Algae, vellela and feather

Beach Beauties of Summer Featured

Ocean Beach offered up all sorts of uncommon visual marvels this past Tuesday, including Vellela (commonly known as by-the-wind sailor), different types of algae, and remnants of all sorts of hard-shelled creatures.

Nature created the compositions the way that I’ve captured them here. I haven’t styled any of these photos. I invite you to enjoy the beach’s beauty.


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







Panoramic view of Drake's Bay.

The Sadness of Spring

The only sadness that spring brings for me is the end of my Winter Wildlife Docent days up at Point Reyes. Today was the last day that I spent talking to visitors about whales and elephant seals and whatever other topics came up (i.e., hunting white-tailed deer, smart birds, the appearance of orca whales, the anger of those left behind to endure winter in Minnesota, the grace of being relocated to California from Cleveland, Ohio).

And what a day it was at Point Reyes. Not only were the whales passing by the Lighthouse (we saw eleven in the morning), but this year’s Elephant Seal weaners were playing in the surf, fighting and making their way out into the ocean that they will soon call home.

On top of those usual findings were an abundance of wild flowers, visits from many birds (Surf Scoters, Brown Pelicans, Common Murres, Caspian Terns, Peregrine Falcons), and brilliant vistas all around. Some unidentified fishes were splashing in Drake’s Bay. No one was able to identify exactly who they were since it was the first time anyone had seen them before.

One of the best aspects of being a docent up there is that visitors from around the world see California wildlife for the first time. Locals come, too, and marvel that they don’t go out to Point Reyes enough, perhaps spending too many Saturdays at home relaxing with their NetFlix movies.

On damp, windy days visitors may ask us docents why we volunteer to come up in this weather and stand around for hours talking to strangers. I tell them about the beauty and perfection of what we see before us. How the commitment to do this volunteer work makes us all come out here to watch the bounty of nature unfold. Many still don’t get it. Perhaps they prefer the warmth and comfort to the raw qualities before us here in Point Reyes.


Animal tracks in the sand at North Point Beach in Ano Nuevo State Park, December 2013.

Imprints in the Sand Featured

While looking for debris recently on a visit to North Point Beach in Ano Nuevo State Park in Northern California I found these imprints. They looked more like stamped footprints because the sand was so dry and hard. I felt like I was spying, trying to reconstruct the story of the creatures roaming the beach while I wasn’t there.

I walked by another Elephant Seal at the North End of Drake's Beach. He had a bloodied nose, meaning that he had probable been fighting just days earlier. Depleted, he was resting to shore up energy to go back again to fight and mate.

Beached Elephant Seals and Other Tales of Winter Featured

As much of the country was shivering from arctic air mass, a group of volunteers was out on January 5 in the Point Reyes sun promoting our wildlife visitors.

We will spend the next four months at Chimney Rock, the Lighthouse and Drake’s Beach telling stories about Gray Whales, Elephant Seals, land and sea birds, snakes and wild flowers. Here’s an album of my first docent day, much of it spent trying to make sure that unsuspecting visitors didn’t approach the 6,000 pound Elephant Seal who was taking a break on Drake’s beach after many days of fighting.

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.

A volunteer and villagers give the goats medicine.

In Uganda, Goats Go to Those who Retire from Hunting

Since the Ugandan National Forest Conservatory has a limited budget for conservation, the Budongo Forest Reserve project also strives to train young locals to become field guides who track the chimps in the forest. This helps bring needed attention to the human-wildlife conflict in the area. With the primary goal of the overall project focusing on conservation, engaging local communities, especially those who hunt, is key.

The project provides goats to those who agree to no longer use snares or hunt. Snares are pernicious, not only trapping the wild pigs and other small animals but also catching chimps. We saw several chimps whose were missing toes and fingers and whose limbs were deformed by the wire snare traps.

In addition to giving the hunters goats, they also provide medical care for their livestock. We joined the vet, Wyclef, on his trip to the village to give de-worming solution to the goats. After we arrived, the word that we were there spread quickly, and we gave medicine to more than 110 goats in two hours.

Chimp in the Budongo Forest Reserve, Uganda.

Grooming the Man and Other Stories

The complex social relationships and bonds among chimps have been written about by many authors. Seeing their interactions in person creates a stronger impression than any words could describe. While tracking these chimps in the Budongo Forest, there were several scenes that we came upon that stand out in my mind:

  • Nick, the current alpha male, lounging on the path while Musa and Howard groom him. He is lying on his back, his legs splayed outward as Musa picks parasites off of him in what appears to be very intimate gestures. Our field guide tells us that Nick is on his way out of power as alpha male but that the other two want to remain friends. They groom him as a way to assure a smooth transition.
  • The mother Bahadi feeds with her infant in a fig tree. He moves away from her for some time and then climbs back into her lap. In one moment she wiggles her foot, sticking it out with a playful gesture for him to hold onto.
  • The guide explains how a new alpha male takes power: He must convince the top-ranking females that he will be a good leader. He does this by bringing them to the good food sources and protecting their babies. If the high-ranking females support them, then all of their offspring will, too.
  • Squibbs pulls a parasite off of Nick after grooming him. He plucks a leaf from a local tree and puts the parasite on it to examine it. The field guide tells us this is an inspection leaf and that they do this all the time to inspect the bugs and such that they pull off one another.
  • Zed grabs a leaf and puts it inside a hole in a tree that has rain water in it. He drinks from the leaf.
  • The veterinary Wyclef tells the story of the baby chimp who is in a jar on the shelf of the laboratory. It was killed by Musa, one of the more powerful males in the Sonso Community. He watched what happened that day in the forest when he heard screaming. Another male was holding a new baby chimp, and trying to protect it from Musa. It was unclear who the mother of the chimp was. Musa grabbed the baby and threw it against the tree, killing it instantly. The guess is that it was not Musa’s offspring and that perhaps it was from another community. Chimps will often kill offspring that are not fathered by one of their own.
  • A crowd of nearly 15 chimps gathers together in a fig tree above where we are all sitting. They ascend the tree swinging from branch to branch, making grunting noises as they eat. They drop fruit, leaves, branches and defecate on us. They pause to itch their backs and peer out over the trees for many moments. One of our volunteers wonders out loud what they are thinking about. Our field guide tells us that they are just relaxing after a long day. That they like to look over the countryside.
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.