Posts from the ‘Citizen Science’ category

Save the Date: Free Screening of “Ray Bandar: A Life with Skulls” on January 31 Featured

When: Wednesday, 1/31/2018, 6:00 – 7:00pm
Where: Koret Auditorium
Main Library
100 Larkin St.

Doors open at 5:30pm.

He’s been called Dr. Bones and Reptile Ray. Usually dressed in tattered “field-trip” clothes, Ray Bandar was a fixture at the California Academy of Sciences and the beaches around the San Francisco Bay Area for more than 60 years.

Ray passed away peacefully in his home on December 23 of congestive heart failure. This showing is now a tribute to his life’s work.

“A Life with Skulls” captures Ray’s obsession for collecting skulls from local beaches, road kill, zoo animals and on field trips to Mexico, Australia and in the United States. This humorous movie investigates Bandar’s history as a skull collector, showing many of the thousands of skulls he has accumulated over the years, talking to Alkmene, his resilient wife, and touring the awe-inspiring Bone Palace.

“A Life with Skulls” is an inspiring look at a man who had a special tie to the natural world. You will be motivated to go out and explore it for yourself.

Screening followed by a Q&A with:

  • Beth Cataldo, Film director
  • Moe Flannery, Collections Manager of Birds and Mammals at the California Academy of Sciences

This is a Green Stacks event.

This is a Films & Videos program from SFPL. From feature films to youth-made videos, we’ve got something great to watch.

A Humpback whale feeds in San Francisco Bay.

Comment Now to Keep our Underwater Sanctuaries Safe Featured


The summer of 2017 is turning out to be a Humpback whale extravaganza in the San Francisco Bay. Yesterday, I saw five whales spouting, breaching and eating for about two hours. With wildlife so close to our urban world, who doesn’t want to marvel at these behemoths jumping out of the water?

While they can dance above water, they can’t write to ask our President to keep their marine ecosystems safe from drilling. That’s where we come in.

In April, in efforts to “Implement an America-First Offshore Energy Strategy,” the Trump Administration called for the Department of Commerce to conduct a review of National Marine Sanctuaries and Marine National Monuments Designated or Expanded Since April 28, 2007. This is known as Executive Order 13795.

Sanctuaries are like underwater national parks, protected from offshore drilling, that provided feeding and breeding for whales, sea lions, elephant and furs seals, sharks and all sorts of birds.

There are 11 sanctuaries that were expanded or created in the last 10 years. It appears that President Trump is trying to rescind that work so that off-shore drilling can occur in these areas. The ones that are under review on the California coast are the expanded Cordell Bank, Greater Farallones, Monterey Bay, and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuaries.

What can you do? You can submit a formal comment to the National Register:

Tell President Trump that the California’s National Marine Sanctuaries create a vital ecosystem that provides our wildlife with the food that they need to flourish, that these marine ecosystems are vital to the health of marine mammals, fish, birds and other wildlife. And that because of these sanctuaries, you are enjoying all that these ecosystems sustain.

Tell President Trump that you strongly support the current sanctuaries and that the health of these underwater parks provide people from all over the world the opportunity to see stunning wildlife. Tell him that our economy relies on the beauty of our coastline.

Ask President Trump not to undermine the agreement that citizens have made to protect these areas. Extensive public input was reviewed before these areas were expanded. The government should not weaken these agreements.

I just added my comment. At that time more than 14,000 people had added theirs. You must act quickly as the comment period ends July 26. The whales will be grateful.


Vaux Swifts in San Rafael

Keeping an Eye Out for Birds Featured

This time of the year, California is a stop-over point for birds heading down to their wintering range. Watching birds fly in groups over the ocean or land is a spectacle of beauty that I seek out each year.

This past weekend, I headed over to a brickyard in San Rafael, where Vaux Swifts stop off for a couple of nights on their way down to Central America. Below is some video footage that I captured from that day, with some birders at the site calculating that there were more than 20,000 swifts trying to get into one brick chimney. We waited until dark, and there were still thousands of birds milling around.

Rumors were that the chimney was filled to capacity and that this was the largest congregation of birds they had ever seen at this site.

By 8pm, the wind had picked up so we left the birds, flying around like an insect swarm in hopes that some space at the chimney would open up.

Faux Swifts in San Rafael, September 12, 2015 (30 seconds) (Watch fullscreen in HD for full effect): 

Faux Swifts in San Rafael, September 12, 2015 (1 minute 10 seconds) (Watch fullscreen in HD for full effect)

Elephant seals

California Winter Wildlife Are Here

Anyone who’s traveled to Point Reyes more than once realizes that the weather is completely unpredictable. This is my fourth year as a docent, and still can’t predict how the weather will play out during the day. I always bring four layers of clothing, including long underwear, fleece, my Gore-Tex jacket and some mittens.

Sign at the Pt. Reyes Lighthouse

Sign at the Pt. Reyes Lighthouse

But January 4, my first day of being a docent, was incredibly clear and warm. We saw 28 whales in the morning shift at the lighthouse. Seeing whales is kind of an exaggeration, as anyone who has been up to the lighthouse knows.

Mostly what we see is a faint view of a dark back and maybe a fluke (tail). We often see a light blow of air every once in a while.

kingtides-oceanBut even that slight indication that there’s a forty-ton mammal beneath the surface excites visitors from around the world.  Some complain that they don’t see more. “That’s it?” they exclaim, imagining that they’d see a whole body coming out of the water instead.

Peregrine Falcon on his rock.

Peregrine Falcon on his rock.

The local Peregrine Falcon has a rock that he stations himself on, scanning the landscape for intruders into his territory. We watched him attack a juvenile Red-tailed hawk. He was vocalizing loudly and then swooped the bird, which was sitting on a cliff about 200 feet from the Peregrine.

He circled around and swooped the Red-tail again, vocalizing loudly the whole time. A scene better than any National Geo special I’ve seen online. The crowd was transfixed by the beauty of the Peregrine. The ranger later told me that this conflict had been happening for at least three weeks, and that they had seen the Peregrine tackle the Red-tail on the ground. They rolled over together. But that hawk keeps returning to the Peregrine’s territory, where they have a nest.

Meanwhile, a sea lion in the ocean below had a large fish or shark that it was trying to break apart by bashing it against the top of the water. Bash, bash. Parts of the fish flew around him and the gulls and pelicans dove for those pieces. Bash, bash. Eight or nine gulls hovered over him to grab the scraps. This went on for about ten minutes. (More drama for the visitors.)

Visitors walking down to the Pt. Reyes Lighthouse.

Visitors walking down to the Pt. Reyes Lighthouse.

That’s just some of the morning excitement. I missed the long-eared owls that another docent saw on her way over to our next station.

We moved over the Chimney Rock overlook, where we found the Northern Elephant seals, primarily males with some females and newborn pups. It was slow and quiet among the crowd of mammals on the beach, though we knew in a few weeks that the beach would be noisy with new-born pups, vocalizing females and bellowing males.

Elephant seals

Elephant seals

On our ride home we witnessed a full radiant moon, reflecting on the reservoir as it rose into the darkened sky.


Ray's early apartment

Bandar’s Bones Return Featured

On Thursday, May 16, the Skulls exhibit will open at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. The exhibit features a collection of skulls that will provide a fascinating look into nature’s engineering while telling us all about the lifestyle of many animals.

Perhaps as fascinating (if not more) is the story of the man who collected the majority of the skulls in this exhibit. At 86 years old, Ray Bandar has been collecting skulls for Cal Academy for more than 60 years. Many of the skulls he collected (approximately 7,000) are in his house in what he calls his Skull Palace, a basement room stacked high with bones and skulls. The exhibit will have a selection of those skulls along with hands-on activities for all ages.

My favorite part of the exhibit features a wall of sea lion skulls. The diversity of those skulls is remarkable as it tells the story of individual variation in one species. In front of that wall of sea lions is a video featuring Ray Bandar, much of it from my movie, Ray Bandar: A Life with Skulls, which I began back in 2003 when I first met Ray.

The inspiration for the movie occurred when I was on a backstage tour of the last Skulls exhibit at Cal Academy. During my tour, Ray told his bounty of tales with a boyish exuberance that I felt I needed to capture on video. He brought every skull to life with a tale: mammals dying because their horns locked when they were fighting, marine mammals with shotguns shells in their heads, how dogs represented man-made evolution and bears that had become obese on human food.

In search for a complete story about Ray’s passion, I interviewed his friends, colleagues and wife and followed him out on an excursion to collect the skull of a harbor porpoise. My own three-year journey with Ray would eventually turn into a 30-minute movie called Ray Bandar: A Life with Skulls, which was shown on PBS. You can buy the movie (with an hour of extras), from

For more information see:
The California Academy of Sciences web site
KQED’s story on Ray Bandar







November 5 California Towhee (in the background)

Backyard Bird Visits in San Francisco, Fall 2013

The photographs below are a small sampling of the various birds who’ve passed through my backyard during this past fall. Dark-eyed Juncos and Scrub Jays mix with the House Finches and Sparrows. The Birdcam is a lot of fun because you never know when it will catch that suspicious cat or rodent passing bye.

On our first day of chimp tracking, we follow Alf (shown) and Bahati.

Tracking the Sonso Community of Chimps

Seeing chimps in the wild was the main reason that I came on this trip to Uganda. I have had a fascination with chimps since I discovered how closely our social networks are to theirs. Really, Facebook is a glorified Pant-Hoot, the vocalization chimps make to one another. Many of us humans tend to cry out into cybersphere to let our friends and family know where we are and what’s going on. Chimps do the same thing in the forest. Day and night we would hear their calls. The field guides told us that they were letting each other know how far away they were. As though the Sonso group may separate during the day, they would join together at night to make their night nests and would keep track of each other’s movements during the day.

The Budongo Conservation Field Station
After our work with the trees, we were ready to track the chimps. The Budongo Conservation Field Station (BCFS) is surrounded by the greatest variety and concentration of primates of any forest in East Africa. The importance of the forest can’t be overstated as it is the largest remaining tropical rain forest in Africa.

It has been a research field station for the past 20 years. The chimp group that we followed consists of around 60 individuals, known as the Sonso Community, who live near the site of a former sawmill.

During the early 1990s, researchers habituated chimps by following them over the course of five years. The Sonso Community slowly began to trust humans and allow them to watch their activities. The researchers came to know these chimps as a family, naming them and watching the soap opera of their lives unfold. Foraging patterns, births, injuries, deaths, fights, political power struggles, immigration and emigration are all part of the chimp story that they’ve studied and documented over the years. Nowadays, graduate students from around the world and university students from Uganda are engaged in chimp and other scientific research at the site.

A Typical Day
We had two days of tracking chimps, where we headed out in the early morning darkness with experienced field guides to find them waking up in the forest. The field guides were primarily young men from the local community who had been trained to collect data on chimp activities.

We followed their path, watching them move through the forest, primarily eating, grooming, mating and posturing to one another, not unlike our daily activity.

On the first day, I spent my time watching Bahati, an adult female who was eating figs in a large tree with her infant, Belvin. This tree was at the end of its fruiting season and had few figs left so she was the only one feeding. They knew our field guide and so trusted the strange faces that were watching them. We sat below the towering tree with binoculars and recorded their actions every five minutes for the eight-hour shift.

Bahati pulled the figs off the tree, stuck them in her mouth and sucked the juice out of them. She seemed to pile a bunch into her mouth until it was full with fig-meat and then she would spit out the meat. They only want the juice from the figs as the meat was difficult to digest. Alf joined her later on and also consumed the figs in a similar manner, spitting out the meat on top of our heads as we stared at them through our binos.

In the early afternoon, the hottest part of the day, she created a nest out of leaves up in the top of the tree. She grabbed a bunch of figs and brought them into her nest with her infant.

During this time, we craned our necks to see what she was eating. What this ripe fruit? New leaves? What type of tree was she in? Was she grooming, defecating or taking photos? Whatever her actions, we would record them every five minutes. I came to appreciate the guides’ patience and stamina as the muscles in my neck felt like broken rubber bands by the end of the day.

I am going to stop here for now as there is much more to say about the Sonso Community, a group whose power structure was in flux with the alpha male Nick being challenged by two other chimps. I will save those details for my next posting, which will feature a bit of video from the field.

In the Budongo Forest.

The Ugandan Tree Phrenology Project

One of our roles on this Earthwatch expedition is to help with the Phrenology project, where they are studying how trees are budding, blooming and fruiting. The long term goal is to understand what is happening in the Budongo Rain Forest and to understand what is causing the changes, such as dwindling pollinators or climate change.

On our hike, a local field guide, Nelson, Pat (another volunteer from Earthwatch) and I went to designated transects and trees to collect specific data.

Using binoculars we surveyed the tree tops, which measured up to 70 stories tall, to determine what each tree was producing, if anything at all.

Although the seven-hour hike was a challenge of trekking over loose roots and massive tree trunks, the visual and aural gallery of birds, insects, flowers, foliage, songs and sounds provided a stunning backdrop nothing like anything I witnessed before, even on our most stunning days in Point Reyes, CA.

Although I didn’t envy their task of collecting data on 1 ,400 trees a month, I could imagine how rewarding it would be to work on an important project like this. I could also imagine getting addicted to the lure of the wildlife and majesty of this unique place.

Baboon on site.

In the Budongo Forest Reserve

I have seen more non-human primates on The Budongo Forest Reserve here in northwestern Uganda than humans so far with Baboons, Black and White Colobus monkeys and Blue monkeys and even a group of about 10 very boisterous chimps visiting early one morning.

Budongo has what brings many people to a home: good food. Figs and nut trees cover the grounds here and attract all sorts of birds and mammals.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of humans, too. This is the largest remaining tropical forest in Africa, and had been a field station doing research, training and conservation for more than 20 years. It started as a logging station.

Nowadays, students from Makerere University do research while international students from Poland, France and Great Britain are working on Masters degrees and a post doc on chimp vocalizations.

Our group of seven all happen to be teachers, curious ones who are eager to get out into the forest to look at plants, birds and mammals.