Category Archives: Berkeley

New Year’s Eve

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It isn’t exactly a New Year’s Eve tradition, but the last few years Kate and I have wound up spending a good part of the last day of the year outdoors. The last couple of years, we took walks up onto local ridges with wide vistas and clear views of the sun setting on 2013 and 2014. Today was a little different: We did something of a public service outing, with the goal to pick up trash along Lagunitas Creek in Marin County. Beyond being a beautiful stream through the redwoods — a forest regenerated after the area was clear-cut in the 19th century — Lagunitas Creek has one special claim on the region’s attention: It’s home to a run of endangered coho salmon. We actually heard, and saw, a couple of the big fish on a little-visited stretch of the creek. And there was plenty else to see too in the forest: ferns (like the one above) and moss and fungi galore. There’s a slideshow of the day’s expatiation here: Lagunitas Creek, New Year’s Eve. The day’s haul: about 10 pounds of crap. The only semi-exotic object we captured was a single Nike flip-flop. Beyond that: beer bottles, beer cans, some candy wrappers.
And, that’s it for 2015. Have a fine 2016, one and all.

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Ice, or The Grip of Berkeley’s Frigid Winter Revealed

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Dramatic evidence of the frigid depths of Berkeley’s brutal winter: ice in the improvised backyard watering dish for the chickens. This has happened twice even though the recorded air temperature from a sensor about 6 feet off the ground in back of the house hasn’t been lower than 36 degrees this week and I don’t see reports from any of the many Wunderground and other stations in the area of readings of 32 or lower. Berkeley’s record low for Dec. 29, for what it’s worth, is 30, set in 1905, and the average low for December, going back to 1893, is 43.7. (The town’s all-time low was set Dec. 22, 1990, and coincided with a Christmas visit by family members who thought they were visiting someplace warmer than Chicago.)

Yes, there are some physical explanations for how water can freeze even if the ambient air temperature isn’t yet freezing — evaporative cooling, for one, and the fact the ambient temperature can be colder at ground level then it is a few feet above.

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Marmalade + Winter = Ants

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It’s been a little colder than normal here in Berkeley — and as wet as the weather annals say we have a right to expect — so ants are looking for warmer, dryer digs. They like it when you give them a little extra encouragement. An open sugar jar or compost container might attract an overnight bug invasion. And so might a smidgen of orange marmalade left over from breakfast.

It took a few hours, but the ants found that little bit of sugar, which had spread out into a nice globule on the stainless steel at the edge of our range top. They gathered around the marmalade like they were at a trough. There weren’t a lot of them coming and going; mostly, this group found the good stuff and I think they were forgetting to run back and tell their pals about it.

Unfortunately, I have to acknowledge wildlife was harmed after I made this picture. I got a sponge and wiped up the marmalade and the ants with it. Their cousins are still around, though, scouting out the next feed.

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Rain

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Above: From NASA’s Worldview site, an image of California’s first real storm of the wet season (click for a larger version, or check it out on Worldvew). Here’s (a slightly edited version of) how the National Weather Service’s San Francisco Bay Area forecast office described the weather system as it was shaping up early Sunday:

AS OF 09:59 AM PST SUNDAY...NORTH AND CENTRAL
CALIFORNIA ARE CURRENTLY POSITIONED IN THE BOUNDARY
BETWEEN TWO LARGE FEATURES. TO THE SOUTH...THE
HIGH PRESSURE THAT HELPED TO BRING CLEAR SKIES AND UNSEASONABLY
WARM TEMPERATURES OVER THE PREVIOUS FEW DAYS. TO THE NORTH...AN
APPROACHING STORM SYSTEM WITH A POTENT MOISTURE TAP. A COLD
FRONTAL BOUNDARY IS SEPARATING THESE TWO AIR MASSES AND IS EVIDENT
ON BOTH RADAR AND SATELLITE FROM THE THICK BAND OF CLOUDS AND
CONTINUOUS RAINFALL REFLECTIVITIES ASSOCIATED WITH IT. THIS
FRONTAL BOUNDARY IS CURRENTLY DRAPED FROM NORTHWESTERN CALIFORNIA
THROUGH SOUTHEASTERN OREGON AND HAS BROUGHT UP TO 2.5" OF RAIN
ALONG THE HIGHER TERRAIN OF THE OREGON COAST AND UP TO 2" OVER THE
HIGHER TERRAIN OF THE NORTHWESTERN CALIFORNIA COAST. THESE HIGHER
VALUES ARE SUPPORTED BY A TROPICAL pMOISTURE PLUME WITH PRECIPITABLE WATER VALUES
RANGING FROM 1.2"-1.6" WHICH ARE 150-200 PERCENT WETTER THAN NORMAL.
LOWER ELEVATION LOCATIONS IN THESE AREAS HAVE NOT PICKED UP NEARLY
AS MUCH... RANGING FROM SEVERAL HUNDREDTHS TO A FEW TENTHS. WE
WILL LIKELY SEE SIMILAR ELEVATION BASED PRECIP SCALING FROM THE
FRONT AS IT MOVES THROUGH OUR AREA THIS AFTERNOON AND INTO EARLY
MONDAY.

The rain started here in Berkeley about 9 p.m. or so. It’s been more than a drizzle: .29 of an inch in the last couple of hours, on the off chance that the backyard rain gauge (which I got just after the last rain of the spring) is correct. That seems to line up with other rain gauges around town that report on Weather Underground. We’ll see how accurate it looks tomorrow.

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Coffee Stars (or Are They Flowers?): The Sequel

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Here we are: It was midday Thursday in the middle of a week off, and I was still looking to make a mark on the world. While idly pondering what that mark might be, I behold the very end of my morning coffee, resting cold at the bottom of a mug. I wonder for the one hundredth time why the half-and-half in the cooling coffee settles into flowerlike or starlike patterns. (Actually, it’s a little alarming to me to read one of my past speculations on this topic; my thinking on the question doesn’t really seem to have evolved at all, and I wonder whether that might be emblematic in some way of being sort of stuck in some kind of barren intellectual loop. On the other hand, coffee stars are kind of interesting.)

As in earlier musings, I more than half-expect that someone research chemist somewhere can explain this. Now I will go in search.

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Mystery Clay Blobs in Berkeley Neighborhood

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About a month ago, Piero and Jill, our neighbors across the street, presented us with a mystery: the seemingly ubiquitous appearance of tiny blobs of clay on their cars, their front porch, and on cars up and down our block of Holly Street, a couple blocks from North Berkeley BART.

Where had these blobs, probably in the thousands, come from? The theory I came up with: Maybe the dirt had been precipitated out from dust in the atmosphere. You know, dust that had been picked up in the Gobi Desert, say, and blown in the stratosphere clear to Berkeley, where it rained down on our street.

The idea isn’t entirely loony: Dust from Asia and Africa is known to play a role in precipitation over California’s mountains. But in that case, we’re talking about minuscule particles that serve as nuclei for ice crystals that later fall as snow or rain. (Yes, sometimes there’s so much dust in the air that it will precipitate as a muddy rain — but that’s different from what we were seeing on Holly Street.)

Kate, science teacher and certified California naturalist, appears to have come up with the most probable answer to the blob source: yellowjackets. Here’s what the University of California’s Integrated Pest Management site has to say about the nesting habits of these wasps:

Yellowjackets commonly build nests in rodent burrows, but they sometimes select other protected cavities, such as voids in walls and ceilings of houses, as nesting sites. Colonies, which are begun each spring by a single reproductive female, can reach populations of between 1,500 and 15,000 individuals, depending on the species.

The wasps build a nest of paper made from fibers scraped from wood mixed with saliva. It is built as multiple tiers of vertical cells, similar to nests of paper wasps, but enclosed by a paper envelope around the outside that usually contains a single entrance hole. If the rodent hole isn’t spacious enough, yellowjackets will increase the size by moistening the soil and digging.

The writeup doesn’t say what the yellowjackets do with the material they excavate. But a Georgia gardening website does. In trying to answer readers’ questions about the source of mysterious dirt balls, the site consulted an entomologist a University of Georgia entomologist, who said:

The yellowjacket is almost certainly the culprit here.

First is the time of year. Nests are expanded rapidly and grow almost exponentially during late June through September. To allow for this expansion the original nest hole must be greatly enlarged to accomodate the growing nest that will ultimately be at least soccer ball-sized and often larger.

After a good rain, excavating activity often approaches a frenzy level, and if you watch the traffic at the nest entrance 7 out of every 10 wasps will emerge with a chunk of clay in their jaws. They always airlift it generally out to within a few yards of the nest and drop the pellets like small bombs from several feet high, then immediately return to repeat the process. In this way they make room for their nest to grow, and it takes a lot of mouthfuls of mud to do so!

When Kate found this description, Piero said he’d been seeing a good number of yellowjackets around. Unknown, so far as I’ve heard, is whether the nest this industrious group has been working on has been located.

The photo above: a closeup of one of the clay blobs in question; below, to give an idea of scale, how they looked on the rear window of a Volkswagen Bug. More photos here. (Regarding the picture above: More alarming to me than the mystery blob is all the crud surrounding it; that, no doubt, is simply our normal urban fallout of dust, grit and particulate byproducts of burning hydrocarbons. We’re breathing that stuff.)

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Non-Natives in California: Snails and Other Species

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It’s September, and just about time for the chrysanthemums we’ve been nursing through the summer with buckets of dishwater to enjoy their autumn moment. Looking at the hundreds or thousands of unfolding buds this morning, I noticed a familiar garden visitor: Cornu aspersum, also known as the brown snail, garden snail, brown garden snail, European garden snail, or European brown garden snail (in French, its common name is apparently petit-gris, or little gray). Some of the snails were young, smaller than the just-opening buds they’re presumably feeding on.

The University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources reports there are about 280 species of snails and slugs here in the Golden State, of which 242 are believed to be natives. Cornu aspersum (formerly Helix aspersa) is one of the many non-native species, including eucalyptus, striped bass and Homo sapiens, that make California what it is today.

C. aspersum is native to the western Mediterranean, probably originating in North Africa and migrating millions of years ago into Europe. Thanks to much more recent human genius and/or carelessness, the snail is reportedly now at home on every continent except that very cold one well to the south of us.

How did this land mollusk come to California? I remember hearing when I had newly introduced myself into this bioregion that they were the same species as one served to gastrophiles as escargot. In fact, I was told that Bay Area locals had been known to capture snails, feed them cornmeal to cleanse their digestive systems of whatever vile material they might have been eating, then consume them. I can’t say I’ve ever met someone who claims to have done this themselves.

The April 27, 1900, number of the journal Science includes an article titled “Exotic Mollusca in California,” by Robert Edwards Carter Stearns of Los Angeles. Stearns related a very specific genesis story for the European snails in California:

“This species was intentionally introduced or ‘planted’ in Calfornia over 40 years ago by Mr. A. Delmas, of San José, Santa Clara county, who brought the stock from France and turned it out among the vineyards on the west bank of the Guadalupe, a small river that flows northerly through Santa Clara Valley and empties into the southerly end of San Francisco bay near Alviso. The soil where the snails were placed is a rich sandy loam and the place well shaded. When the summer heats reach the maximum, the Helices descend into the ground several feet, hiding in the cracks that form, as the ground dries, and the gopher-holes also furnish cool retreats and protection. The region above named is one of exceeding fertility. It was settled by a few French families. The introduction of H. asperse by Mr. Delmas was made for edible purposes, or in common parlance ‘with an eye to the pot.’ Mrs. Bush, of the Normal School in San José, informs me that the snails have thriven, and have extended their territory from the starting point on the west bank of the stream to the easterly side, and have multiplied to such an extent, that in some instances they are troublesome in the gardens.”

Stearns also reported Delmas had planted the snails in San Francisco, where they did not do well at first, and Los Angeles, where they apparently thrived. By 1900, it had taken hold in other locations.

“A. Delmas,” it turns out, was Antoine Delmas, a French émigré who had arrived in California in 1849. He established a nursery and vineyards in the Santa Clara Valley and is credited in “A Companion to California Wine” with being the first to import French wine-grape vines, including merlot and cabernet, into the state. Another claim for Delmas: that he brought an obscure varietal to California that became known as zinfandel.

Between the grapes, the wine and the snails, that’s a big mark for one man to have made on this place.

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A July Surprise: Actual Rain

The fact it’s July notwithstanding, the National Weather Service forecast rain for Thursday. Our seasonal but only faintly known monsoon — it occasionally brings heavy rain to the Sierra and other ranges but rarely visits the lowlands with rain — has been potent this year. Despite that, it was a surprise when rain began pattering on the roof early this afternoon. And just as surprising when showers started up again about nightfall.

How much did it add up to? Our rain gauge, which has gotten very little use since we set it up in the spring, recorded .05 of an inch. Other weather stations around town — I find it hard to find the “official” reading here — recorded up to about .10.

Checking the Western Regional Climate Center records for Berkeley, it appears the official record for the date here was .10, in 1974. The average monthly July rainfall for Berkeley, in records that go back (though with some gaps) to 1893, is .03 of an inch.

And the wettest July day ever recorded in Berkeley is actually kind of surprising: 1.40 inches, on July 8, 1974. That was part of a storm that swept the region and yes, made headlines. Here’s the front-page portion of a story from the Marin Independent Journal (and below that, the PDF of the entire front page, which features a six-column picture of a flooded U.S. 101 in Corte Madera as well as some better-known history):

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Daily_Independent_Journal_Mon__Jul_8__1974_.pdf

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The American Community Survey and Me

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So, this came in the mail last week. It’s the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. As a journalist who sometimes tries to extract useful information about my community, state and nation from the census data, I thought, “Cool! Now I’m going to be part of that data.” Of course, the envelope, with the notice “your response is required by law,” makes it sound less cool. Still, I am a sucker for some (not all) of the rites of citizenship, so I dived into the survey.

One glitch I encountered: One is encouraged to fill out the survey online. No problem — I live online. But after you sign in with your unique ID at the outset of the process, a personal identification number is displayed with an advisory that you’ll need it if you need to sign out in the middle of the estimated 40-minute process. Of course, I didn’t write down the PIN, had to sign out, and then was unable to sign back in to finish the survey. The Census Bureau can’t (or won’t) reset the PIN. So if you want to continue, you have to call and get the agency to reset the survey and start over.

Wanting to provide the response required by law, I called, got the PIN reset, and started the survey over. It was all pretty simple stuff –information on race, ethnic background, how long I’ve lived where I’ve lived, whether I rent or own, how much I pay for utilities, how much I pay for housing, income data. Then there was a series of questions about disabilities, including this:

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I’d suggest a third choice for the answer: “Not yet.”

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Along the Road: West Sacramento

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Earlier this month, Kate and I drove up to Woodland, a town west of Sacramento, to check out some pickup-truck campers. And since we were up there near the Sacramento River, we took the opportunity to explore a little, driving east and south on Main Street, then Old River Road, to West Sacramento.

We stopped at the junction of Old River Road and Yolo County Road 126 so I could take some pictures of the Sacramento Weir — a structure designed to let high water flow from the river just north of downtown Sacramento into the Yolo Bypass. So I did take some of those pictures of the bypass, which hasn’t had water flowing through it in several years.

But there was also this roadside memorial, for one Jesus Martinez Mora, who died in a traffic accident on this stretch of road in March 2009. Here’s the story from the Sacramento Bee:

The man killed in a fiery two-vehicle crash Monday night in Yolo County has been identified as Jose Jesus Mora Martinez, 65, of Sacramento.

Robert LaBrash, Yolo County’s chief deputy coroner, said cause of death remains under investigation.

The crash occurred on Old River Road about 7:15 p.m. just south of County Road 126 and west of the Sacramento River, said Robert Lagomarsino, a California Highway Patrol officer.

Witnesses said a 1997 Chevrolet pickup truck, driven by Martinez, speeding south on Old River Road, failed to negotiate a curve, Lagomarsino said.

The vehicle went onto the shoulder and spun toward the northbound lane and into the path of a 1996 Toyota Corolla carrying four people, including two babies.

The driver of the Toyota was John Ostergaard Jensen, 25, of Woodland. His passengers were Adrienne Day, 24, a 1-year-old girl and a 3-month-old, Lagomarsino said.

Ostergaard Jensen braked when he saw the out-of-control vehicle but struck the truck’s right side, causing it to flip onto its roof and burn, killing Martinez.

The Toyota also caught fire, but all four people inside escaped. Ostergaard Jensen and Day complained of pain, and Day suffered an abrasion to her shoulder. The two children suffered minor injuries.

It’s easy to see how something bad could happen at this spot. The approach from both directions is straight and fast, followed by a short, compressed S turn with a marked 35 mph speed advisory. While I was standing there, I saw a couple of drivers struggle a little to keep their cars in their lane.

And just out of curiosity, I checked for media accounts of other accidents at the same spot, and found these:

February 2013: A motorcyclist loses control on the curve and slides into group of pedestrians.

October 2014: Husband and wife killed in motorcycle crash after losing control on the curve.

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