Creosote Bushes

So what is the most common shrub in California? Poison oak, Coyote bush, lupine? Excellent guesses but all wrong. Actually it is the creosote bush, which covers over 21,000,000 acres, both in the Mojave and in far southern California Deserts. This incredibly successful plant also dominates the large Sonoran desert of Arizona, New Mexico and much of northern Mexico.
The closest living ancestor to this plant is found way south in Argentina. I have seen Magellanic penguins along the Patagonian coast nesting under creosote bushes. That was one incongruous sight for me. Botanists hypothesize that the American golden plover – a long distance migrant that winters in South America – brought seeds of creosote north millions of years ago. Creosote was already adapted for the desert of that new region.
At the end of the last Ice Age as the climate became drier and drier, creosote bushes moved northward and now thoroughly occupy our deserts. Creosotes are the most drought tolerant of any plant. They survive on less than 2 inches of yearly rainfall and even through years of no rain. They have both a deep taproot and extensive surface roots. In competition for unpredictable rain, creosote bushes exhibit chemical warfare. Their roots to secrete toxic compounds that prevent other plants from growing and competing with them for water.
Though creosotes flower prolifically, they mostly reproduce by cloning themselves. In western San Bernardino County, scientists found a circle of creosote bushes 45 feet in diameter. The shrubs are all clones from an ancestral plant, which is thought to have begun growing 11,700 years old! Making this group of creosote bushes the oldest living thing on the planet, essentially as old as the desert.
The word creosote is German for “flesh preserver”. The name was applied to a petroleum compound developed by a chemist that had anti-septic properties. I hate the smell of treated lumber but I love the smell of creosote bushes, especially after a rain when the air is permeated their amazing aroma.
At a Nevada test site there were 20 creosote bushes obliterated by an atomic blast at ground zero, 19 of them came back to life. I want to be on their team.


—“I’m a gull watcher, I’m a gull watcher, Watching gulls go by, my my my. I’m a gull watcher, I’m a gull watcher, Here comes one now….”
All right, all right terrible song but I am a gull watcher. It is a good thing, because no matter where you go if there is water – even far inland – there are often gulls. There’s about a half dozen species found during the summer in the San Francisco Bay. Probably the most commonly encountered is the Western Gull. This large black-backed gull breeds on the Farallon Islands, offshore rocks and steep inaccessible cliffs along the ocean edge from Baja to Washington State. Gulls belong to a large bird group collectively called “seabirds” which include 325 or so species of the pelicans, terns, albatrosses, penguins, shearwaters, cormorants, and grebes.
Gulls, like most other seabirds, exhibit little physical differences between male and female. They mate for life but are not tied to each other per se but to the location in which they successfully bred the previous year. The males arrive first at the breeding site and establish their territory. The females follow to that territory, NOT to the male. Courtship does not rely on flashy plumage but instead on elaborate rituals like mutual dancing and preening or food presentation. Most adult gulls are some combination of black and white. Black feathers contain melanin, which is resistant to UV damage, and seabirds rarely find shade! They are long lived- gulls to age 25, albatrosses to 70! Gulls have the ability to drink ocean water. Because like all seabirds they have a pair of lateral nasal glands that can remove excess salt from the bloodstream. They lay relatively few eggs and have a great deal of parental care- both male and female help raise the young.
These fascinating denizens of the Bay Area are everywhere to be seen but the more you know about them the more likely you’ll become a gull watcher, too. My, my, my.’

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sf oct 25 04 049Singing (ed. note sung to the tune of “I’m a girl watcher”)

A Murder of Crows


There are two very large and common black birds found throughout North America– the northern Raven and the American Crow. They are fairly easy to tell apart. Ravens are much larger; their call is deeper and hoarser and they have heavier beaks. When ravens fly overhead their tail is wedge or V-shaped. The mnemonic device is V like the V in Raven. Ravens also tend to be in monogamous pairs though not always, occasionally there are flocks of ravens.
Crows on the other hand are two thirds smaller than ravens, their calls are slightly higher pitched, the tail is squared off and crows tend to be in large flocks. Crows are much more common in urban, suburban and rural areas. Ravens on the other hand are often found in wilder and more remote habitations like the mountains and deserts. In the San Francisco Bay area both species have been increasing in number, adapting readily to the changes humans have wrought to the land. In addition ravens have been expanding their range and showing up in places like the city of San Francisco where they were rarely seen 20 years ago.
For an unknown reason and much to my chagrin a huge flock of crows has been assembling in the 2 large redwood trees in my yard in Santa Rosa. Beginning shortly before the sun sets there are hundreds of crows flying in from every direction. It takes them an hour or so of squawking, flying around, flapping loudly before they finally settle down for the night. And at 515 every morning for the last 3 weeks they all wake up and announce loudly –that it is another fine day to be a crow. This in turn causes our dog to start barking loudly as well.
I have always wondered about the collective noun for a group of these raucous birds–a murder of crows. Now I finally know, it’s that you want to murder those crows. Of course I never would do that, just dream about it, if I could sleep.

Muir Woods

I understand that Muir Woods plays a prominent role in the latest Planet of the Apes movie. And while the film was not actually shot there, tourists are flocking to see that magnificent forest. But we almost lost those trees. In 1906, as we all know, an earthquake and resulting fire destroyed much of San Francisco. In the rush to rebuild the city thousands of convenient acres of redwood trees were logged. Santa Cruz and San Mateo Counties were especially hard-hit. However, there was a nice stand of redwoods in southern Marin that was not immediately logged. The reason? The hills were too steep to drag the trees over to Mill Valley and there was no good ocean access for the logging schooners. So several hundred acres of timber on the upper end of Frank Valley in southern Marin County were saved.
However some entrepreneurs proposed damning the creek to create a reservoir, which would have inundated the forest. William Kent, a local and successful businessman used his own personal funds to purchase and save the trees. President Theodore Roosevelt accepted the gift from Kent on behalf of the citizens of the United States and declared it one of our first National Monuments. He wanted to name it for Mr. Kent but Kent politely refused the honor stating that if his own sons could not carry on his name then the name was not worth saving.
Mr. Kent preferred to tribute John Muir, who had recently lost one of the bitterest battles of his life. The Hetch Hetchy reservoir drowned one of the most magnificent valleys in Yosemite. Muir was delighted that these dam builders had been stopped in Marin. He said that a glacier had been named for him as well as a mountain. But he noted that while the glaciers would melt and the mountain would erode away, redwood trees already spanning 100 million years would outlast them all. He did have a way with words.

Habitat – Uganda

The premier African safari destination in the mid 60’s was not Tanzania, not South Africa and not even Kenya. It was Uganda. In particular it was Murchison Falls National Park and Queen Elizabeth National Park – both flagships of newly independent Uganda. There were so many elephants in Murchison they had to cull some in 1963. Thousands of cape buffaloes, giraffes, hippos, knob antelope and even black and white rhinos thrived there. Uganda is unique because it is an ecotone – an edge area between two major ecological zones – the far western edge of east African grassland/savannah and the eastern edge of the tropical Congo rain forests, giving Uganda unparalleled ecological diversity.
By 1980 most of the large mammals were gone. What happened? Basically Idi Amin happened in 1972 and chaos, disorder, death and destruction followed. The game parks not only suffered from poor funding and neglect but rampant poaching by locals and the military. When neighboring Tanzania invaded to throw Amin out their troops plundered the remaining large mammals. There were less than 300 elephants down from 4500.
However two key elements remained. The first was intact habitat. The park itself was not severely harmed. The plants, trees and grassland survived albeit in an evolving landscaped now little affected by grazing animals. Trees now grew where elephants had foraged. Ecological succession took place. The second key was that large numbers of elephants, buffaloes etc remained in neighboring Congo.
So as peace came to the region slowly but surely the animals have made their way back into the park and a recovery basically unaided by humans has taken place. The moral of this story is the overriding importance of preserving habitat and the potential for immigration into the area. It’s a lesson not only for Uganda, but for ourselves.