Archive for January, 2010

Whenever Nicasio Reservoir overflows at the end of a dry spell, I typically climb the cliff above the spillway to shoot a photo. It’s a difficult climb on unstable rock with only scattered Scotch broom for handholds much of the way. Today I did it for the fourth time and as usual got scratched up, but the view from a ledge high above the spillway made it all worthwhile.

Nicasio Reservoir officially overflowed at 11:30 a.m. Sunday, Libby Pischel, spokeswoman for Marin Municipal Water District, told me this afternoon. However, another 24 hours went by before the spill became substantial, nearby resident Chuck Gompertz of Nicasio later told me.

The reservoir is owned by MMWD, which serves the San Geronimo Valley and most of East Marin south of Novato. Pischel said six of MMWD’s seven reservoirs —  Alpine, Bon Tempe, Lagunitas, Nicasio, Phoenix, and Soulajule — are now overflowing.

Kent Reservoir, the largest, is more than half full, she added. (By my calculations, it’s more than 56 percent full, which matters to three West Marin towns outside the water district, as I’ll explain in a moment.)

As of Sunday, MMWD’s total storage was at 82 percent of capacity compared with 54 percent at this time last year and and 79 percent in an average year.

Another 1.54 inches of rain fell on Point Reyes Station Monday, Weather Underground reported, and by noon Tuesday, 0.26 inches more had fallen.

In dry weather, Point Reyes Station, Olema, and Inverness Park depend almost entirely on releases from Kent Reservoir for their water. The releases flow down Papermill/Lagunitas Creek past Point Reyes Station, where North Marin Water District uses creekside wells to withdraw water for the three towns.

North Marin is based in Novato, and it compensates MMWD for a portion of the releases by providing MMWD with water from Novato’s primary source — Lake Sonoma in Sonoma County. On Tuesday morning, Lake Sonoma reached capacity for the first time in four years.

Before: Canada geese take flight from a dry cove on the east side of Nicasio Reservoir last November.

After: The same cove sans geese as it looked today.

With weathermen now saying there’s a chance of rain on Friday, Saturday, and Monday, MMWD’s Pischel today was looking forward to Kent Reservoir’s rising even closer to capacity, which is 32,895 acre-feet (10.7 billion gallons).

The oldest reservoir in MMWD’s system is Lagunitas built in 1872. It now provides only o.4 percent of the total capacity. Phoenix Reservoir was built in 1905 (now 0.5 percent of total capacity); Alpine in 1918 (11.2 percent); Bon Tempe in 1948 (5.1 percent); Kent in 1953 (41.3 percent); Nicasio in 1960 (28.2 percent); and Soulajule in 1979 (13.3 percent).

In other weather-related news, The Marin Independent Journal reported a rock slide just south of Stinson Beach closed Highway 1 in both directions for three hours this morning.

And now the news…. We have all seen television correspondents doing standup reports in front of the White House, or of a house on fire, or of a food line in Haiti.

A quarter century ago when I was covering the insurrection in El Salvador for the old San Francisco Examiner, a gonzo TV reporter from the UK once told me his fantasy was to do a standup in the middle of a firefight with bullets flying all around him. It was a suicidal idea, of course, and he never tried it.

But here’s something that comes close, which I found earlier this month on Al Jazeera. It’s in a report now archived on YouTube describing India and Bangladesh rekindling diplomatic ties.

A short ways into the report, television journalist Prerna Suri does a standup in the middle of a New Delhi expressway with traffic appearing to barely miss her. It’s gratuitously nerve-wracking to watch, but it is good theater.

Friends who occasionally work in video tell me Al Jazeera didn’t use a “blue screen” to create an illusory background. They think the standup report may have been shot with a telephoto lens, which would compress the distance between the reporter and the vehicles behind her.

And even if the reporter is standing on a narrow median too low to be seen, it’s remarkable she never flinches as motor vehicles, some of them honking, crowd past her on both sides. Click on the following link and see if you can figure out how this disconcerting standup was shot. If you do, please submit a comment and perhaps you’ll get a job offer from Al Jazeera.

Post script: Professional cameraman Mark Allen of Inverness Park has provided an explanation, which is in the comment section. You might recall that last year Mark shot a 60 Minutes’s interview with chef Alice Waters, who hand-fed him a delicacy during the interview. Further update: Prerna Suri herself has now sent in a comment describing how the standup was shot.

The start of an expected two weeks of storms is wreaking a bit of havoc in West Marin. In Point Reyes Station, a total of 6.76 inches fell Sunday through Wednesday. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Highway 1 experienced light-to-moderate flooding (above) in several spots just south of town.

Flooding was worse on numerous other sections of roadway in East and West Marin. On Wednesday, Tomasini Creek flooded Mesa Road  just north of the erstwhile Red Barn in Point Reyes Station. Walker Creek flooded Highway 1  south of Tomales. The highway was also flooded near Point Reyes Vineyards north of Point Reyes Station.

That left residents of Marshall, who were caught between two flooded sections of Highway 1, unable to drive very far north or south for a day.

Out of fear that school buses could be blocked by flooding, Shoreline School District on Tuesday canceled classes at Tomales High but — oddly— not at nearby Tomales Elementary. On Wednesday, Shoreline canceled classes at all its schools except Tomales High. Bolinas-Stinson School District also canceled classes on Wednesday.

Around 7 a.m. Tuesday, a tree fell across Lucas Valley Road in Nicasio, blocking both lanes and bringing down powerlines. Countywide, the storm blacked out more than 1,000 homes and businesses during the day. More blackouts occurred Wednesday, and 500 homes and businesses were still without power at the end of the day.

Early Monday morning, a mudslide in the Sausalito area blocked two lanes of the Highway 101 freeway for a couple of hours. On Tuesday morning, another slide briefly closed one lane of Highway 1 south of Stinson Beach.

Ranchers and water districts here greatly need the rain, which was well below normal last fall. “In both rainfall and storage, we are now 90 percent of normal for this time of year,” Paul Helliker, general manager of Marin Municipal Water District, told The Marin Independent Journal today. “It’s good news.”

The National Weather Service had predicted today would be the height of the storm, and at day’s end, Weather Underground reported that more than 3 inches of rain had fallen in Point Reyes Station. The Independent Journal meanwhile reported that part of Nicasio had received 3 inches of ice and hail.

Atop coastal peaks, gusts reached 70 mph. On the Beaufort Scale, that’s just 3 mph short of hurricane force.

A near miss: Around 2 p.m. today I drove downtown to pick up my mail, and when I returned to my cabin half an hour later, I found a 35-foot-high pine had fallen where I park my car. No doubt high winds and saturated soil were to blame.

From the looks of things, my car wouldn’t have been totally crushed by the falling tree, but it would have been damaged. For once I was glad I wasn’t there when the news happened.

Because they count rats and mice among their numbers, rodents often get a bad rap from humans. Yet rodents are part of a food chain that supports many of West Marin’s most colorful carnivores. With that thought in mind, here’s a gallery of rodents found around my cabin.

A brush rabbit, also known as a cottontail, near my woodshed. Along with mice  — I’ve trapped a few but will spare you postmortem photos — rabbits have more predators than any other rodent-like creatures on this hill. (Scientifically speaking, rabbits are lagomorphs rather than rodents.)

They’re a main ingredient in fox diets. Hawks and owls eat them. So do bobcats and snakes, coyotes and cougars. Unfortunately for this hill’s rabbits, foxes and coyotes are becoming more common while a cougar has been seen more than once recently along nearby Tomasini Canyon Road.

Gophers, the bane of West Marin gardeners, in fact sustain a variety of predators. Having just caught a gopher outside my window, this bobcat — with the rodent in its jaws — trots off to dine. Also preying on gophers are creatures ranging from housecats, hawks and mountain lions to foxes and badgers.

A Sonoma chipmunk out my kitchen door. Also providing food for many of West Marin’s carnivores are chipmunks. Despite predation by bobcats, badgers, foxes, hawks and owls, chipmunks are rated a species of “least concern” on the Endangered Species List.

A roof rat eating birdseed on my deck. Roof rats can do damage — especially to dishwashers — when they get into a house. They’re prey for hawks and owls but less vulnerable to predators on the ground because the rats like to travel along branches, utility lines, and fence tops.

Roof rats originated in tropical Asia but spread through the Near East during the days of ancient Rome. They reached Europe by the 6th Century, and in the late 1340s, their fleas carried the bubonic plague that killed off half the population in some areas. Roof rats arrived in North America with the first ships to visit the New World.

A Western gray squirrel out my upstairs window. From what I can see, the main cause of gray squirrel mortality in West Marin is the motor vehicle. Their primary predators are red-tailed hawks, great horned owls, foxes, coyotes, dogs and cats.

So there you have it. Despite what the pest-control people say, having a few rodents around your house or rabbits around your garden makes for a healthy ecosystem. But guard your dishwasher.

The end of one year and the start of the next is traditionally a time for the news media to compile retrospectives, and this blog is no exception. Here are some of my favorite wildlife photos from the past all shot around my cabin in Point Reyes Station.

An increasing number of bobcats have been showing up on this hill during the past two years. I shot this photo through my kitchen window.


A mother badger (known as a “sow”), along with her cub (sometimes known as a “kit”), sunning herself last May on the mound of dirt around their burrow (known as a “sett”).

Adult badgers are remarkably efficient diggers thanks to long claws and short, strong legs.  Although they can run up to 17 or 18 mph for short distances, they generally hunt by digging fast enough to pursue rodents into their burrows.

Like skunks, badgers have perineal glands that emit quite a stench. What with the stench, the claws, and extremely strong jaws, adult badgers can hold their own against any potential attackers — including bears and coyotes — although they’d rather hide.

And speaking of coyotes, they too are becoming increasingly common on my hill. There were no coyotes in West Marin for 40 years, but when the federal government made sheep ranchers stop poisoning them, they began showing up here again in 1983.

In the last 25 years, they have put more than half the sheep ranches in West Marin and southern Sonoma County out of business. Of course, if you’re not a sheepman, it’s fun to see them and hear them yip and howl at night.

Raccoons are jolly neighbors unless they’re knocking over your garbage can or sneaking through your cat door. My cabin doesn’t have a cat door, and my garbage can is secured; however, when a mother and four kits were crossing my deck and found my kitchen door open, they walked right in.

Possums are not native to California but to the South. In his book The Natural History of the Point Reyes Peninsula, naturalist Jules Evens writes: “After the first known introduction into California at San Jose about 1900 (for meat, delicious with sweet potatoes), opossums spread rapidly southward.

“By 1931, they were common on the coastal slope from San Francisco Bay south to the Mexican border.” To the north, however, San Francisco Bay, along with the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, created a natural barrier, and they did not reach Point Reyes in any numbers until 1984, Evens notes.

Columbian blacktail deer. A young buck drowsily chews his cud outside my bedroom window.

A newly born fawn hides in tall grass less than a yard from my driveway. It remained motionless despite my standing overhead. Naturalist Evens speculated it probably thought it was invisible.

A wild turkey seen out my kitchen window. Like possums, wild turkeys are not native to California. In 1988, California’s Department of Fish and Game planted three toms and 11 hens for hunting at Loma Alta Ranch (on the ridge between Woodacre and Lucas Valley Road).

From there the turkeys spread to nearby Flander’s Ranch and the Spirit Rock property in Woodacre — and eventually to Nicasio, Olema, and even as far north as Tomales, where they have been known to intimidate small children and scratch the paint of cars on which they perch.

A Pacific gopher snake almost four feet long on Campolindo Road at the foot of my driveway.

“When disturbed, the gopher snake will rise to a striking position, flatten its head into a triangular shape, hiss loudly and shake its tail at the intruder,” the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum reports. “These defensive behaviors, along with its body markings, frequently cause the gopher snake to be mistaken for a rattlesnake.”

The gopher snake is actually a constrictor, and it plays an important role in keeping my hill’s rodent population under control. However, it can also climb trees, and it will eat birds and eggs when the opportunity arises.

A garter snake on my driveway. Garter snakes are the most-common genus of reptile in North America. Although they are venomous, their venom is too mild to harm humans. However, when they’re disturbed, garter snakes emit a foul-smelling secretion from a gland near their anus.

An arboreal salamander beside my front steps. Cold-blooded animals require much less energy to survive than do warm-blooded animals. In fact, many cold-blooded animals try to keep their body temperatures low when food is scarce.

Pacific tree frogs, such as this one on my deck, depend largely on camouflage to escape predators. Notice how the facial stripe hides this frog’s eyeball. In addition, the frog’s color changes as it moves around. But unlike the chameleon, which changes its color to match background colors, the Pacific tree frog’s color depends on how moist or dry its location is.

A buckeye butterfly atop a chrysanthemum blooming on my deck. Probably it’s just my zen-like psyche, but of all my nature photos, this is the one I like best.