Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Bring on the Night

Here are a few of my nighttime favorite things to do in Marin when summer really hits its stride. Do you have your own nocturnal haunts this time of year? Post a comment and share with Marin's other night owls.

Aug 12: Perseids Meteor Shower

It's coming, that August night when the sky gets streaked with up to 60 meteors a minute. This year, mark your calendar for August 12. One of my favorite spots (you want it to be really dark, well away from city lights): Muir Beach overlook--you get the added drama of crashing waves with your falling stars.

Aug 24: Muir Woods at Night

Owls hoot from the canopy, bats swirl from their roosts in the crevasses of redwood bark, deer walk like forest ghosts to get a drink from Redwood Creek--Marin's best-known grove of coast redwoods is way, way cool after the sun sets. Join a ranger-led dusk-to-night walk through this national parkland--unforgettable.

Aug 25: Full moon

That one this past week, big and globular, rust red as it rose above the East Bay hills, reminded me to mark my calendar for the next moonrise on August 24. Favorite spot to watch it rise: Lowrie Yacht Harbor, Pt. San Pedro Rd. in San Rafael. Truly worth the trip.

And one that takes all day and ends with a good night:

Aug 7: Marin Century

Okay, this 100-mile tour of the county takes place during the DAY on August 7 (you can still sign up!), but at night, a cold Mt. Tam Pale Ale at Marin Brewing Company never tasted so good.... This year's jersey is pretty funny (if it's a Jersey cow, that's even funnier).

Sunday, July 18, 2010

How to love an oyster

Oysters. They've been a topic of conversation around my home lately, mostly on whether it's okay to hate something that is supposed to be such a delicacy. It seems the texture is at issue --the certain vaguely gelatinous quality that doesn't set well with some of my family--in fact, the word "wretch" comes to mind when they think of the shellfish.

Personally, I think oysters are wonderful, like blasts of fresh seawater, as inviting as the spray blowing off of a wave while you're out at Rodeo Beach. A splash of mignonette sauce (champagne, shallots, red wine vinegar) and the oyster captures the best of the ocean. At least for me. But I have to honor those in my home who strongly beg to differ.

Solution: oysters fresh Tomales Bay. And my barbecue grill.

A summer at my Marin home means barbecued oyster,s a solution for the (alledgedly) unpleasant gelatinous quality of the bivalve, and a wonderful way to avoid the frustration of trying to pry open the @(&$# things. I've watched the guys at Hog Island Oyster in the Ferry Building Marketplace wield their oysters knives like sushi masters--flick flick flick and the shell pops open to reveal the nugget of meat inside. Me? It's more like hack claw stab, as my futile attempts to open the shell prove completely and utterly fruitless. Then again; I shouldn't feel so lame: there are things known as shucking gloves that look like fashion statements for King Arthur--definitely more armor than glove.

Ah yes, but that's where my barbecue comes to the rescue. First, buy a bag of insanely fresh oysters from on of our region's local oyster farms. True, you can buy them fresh at Whole Foods or other outlets but fresh oysters make a nice excuse (as if you need one) to head to Pt. Reyes and Tomales Bay.

Bring an ice chest (you'll need one to bring the oysters home). Buy enough to feed everyone at least 3 or 4 (a dozen costs $14 at Tomales Bay Oyster Company, one of my favorites if only for the fact that they have their version of the St Pauli Girl, here a buxom brunette with a startling resemblance to Jane Russell, holding aloft a huge back of oysters like it weighs about an ounce).

Oysters on ice, head home quick. Heat up the grill. Have on hand your favorite barbecue sauce, or just melted butter and garlic. Toss the oysters--still in their shells, onto the grill. Close the lid, but keep an eye one the oysters--soon they'll pop open all on their own. Akin to Woody Allen's Annie when she tossed lobsters into boiling water, it might feel a little murderous, but it works. When they open, use a turkey baster to squirt a little of your sauce into each oyster; cook about 2 minutes more. Remove carefully with tongs (they are VERY hot). Cool slightly, then eat. Beyond perfect.

Sound like too much work? Head out to Olema and order up some barbecued oysters at Olema Farm House, or continue north to Marshall and dine on the deck at Nick's Cove. There might not be anything better.

Let me know if you try to barbecue your own oysers, and what your family thinks. Or share your summer barbecue favorite, especially if it takes advantage of something as distinctly Marin as fresh oysters from Tomales Bay.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Our Busy (and Threatened) Bees

On a bright afternoon this week, walking up a trail in Marinwood, I heard buzzing--lots of buzzing--and looked up the slope ahead of me. There, whirling in and out of a hole in the side of a dead tree, rose a tornado of bees. I'd spied a natural hive--but I wasn't the only one. I noticed a little handmade sign dangling from a nearby bush, warning folks to be mindful of the bees, and to let them, well, be. I watched the little winged workers, coming, going, buzzing off in the bright sun, carrying a message somehow programmed into their tiny brains by watching their sisters dance a magical pattern that showed where to find nectar-filled flowers on this warm summer afternoon.

Bees are having a tough time in Marin--and elsewhere. In a recent article in Marinscope's Twin City Times, local beekeeper Jerry Draper (he has 10 hives in San Anselmo) noted that all honeybee populations are in bad shape, mostly due to mites and diseases that have wiped out entire colonies. Since bees are needed to pollinate a third of the food we eat, that's not just bad news for bees--it's bad for us too. In fact, one out of every three things you eat is here because of tiny, remarkable, pollen-dabbling bees.

How are Jerry's 10 hives doing? In past years, he has collected up to 10 pounds of honey. So far this year? None. That might be due in part to the late spring, but whatever the reason, these little guys (rather, gals--all worker bees that collect honey and pollinate are female) are suffering. And Marin isn't some were blip on the bee screen. U.S. reports show a 33 percent drop in managed honeybee colonies nationwide. Even at Sunset Magazine, staff-managed hives have struggled with mites and disease. (You can read about the escapades of "Team Bee" on the staff's award-winning blog, One-Block Diet.

But let's get back t Marn's bees. Jerry Draper and others are part of the Marin Survivor Stock Queen Bee Project, aiming to boost local bee populations without chemicals to kill off the bad stuff--the theory is that resistant bees will be able to survive, and will lead to a genetically resistant bee (it's feared that chemicals might simply lead to genetically resistant mites and diseases--bad idea). This spring, the project has recorded over 70 Marin colonies that have been healthy on their own for two or more years. Let's hope they keep thriving, along with my little Marinwood hive.

To see the Marinwood wild bees, take Marinwood Dr. exit off U.S. 101; head northwest to Queenstone Drive. Turn right and park at the dead end 1 block ahead. Hike the fire road up about 200 yards--and listen...

Saturday, April 24, 2010

You Otter Know

Three feet long. Slick black and wet, and slithering out of a still lagoon. Beady eyes. Long, long tail. What bizarre and unexpected creature burst out of the water on my evening run around the Marin Lagoon this week? An escaped rat snake? A misdirected eel?

Try a river otter.

I've seen golden and bald eagles whirling and screaming overhead, coyotes chasing jackrabbits, male deer going head-to-head (literally) in the autumn rut. Hummingbirds building delicate nests out lichen and spider webs, salmon in final gasp in redwood-shadowed creeks. But I've never EVER seen a river otter here in Marin.

But there it was, appearing out of a flat-surface, trotting onto the dry gravely ground where I stood, taking a quick look at me not 10 feet away, then taking off in a galumphing gate. With its long body and short legs, its arching gait made it look like a furry inchworm with whiskers.

I followed Otter for a while, a few hundred yards along the flat horse corral area near the Showcase Theater, where the otter slipped into the tall grass by the canal that flows of the lagoon towards Santa Venetia. He periscoped once or twice to see where he was going--the grass was significantly taller than him, then slipped away in a rustle of grass blades, heading towards the bay.

But what the heck was he doing here--he's a RIVER otter, not a SEA otter. Turns out these guys aren't uncommon in San Francisco Bay's estuaries and lagoons--in fact they're well documented.

But why Marin Lagoon, filled with monstrous rubbery catfish and overloaded with mallard ducks and Canada geese. What's in it for the otter?

Rubbery catfish, mallards, and geese. And catfish. The otter eats them.

Back in 2006, a rash of Canada geese deaths made the news. Interestingly, it also occured in April. Here's the report:
04/15/2006 04:34:00 AM PDT
"A mysterious midnight predator is preying on a beloved flock of geese at the otherwise tranquil Civic Center lagoon, baffling officials who say it could be a coyote, dog, or, most likely, a river otter." The report continued: "Bob Wyatt, a county landscape services supervisor, said he believed a North American river otter was to blame. He recently spotted two otters in the lagoon. Then this week, Wyatt said a man walking in the park reported an otter feasting on a goose." And here I end with the report's very intriguing final line: "The voluminous rain this season may have helped the otters find their way into the lagoon, Wyatt said."

While I would question the use of the term "beloved" in conjunction with "geese," the report did have a jarringly familiar ring. I dug deeper, and found another startling series of reports in which river otters were drowning and eating brown pelicans in Rodeo Lagoon.

Twenty-five pound otter versus 15-pound pelican flapping its 8-foot wingspan? Guess what: otter wins every time. Apparently, for big birds like pelicans and geese, the otters are stealth hunters, swimming up underneath and grabbing the birds' feet or legs with needle-like teeth, then they pull the bird under to drown. Oh my.

I didn't see that kind of violence on my still spring dusk, just an impossibly cute fellow coming out of the water and going on an evening run with me. I hope I see him again. Hopefully he won't grab my feet.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

I Hate Broom--and You Can Too!!

I don't usually go out of my way to destroy my hands, I mean absolutely tear them up. Don't worry, I'm not including a photo of their sad state. But a couple of weeks ago something made me MAD, I mean really MAD, and I did a very good job of wrecking my hands in the midst of that madness, leaving my paws blistered, battered, and aching from overuse. I had taken on a formidable enemy, armed with nothing but brute force, stubborn determination, and a crummy pair of gardening gloves. My enemy: broom.

Anyone living in--or even merely driving through--Marin this time of year can't miss broom. It's that lush shrub smothered in yellow flowers. You might even think it's pretty. But broom has become Public Plant Enemy #1 here, as it chokes out native plants and creates nasty fire hazards all over the county.

Broom most commonly grows in two forms in Marin: Scotch broom (tiny leaves growing on a tough stem, yellow flowers sometimes with tiny red polka dots near the flower's base).

Much more prominent is French broom (shown below, it's leafier, up to 5 or 6 feet tall, loaded with yellow flowers).

The plants are incredibly invasive, moving into cleared areas, burn sites, or really anywhere they see fit and taking over--fast. In a year a hillside can turn from nice leafy meadow dotted with wildflowers into a sloped choked with broom. It's estimated that over 100,000 acres of broom now clog California hills.

These Mediterranean natives have no problem elbowing their way into our ecosystem here. In addition to being remarkable hardy woody perennials and perfectly adapted to our monsoon/drought weather here in Marin, they have insanely effective means of reproducing.

Each flower produces a pod loaded with tiny black seeds. When they ripen in early summer and begin to dry, the pods snap open, flinging the seeds like tiny cannonballs from a catapult, ever increasing the spread of the plants. On any given hot day, if you're in an area with broom, listen for the snap-snap-snap of the pods springing open and flinging their seeds wide.

So back to my hands. I hate broom, and yank it out along trails throughout the county. I'm not alone in my loathing. The county hates it too, and has volunteer broom-cleaning days throughout Marin County Open Space public lands (here's how to help). Volunteer groups like Think Blue Marin pitch in; here Terra Linda Students yank out broom. (Thank you, Think Blue....)

Marin Municipal Water District hates it, and has launched assorted pilot programs to find out how best to kill broom, which has remarkably deep roots and doesn't like to die. MMWD has tried vinegar spritzes--doesn't work. Goats don't eat it. Poison works, but it's not acceptable on watershed lands. The best route appears to be good-ole elbow grease. The county has broom-yanking tools (the lady below looks far too happy using one), but even with these devices, the job is no fun.

Best to do it on damp days like we've had this winter, when the roots come out easiest.

That's what I decided to do on my little patch of hillside--yank yank yank--by hand and aided by loppers,
until I had completely cleared an area under a pretty live oak that I see out my window. I estimate I pulled about 3,000 (yes, a 3 and 3 zeros) plants.

Once choked with broom, the oak now has lots of clear space for natives, and even baby oaks, to move in. Turkeys and quail and other critters already forage there, in space that was once impenetrable and monocultured with broom. I will broadcast native wildflower seeds there come fall, and keep my eye on broom seedlings, which I'll rip out with morbid pleasure.

Die broom die.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

David Douglas, what's in a name?

On yesterday's walk up an emerald green hillside (can it be any prettier out there), I noticed how many irises we have this year. Sprays of deep purple in the grass, petals splayed wide to show a splash of white and a bit of yellow at the center.

I love these flowers, the way they seem to just appear all of a sudden in spring, poking their furled blooms above the grass, then boom, spread their petals wide, trumpeting the season.

I look them up in my plant book: Douglas iris, Iris douglasiana, an extremely variable iris (that would explain why I sometimes see white or pale lavender blossoms in amongst the dark purple) that thrives along the Northern California coast. This all seems fine and right, but it's the name that stops me: Douglas iris. Douglas-fir. Clinopodium douglasii, taxonomic name for one of the most wonderfully aromatic plants in the West (and more in it another time), the ground-hugging yerba buena. Who is this Douglas, I wonder.

Turns out he was really quite something. Born in the village of Scone in Scotland in the last year of the 18th century, David Douglas grew up in a time when exploring and discovering--and naming--was in its heyday. As a burgeoning naturalist employed by the London Horticultural Society, he explored the Galapagos Islands 10 years before Darwin; on the iconic islands, he collected over 200 plant and animal species, most never identified before. In his fascinating book about Douglas called The Collector (Sasquatch Books, 2009), author Jack Nisbet notes that, once the naturalist settled in the wildly undiscovered Pacific Northwest (it must have been nirvana for young Douglas), it was estimated that he had already traveled 7,032 miles by foot, horseback, and canoe. In two years.

Not all that's written about Douglas is flattering; in fact, it's noted that he probably "stole" a plant or two from others, renaming them to contain his name, not the original discoverer's. The Douglas iris might be one of these plants. He was called cantankerous, cranky, not an altogether lovable guy. His death hints at some possible--and quite literally fatal--social flaw. In July 1834, while living on the Big Island, he tumbled into a pitfall trap set by a local hunter, where he was gored by a feral bull (in the trap with him? how horrible).

But mystery swirls: did he slip on the Mauna Kea track, or was he pushed by bush robbers? Did he really die in the pit with the crazed bull, or was he possibly murdered by a local ex-con? All we know are the tales, and that he died at a very young 35. Buried in an unmarked grave at Kawaiahao Church in Hilo, he later was acknowledged by locals who knew of his contributions; a plaque was put on a church wall, and a marker was put at the spot where he fell and died. A small grove of Douglas-fir marks the spot.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Hills Have Eyes (and tails and noses)

Coyote. When I was a little girl growing up here, saying that word conjured up images of New Mexico mesas, Dakota grasslands, dry riverbeds snaking across a Nevada desert. Not the parking lot behind the Embassy Suites in San Rafael.

Canis latrans. Prairie wolf. American jackal. It's yipping and broken howl now echoes not just off the walls of red-rock canyons and saguaro-studded expanses, but also off the wood-siding walls and asphalt-shingle rooftops of my home here in Marin. A family of coyotes lives near my home, up on the hill that I stare at through my kitchen window, one of those typial oak-and-bay hummocks that bump out of the wetlands surrounding the North Bay wetlands. A beautiful rusty male and a slender, dusty brown female. I haven't seen pups yet but I suspect I will soon--the parents are already progressively bolder about winding down from the hills to slip between our homes, used the paved roads as easy routes to their key hunting grounds, the marshlands and shrubby chaparral flanking Las Gallinas Creek (no shortage of rabbits and voles there).

My frequent sightings seem to be in the norm these days. According to the CA Dept of Fish & Game's "Keep Me Wild" campaign, coyotes are found just about everywhere in California these days, from Sierra peaks to and Sonoran deserts to suburban LA and San Francisco. As for the latter, I think I was one of the first to report seeing coyotes in the Presidio a handful of years ago; officials suspect the animals used the Golden Gate Bridge to get to city parklands.

So are these human-tolerant coyotes a good thing? A bad thing? Are they a terrifying addition to urban wildlife landscape? True, they don't mind raiding garbage can or compost bin if it smells interesting, and they do nab Persians and Chihuahuas if they stray too far from home. There have been scary incidents with small children, and some folks in my area are freaked out that coyotes lope along the streets of San Rafael (and most other Marin communities). It's not really practical--or even possible--to catch them and move them away: GGNRA spokesperson Chris Powell was quoted in the Marin IJ as saying the coyotes are so smart they "see our people coming in the vehicles and they run away. The even recognize the uniforms."

So these savvy, uniform-savvy coyotes are likely here to stay. I for one love them--their wild stare through my fence, their hunched gait as they weave through the (aptly named) coyote brush, their propensity for letting loose wth a big "ah-wooooo!" when a fire truck goes blaring by. Makes my skin tingle. For now I'll grab the cat, scan the tall grass on the hill, and search for that little bit of wild.

Just in case, here are tips from the Marin Humane Society (though Item 2 makes me laugh--I mean, so we have to worry about some Marinite pulling a "Grizzly Man" on us and going native with the coyotes?? Spare me...)

o Never leave a food or water source outside.

o Do not attempt to approach coyotes or make friends with them. (!)

o Make coyotes visiting your property feel unwelcome: Shout, make loud noises, spray them with a hose.

o Keep your pets safe with proper confinement, especially at dawn and after dusk.

o Walk your dog on a leash.

o Don't let your dog approach a coyote.
o Make your yard "coyote proof." Remove bushes against house walls, enclose decks and staircases, reduce rodent populations, contain waste and compost, and remove fallen tree fruit.

o Report sightings to the Marin Humane Society 415/883-4621.