunter is now working for Backroads Bicycle Company. He's up in Alaska cooking and working at camp support.  He's laboring extremely hard but also is enjoying himself immensely and is surrounded by wonderful coworkers. I'm sure he'll get offered a job as a guide next year - apparently like father, like son.

 Here is my latest NPR Perspective from KQED on our only native aquatic turtle.


I just returned from my home state of Tennessee where I encountered a couple of fierce snapping turtles along the Wolfe River in Memphis. There are 16 species of turtles in Tennessee but here in the immense state of California we have only two representatives of this ancient lineage of reptiles. Our designated State Reptile, the desert tortoise, is of course confined to the arid regions of Southern California but the rest of the state only has the Western Pond turtle. That’s it, one indigenous species. In fact this is the only fresh water turtle native to the entire Pacific coast, from British Columbia to northern Baja.  

Why only one species in this biologically rich province of ours? One word – WATER. Or more properly, the lack of it.  Because in spite of the name these turtles are rarely found in ponds, which are mostly a man-made phenomena here anyway.  Originally they were found in marshes, streams, rivers and lakes where good basking sites like logs or boulders let them conserve energy. Since roughly 90% of all California’s wetlands have been lost, it is not surprising that Western Pond turtle numbers have plummeted since first being described by a Russian biologist visiting Fort Ross in 1841. The Gold Rush didn’t help, either. Tens of thousands were eaten for their meat in the stampede to get rich..

 But one modern practice also has been unkind to this species -- the release of pet turtles into the wild, particularly a native of southern states and Northern Mexico, the red-eared slider.   It’s the pet turtle of the pet trade. And it’s listed by conservationists as one of the most invasive species in the world. It is aggressive, competes directly with our native pond turtles and can transmit diseases to them.

Turtle have been around since before the dinosaurs. They made it through that catastrophic meteor impact 65 million years ago but it remains to be seen whether they can survive mankind. This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

The Living Is Easy

June, 2014

Dear folks:

I will be in Turkey until July 7.  I am taking my wonderful friend Clarence Chan and his multi-generational family on another private adventure. We really know how to have fun. Last summer it was Bhutan, before that it was Belize, and 3 years ago we were all in Peru.

Congratulations are in order for my dear friend Rick Bacigalupi. He was nominated to receive a Northern California Emmy for his work with Bay Nature On the Air. I am privileged to be one of the main hosts of this program. On June 14 at the San Francisco Hilton was the award ceremony. In our category KGO Channel 7 won for their excellent program on the new Exploratorium. We will be back next year! Guaranteed. Http://

The Footloose Forays outings that still have room are the Lakes Basin camping trip in the Northern Sierra, Natural History/Natural Mystery in western Sonoma County (but nearly full), and Mono Lake weekend in October (I changed the date from from September to October so I could attend a Hula Hoop camp in Santa Cruz, CA!)

The Birds Birds Birds outings in December all have room. The 2015 editions of the Ecuador and Tanzania trips are full with long waiting lists. I do have room in both of these places in 2016. Contact me if you are interested because, believe it or not, they are already filling. The boat trip into the Sea of Cortez in April 2015 has plenty of room. And both Turkey trips next May and June are slowly filling but still have room.

On a personal note my sister; Pamela Sue was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. On June 7th she had the extensive Whipple procedure done (removal of the pancreas, the spleen, and part of the small intestines). She had nearly the best possible outcome. There are no invasive cancer cells present and she will not have to undergo chemotherapy nor radiation treatment. She will be a diabetic for the rest of her (now long) life. Blessings blessings blessings.

Here's one of my recent Perspectives that runs regularly on KQED, San Francisco's NPR radio station.

Harvester Ants

By Michael Ellis

I notice so many ant trails on the fire roads this time of year. Well-worn paths by medium-sized dark ants that lead to huge debris piles. These are harvester ants. They are easy to identify not because of shape, color or size but because of the rubble they leave at the entrance to their underground homes. They are harvesting seeds and the germ of the seed is the most nutritious part. The chaff provides little sustenance, so surrounding the holes are huge mounds of unwanted chaff.

Seeing these hard working insects I immediately consider that biblical proverb and a well known Aesop’s fable both from the indoctrination of  my childhood. Ants are often used as metaphors for industrious behavior, self-sacrifice for the greater good and planning ahead for future scarcity.  The proverb admonishes, "Go to the ant, you sluggard! Consider her ways and be wise, which having no captain, overseer or ruler, provides her supplies in the summer, and gathers her food in the harvest".  

And then there is the ant and the grasshopper. The grasshopper that spent the nice warm summer months just singing, while the ant prepared for winter. The grasshopper begged for food, the ant refused. The grasshopper died.   That'll teach him!  Like most people, I was more grasshopper than ant as a kid but lately that ant is making more and more sense. Human species take note.

The total biomass of ants on the planet is greater than the total biomass of human beings. Ants have been around for hundreds of millions of years and have survived and evolved through  several mass extinctions. There are well over 12,000 described species. They are found in nearly every habitat on every continent but Antarctica.

So while humans are singing and fiddling away with climate change, the ants are meanwhile thriving and adapting to the changes we are manifesting across the environment. We shall see who survives the coming winter.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Bhutan = Springtime!

May, 2014

I am in Bhutan until May 22. I love this peaceful Buddhist country. Thanks to a brand-new domestic airport we get to fly back from Eastern Bhutan instead of making the return trip by bus on a very “long and winding road”. This enables us to travel further east to areas seldom visited by western tourists. My friend, colleague, and tour operator Sonam Jatso hails from this region, and we will get the opportunity to visit his village. The Yak festival in the Ura Valley is one reason I go in May, but also the 45-foot-tall rhododendrons will be in full bloom under the primary forests of the Himalaya. This is a trip I do every other year and one of my favorites. This year I have added a new adventure to the (relatively) low-lying Royal Manus Park in Southern Bhutan, which will take place next November. I have been waiting a decade for this park to open up to tourists. Finally that dream is coming true.

Footloose Forays outings that still have room are the Lakes Basin camping trip in the northern Sierra, Natural History/Natural Mystery in western Sonoma County (but nearly full), Mono Lake weekend in September and the Birds Birds Birds outings in December. Both Ecuador and the Galapagos and Tanzania – the Serengeti at the beginning of 2015 are full with long waiting lists. There are trips to both of these places in 2016 that have room. Contact me if you are interested because believe it or not they are already filling. The boat trip into the Sea of Cortez has plenty of room. And both Turkey trips next May and June are slowly filling but still have room in both.

Here's one of my recent Perspectives that runs regularly on KQED, San Francisco's NPR radio station.


                                      by Michael Ellis

At the northernmost location of the Christmas bird count - Pt Barrow, Alaska - in the blackness o fnoon the lone counter heads over to the dump and listens - kark! There is it, their one bird --the Raven. Six months later in the searing heat of the afternoon, the desert sun of the Mojave has baked every other form of life into weary submission, but there overhead cawing as they fly are two large black birds seemingly oblivious to the debilitating heat. Over cities, at the seashore, foraging in garbage piles, frequenting farms and remote mountaintops from Siberia to London to Mexico, ravens are thriving.

Crows and ravens are similar but ravens are usually found in pairs, crows usually in flocks. Crows are smaller. Ravens have wedge-shaped tails (V shaped as in V for raven). Crows tails are squared off. We have both species in the Bay area.

One of the reasons I like ravens is that they form long lasting pair bonds. Mr. and Mrs. Raven not only get together in the spring to raise young but they hang together throughout the whole year and seem to really enjoy each others company. I often see them preening each other, cooing, playing, and generally behaving like a couple of newlyweds--real cute.

Ravens belong to the Corvid family of birds, which also includes the crows and jays. This is a group of very intelligent birds but ravens are definitely the rocket scientists of the bunch. In one classic experiment tame crows were presented with a puzzle—how to get a piece of meat dangling from a 24" long string. No matter how many weeks the crows tried they never could figure out how to get the meat. But when a raven was given the same dilemma he carefully examined the puzzle for 6 hours and then flew down. He solved the problem by the pulling the string up with his bill and then holding it with his feet while pulling more string up and so on until the meat was within reach. Viola! Clever bird!

So go ahead call me a birdbrain. I will take it as a compliment.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Back Home

April, 2014

April 25th, 2014, Sonoma County

I'm back from Bali after taking my first "vacation" (besides Burning Man)  in years. While I love travelling, it is always nice to be back home in Sonoma County during the springtime. I will be here jsut long enough to poke my head above water, and then its off to Bhutan on May 5th. I'll return from that lovely buddhist country on the 22nd. Until then, feel free to browse this write up of my mojave trip writeen by a very eloquent and well-spoken client. I should also be adding some pictures to the Photos section soon. And of course, you can always "like" Footloose forays on Facebook here:

Michael (far left) and friends overlooking the Ngorongoro Crater in February 2009. I have spent every February since 1993 in Tanzania. The adventure in the Serengeti remains one of my favorite Footloose Forays trips.

More Photos »

We will send you occasional emails about trip updates. We hate spam, and your email address will never be used for other purposes.

This is the only commercial link on my website. If you purchase a product from Eagle Optics through this link, I receive 5%. I will then donate that money to the non-profit organization of your choice.