Monday, July 30, 2018

BIRDS, BEES and WILDFLOWERS: Hike in Briones Regional Park, Orinda, CA

Bee collecting nectar from a thistle flower in Briones Regional Park
In the hills of the San Francisco's East Bay, there are countless parks and natural areas where one can walk, bike, picnic and enjoy the out-of-doors. In early summer, when Art and I were in Oakland for the weekend, we took a family hike in Briones Regional Park, a short drive away, near the community of Orinda.(Briones Regional Park is a 6,117-acre regional park in the East Bay Regional Park District system, located in the Briones Hills of central Contra Costa County in California.)
Wild mustard blooming at Briones Regional Park
Our walk began  through sunny open areas among an abundance of brilliant yellow mustard plants in bloom, and patches of thistle, where bees were hard at work collecting nectar.
The mustard plants, awash in their bright yellow flowers, grew in thick clumps with stems as tall as we were.
It was a beautiful day, and although there were other people enjoying the park, it didn't seem crowded. We headed away from the main picnic area along one of the many trails.
Typical view along the path
Although the sign warned us about snakes and mountain lions, the only wild animals we spotted on the ground were a few lizards scampering up the bank at the edge of the path.
Lizard, almost perfectly camouflaged against the earth tones of the ground
As we followed the path we alternately passed through through shaded groves of California oaks and open hillsides where we could see signs (footprints) that cattle had been grazing. (Open grazing is allowed in the park.)
California live oak
We stopped for lunch at the Maud Whalen picnic area. As we sat at our table we watched swallows flitting in and out of the nearby covered picnic shelter. Inside the shelter we found more swallows and their nests plastered against the roof beams.
Outside, high overhead, we watched a red-tail hawk circling on rising air currents.
Entry to Maud Whalen picnic area
After lunch, we retraced our steps and returned to the parking area, a total hike of about two miles. If we had wanted a longer hike, we could have circled back via another trail. Like most of our hikes, our goal was not to cover distance, but to enjoy nature and take advantage of photo opportunities. We succeeded on both counts!
Red-tail Hawk

Monday, July 23, 2018

IMAGINARY WORLDS at the Atlanta Botanical Garden

Peacock living sculpture inside the orchid house at the Atlanta Botanical Garden
A fearsome dragon, a caravan of camels, a spectacular peacock and a giant Earth goddess, all created from living plants, are just a few of the many delights of the Imaginary Worlds: Once Upon a Time exhibit in the Atlanta Botanical Garden. The exhibit is mounted in partnership with the International Mosaiculture of Montreal.

Chiluly glass sculpture, fountain at the Levy Parterre
In May, on a brief trip to Atlanta, I had the morning free and decided to visit the Botanical Garden, located in Piedmont Park, about a twenty-minute walk from my hotel in Mid-town. It was a beautiful sunny day and I joined other visitors and numerous school groups touring the garden.
Detail of Dragon sculpture; plants are plugged into a metal framework stuffed with planting mixture
The pieces in the exhibit are positioned throughout the garden along with the permanent plantings. They are created with a process known as mosaiculture. Mosaiculture first became popular in Europe in the 16th century as wealthy landowners commissioned elaborate three-dimensional gardens, or “embroidery beds,” for enjoying up close or at a distance. (By the late 1860's, the term “mosaiculture” was used for the first time in France, referring to the mosaic-like appearance of the surfaces of planted sculptures.)
Once Upon a Time "Storybook"
After purchasing my ticket and entering the garden I was greeted by the Storybooks sculpture. There I opted to go left toward the rose garden, great lawn and greenhouses. At the edge of the great lawn a huge dragon, who appeared ready to take flight, dominated the scene.
Dragon, mounted in the rock garden
From there I made my way toward the orchid center. On much of my tour I ended up following a school group taking a docent guided tour. At the Bogs and Poison Plant garden the kids were squatting on the ground trying to get a close-up looks at the Venus fly-traps and poking them with sticks to try to get them to snap shut.
The orchid house is truly spectacular, with orchids of every size, shape and color. In the center was a giant peacock, part of the Imaginary World exhibit.
Earth Goddess at the Cascades Garden
I then circled back to the entrance passing through the peaceful Japanese garden and taking the bridge to the Kendeda canopy walk where I got a view of the Earth Goddess presiding over the refreshing Cascades Garden. She has become a permanent feature of the Botanical Garden. The rest of the sculptures except for the Shaggy Dog are temporary.
On my way back to the entrance I almost missed the mammoth with its giant tusks, peeking through the greenery. For a moment, I thought it was real!

Imaginary Worlds: Once Upon a Time will be on view May-October 2018.
For more information go to

Monday, July 16, 2018

THE LITTLE WHITE HOUSE: Roosevelt’s Retreat in Warm Springs, GA

Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Little White House," Warm Springs, GA
Franklin D. Roosevelt first came to Warm Springs Georgia in 1924 in hopes that the warm waters of the natural springs there would help him recover from polio. Over the next twenty one years he came there many times, staying in the small white cottage he built on land he purchased nearby, which, during the years he was President (1932-1945) became known as the “Little White House.” It was there that he died on April 12, 1945, when he suffered a massive heart attack while sitting for a portrait by painter Elizabeth A. Shoumatoff.
Elizabeth A. Shoumatoff's unfinished portrait is on exhibit in the visitor center
Today Roosevelt’s house and a museum with mementos of his life in Warm Springs are open to the public. It is operated by the Georgia State Parks as a State Historic Site. The treatment pools where he swam can also be seen, along with exhibits about the kinds of therapy that was offered to victims of polio like Roosevelt.
Bullock House Restaurant
I visited Warm Springs when Art and I were in Georgia visiting relatives near Atlanta last May. We took a day trip, arriving in time for lunch at Bullock House Restaurant on the town’s historic main street, choosing from a buffet of classic Southern foods including catfish, hush puppies, collard greens, fried chicken.
FDR was an avid stamp collector
After lunch our first stop was the Little White House Visitor Center, where we purchased our tickets and watched a short film before touring the museum. The museum is filled with items from Roosevelt’s personal life such as the 1938 Ford Convertible with hand controls, his stamp collection, his cane collection, and a 1930s kitchen with his “Fireside Chats” playing on the radio.
In a speech given January 6, 1941 Roosevelt insisted that people in all nations of the world shared Americans' entitlement to four freedoms: the freedom of speech and expression, the freedom to worship God in his own way, freedom from want and freedom from fear.
On one wall is a display of the Four Freedoms posters made from paintings by Norman Rockwell. They were used to promote the selling of war bonds during World War II. On another wall is a series of displays honoring Franklin’s wife Eleanor.
Eleanor Roosevelt
From the Visitor Center we went outside for the short walk to Roosevelt’s house, stopping at the guest house and servant’s quarters. Inside Roosevelt’s cottage, a very knowledgeable park ranger answered questions and helped us imagine what it was like when Roosevelt lived there.
Wheelchair fashioned by mounting a kitchen chair on wheels
The rooms inside the cottage are small and cozy and largely unchanged since Roosevelt’s time. A special wheelchair, small enough to fit through the narrow doorways sits in the corner; next to it is a statue of Fala, Roosevelt’s faithful dog.
Photographs of FDR at the Warm Springs Pools
A mile from the museum are the pools where Roosevelt went for therapy. No longer used, they have been drained but photos from the past show them full of people.  A small museum at the pools tell about the springs and the town’s history, including Roosevelt’s founding of the adjacent Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute.
The pools once used by FDR were replaced by an indoor pool closer to the treatment center.
A visit to Warm Springs is a trip back in time. It is one thing to read about FDR in the history books. It is another to walk in his footsteps. As the cover of the park brochure proclaims, a visit to Roosevelt’s Little White House is to experience the inspirational retreat of a man who changed America.
The Little White House is located 70 miles south of Atlanta, Georgia. For more information go to .

Monday, July 9, 2018

THE GREAT WILDEBEEST MIGRATION, Tanzania, Africa, Guest Post by Owen Floody

Migrating wildebeest crossing the Mara River, Tanzania, Africa
Our friend Owen Floody, who recently retired from a career of teaching and research at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, has had the good fortune of being able to travel frequently. His trips have been divided between treks and safaris, reflecting his interests in seeing (and photographing) interesting landscapes and wildlife. Here is his report on his most recent safari, to Tanzania in late July and early August of 2017.  
Grey-crowned crane
Though I have visited Africa many times, I never had focused on, or adequately seen, the Great Migration of more than a million wildebeest, zebra and other animals that is concentrated in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park.
Wildebeest launching themselves into the Mara River to begin their crossing
In one sense the Great Migration is difficult to miss: Rather than being confined to a fraction of the year, its clockwise circulation of animals continues nearly year-round.  Still, there are parts of the migration that are more dramatic than others and one of the most dramatic of all seems to be that at which the animals are forced to cross the Mara River, near Serengeti’s northern border.  It is at this point that the wildebeest probably are at greatest risk of death due to drowning or predation by crocodiles.  It is estimated that about 6,500 wildebeest drown in the Mara each year, injecting tons of nutrients into the river ecosystem in the process (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114, 7647, 2017).
Wildebeest entering the Mara River
My desire to see a river crossing led me to work with Warrior Trails, my favorite Tanzanian tour operator, to plan a trip to the northern Serengeti in late July and early August, when crossing seemed likely.  Our plan committed us to five nights at a tented camp within striking distance of the Mara. It seemed most prudent to give ourselves several opportunities to catch crossings, assuming that we had guessed right on the time of year.
Wildebeest emerging from the river at the end of the crossing
So, did we see our crossing?  Yes, we did, and on the second day of our time in the north.  As crossings go, this seemed extremely benign: The river was low and slow, and the crocodiles must still have been digesting their meals from prior days as none of them made an appearance.  Nevertheless, the crossing was one of the most exciting spectacles I have seen.  And I did not feel cheated in the least by the uniform success of the animals we saw crossing: There was adequate evidence of past (and likely future) failures, and I did not really need to directly observe these.
This focus made for a relatively simple itinerary.  We flew into Kilimanjaro Airport, near Arusha, and essentially made a beeline for the northern Serengeti, a transfer that involved many hours of often dusty driving.  Upon the completion of our time there, we returned to Arusha almost as directly.  What terrible hardships we endured!  Lest you feel too sorry for us, bear in mind that we made several stops en route, at Lake Manyara National Park and in the central Serengeti on the way north, in central Serengeti again and at the Ngorongoro Crater on the return.  Also, bear in mind that Serengeti is varied and wonderful, possibly my favorite place in earth.  What a privilege to be “forced” to spend a couple of weeks there.
Female Leopard
Our early success freed us for a succession of game drives exploring different nearby parts of the Serengeti.  It exposed us to some of the variety of habitats that the park incorporates and helped to put the Great Migration in context by contrasting areas that the migrating animals were vacating versus occupying.  In addition, it provided us with the time we needed to find, view and enjoy some of the other wildlife (and scenery) for which the Serengeti is so famous.  
Grey-headed Kingfisher
In preparing for an African safari, I think it generally best to not become too invested in particular sightings: The chance element is too strong and there are too many wonderful things to be seen, any subset of which is likely to be thrilling. Altogether, our trip could not have been much more successful or pleasant.
Note: A wildebeest is a large dark antelope with a long head, a beard and mane, and a sloping back. It is also called a gnu.

Monday, July 2, 2018


Point Reyes National Seashore, California
Two weeks ago, taking advantage of their daughter being away at camp, my son Matt and his wife Kate escaped their busy life in Oakland, CA, for a short road trip to explore Inverness and the area around Point Reyes.  Here is Matt's report along with his excellent photos.
Surprisingly close to the Bay Area, you feel a world away in the coastal town of Inverness, entering a part of California that seems from another era. Just the drive to the coast is worth the trip. After leaving the East Bay, we utilized the Nicasio Valley Road route.  Other scenic options include taking Sir Francis Drake Blvd through San Rafael or going through Mill Valley and Stinson beach via Highway 1.
Once leaving the outskirts of San Rafael and turning off of the 101, you are immediately thrown into a series of alternating quintessential California landscapes--from rolling golden hills dotted with Oak trees, to windy roads dodging giant Redwoods, to coastal bluffs filled with scrub brush, to pastoral grazing lands for cattle. The long and windy road feels less long, surrounded by such serenity. 
Looking East across Tomales Bay from "downtown" Inverness
We stayed, via Air B & B, at a small studio in the heart of Inverness, one block from Tomales Bay and Chicken Ranch Beach, looking eastward across Tomales Bay.
The topography of the area is defined by the San Andreas fault, and the collision of the Pacific and North American tectonic plates that slice their way through the Pacific edge of California. The fault line runs from Bolinas and Stinson beach to the south, following Highway 1 and then diving back into the water, forming the large and narrow Tomales Bay (think Baja California but upside down.)
Forster's Terns at Abbott's Lagoon
To the west of this fault line is Point Reyes National Seashore. Here, there is a vast collection of trails leading across the ridge with pine and oak forests, down to wild bluffs, abandoned beaches, rugged coastline, and a series of tranquil lagoons and marshland, with extensive tidal flats. There is a series of roads that lead to several of these locations, though trail heads will take you quite quickly away from the busier outlooks.
Looking across Tomales Bay from Tomales Bay State Park
The towns of Inverness and nearby Point Reyes Station, personify what would best be termed the West Marin (County) aesthetic. There is a touch of what might be blamed on the hippie roots of the area, and words like free, organic, artistic--attached to the lansdcape--all seeming appropriate. On a gastronomic level, this area is the intersection of the foodie culture that originated in the Bay Area, (fresh/locally sourced/organic) and the bucolic Old Califronia (where this produce is actually grown). Many brands, which are familiar to Bay area foodies (Marin Sun Farms, Cowgirl Creamery, Nicasio Valley Cheese, Strauss Creamery, Tomales Bay Oysters, etc.) are all located in the surrounding pasture lands/tidal zones, with several outlets in Point Reyes Station to sample their wares. In addition, the restaurants all serve top notch foodie fare, with oysters on the half shell at even the smallest sandwich shops. It is really hard to eat a meal here that isn't absolutely delicious.
There are still a few working farms on the land, and cows grazing, harking back to a true California of old.
The town of Inverness sits right at the edge of the more wild Point Reyes National Seashore, and after you round the bend on Sir Francis Drake Blvd and leave town, you really feel like you are leaving much of civilization behind. The scenery can be breathtaking. Most of the land is wild, with amazing vistas stretching from the hills down to the tidal flats or cliffs on the coast.
Tidal flats photographed in black and white at Drake's Estuary
On our particular trip, after a good night's sleep Friday, we woke early on Saturday morning and set out to explore (via our ritual exercise) the trail system in Point Reyes. We picked up coffee and breakfast at the IP Market (short for Inverness Park), which offers an excellent deli/cafe bar in addition to normal market supplies. Lots of fresh baked goods, and options for sandwiches (later I had their amazing Tri-Tip sandwich). We went to Bear Valley trailhead where Kate took off on her Saturday run, with the trail gently climbing and then descending to the coast, where several trail options will get you to the beach. Here you can get to waterfalls that flow directly into the Pacific (I think called Tidal Falls). 
Several trails in Point Reyes allow bike riding.
While Kate ran, I took off on a bike ride. The trail riding is a little more limited, and many of the trails only allow bikes on certain portions (only half of the Bear Creek trail is open.) After consulting a map I tried to string a few of the trails together, needing to use a few park roads to skip between trails, but ended up with a very satisfying ride, with the trails almost all to myself for several hours.
After our respective exercise regimens were checked off the to-do list on some pretty cool trails, we headed back to our studio. Sandwiches were picked up at the IP market and we were able to enjoy these at Chicken Ranch Beach (did I mention the Tri Tip?) 
Even in mid-June there were still plenty of wildflowers in bloom.
After lunch, another trip into Point Reyes Seashore to explore more hiking trails took me to a short trail to Abbott's lagoon.This was recommended by our AirB & B host and it did not disappoint.
Wildflowers were in bloom on the trail down to the lagoon plus an impressive collection of birds; others on the trail had just seen river otters in the lagoon (though I missed out.)
Sand dunes await at the mouth of  Abbott's lagoon, which then stretch onto the actual coastline and Point Reyes Beach.
This is a great trail to see seabirds that dot the shores around the lagoon. Once at the actual ocean front, one could potentially walk up and down the sandy beach for miles.
Dinner that night was in Inverness at the Salt Water Oyster depot. Despite being at the edge of civilization, the food was excellent. We enjoyed the local oysters, as well as scallops, and clams (linguini) and shrimp (cassoulet). When in Rome...
Sunday morning arrived sooner than we would have wished, and after cleaning up and checking out, we had one last dive into the National Seashore trail system, this time at the Estero trail head to a system of trails (most of them bike-able) surrounding Drake's Estero. This offered more views of the tidal estuary along mostly brush covered coastline.
On the Estero trail we caught several white tail deer and their fawns as it was "fawn season".
Despite the decent weekend weather, and relative proximity to San Francisco, being in the park never felt crowded. Though Bear Valley Visitor Center does get busy (it is the closest trail head to SF), we were there early, and almost every other trail that we explored we had mostly to ourselves. There were miles of some trails where I did not see another soul. This sense of isolation, so close to home, was wonderfully refreshing.
A short hike at Tomales Bay State Park to Indian Beach led to several reproductions of cone shaped Miwok bark shelters as part of a cultural exhibit.
On the way out of the National Seashore, we had one more stop on the beach, this time hitting Tomales Bay State Park, carved into the western edge of the bay, taking a short hike from Hearts Desire Beach (which was full of picnickers, kayakers, and BBQ) to Indian Beach.
An unusual thistle like plant along the trail to Abbott's Lagoon
Unfortunately our weekend was coming to an end. Reversing course on Sir Francis Drake Blvd brought us back through Point Reyes Station where we stopped for lunch. Again, we ate well, as the comfort food prepared at Side Street Kitchen was simply amazing (oysters, pork Belly BLT, pulled pork sandwich, salad). We picked up some cheese to take home across the road at Cowgirl Creamery, and returned to civilization through Nicasio Valley back to Oakland.
Lupins along Drake's estuary along the Estero trail
Despite packing a lot into the weekend, we felt refreshed and recharged for the week ahead. It felt like we barely scratched the surface of Point Reyes National Seashore and Tomales Bay, and left wanting to return for more. In particular, the Tule Elk Preserve on the northern tip, on the way to Tomales point, as well as the more famous and picturesque lighthouse at the opposite end, are on the list of things to get to on our next visit, or even camp in the park. Another trip will have to be made to actually kayak on Tomales Bay (Blue Waters Kayak) as well.
With only a small amount of traffic leaving Oakland, it took us around 1 hour, 20 minutes to get from the Bay Area to Inverness and Point Reyes.  For a map of Point Reyes click HERE. I hope you enjoy this report and are able to experience this area of California for yourself.
Abandoned fishing boat providing the classic Inverness snapshot