"All good things are wild and free." --Henry David Thoreau

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Semi-Hidden Frog Habitat of Brisbane

We got an invitation to visit a place I'd never heard about--a restored frog habitat in Brisbane, that sweet town just south of San Francisco, nestled in a bayside cleft of San Bruno Mountain. 

Our new friend and naturalist extraordinaire, Paul Bouscal from San Bruno Mountain Watch, who has accompanied us on a group hike on the mountain, was rip-roaring eager to show us this "frog habitat." 

So on a blue Sunday afternoon in March, we went to see what all the hullabaloo was about, and boy were we happy we did. 

The Rendezvous Point
Paul told us to meet him at a parking lot in a suspiciously industrial part of Brisbane. As we cruised into the parking lot at 100 Cypress Lane, our car windows rolled down, we heard an intense amphibious bellowing. Somewhere amongst the enormous warehouses and tell-tale arroyo willows there were hundreds of frogs. The kids were thrilled! We were thrilled! This certainly was something to get excited about. We parked and saw that a creek that is the remnant of a freshwater marsh fed by seeps ran alongside the parking lot. And it was full of frogs!

The Frogs 
Pacific Chorus Frogs, also known as Pacific Tree Frogs (Pseudacris regilla) can be found from Canada to Mexico along the West Coast, and if you live in San Francisco or nearby, you can find a whole bunch of them in Brisbane. They range from brown to green, and the size we most commonly saw was equivalent to a phalange of my finger.  

What Was and Is--Flora and Fauna

This riparian habitat is part of restoration project spearheaded four years ago by a fellow named Jim McKissock, his volunteer group, EarthCare, and assistance from San Bruno Mountain WatchJust a year ago the water in some areas was anaerobic and full of mosquitos, but now the critters include frogs, tadpoles, and water striders galore. 

Volunteers have removed Pampas grass, ivy, acacia, fennel, privets, and pines in order to bring back rushes, cat tails, tule, water ferns, and more. Anise swallowtail butterflies showed up on the water parsley, and other blooming plants include clarkia, ceanothus, lupine, sticky monkey flower, yarrow, evening primrose, yampa, wax myrtlecheckerbloom, and more.   

Rails to Trails
A railroad ran through here over a century ago, built in 1905. The frog habitat is located along part of Crocker Park Rails to Trails, where in the old-time days the train ran inland to fetch the quarried greywacke from out of San Bruno Mountain. 

Heading East to the Ice House
We meandered along the trail, the old rail line, heading towards the bay. 

We went through an old rail tunnel that ran beneath Bayshore Boulevard (though I've driven that road many times, I had no idea there was a tunnel below). I love tunnels, and this one was particularly cool--short in length, high ceilinged, and full of sunshine on either end.  

Back outside we came to huge puddles filled with thousands of squirming tadpoles, which was a delight for the children. 

We continued on our eastward path, passing an old brick building which Paul said was once an ice house. Back in the day, some rail cars would pick up blocks of glacial ice, originally from Tuolumne, to chill perishable goods moving up and down the rail lines. 

The big hill to our immediate north is Ice House Hill, but I never knew it until walking with Paul, who talked all about the history, plants, and animals of the area. I silently mused about how I'd like to explore there, some day. I've cruised up and down Bayshore Boulevard many times, often wondering about that hill, intensely curious about the horses I've seen grazing there. 

Mission Blue Nursery

We walked south alongside the active commuter rail line, the
kids thrilling at every passing train (and there was plenty of room between us and the Cal Train), the engineers pulling their whistles when we made the universal gesture of honking a horn as they passed. 

Not more than three minutes walk south from the old ice house was the Mission Blue Nursery. There's a road that also leads there, of course, coming from the south end. The nursery was amazing, filled with hundreds of native plants that will go towards restoration projects and be sold to you and me for our gardens and yards. We hung out for a little while, letting the kids poke around, and then returned to the frogs. 

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Map to the Starting Point of this Hike

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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

4 Simple Nature Toys for Little Kids

Okay, so these nature toys are so simple, you might roll your eyes as you read on. But to a little kid manipulating bits of nature is just a lesson in fun. The other day we were walking and picking things up on the path, and with the kid's help, dried sticks and seed pods morphed into spears, umbrellas, and bouquets. Check it out! 

  1. Take a long piece of dried fennel and denude it except for the topmost spray of dried flowers, which acts like an arrow's fletch to make a perfect aerodynamic drag.  
  2. Your hand is the balance point as you aim.
  3. Fire!
  4. Send kid to retrieve (except from big clumps of poison oak).

Okay, so Pampas grass is terrible and invasive in California and it'll surely make a bigger mess of things with this game. I've been guilty since childhood (bringing Pampas grass into my bedroom where it'd shed it's flaxen pieces all over proving it wrecks havoc indoors and out.)

  1. Your kid finds a choice piece of Pampas grass. 
  2. The parent cuts it off (it's hard!).
  3. Your kid becomes a Queen or a King on their walk. 


The Pampas Umbrella is quite similar to the "scepter," above, except you need a hat to stick on the end of it. Alternatively a piece of Pampas grass can become an impromptu broomstick or baton.


Who doesn't like the smooth, slippery feeling of pinching the bottom of a piece of grass and running your fingers up, making a pretty bouquet? It took a bit of hand-holding to teach my kid how to do it, but once she got it, all I heard for the rest of the walk was "Foxtail bouquet! Foxtail bouquet!"

  1. Pinch the base of a grass stalk heavily laden with seed heads. 
  2. Run your fingers up its length, holding tight. 
  3. Ta da! A foxtail bouquet fit for a fairy or a three year old. 

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In parting, take a gander at the photo below. Fennel spears aren't just fun for little kids. 

Monday, March 25, 2013

Upcoming Group Hike: Starr King Open Space in San Francisco

I recently published a small article about Starr King Open Space in Bay Nature magazine, and was pleased to hear from the editor, Dan, that a well-known lepidopterist in the city was thrilled by it. He'd never been there before and ended up seeing plenty of flowers, including rarities, and even some wildlife.

For the group hike of April 2013, I'd like to bring folks to Starr King Open Space on Sunday April 7th from 11 to 12:30.

Starr King Open Space is on Potrero Hill in San Francisco. It's relatively close to General Hospital, the 101 and 280, 23rd Street, and it was my backyard as I grew up here in the 80s and early 90s. I used to spend hours here, sliding down the hills on pieces of cardboard with other neighborhood kids, walking my dog, or watching the fog drape over Twin Peaks. I'm glad to know the place is protected now, and furthermore that with age you can even notice a lot more than when you were a kid---like seeing all the wildflowers and understanding how rare they are, like the mariposa lily.

We'll ramble around the 3.5 acres that make up this open space, visit a stone spiral in one of the meadows, see rock outcroppings that create a special habitat called serpentine grassland, and have a picnic with an amazing view of the city spread out before us.

Special Guests
Webb Green, Vice President of the Starr King Open Space (http://starrkingopenspace.org), will point out different kinds of wildflowers, many of which are rare and native. He's been on the board for a decade, and active with the land for twenty years. I'm hoping Julie Shumate, the President of SKOS, will attend with her kid, as they're good friends of mine.

Getting There
We will meet under the eucalyptus trees across the street from Starr King Elementary School (1215 Carolina Street, 94107--cross street is Coral Road) on Potrero Hill.

Bus: You can catch the 48 Quintara from 24th Street BART, or the 19 Polk from Civic Center BART---either will take you a few blocks from our meeting spot.

Car: Exit 101 to Cesar Chavez, go north on Potrero Avenue, turn right on 23rd, turn right on Carolina Street, proceed two blocks to Starr King Elementary School, and park.

Relevant Links

Map of the Area

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Crystal Springs Trail: dirt, bunnies, and the sound of water

In the past whenever I've visited Crystal Springs Reservoir, I'd only ever walked on the paved trail, Sawyer Camp Trail, the one full of joggers and walkers galore, whizzing bikes, and a flotilla strollers. Sawyer Camp Trail is just north of 92--but I've always wondered about the possibility of trails south of Highway 92? 

I'm not a lover of concrete, especially when I'm want to be outdoors, so it's with great pleasure I tell you about Crystal Springs Trail, a dirt trail just south of Highway 92
Crystal Springs Reservoir
Crystal Springs Reservoir, for those who aren't familiar with it, is right off I-280 to the west of San Mateo, just 20-something miles south of San Francisco. It's a beautiful place for a man-made lake, and its clean, blue waters come from local creeks and from as far away as Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite. The  the forests and mountainous ridge to the west are pristine without houses or roads.
"Spring Fog" by Christina Puckett. Cordair.com

This is a great place to see advection fog at work too--that incredible natural wonder where the fog slides over the hills in a thick white blanket. Come late in the afternoon or the morning for the best chances of seeing this.

Perhaps the biggest drawbacks to walking along Crystal Springs Reservoir is the continuous fence (but you start to forget about it here and there), and the droning of single-engine prop planes en route to the tiny airport in Half Moon Bay / Princeton Harbor, but these distractions are intermittent. Mostly, you see the flowers and the fields, the cottontails and the raptors, and hear the songbirds and the water hitting the shore. 

Such a pretty trail compared to concrete ones
The Trail
Crystal Springs Trail gets you much closer to the water than the popular and paved Sawyer Camp Trail. Because Crystal Springs Trails is dirt, it somehow seems to repel people---on a busy Sunday there was just our family and a few joggers.

This one, then, is the gem.

You can actually hear water lapping on the shore, see beaches, and get close to wildlife. During one snack break, cottontails foraged under the coyote brush while overhead hawks and vultures flew.

We only walked about a mile, past a large oak tree and a crude bench, though our map showed that 1.8 miles from where we parked was the Pulgas Water Temple, a stone structure with Greek architectural elements that was built to celebrate the fact that folks could get water all the way from Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite to here. (It's good to note that there are bathrooms at the Pulgas Water Temple.)

At this time of year, late March, there were wildflowers galore: purple colored lupine, buttercups, California golden poppies, and many more. The serpentine rocks along part of the way nurture native plants because of the chemicals they impart to the soil, and I think I saw goldfields there. We passed tons of coyote brush throughout. There was also coffee berry, oak trees, and plenty of poison oak and blackberry along the fence edges.

The trail was flat with a little undulation. An outdoors type stroller could easily traverse this, and our 3.5 year old managed to go about two miles roundtrip before self-combusting.

Drive south of San Francisco on 280 for about 22 miles. Exit at 92 heading west. Park on Canada Road, which crosses 92. You will be on the east side of the reservoir.

Park at the southwestern corner of the intersection between Canada Road and Highway 92; there are plenty of parking spaces. A narrow dirt trail swings down at either end of the parking area to the main walking trail alongside the fence.

No facilities, except at the Pulgas Water Temple.

Of particular interest to bicyclists, check out Canada Road on Sunday when it closes to motorized traffic between H-92 and Filoli (approximately 2.5 miles). It's called Bicycle Sunday, and the open road is all yours.
Map of Crystal Springs Trail, courtesy http://www.co.sanmateo.ca.us

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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Recap of March 2013 Group Hike: Pescadero Marsh

This past Sunday about thirty folks met up on the coastal stretch along Pescadero Beach. Some knew each other, and many were meeting each other for the first time. We walked a couple miles along protected marshland, binoculars in some hands, not knowing what we'd find. Soon kids were stopping to check out little things like bugs and flowers along the trail, adults were seeing blue herons and belted king-fishers in the trees, and though the sky changed from blue to cloud-covered in a couple hours, nobody minded--it was a great day to be outside. 

We passed out maps at the parking lot, showing the trail we were taking (in orange), plus a couple others if people were interested in other possibilities. 

Over the bridge, then under the bridge we went, following the sand to the creek. 

Once we reached the Sequoia Audubon trail, the kids were noticing things at their feet...

...and the adults were seeing things in the distance.

Someone identified this caterpillar---one of many of its kind---as a Wooly Bear that develops into a Tiger Moth. Don't touch it, we told the kids, it could cause a rash. The kids were thrilled by each and every one they found. This one is hanging out on a lupine. 

"We need the tonic of wildness, to wade sometimes in marshes..." 
--Henry David Thoreau

Hill Babies group hike regulars---yay!

Dad and daughter. 

A happy kid. 

Mom and daughter--so glad they came!

We took a snack break at Turtle Pond in the sunshine.  

The youngest hiker in the group was a month. 

A handful of docents made our walk that much more fun. 

These naturalist volunteers seemed to truly love coming out here on a regular basis to take folks on informal hikes, and I've got to thank them for their dedication, knowledge, and good cheer. 


We had a picnic by Pescadero Creek, a perfect place with calm water, amazing amounts of driftwood, flocks of birds, and smooth sand. 

Two naturalists who happened to be childhood acquaintances that hadn't seen each other in over thirty years! Proof that going outdoors can be far more satisfying than staying inside. You never know who you'll run into when you join up with some group for a hike. 

Bird aficionados and good friends of mine. 

Dad and son. 

Black-tailed deer. 
Egrets in the rookery, a big snag. 
The end of the hike was at an elevated look-out at the top of a small rise, giving an expansive view of the marsh to the west and south. 

A belted king-fisher

"To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and flow of the tides, to feel the breath of a mist moving over a great salt marsh, to watch the flight of shore birds ....  is to have knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly life can be." 
--Rachel Carson

Western Gull

Note the lack of socks. Note the happy expressions. These kids were having a ball. That branch was a natural see-saw with someone on the other end (out of sight in the photo), so though you can't see em in action, they were on a ride that would rival any playground contraption.