Monday, October 12, 2009

Save Rose Canyon!

I wrote the following letter to the deputy director of the California High Speed Rail Authority (HSRA), after being told that the HSRA is seriously considering Rose Canyon as a thoroughfare for high-speed rail (HSR) between San Diego and Los Angeles.

Preface: "The HSRA is gathering public comments to make a crucial decision: which routes they will study in depth in their upcoming Environmental Impact Report (EIR) on the LA - San Diego section of the statewide HSR system. They are not currently planning to include the I-15-Qualcomm route [which would have less environmental impact] in the EIR." -- Friends of Rose Canyon

Dear Deputy Director,

I urge your group to do a full study of the I-15 to Qualcomm Stadium route. I am staunchly opposed to building the high-speed rail line through Rose Canyon. I run, birdwatch, and bike through this canyon on an almost daily basis, and I am witness to the amazing variety of fauna and flora that flourish in its ecosystem. I regularly see at least four species of birds of prey, including a family of white-tailed kites. The canyon is a true wilderness. Not too long ago, late in the afternoon, I saw a bobcat--a veritable litmus test of true wilderness--while birdwatching through the canyon. A few days ago, I had the immensely good fortune of seeing an adult golden eagle.

Rose Canyon is a hidden gem of the San Diego park system, and a high-speed rail line would devastate its ecosystem, the surrounding residential neighborhoods (and there are many residences which adjoin this canyon), and the citizens who enjoy the park. I abhor the two rail lines already present in the canyon: the trains that intermittently pass by create noise pollution that reverberates through the canyon and disturbs all life--including mine. I occasionally have to cover my ears while jogging or biking through, because the noise can be intolerable.

A new rail system that would have trains passing through every five minutes would greatly increase the ambient noise pollution, even if the trains are relatively quiet. It would create persistent, omnipresent, inescapable background noise.

It has been repeatedly shown through legitimate scientific studies that noise pollution, even mild noise pollution, increases circulating levels of stress hormones and (perhaps relatedly) the rates of heart disease and myocardial infarction. A recent paper shows that avian communities, including predator-prey relationships, are changed drastically by ambient human noise pollution, with cascading consequences. Another paper shows that ambient noise pollution affects woodland bird communities negatively. There are at least six species of birds of prey (that I have seen or heard) in Rose Canyon, and numerous species of songbirds, jays, and others--in all, at least one hundred species of birds depend on its ecosystem.

Additionally, the physical alteration of the canyon necessary to house the high-speed rail line could have unpredictable effects on the current ecosystem. No analysis is complete, because any analysis abstracts and therefore elides details which could prove important in retrospect. This is unacceptable, because the Rose Canyon ecosystem is priceless (that such a group as "Friends of Rose Canyon" exists is sufficient proof of the immense value, to humans, of this place). Finally, no estimates of the cost, feasibility, location, and impact on homes and on Rose Canyon, by the proposed rail line, have been provided to the public.

Once again, I strongly urge your group to do a full study of the I-15 to Qualcomm Stadium route. I staunchly oppose building any new rail line(s) through Rose Canyon.

Golden Eagle

A few weekends ago, I biked through Rose Canyon (in San Diego). It was the first cold day we've had since I moved here. Almost as soon as I reached the canyon, which is just a minute or so away from our apartment complex, I saw a large brown bird of prey dueling with a smaller bird of prey (red-tailed hawk). The larger bird turned toward us and flew low over our heads, and it was indisputably a golden eagle (it's remotely possible that it was a juvenile bald eagle). It seemed agitated, because it flew over some homes on the other side of the street and circled back to meet the red-tailed hawk. Another red-tailed hawk joined the aerial fight; the three birds had a sudden backdrop of six or more red and white jets flying in formation -- an air show had been going on over the past few days, and these jets were the famous Canadian "Snowbirds". I surmise that the two red-tailed hawks were a couple, and that the golden eagle had invaded their territory. It was clearly larger, clearly not a hawk, and its wings had the same S-shaped curvature, when viewed head-on, that soaring brown pelicans display here.

Update: Members of the Friends of Rose Canyon tell me that this is the first recorded sighting of a golden eagle in Rose Canyon. The birdwatchers in the club think that the eagle likely lives in the Miramar area and left its territory because it was disturbed by the air show.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Close Encounter

I hiked Torrey Pines State Reserve, yesterday. I've hiked it once before, when I was interviewing in San Diego, but didn't go as far as I did yesterday. San Diego County is a surprisingly green desert. Dr. Seuss lived here, and it's obvious that the bizarre trees and plants in his books were heavily influenced by the native flora. The leaves of many plants have an orange "color cast," similar to the tint on unfiltered photos taken with analog cameras on sunny days. Many of the trees stretch upward in unnatural curves, naked almost all the way to the top. Their leaves are clustered in round puffs, and these puffs are powdered with the colors of dusk, a surreal color scheme that I've seen only in children's books!

Torrey Pines, named after a very rare, bonsai-like pine tree species that grows here, is one of the most spectacular natural parks I've ever experienced. Amidst a Mediterranean climate, a collision of chaparral and coastal sage scrub ecosystems, spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean (watch for dolphins surfing near the shore, or for whales in the distance) and grizzled species of flora and fauna that you would expect to see in much harsher climates, it leaves you desperately trying to encapsulate it all in a way your hyperstimulated brain can understand.

I hiked along the mesas of the park, which reflect to each other their precipitous, grooved, and pocketed sandstone cliffs dropping away into green ravines. I startled Audubon cottontail rabbits near the trail as I approached them. At one point, I encountered a scaly lizard of the desert, probably a western fence lizard, in the middle of my path. It didn't budge, so I viewed it from about seven feet away with 10-power binoculars. In an anthropomorphic gesture, it cocked its left eye up and looked me directly in the eyes. After a few moments, I let it win the staring contest and continued onward.

I reached an overlook at the edge of the cliff that was fenced in with large, squared logs, to prevent people from tipping over to their demise 600 feet below, and as I looked for dolphins in the Pacific Ocean and watched brown pelicans skimming the water, their wingtips almost touching the waves, I heard a sharp note that probably came from a towhee or finch somewhere in the ravine behind me. I turned around, and I saw a common raven flying up the ravine. It turned sharply towards me and landed on a wooden post just three feet away!

The raven didn't make any aggressive gestures; just watched me with curiosity, croaking every few seconds. It impressed me with a shaggy "beard" of feathers and a heavy-looking bill. Its eyes were a dull milky-black, the color of death; its intentions impenetrable. I didn't know if I should turn around or keep staring -- I feared being attacked because I didn't want to have to hurt the bird. Suddenly, it hopped off the post and coasted down the sandstone cliff facing the sea. It disappeared into the cliffside, several yards below, and I figured it's nesting there.

I turned around to leave, spoke to some hikers nearby about the experience, and the raven flew back up to several yards over our heads, flying in small haloes. We disbanded, but I kept watching the bird. Another raven, this one with a partly-unfeathered head, flew onto a torrey pine cast almost into a frieze in the valley below, its trunk providing a horizontal perch for the bird, its five-needled branches seemingly sprouting from the valley itself. The first raven joined it; their playful behavior suggested they were mates.

Later on, during the hike, I saw a raven fly into one of the many pockets in the sandstone cliffs; I brought my binoculars up and saw a portion of what was probably its nest. Other interesting sights included the large, smooth, and shiny stink beetles encountered on the trail, and a wren singing remarkable songs and that I've not yet identified. I also saw a spotted towhee and several California towhees.

On a lagoon near the shore, I spotted a bird species that seemed to be a cross between a tern and a black skimmer. At first I thought these birds were skimmers, but when they flew (one-by-one, towards the ocean) they seemed like very large terns with gull-like wingspans. I hoped I was seeing tropicbirds, but googling last night trampled this hope: they were Caspian terns, the largest tern species in the world.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Aerial Battle

I am in the beautiful seaside town of Del Mar, California, in search of a home. I start residency, nearby, in a month!

I ran atop a cliff today, and I saw two crows harassing a much larger raven. The crows made large loops, redoubling to attack the raven, and each time the raven would twirl onto its back in mid-air, meet the attack, and then correct itself. It may have twirled 360 degrees a few times! As I ran, the aerial battle moved in my general direction until I passed the birds and eventually descended to the beach below. As they battled overhead, I saw that the raven was carrying something in its beak. I didn't have my binoculars. It flew away from the cliffside and down the beach, with the crows in distant pursuit.

Ravens are known for their acrobatics near oceanside cliffs. They will sometimes turn 180 degrees and fly belly up for a while!

Periodically, during my run, solitary gulls larger than the raven would soar low overhead (I was standing atop a cliff, so they were pretty high above sea level). Once, a fleet of three brown pelicans in tight formation, leader in front, palpably filled the sky as they flew past.

I have a new appreciation for pelicans. There are many brown pelicans in Del Mar. They have huge wingspans, and they fly with wings strictly parallel to the ocean surface, such that only the natural curves of their wings break the parallelism. The wind is always blowing inland, and I view these soaring pelicans from clifftops. They skim the clifftops like radio-controlled aircraft: when they're flying in from the Pacific, I have to double-check to ensure they aren't small planes! They fly so low that I fear colliding with them.

I like Del Mar. It's a progressive little town. At night, there's little light pollution. Driving through the convoluted, narrow, clifftop streets, I'm forced to turn on my rental car's high beam to see what's in front of me.

I looked at a two-bedroom apartment here with a potential roommate, and one of the bedrooms had a window facing a half-block-sized construction area. The landlord said that, for decades, this was an undeveloped plot of land filled with native grasses and beautiful trees. Many years ago, a contract had been signed to prevent developers from ruining it. I don't know the exact story, but the current owner is apparently hungry or greedy enough to break this pact with the community. Such a loss of uniquely beautiful Southern California landscape.

I spend part of each day searching for an apartment, and my parents' tomtom GPS device has been indispensable. I'm a technology minimalist, but I realize that this device has saved me so much time and gasoline.

Global positioning device
with sultry, Hollywood voice,
I'd be lost without you.

Where have you been all my life?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Swallow-tailed Kite!

Birds are still migrating along the Gulf Coast. I was running in Dow Park today, when I saw, out of the corner of my eye, what looked like a laughing gull that suddenly banked and corrected itself too quickly. Intuition fired in: this wasn't normal flight behavior for a gull. I stopped and stared at the soaring bird, which was at least a sixth or fifth of a mile away. It banked again, and I saw a long, deeply forked tail. This immediately identified it as a swallow-tailed kite, which I've never seen before, which is local mainly to Florida and the southeastern coastline of the US, which is almost certainly just migrating through (since the only TX-based population is a summertime concentration in a small area along the TX - LA border), and which is one of the most elegant birds of prey in the world!

Its wings appeared longer than a laughing gull's. It was much more agile than a gull (of course: this exceptionally agile bird is known to catch and eat prey on the wing!). I stared at this spirit of the sky for two or three minutes while it banked and soared like a cross between a gull and a swallow high over freshly-mowed lawns of Bermuda grass and eco-unconscious housing developments. Was it disappointed in the yield of prey this cancer-stricken earth offered it? I hope not.

Many birds out today. A hawk soared over my head before I saw the kite. I saw it plainly, despite wearing my very old eyeglasses and not having binoculars at hand. It had whiter areas more distally along the wings, and a white patch (perhaps its leg feathers?) in the proximal tail area, and also a white neck and/or face. I couldn't identify it when I came home, but my closest guess is red-shouldered hawk.

Before that, I encountered a Carolina chickadee singing alone on a power line. It reminded me of my forest runs and hikes ("chicka-dee-dee-dee"). I don't know why it was there...I don't think chickadees migrate, and this park is not forested.

Other birds seen: a loggerhead shrike and the usual sparrows, grackles, starlings, and mockingbirds. I also heard what I thought was a warbler vs. vireo, but couldn't identify it by going through warbler and vireo recordings afterward. It may have been part of another family of birds.

Yesterday, while searching for a party in Pearland at dusk, I saw a silhouetted scissor-tailed flycatcher alight on a power line and flick its long tail.

Friday, May 8, 2009

High Island

I rose at the crack of dawn, Thursday, to bird High Island. It's an hour and thirty minutes away by car, from where I live, and a bit less on the way back.

The first thing I saw upon getting on the feeder to the highway was a hawk, probably a red-shouldered hawk, sitting alongside pigeons on a power line!

On the way to High Island, I saw a male scissor-tailed flycatcher cross Interstate-10. It crossed the path of an eighteen-wheeler but I didn't see it emerge from the other side! Driving in the rural or suburban parts of the east half of Texas, I've seen scissor-tailed flycatchers more often than I expected I would. The males are unmistakeable -- you see the silhouette, and you know it's a scissor-tailed. You don't even need to examine its flight pattern, which can be described as over-exerted and slow. The only other possibility would be a fork-tailed flycatcher, but that's a rare tropical vagrant to these parts.

In total, I saw approximately 18 bird species (not counting mockingbirds, starlings, grackles, and sparrows), a few being new life additions. (Birding is a cross between gambling and packrat-style collecting, I've come to think. I don't gamble, but I'm certainly a packrat!) I saw 14 species in the span of 45 minutes or so, at High Island.

The sky was overcast when I reached Boy Scout Woods, and the only other birders there were a mid-30s photographer type (immense zoom) and an older lady from Galveston. The mosquitoes attacked immediately and unrelentingly. They mobbed me, and I had to return to my car to spray Deep-Woods Off all over myself, including my t-shirt and hands. I also rubbed some on my neck and parts of my face.

Before even entering the woods, I saw an eastern kingbird vs. northern rough-winged swallow sitting on a powerline. Also saw a brown-headed cowbird nearby. Immediately upon entering, I saw a male Baltimore oriole in full breeding plumage! Beautiful. It won't stay here, of course -- it's a migrant.

The mosquitoes attacked me in intermittent swarms. I couldn't stand still to take photos or look around for long, because they would gang up on me. Whenever they attacked, they would go mostly for the parts of my head that weren't rubbed with Off: my scalp, temples, eyes(!), etc. Crazy. I was constantly swatting the air surrounding my head.

Anyway, I hurried through the woods, heard some interesting birds, saw mostly grackles, starlings, and male cardinals, and headed back out. In the gravel parking lot, I startled a pair of Inca doves. The male was in breeding plumage. Very different from mourning doves, in call and plumage (also, the male had otherworldly red eyes). Headed off to the rookery after killing about 10 mosquitoes in my car!

At the rookery, I finally saw the alligators that patrol the pond surrounding two small islands atop which the rookery has been built by the marsh birds. Saw about half the number of birds I usually see: roseate spoonbills (in the US, found only along the coastal areas of Louisiana and Texas, and in deep south Florida), black-necked stilts, common moorhens, long-billed dowitchers (vs. curlews or godwits), cattle egrets, great egrets, and neotropic cormorants. The cormorant rookery on the southern end was decimated, probably by the last hurricane.

Took photos and headed back to my car quickly, to avoid being devoured by mosquitoes. Checked out the abandoned building in which barn owls nest...the owls weren't there (I've seen one of them before)...saw some other birds at distance, but they were silhouetted and I couldn't make them out -- I've seen an orchard oriole at the rookery, in the past.

Back in the car, I killed at least 20-30 mosquitoes before heading back home. The photographer drove a Volvo...his was the only car parked next to mine...he walked past, saw me frantically killing mosquitoes in my car, and told me to start driving with my windows open. That wasn't very effective. He pulled out a hat with a
mosquito net, because he was photographing the rookery...another photographer had recommended that to him last week!

Anyway, I got back on the highway to head home after about 45 minutes of birding. Periodically, I'd see stray mosquitoes in my car and I'd try to swat them away or kill them! Saw a red-winged blackbird in the reed marshes north of High Island; also saw one on the way to High Island. No bobolinks, unfortunately. I have yet to see a bobolink, although I really want to see one. Also missed seeing blue-gray gnatcatchers -- they've all migrated north by now. Every now and then, I miss their wheezy, soft, incessant gibberish, their constant activity, and their large, white-ringed eyes. Lovely birds.

As I parallel-parked alongside my parents' house, I saw another mosquito and killed it. Wow!

Other birds seen: swallows and several loggerhead shrikes.

In short, the trip was largely a waste of gasoline. I wanted to donate money to the High Island stewards (Houston Audubon Society), but no one was manning the welcome area of Boy Scout Woods, so I couldn't. I'll donate online, by joining the Houston Audubon Society (but I'll decline their print newsletter, to save on costs for them and to reduce the environmental impact of the newsletter, which seems to be printed on high-quality paper).

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Monarch Caterpillars on Butterfly Weeds

My friend Julian made an interesting video of his butterfly weed plants and the Monarch caterpillars that eat them: