Saturday, August 28, 2010


Isn't it funny how a project changes your outlook?

I have a not very secret fear of bears visiting me at night when I am camping.  But as we crawled up the Sierra foothills behind a sluggish RV on the way to Berkeley Tuolumne Camp I could see a silver lining: we'd get to add black bear to the list of California mammals we've seen.

At camp I sat on the shady deck of our cabin, enjoying the rush of the South Fork of the Tuolumne, and browsed through Mammals of California and A nature guide to Berkeley Tuolumne Camp looking for mammals we might spot. The latter was UCSC alum Phil Coffin's senior project.  We should be so lucky to find such a guide to all the places we go a-mammal-hunting.

With its help we saw the pallid bat and the California myotis.  You see, the Mammals of California book has a handy dichotomous key with which it is simple and pleasant to identify a bat.  Why, first you simply determine whether your bat has one or two pairs of upper incisors.  And then you check whether it has a furred or nude interfemoral membrane.   I don't know about you, but little old rabiesophobic me is not about to check out the number of incisors a bat has even if I could catch one, which actually was pretty likely as one night they were flying all around our heads in clouds.

Woman playing pingpong with cloud of bats around her head:  "Did someone say bats?  Are there bats around here?"  Looks up, screams, clutches head.

Here is my best photo.  Can you make out the incisors?

I'll need to fiddle with my camera or maybe even take a class to improve my night photography.  I was trying to shoot on automatic settings and it wouldn't flash because nothing was in focus.  Darned bats move too fast to focus on.  However, you know what doesn't move fast?  Bat guano!

Under the Hardin Road bridge, as promised in our guide.  How exciting!  There it is again, that way that a project changes your outlook.  As part of a project bat guano=exciting!  After finding the guano we settled down to wait for nightfall.  Well, I settled down.  The kids swung on the rope swing.

The Mammals of California book also suggested we attach cyalume capsules to sleeping bats we might find in caves which would allow us to track their movements after dark.  I wish I could say I had done this. With gloves on.  And a respirator.  Because I do not want to get rabies just because I think it would be a real knee-slapper to watch a bat fly with a glowstick glued to its fur.

But the beloved and practical Nature Guide to Berkeley Tuolumne Camp told us that pallid bats roost under the Hardin street bridge and fly out in the evening to catch insects.

We waited, they flew out.  Check.  The California Myotis, it told us, scoops water from the river.  Stroll out, it says, and watch them after dinner.  Done.

The best tip was this: a ringtail lives in the dining hall and comes out in the evening.  If you are like many people at camp you are saying a ringtail what?  A ringtail lemur?  No, no.  They were once called Ring-tailed cats, but the same folks who took the fish out of starfish took away their cat.  These raccoon cousins are now known simply as ringtails.  Gold miners loved ringtails we are told, because they eat vermin.

Since ringtails are, according to Wikipedia, "nocturnal, solitary, timid, and rarely seen" we expected it to be a challenge to see one.  But the Nature Guide told us, "Some nights in the D-Hall, you may see a shape dart across one of the rafters, and it may even stop and stare at you with huge, curious eyes."  So we began, with great anticipation, to stake out the dining hall in the evenings.

Ok, so this is how we staked out the dining hall.  We would pass through it several times in the evening and look up hopefully.  No luck.  One morning as I made my coffee with my Clever Coffee Dripper (thanks, Moira!)  I overheard people talking about having seen the ringtail the night before.  We realized that we weren't going to catch something that darts along the rafters by passing through from time to time.  We'd have to have a real stakeout.

We entered the dining hall at 9pm.  Here is Evelyn staring up at the rafters.

The rafters, in case you were wondering.
And Clementine, demonstrating that we fueled this stakeout with hot cocoa, hot apple cider and Apples to Apples.
Yes, we set our minds to it this time.  But by 10pm the kids were flopped on the table and moaning, "I'm sooooo tired."  We went to bed.  No ringtail.

The next night was Table Night, aka the camp talent show.  And the night after that would be Bingo Night in the dining hall.  It seemed unlikely that a timid and rarely seen critter would come out on Bingo Night.  I resolved to slip off after the first act (coincidentally my kids' skit) and stake out the D-Hall.

But it turns out that I'm the sort of person who doesn't miss her friend's son's performance on the chance that I might spot a ringtail. 
And wouldn't you know it, after listening to Solomon I even stick around for the staff performance of Stand By Me instead of running straight off to the stakeout.  And Evelyn spots me and says Greta is falling asleep.

I'm about to take her off to bed when I decide to just go by the dining hall.  And I ask the first person I see.  And she says she did see the ringtail.  It was just there not more than three minutes ago.  I slumped onto bench with dejection and self-recrimination.  I could have just skipped the Stand By Me.  I lack the grit required for this project.

Sure, I managed to spot this ground squirrel living up to his new genus name Spermophilus (seed lover). But anyone can see a ground squirrel.   In fact you have to drive them off.  One ate Clementine's deodorant.  And my chocolate stash.
It is going to take persistence and dedication to see a lot of these mammals.  Do we have it?  I missed the ringtail by three minutes and the kids opted not to try at all and stay at Table Night.  Greta is here only because I dragged her here when she wanted to go to bed.

But, I told myself, at least our trip did not pass without some sign of a black bear.  Scat!  Not only did we examine the scat twice but we went back to photograph it later.  Lots of manzanita berries in there and a 
long piece of plastic wrap twisting through and holding the whole thing together.

I cheered myself up a little bit with the memory of the bats and the bear scat and the ground squirrel.   And then I looked up.  To see a ringtail staring down with huge, curious eyes.

Greta was thrilled.  It was the cutest thing ever.  I left her in the hall and ran to the amphitheater for Ev and Clem.  

When I got back the ringtail was hiding in the firewood by the huge stone fireplace.  Everyone gave it a little space and it escaped the firewood stack and streaked to the cup racks near the dishwashing station.  It hid in there, peeping out from time to time.  It was acting cornered, so I moved some trashcans to give it space to slip behind them and up the cupboard that it had descended from.

We all backed up.  But to our surprise it struck out straight across the floor.  It paused at Evelyn's foot and looked up at her.   I thought it might run up her leg.  Then it scampered beneath the tables and benches and squeezed into a bench seat at the far side.  

We decided to leave it alone and retreated.  Table Night had ended and the dining room was flooding with people.  We sat down to talk over the unbearable cuteness of the ringtail and the possibility of owning a pet ringtail.  Clementine decreed that the ringtail had been 100 times better than any of the Table Night acts.  And then he was spotted climbing up the stacks of games in a corner cupboard, over the stereo, and up to the rafters.
He darted along the rafters, and back to his hole.  I got to have my cake and eat it, too.  I got to watch Solomon, sway to Stand By Me, and see the ringtail.  And all my kids got to see it and so did Solomon and his siblings and parents.  Life is good.

Another thrill from camp was Evelyn's first fish.  A 13 inch rainbow trout.  She caught it, she killed it.
Back home she gutted it, she cooked it (with some help), and she ate it.

Clem made the owl that perches in the pic below on the railing above our cabin number.
Greta was seldom without face paint.
I hoped the owl would scare away the squirrels.
It didn't.  They must have heard me vowing to spend less time on the computer when we got back to civilization and decided to help.  Because when I was packing up look what I found.

My laptop power cord chewed into 4 pieces.  I was annoyed at first, but I perked up when I realized I could view it as a sign of mammalian life.

Coming soon:  We have a trail camera.  We plan to set it up in the backyard and see what's there when we are not.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Whale of a Project

How's that for a dorky title?  A friend cornered me at park day and said, "So what is the big project?  Are you going to buy an RV and travel the country for a year?"

Um.  No.  It isn't that big or life changing.  But I hope it will be fun.  We're going to try to see every one of California's 197 native mammals. 

I knew that if I didn't take matters in hand the first mammal we bagged would be a ho hum squirrel or a deer.  Or that roadkill skunk.

I heard there were blue whales in Monterey Bay and thought how great it would be to kick off the project by seeing the largest animal that has ever lived.  So we booked a whale watching tour with a naturalist.

We bagged California sea lions
and harbor seals before we even made it to the boat.
We went through a pod of 3000 Risso's dolphins.  These dolphins have flat faces, no beak.  See the baby behind his mother with his blunt little noggin?

Northern right whale dolphins--which have no dorsal fin--

and pacific white sided dolphins
rode our boat's bow wave.

A baby humpback popped up to have a look at us.  We saw many humpbacks, perhaps 30.  Evelyn kept track but she's off at camp.

But the blue whales stayed hidden.

Until, at the very end, we saw a high spout on the horizon.  Our boat gave chase.  Not really.  It slowly approached the whales until we could sorta see them from a respectful distance.

We saw was their long backs--so much longer than the humpbacks--glistening in the setting sun, their occasional spouts, and...

...a tail.

It was enough. 

A lot of the creatures we are out to see will be even more elusive--flying squirrels!--bats!  And all of them will be a lot smaller.  We've got our stacks of books, we've called in some experts, and an infrared camera is on its way.

I hope you'll join us for our adventure. 

Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Dozen

Happy Birthday Evelyn!

Only one year till she's a teenager.  We've got a project for this year.  It is going to require a lot of travel.  We embarked on it yesterday in a big, big way.  The biggest way.

I'm keeping it secret until I can get a post together.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

10 Days

Eleven Museums, Two Memorials, One Walking Tour, One Fossil Hunt, and One Trip Down Memory Lane in 10 Days

Day 1
Maryland Science Center
Award: Best Dinosaur Exhibit.

Despite being much smaller The Maryland Science Center wins over DC's Natural History Museum.  Why?  It is much more interactive, and what is more, it conveys the feeling of science in action.  Check out the T. Rex above.  Does it look a little funny?  Yes, it has two rib cages.  That lower one is called a gastralia basket.  Video displays around the exhibit present controversies in paleontology, such as "Did sauropods travel in herds?", with interviews with paleontologists on both sides of the issue.  Fantastic.

Day 2
Natural History Museum
Award: Most Likely to Make You Wish You Lived Closer to DC

Note to self: always bring journals to museums.

The Natural History Museum is vast and rich and varied in quality of the exhibits.  Compared with our local California Academy of Sciences it has more information, but very few living animals.  New exhibits like the new Human Origins Hall are state of the art with video nooks where you are presented with evidence and try to solve a puzzle.  Written in Bone unites forensic science and historical documents.  Did a boat from Bermuda really save Jamestowne colonists from starvation as colonists' wrote in their journals?  Butchered bones of Bermuda petrels in the trash middens corroborate their accounts.  You could spend years at this museum.  We visited it 3 times this trip.

Day 3
Calvert Cliffs
Award: Most Insects

After two days of looking at fossils we had to go on a collecting trip of our own.  These cliffs were once an Ordovician sea bed.  They are full of shark teeth.  Medieval people called fossilized shark teeth glossipetrae--tongue stones--and believed they fell from the sky during thunderstorms.  A big storm two days earlier (while we were at the Maryland Science Center) gave me hope that there would be many teeth on the beach for collecting, but we were disappointed.  We did find 5 or 6 as well as stingray dental plate, but they could fit on your pinky fingernail.

Insects, however, were plentiful: dragonflies, damselflies, velvet ants, cicadas, hornets and butterflies galore.

Day 4
Walking Tour of Annapolis
Award: Hottest, and according to Clementine, Most Boring Thing We Did

I love Annapolis.  My friends and I used to walk all over it instead of going to the mall when we were in middle school.  We'd watch the students reading on the grass at St. John's College and imagine ourselves there, reading 100 great books.   And we'd watch midshipmen at the Naval Academy doing pushups on the lawn and imagine ourselves anywhere but there.  We'd descend into the great naval hero John Paul Jones' crypt and imagine his bones moldering in their great, gaudy marble sarcophagus.  After our tour I know that, while the Navy won't admit any error, John Paul Jones' bones were found in France in an unmarked grave 105 years after his death and were identified by comparing them to a bust of him.  The claim is that the friends who buried him filled his lead coffin with alcohol and so therefore he was so well preserved that he could be recognized.  Uh huh.

Memory Lane
Award: Best Old Fashioned Fun, Most Nettle Stings

I grew up in the most wonderful community.  The Washington Post profiled it in an article entitled: No Cookie Cutter Community, Bayberry believes in dirt, difference

It was such a hot day and after our hot, hot Annapolis Walking Tour, everyone was ready for a swim.
And a greased watermelon race.
My kids couldn't grow up here, so I try to pack a summer's worth of fun into a day.  The greased watermelon was a 4th of July tradition for us.  Here my daughter, my sister's daughter, my oldest friend's son and my cousin's daughter vie to be the one to carry the slippery melon onto the beach.

Every single kid got stung by sea nettles.  I couldn't believe how brave they were--they got right back in the water anyway.  Except Greta.  She was having such fun and then she jumped right on one and got stung all over her leg.  My sister lifted her onto the pier and she ran screaming all the way into the beach.  She screamed herself hoarse and vowed never to ever go swimming there ever again.  She screamed for a good fifteen minutes and every time someone asked her how she was or why she was sad she would ramp back up to full volume.

Day 5
Udvar Hazy
Awards: Greatest Docent, Worst Coffee
The guided tour made all the difference here.  A real fighter pilot shared his love of planes with us.  Not that this enormous hangar filled with planes and satellites isn't beautiful and impressive, it is.  

I had a lot of bad coffee on this trip, but none as bad as I imagine this cosmonaut cuisine coffee and milk in a tube would be.

Spy Museum
Award: Best Museum

No picture because this sneaky museum doesn't allow any.  Sure, many of the exhibits are mock-ups and not real artifacts, sure it is expensive.  But it is so good.  Computer games: view a mugshot of a spy and then try to pick that spy, in disguise, out of the stream of people an airport security video.  Sit down on a comfy chair in a dim room and listen to audio as a spotlight highlights artifacts around the room and weaves a tale of intrigue.  One of my favorite exhibits was a movie theater with WWII propaganda films.  And that East German car with five dummies in it showing how people escaped East Berlin (behind the front grille, in the engine, with your head skimming over the road--yikes!)

Day 6
Air and Space Museum
Award: Worst Museum

My parents both worked on Hubble.  I grew up going to and loving the Air & Space Museum, but it is sadly out of date.  It definitely does not give the exhilarating sense that the stars are our future.  Instead it has a stuck in the 70s feel.  I overheard a teenager talking on her iPhone, saying Boring boring boring this place is so boring.  Ugh.  I had to agree.

Day 7
National Archive
Award: Most uneven in its reception by me and the kids

I just love those Charters of Freedom.  Ev and Clem were quite interested and we talked a lot about the Bill of Rights.

I am not sure why, but the kids did not like the rest of the National Archive. The sliding touchscreens that allowed you to "open files" on Watergate, or the Rosenbergs, and look through the evidence and read the documents, well I thought they were awesome.  They left the kids cold.

National Gallery
Award: Best Guard

He ran up to us and insisted on taking a family photo.  It is one of two from the whole trip.
I would give them Best Audio Tour, but it wouldn't be fair since it was also Only Audio Tour We Took.

They also get an honorable mention for Sculpture You Can Sit On

Day 8
Jefferson Memorial
Award: Best Jumping, Sympathizing with Toddlers

We were all on information overload by this time.  Clem and Greta had no interest in the museum downstairs.  They spent their time going up and down the giant steps at the back of the memorial.  Each is nearly waist high.  It gives you a sense of what an accomplishment it is for a one year old to make it up a flight of stairs.  In retrospect we were perhaps not solemn and respectful enough.  Sorry, Thom!

George Mason Memorial
Award: So Close to Jefferson Memorial It is Hard to Justify Just Walking By Without Stopping Which Is What We Should Have Done

Nothing wrong with it, you know, just time is money.

Award: Most Disturbing.

Between the 9/11 Exhibit and the Pulitzer Prize Winning photos, this museum is not for young kids.  Clem asked my why people would want to take a picture of those things and look at pictures of those things.  Some of them made sense to me: the picture of a starving child watched over by a vulture as she crawls towards a U.N. Food Center changed the world's attitude toward the famine in Ethiopia.  But what about the mangled radio flyer wagon with the white sheet covering a small, still form on the road?  And much, much worse.

Day 9
National Aquarium, Baltimore
Award: Best Demonstrations, Best Way to See a Sea Nettle
An archer fish spit on us!  The docents held a cricket on a stick over the water.  The archer fishes' aim was not so great, but they did squirt us several times, which I enjoyed a whole lot.  In my opinion it is a whole lot better than being in the dolphin splash zone.  Finally an archer fish jumped up and nabbed the cricket off the stick with his mouth.
Aren't they pretty.  They're such a nuisance, though.  And it turns out that they are pretty bad fellows, thriving in poor water and gobbling up fish, crab and oyster eggs.

Day 10
American History
Award: Funniest Statue of Washington

This was the original Washington Monument.  It is so Putin-esque.  Except for the Toga.  I love the displays of old toasters and lunchboxes.

We had to visit The Desk, of course.

Hirschorn Sculpture Garden
Award: Art Worth Risking a Parking Ticket For

Not only had our parking time expired, but it was time to head to the airport.  But we just couldn't pass up Yoko Ono's Wish Tree.  There were little package labels and pencils in a box nearby.  You write your wish and hang it on the tree.  Mike said his wish was that we would not get a parking ticket while we wrote our wishes.

Evelyn wished that the wishes would not fall on the ground and become litter.  There were surprisingly few cynical wishes.  Clementine wished for pet quail.

Greta wished to grow up well.

We read a few more tags.  Someone wished for a yo-yo and a safe trip home.  Greta tried to run back and make a wish for a safe trip home.

I said that her wish to grow up well already included a safe trip home.

By the way, thanks Yoko, Mike's wish came true: we didn't get a ticket.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Story Behind the Picture

The audio tour is a wondrous invention.  We walked into the National Gallery.  Ten minutes later the kids declared it boring.  I had spied an audio tour for kids when we came in and I suggested that we get it.  Big protests.  I had to promise gelato afterwards.  

I got the Director's tour, the kids got the Family Tour.  Ten minutes later I had to go back and upgrade Ev and Clem's to Director.  The nice man told us how to switch back and forth between the two tours.  Even Greta, above, listened to both.  

What I love about audio tours is that they help you see.  Would I have seen the woman in the painting above, "Ill-Matched Lovers", slipping the old guy's purse to an accomplice without the tour?  Probably not.

We listened to the stories within the paintings and the stories behind the paintings.  The portrait below, of Giuliano de Medici, for instance, was probably made from a death mask, as the subject was too dead to sit for the portrait (assassinated in the Florence Cathedral).
Portrait by Sandro Botticelli.

Later, Greta would tell a friend, "My favorite thing was the triptych that was SO old.  It had 3 parts and two fold over the other one and protect it.  Because of that (gesturing enthusiastically) it was COMPLETELY intact.  The colors were SO bold."

After two and a half hours we reluctantly gave up our listening devices.  The gelato booth had closed.  And no one cared.

Ha ha, just kidding, we had to go out on the mall and find some ice cream.  Audio tours are great, but not so great that they'll make a kid forget the promise of ice cream.