Ray Bandar and His Palace of Bones Featured

“Ray Bandar and His Palace of Bones” is a 49-page photography book that features Bandar’s skull collection along with stories about him and his favorite specimens. The book captures the importance of Bandar’s accomplishments while paying tribute to the grand complexity of the natural world.

For more information or questions about ordering this book, please fill out the form below and I will get back to you immediately. Thank you for you interest.




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 Story of Recovery Featured

By Beth Cataldo

(As published on the River Otter Ecology Project web site)

In 2012, I ventured out to Sutro Baths to see a San Francisco celebrity. With his thick dark hair, slender, streamlined body and expert swimming skills, he was an overnight media sensation. Charismatic? Check. Quirky? Check. Mysterious? Yes. I wanted to get a good look at Sutro Sam – a wild North American river otter. No one had seen anything like him in San Francisco for as long as anyone could remember.

North American river otters once lived throughout Northern and Central California in marshes, bays, rivers and lakes but by the 1950s, their numbers had been greatly reduced. The most recent California Fish and Wildlife range map, from 1995, shows a blank for river otters in much of the San Francisco Bay Area, including Marin and the East Bay. While Sutro Sam still wasn’t officially on the map, his return, as part of a general Coastal and Bay recovery, was testimony to our watershed-restoration efforts. His story came to mind when I started volunteering for the River Otter Ecology Project (ROEP) this past June. I was looking forward not only to sightings of these charismatic mammals but also to helping with the work that would put them back on the official map and help us understand their place in local ecosystems.


Courtesy sfwildlife.com

A Stinky Mess
Why did the river otters disappear in the first place? It was most likely primarily because of loss of wetlands, trapping and pollution. Hardcore pollution began in the 1850s, when sediment from the Gold Rush flowed into the Bay. In the 1950s and 60s, people would hold their noses as they crossed the Bay Bridge, trying to block out the stench of raw sewage and toxic trash that were dumped directly into the water. People describe watching flames on the bay at night as the garbage-dump employees set the trash on fire. To increase industrial production, parts of the bay were filled in along the waterfront. In 1959, the United States Army Corps of Engineers warned that the bay would turn into a river by 2020 if the filling trends continued.


Belinda Rain/Documerica, EPA

The San Francisco Bay is 1600 square miles, the largest Pacific estuary in the Americas. If not for the grassroots work in 1961 by Kay Kerr, Sylvia McLaughlin, and Esther Gulick, three self-described “tea ladies” who were horrified by Oakland Tribune illustration of the future of their Bay, many predict that San Francisco would be a narrow shipping channel today. At the time, the Environmental Protection Agency didn’t exist and conserving nature in an urban setting was unheard of. They sent a letter to everyone they knew asking for a single dollar to start the Save San Francisco Bay Association, which continues today as Save the Bay.

They successfully lobbied for a new state agency, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), establishing the first coastal protection agency in the United States, which put a moratorium on filling in the Bay and closed more than 30 city garbage dump sites. Other groups followed, including Citizens Committee to Complete the Refuge, San Francisco Estuary Partnership and the San Francisco Bay Joint Venture. Most importantly, people were awakened by these efforts and became involved in deciding the future of the Bay. The year was 1961, and that same year river otters were granted protected status by California Fish and Game, and could no longer be legally hunted or trapped.

Perhaps Sutro Sam showed up in San Francisco to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, which in 1972 regulated the discharge of pollutants into the nation’s surface waters. Part of the legislation focused on minimizing the destruction of wetlands and waterways which, in turn, protected water quality and provided habitat for fish and wildlife. Federal, state and local projects also were initiated to begin cleaning up and restoring local marshes and wetlands. Localized projects continue, like the Giacomini Wetlands Project in southern Tomales Bay and the Rodeo Lagoon Wetlands Project in the Marin Headlands. While going out on site visits with the River Otter Ecology Project, I’ve spotted river otters in both these areas. Since they are top predators, they have benefited from these restoration efforts, which create healthier conditions for their food – chiefly fish, crayfish, crabs and birds.

Otter Spotter
Megan Isadore, a long-time conservationist and one of the founders of the River Otter Ecology project, had her first good look at the playful river otters on Lagunitas Creek in Marin in 2005. Early on a cold winter morning, she watched as four otters swam, hunting crayfish and chirping back and forth until they came out onto a sandbar and groomed themselves. She knew that if she was seeing them in Marin, they must be elsewhere. Yet no one was tracking them and, officially, they didn’t exist in that range. She and her cofounders agreed that these charismatic, sentinel mammals would make ideal ambassadors for watershed conservation and wetland restoration. That morning, these otters were more than just a mother and pups out hunting.

She, Paola Bouley and Terence Carroll founded the River Otter Ecology Project in 2012 to investigate the recovery of the river otter population in the SF Bay Area in order to inform wetland restoration and support watershed conservation. One of their first undertakings was Otter Spotter, a community-science project that tracks and documents the river otter recovery through individuals reporting otter sightings on their website. Since 2012, Otter Spotter has plotted 2,300+ sightings from all the Bay Area counties with the exception of San Mateo.


ROEP data. Red crosses are otter mortalities. Almost all are car strikes.

The comments that Spotters’ leave on the site reveal their exciting encounters. One woman, who saw an otter on Bunker Road at the Marin Headlands, wrote, “I saw an animal I thought at first was a big black cat. I think it was an otter because of the way it moved, kind of galumphing up and down, and because it had short legs. It appeared along the side of the road, galumphed for a couple of yards, and then disappeared back into the underbrush.”

Another Spotter, from the East Bay, wrote: “I was sitting on the lawn near the ferry in Jack London Square, and saw the otter swim by, about 30 feet off the shore. This otter was on a mission, swimming quickly. It looked right at me (or my sandwich), and looked all around, checking out its surroundings. It was headed up the estuary towards the Fruitvale. Within a couple minutes it was out of sight. Very pleasant but odd to see it near all the shipping traffic.”

River Otter Proposed Range

CDF&W Range Map, River Otters with proposed changes

A Story of Resilience
In September 2017, nearly five years after Otter Spotter logged its first sighting (and when Sutro Sam first appeared), the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has agreed to fill in the official range map to reflect Otter Spotter sightings (the blue area on the map at left).

The range map provides information on otter presence for agencies responsible for oil and other spill responses. It can also help illustrate the value of environmental restoration, important for public appreciation of any conservation effort, especially with the recent threats to end funding to the Environmental Protection Agency and proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act. I’ve heard many people state that it is too late to mitigate climate change, but this story of recovery should not be lost on us as we look at bold moves to adapt to the changing world.

On that day when I went looking for Sutro Sam, I waited in the parking lot for almost an hour. I had never seen a river otter in the wild so I was willing to hang out and watch the pelicans pass over as the fog drifted in. Late in the afternoon, I spotted him through binoculars swimming in Sutro Baths, inside the dilapidated concrete remnants of a structure that burned down in 1966.

Otters aren’t the only ones making a homecoming in San Francisco Bay. Humpback whales, pacific harbor porpoises and even great white sharks have been spotted, sometimes in large numbers, since 2009.

We may never know where Sutro Sam came from or where he went. It took more than fifty years of environmental changes for him to find his way to San Francisco: More than half a human lifetime and a few generations of river otters. But for the 4.5 billion-year-old planet, that’s just a breath. Give wildlife enough food and a clean place to live, and it will return. As Jane Goodall likes to say, “Nature can win if we give her a chance.”

Mallard at Stow Lake, San Francisco

Opening for “Portraits of Birds in Golden Gate Park” Featured

Please join me this Thursday, December 7, at the San Francisco Women Artists’ Gallery for the festive opening reception of “Small Presence” – a juried exhibition featuring 100 artworks.

In addition to the show, my photographs “Portraits of Birds in Golden Gate Park” are featured in the back salon.

Meet the artists and enjoy the art, refreshments and live music.

The gallery has gifts for the holidays, including jewelry, sculpture and ceramics.


647 Irving Street at 8th Avenue (Inner Sunset), 5:30pm until 8pm.
The show runs through January 6, 2018



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)

What the negative tide revealed Featured

There are secret beaches and caves that appear out at Point Reyes when there is a negative tide, which is when the water is below the usual tide line. In May, a small group met at 6:30am to trek the 9 miles out to the secret beaches and caves in a secret location at Point Reyes. Along the way, we saw tidal pools filled with thousands of sea urchins and underwater terrain that isn’t usually visible. Rocks and secret caves appear on the beaches, which are also not usually available. That day we were lucky enough to see 13 grey whales heading north. I believe there is no place quite as beautiful as Northern California in the spring.

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.