Out with the trout is what it’s all about (Point Reyes Light, 12.04.2008)

•December 5, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Rainbow trout will not be stocked in Marin County’s Alpine, Bon Tempe and Lagunitas Lakes until an environmental impact report is submitted by the Department of Fish and Game, the Superior Court ordered last week.

“Multiple species of native fish and frogs are in peril because of one particular practice,” said Chris Frissell, director of science and conservation at Pacific Rivers Council. “Some of the places we’re talking about are pristine ecosystems, and the main stressor that remains is the very reversible practice of stocking fish.”

Until January 2010, the Department of Fish and Game (DFG) must stop all nonnative fish stocking in bodies of water throughout the state where there are any of 25 specified species—a compilation of amphibian and fish listed as federal or state endangered species or species of concern.

Fish and frogs in the interim

In early November, Pacific Rivers Council and Center for Biological Diversity asked for interim restrictions on stocking to reduce impacts while the environmental impact report (EIR) is prepared. After weeks of negotiations with DFG, an interim agreement was reached last week.

“DFG can continue with their stocking program in places where there likely aren’t any target species at risk,” Frissell said. “We crafted assurances for the places where the natives species are hanging on.”

In Marin, that means Alpine, Bon Tempe and Lagunitas lakes will not be stocked with rainbow trout but will remain open for fishing. “This is a popular recreational fishing destination in Bay Area,” said Gregory Andrew, fishery program manager of the Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD), which manages the reservoirs.

Scottsdale Pond, McInnis Park Pond, and Stafford Lake will continue to be stocked. The court order listed several exceptions—fish can still be planted if it supports scientific research or enhances salmon and steelhead populations. In particular, fish can still be planted in human-made reservoirs if they are over 1,000 acres, unconnected to rivers or streams, or not places where red-legged frogs are known to exist.

“Red-legged frogs are known to occur in artificial ponds. That’s not known of the other 24 species on that list,” Frissell said. “Some of the last populations are found in farm ponds. They’re troopers, making the best of what little is available to them, but that’s not enough to get them through the next 20 years.” According to Andrew, red-legged frogs have never been found in MMWD reservoirs.

California red-legged frogs have been listed as threatened by U.S. Fish and Wildlife since 1996. “They’ve been declining for about 150 years, and their disappearance is correlated with habitat alteration and introduced fish,” said Roland Knapp, a research biologist at Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory.

In Mark Twain’s 1865 short story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” the red-legged frog was common. “Now it’s hard to find anywhere,” Knapp said. “We don’t have control over all the impacts on the red-legged frog, but the fish stocking practice is something we can potentially change.”

Native trout have survived for tens of thousands of years in California. “When we mess with the ecosystem by bringing in fish evolved elsewhere, it changes the genetics and behavioral capacity of fish,” Frissell said.

In the short term, hatchery fish can displace the native stock through competition, predation, disease transfers and genetic hybridization. “But in the long run, they aren’t adapted for the long-term stress of living in California—extended drought followed by intense winter precipitation,” Frissell said.

Lawsuits and orders

This story began when Pacific Rivers Council and the Center for Biological Diversity sued DFG in October 2006.

“A lot of scientific evidence was stacking up year after year for the consequences of fish stocking on native species. On the other side of the teeter totter was DFG continuing their stocking programs without modifying them with scientific evidence,” Frissell said.

In 2007, the court required DFG to complete an EIR to analyze and mitigate the impacts of the fish stocking program that had existed for over 100 years—long before the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) of 1972, which sought to prevent avoidable environmental damages. “The lawsuit was a culmination of several years of trying to get DFG to change aspects of the stocking program,” said Knapp.

“The outcome of that suit was not a judge making a decision one way or another. The order was for us to find out about the impacts,” said Jordan Traverso from DFG. The EIR should be completed by January 2010.

Fish stockings

The program was established to enhance fishing and species survival, according to Traverso. “Then over the years, small communities that we’ve been stocking in have become reliant on the tourism dollars,” Traverso said. “Some communities are just a few bait shops, a restaurant and a gear shop.”

According to Andrew, Lagunitas and Bon Tempe were routinely planted with catchable rainbow trout, and Alpine Lake periodically received young fingerlings.

Central California steelhead are on that list of 25, and preventing the genetic mixing of steelhead and rainbow trout is a concern for MMWD as well. Rainbow trout and steelhead are the same species—steelhead is the ocean going form. “We want to maintain the integrity of steelhead gene pool, the wild stock,” Andrew said.

If the moratorium on fish stocking becomes permanent, Alpine and Bon Tempe would support warm water fisheries only—bass, blue gill and sunfish. Without rainbow trout, Lagunitas would only have small minnows and a few native fish—not fish that are caught by anglers.

“The best case scenario would be a thorough attempt to describe the stocking program, its impact and means by which impacts can be mitigated,” Knapp said.

“In our view, what needs to come out is a policy that corresponds to the findings,” Frissell said. “In most cases, removal is really not practical, so it’s critical to stop stocking because it’s irreversible.”

New water test shows promise for ranches and beaches (Point Reyes Light, 11.26.2008)

•November 26, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Marin County beach

A technology originally invented to detect airborne terrorist pathogens could now help beach-goers, ranchers and shellfish growers throughout West Marin.

A new type of molecular biology gadget called the PhyloChip can differentiate between 32,000 types of bacteria. It’s being used to study bacteria in coastal waters through Marin County’s Clean Beach PhyloChip Project and could have huge implications for water quality tests.

“We’re adding clarity to the whole pollution picture,” said John Hulls, coordinator of the project. “The PhyloChip will show if there is a relationship between current bacterial indicators and harmful pathogens.”

Soon, the PhyloChip may also help the local agricultural community. California state law requires that popular beaches be tested for the presence of bacteria weekly during the main season from April through October. Yet today’s water quality tests were developed around 1900 by Alfred MacConkey for the Royal Commission on Sewage Disposal in London.

When that test shows bacteria counts are too high, beaches are closed and shellfish harvests are shut down. And the closures—which sometimes are unnecessary—often get blamed on cattle and dairy ranchers who then need to pay for mitigation. “Instead of blaming the ranchers for shutting down oysters, the health department really should look at what’s causing the problem,” said Phyllis Faber, a founder of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust.

“When there is an exceedance, there can be finger-pointing,” said Eric Dubinsky, a Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory postdoctoral fellow with the project. “We think we can develop a test to determine whether or not the source is the cow pasture or the sewage leak park upstream.”

This research is something ranchers are looking forward to. “They would rather see scientific evidence backing up the accusation before they spend a lot of money making improvements,” said Nancy Scolari from Marin County Resource Conservation District. “They want to know if there really is a problem and if they’re causing it,” Hulls added.

THE GOALS

The hopes for the PhyloChip Project are ambitious—a complete microbial census and how it changes with time, better keystone indicator bacteria for harmful pathogens, and ultimately a simple, inexpensive test for beach water quality. The project was selected for funding from the Clean Beach Initiative Grant Program, according to Laura Peters of the State Water Resources Control Board.

“We can identify the harmful bacteria and we’re also looking at contamination sources,” said Gary Andersen of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, who developed the PhyloChip.

What is the health risk, if any, at a beach after a storm or on a beach near agriculture and sewage lines? Right now, answering that question means using an slow, outdated culture method where water samples are smeared on an agar growth medium and bacteria reproduce under conditions different from those they actually live in. It looks at a limited number of bacteria as indicators for a broad array of sources, some harmful to humans and some not—providing results that lead to potentially unnecessary beach closures and ranch restrictions.

Less than a percent of all bacteria have ever been cultured, and many can never be cultured since they live in a complex microbial community—the microbial biome that Andersen hopes will be examined comprehensively for the first time, using this new tool.

For example, the culture-based test uses E. coli as an indicator of human sewage pollution, though the two are not necessarily related. A 2005 study suggested that the risk of illness was uncorrelated with levels of the traditional water quality indicators—enterococcus and coliforms (such as E. coli). The PhyloChip team hopes to determine which of the thousands of bacteria measured are actually the accurate warning signs of poor water quality, according to Dubinsky.

“If you just measure E. coli, then it could be from any mammal,” said Hulls. “We’re looking for a suite of bacteria that will tell us for sure whether it’s from human sewage or something else like cattle or natural sources.” Current tests don’t discriminate between sources—bacteria from an animal may not be harmful if they don’t cross over to humans. “Bacteria that live in cow poop are different from bacteria that live in human poop,” said Andersen. “But since we can see 32,000 bacteria, we can get a fingerprint of the contamination,” Dubinsky added.

The PhyloChip offers the possibility of a complete census of bacteria in coastal waters. It also offers speedy results compared to the traditional cultures that can take a full day to complete. “You can test the beaches and see what’s in the water on the same day,” said Dubinsky. “So you don’t have to wait overnight before you alert the public.”

THE CHIP

The technology was invented in 2000 for Homeland Security to detect airborne terrorist pathogens. At that time, it could look at a few thousand organisms. The latest version, dubbed G3, has 1.1 million probes (or tests) to monitor about 32,000 different types of bacteria.

“Before, we could only get information on a couple organisms in a lot of samples or a lot of organisms in a couple samples,” said Dubinsky. “Now, it’s 32,000 organisms in a thousand samples. It’s so much more information than has ever been collected.”

For every beach water sample, the team will look for and amplify a specific gene that is found in all bacteria. Then that is put onto the PhyloChip, scanned with a laser, and used to reveal all bacteria types present.

Another main goal is to find the sources of contamination. With the PhyloChip, the team can pinpoint exactly where the beach pollution comes from—whether it’s from domestic animals, wild animals or humans. “If it turns out that there’s animal pathogens, it may not warrant beach closures,” said Andersen, adding that the closures would only happen when there’s a real risk for human disease. “If the warning system can define a real risk, people are more likely to heed the signs.”

All the exciting results will be coming out over the next year. In 2010, the ideas could meet reality. The immediate short term objective is to better understand what indicative pathogens are in the beach environments. Then a simple inexpensive test can be developed for county personnel to assess in real-time beach safety. “The ultimate test is to see if people got sick when your test showed positive,” Hulls said. “It’ll prove our chip’s ability to predict whether water is safe or not.”

The project has just finished its first round of beach water quality testing and is awaiting more tweaks. The team has samples from nine beaches between Bodega Bay and San Francisco, and it looked most intensively at Muir Beach and two others that have been listed on the “Beach Bummer” list—the worst California beaches based on their dry weather water quality.

In order to see how the microbial environment changes over time and with the tide, the team conducted high-intensity studies at those three beaches. “How representative are the weekly samples of actual conditions?” Dubinsky asked. Preliminary analyses are showing more variability than was previously thought.

The team stayed at the beaches overnight, taking samples every hour from 10 p.m. until after noon on the next day. Each time, they would wade ankle deep into the water and reach out a painter’s pole with a liter bottle at the end to grab a sample. Then seawater would be poured into a big flask using a filter to extract the bacterial cells. “We wanted to do that on site to capture an immediate snapshot of bacteria as they are living out in the environment,” said Dubinsky. “If we wait to take them to the lab, the bacteria might grow, die or change.”

Then the samples are frozen on dry ice to prevent change. “It’s like Han Solo in ‘Empire Strikes Back,’” quipped Dubinsky. “When we get back to the lab, it’s like ‘Return of the Jedi’ when he’s thawed. Except when we thaw the bacteria in the lab they’re dead and they spill their guts—that’s how we get their DNA. Han Solo survives the thawing process in one piece and goes on to help defeat the Empire.”

Sea lions endure leptospirosis up and down the coast (Point Reyes Light, 11.20.2008)

•November 21, 2008 • 1 Comment

Chompy

Chompy was found by the seawall on Bolinas Beach on Sunday. Her fur is a soft golden brown, but she is emaciated and lethargic. She has an ulcer on her eye, roundworms and diarrhea. When she was offered food, she ate the squid but not the herring.

Chompy is one of several California sea lions currently being treated at the Marine Mammal Center (MMC) on the Marin Headlands in Sausalito.

This year, about 400 sea lions have come through for medical treatment of different ailments such as disease, malnutrition, acid intoxication and trauma. Earlier this fall, masses of sea lion strandings were caused by leptospirosis—a bacterial infection that can be lethal. About 120 sea lion patients suffered from this disease, and the numbers are just now starting to taper off.

“We see waves of it in certain years,” said Sarah Allen, Point Reyes National Seashore science adviser. “It’s cyclical. Some years there are more.”

In Marin County, leptospirosis accounted for half of the strandings in a decade. The majority of these were found in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties between August and November.

Of all the sea lions with leptospirosis treated at MMC this year, only six were stranded in Marin County—at Stinson Beach, Bolinas and Point Reyes National Seashore. All were male, all were juvenile or sub-adult, and most were stranded in September or October. Two survived.

SEA LIONS AND LEPTOSPIROSIS

On any given day, except for midsummer, there are several hundred California sea lions off Point Reyes—either “hauling-out” (congregating on the shore), “rafting” (floating together on the water surface), or “porpoising” (jumping out of the water).

A total population of over 200,000 California sea lions range between Vancouver Island, British Columbia and the southern tip of Baja California in Mexico. Many of them breed on the Channel Islands in Southern California during June and July. Adult males usually migrate north, while the females stay on the southern offshore islands nursing the pups. Younger females—like Chompy—head north as well.

“We lose about 60 percent of our leptospirosis cases,” said Denise Greig, an MMC marine biologist. “In California sea lions, it affects their kidneys, causing renal failure.”

Signs of kidney failure include dehydration, lethargy, seizures due to toxin-buildup, and high levels of phosphorus and waste products. There’s no specific test for leptospirosis, but in a serum chemistry panel, a series of kidney measurements help identify the infection that is transmitted through urine.

MMC is currently studying leptospirosis to understand how the disease spreads and what the risks are to the sea lion population as a whole. They are sampling wild animals throughout their range. “We’re trying to learn what percentage of the population is susceptible. We have a really biased impression here at the mammal center—because we only treat the sick ones,” Greig said. “The question of how our animals at the hospital relate to the whole population is something that we are always trying to understand.”

Over the past 20 years, there’s been a consistent pattern. “Sub-adult juvenile males north of Monterey are the hardest hit,” Greig said.

Is it a matter of geography? Marin County is on the northern end of the disease’s range—it only accounted for about 100 of 1,011 leptospirosis strandings documented in a decade. “It could be timing in terms of migration. That’s why we see them where we see them,” Greig said.

Or perhaps age? “There may be a herd immunity component to it,” Greig said. “The older animals may have been exposed and survived already.” Increases in leptospirosis seem to occur in four or five year cycles. It may not infect large numbers again until there are enough animals in the population that haven’t been exposed. In 2004, there were about 280 cases of leptospirosis.

Or both? “We think there must be an element of sea lion immunity and possibly environmental triggers as well,” Greig said. “Traditionally, epidemiologists like to classify diseases as one way or another—either the disease is present in the population or it comes from the outside. We think we see a little of both in the sea lions.”

For now, there’s no way of saying how much of the entire sea lion population is affected by leptospirosis. Since the 1960s and 70s, the disease has grown proportionally with the growth of the population, with no overall increasing trend.

STRANDED

Chompy’s bloodwork shows elevated levels of two waste products associated with kidney disease. But her phosphorus tested in the normal range, according to Deb Wickham, MMC operations manager. Chompy’s list of ailments is long but she does not have leptospirosis. Like many other marine mammals at the center, her precise disorder may never be known.

On a foggy Tuesday morning, a volunteer tries to put a heat pad underneath Chompy, but she moves away. She had a minor seizure a few hours earlier. Her head shakes from side to side and her movements are awkward. Her back flippers are tucked under her, and she’s shivering. This is the third time she has been stranded. She was released at Chimney Rock on Point Reyes just four days before she was brought in again—this followed a month-long stay at the center after she stranded for the second time, on Pescadero Beach in San Mateo County. She was first found bleeding from the mouth in September on Asilomar State Beach in Monterey County. The working diagnosis for her third stranding includes malnutrition. “It’s never positive when we see them again,” Greig said.

When MMC gets a phone call over their 24-hour rescue hotline, the first thing they do is to get as much information as they can from the caller. “We try to get a picture of the physical characteristics and behavioral condition,” said Erin Brodie from the MMC’s stranding department. “How big is it? What color whiskers does it have? Does it have little ear flaps on the outside? Is it vocalizing? Do you see any injuries?”

Next, a volunteer trained to discern the difference between normal from abnormal pinnipeds behaviors goes to the scene. A sea lion with leptospirosis has a distinctive demeanor and posture. “Sometimes we see them drinking fresh water from pools or creeks where they strand, which is unusual,” Greig said. “And they are sort of tucked up because of the pain in the kidneys.”

In such a case, the stranding department conducts a rescue. A team of volunteers uses a big hoop net with a long cylindrical bag and a drawstring on the end. They throw the net over the animal, then protecting themselves with large shield-like boards with handles called “herding boards,” the team puts the animal into a dog carrier.

At the Center, the veterinary staff examine the animal. Drawing blood from a small vein in a large wild animal requires a restraining process, including a cone-shaped net. “150 pounds of sea lion does not equate 150 pounds of human,” Brodie said. “They’re much more muscular than we are, so they are a lot stronger.”
Someone holds the animal’s head still, putting their knees on either side so that the animal can’t turn its neck and bite the people working around it. Then there are the flipper restrainers. The majority of the strength of California sea lions is in their front flippers, so their shoulders need to be down on the ground and their flippers up off the ground. “When they’re just sitting in their pens, they may look docile, but they’re wild animals,” said Mieke Eerkens, MMC spokesperson. “We do this to protect the animal as well as the people.”

The animals are monitored and released back into the ocean if the bloodwork looks normal, wounds have healed and they have gained enough weight.

The Center is comparatively quiet this week. The last leptospirosis sea lion was found in Tomasini Creek in the Point Reyes National Seashore at the end of October. His name is Tomasini, and he was released back into the wild last Wednesday. He was one of 50 leptospirosis sea lion patients that were released.

Chompy has been released twice—both times at Chimney Rock. The stranding department releases animals in locations that are less populated. “So the animals who’ve been through the stress of rehabilitation and recovering from whatever ailment they have can hang out on the beach for a little bit if that’s what they want to do before going back into the water,” Brodie said. “Chimney Rock is a nice location for the animals to get reintroduced into their natural environment.”

The releases are similar to the rescues. They’re put in a crate and trucked to the beach. “For California sea lions, you open the door and it’s like the last day of school,” said Brodie. “They shoot out and head directly for water.”

If you see a stranded animal, stay at a safe distance and leash your dog. These animals are highly stressed. Please call the Marine Mammal Center hotline: 415-289-SEAL.

Nits on the head but lice goes on (Point Reyes Light, 11.13.2008)

•November 13, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Lice—a nuisance for parents, guardians, and schools nationwide—are back in West Marin for another season. And along with head lice come student absences, pesticide-free remedies, and professional nitpickers.

“They are just rampant right now because everyone came back from summer break and it got worse and worse,” said Melissa Shilliday, co-owner of NitPixies in San Rafael. “It’s hitting pockets of school. There’s no rhyme or reason as to what school it hits. We’ve just been slammed.”

In West Marin, some schools are seeing more cases of head lice, appearing to reflect a larger nationwide awareness.

LICE IN SCHOOL

Twenty-two students out of 100 were sent home during a monthly inspection at the Bolinas-Stinson Union School District on October 29.

“Lice are lice. They’re opportunistic. It has no bearing at all on personal hygiene,” said Leo Kostelnik, the district’s principal. “It’s not a big, unusual problem. It’s just part of schooling a lot of the times. We have to work on it as a whole community, at home and at school.”

The school nurse for the Shoreline Unified School District, which has had at least a couple of cases of lice in each of the five schools, agrees. “I think in winter, people are closed-in more and they’re sharing hats and clothes,” said Maureen Martin, who deals with lice every year. “It usually happens with younger people—they are in more close intimate contact than older people.”

Close physical contact allows lice to go from one person to another, and school brings everybody back together. As a result, some schools have regular lice inspections by parent volunteers and professionals from delousing salons and community health centers.

UNDERSTANDING LICE

For NitPixies, September through March is the busiest season. “Whenever there’s a break, there are sleepovers, kids share hair brushes and clothes, and relatives fly in. After every vacation it’s a boom for us,” Shilliday said. “And movie theaters are quite the culprits. When there’s a new Harry Potter movie, all the kids go to see it. One kid sits down, and the louse crawls onto the next kid who sits down.”

But lice are a year-round problem as well. According to Holly Turner, co-owner of Bug-a-lugz delousing salon in Mill Valley, the countrywide lice epidemic is primarily the result of the immunity lice have developed to the over-the-counter treatments that have long been prescribed. Parents and others using these treatments later find that they have not gotten rid of the problem. Often kids will only have eggs, not adult lice, in their hair. “That means the live lice who deposited them have moved on to another head,” Turner said. “They do what they do and move on.”

Kent Julin, a father of six, volunteers with the San Geronimo School in the Lagunitas School District, checking heads for lice. “I know how to look and what to look for, and I’m patient enough to look through all these heads,” Julin said. “It’s a service as a parent.”

Julin is called in about three times a year, usually in the fall or winter. After head lice is discovered among the students, he brings in a box of gloves and, focusing around the nape of the neck and around the ears, conducts his search. If students have head lice, they get sent home. After they’re lice-free, they come back. But it’s up to the parents to go through their heads, slide the nits off the hair follicles, and dispose of them.

It’s important to remember that clean children get head lice. “Head lice are really not a big deal. Our children get it occasionally,” Julin said. “We need to be careful with what we tell the children so their self-esteem remains high and other children don’t tease them. The remedy is simple. You don’t have to freak out.”

Julin suggests learning to identify nits and lice before you have a problem. “When somebody gets lice, go have a look so you know what to look for,” Julin said. “Learn to identify what it looks like, don’t wait for an outbreak.”

WHAT TO DO??

Though the days of dousing kids’ heads in kerosene are over, treatments range from heavy chemical shampoos to organic oils that slow down the adult lice.

“Pesticides aren’t working anymore,” said Shilliday. “And if those over-the-counter shampoos work, they only kill the live bugs. Nothing kills nits. That’s the fallacy. Parents will shampoo and they think they’re done. But the nits hatch and they go on to their friends’ kids. It’s just kinda self-perpetuating. And it gets out hand.”

Parents are also bringing their children to Bug-a-lugz in Mill Valley and NitPixies in San Rafael—delousing salons in Marin County that also conduct head checks at schools.

Bug-a-lugz also has a conditioner-based treatment of essential oils made in cooperation with a lab in Berkeley. “We’re not interested in a product with toxicity,” Turner said. “Our product doesn’t kill the lice. It appears to stun nymphs and adults, allowing us to remove them with great ease.” Viscous and bright white, the product allows you to see the lice and nits more clearly, making it easier to remove the lice and their eggs one by one, according to Turner.

“We do it the old fashioned way—pick nits one at a time,” Shilliday said. “We take a nit comb, The Terminator, go through the hair, and flick the lice into the plastic bin. We comb through, flick, comb through flick.” Then they go through the hair a second time, using a jeweler’s magnifying glass. “Strand by strand by strand, we catch every one we didn’t catch the first time.”

The whole process takes about an hour. The hair is treated with a pesticide-free organic product, parents are taught how to comb, and the kids come back in four days. “We help moms and dads through it. Bring anxiety down. Kids are easy. It’s the moms and dads that you need to bring down from the roof.”

If lice have been found on someone in the household, wash and dry clothes, bedding, and pillows, and vacuum the furniture, carpet, couches, and car seats. (“They go after cars. Those are what are children ride around in all day,” said Julin.) Stuffed animals and quilts can be placed in plastic bags and sealed for a couple weeks. If the nits hatch, the nymphs will die with nothing to feed on.

“Lice go on,” Turner said. “They only do three things: suck blood, fornicate, lay eggs. Then they die within 30 days, but they can do a lot of damage.”

Who will save Terrace Ave? (Point Reyes Light, 11.06.2008)

•November 7, 2008 • 1 Comment

Seawall

Surfer’s Outlook sits on 90 feet of vertical sandstone. Every year it loses about six inches to natural erosion processes—wind-driven rain erodes the face of the cliff while waves undercut the base of the bluff.

Sitting atop this challenging geology is Terrace Avenue, one of two access roads to the Bolinas Mesa. Water and sewer mains run directly underneath. If Terrace collapses, it will be a huge threat to public health and safety.

For the time being, the only thing keeping the wave erosion at bay is a 120-foot seawall built by Marin County in 1967. And even that is falling apart.

“There’s the relentless erosion that takes place,” said Don Smith, a board member of the Bolinas Community Public Utility District (BCPUD). “Where the wall doesn’t exist or is broken, there is visible undercutting going on. The top of cliff is getting nibbled away by the rain, and it’s encroaching on the edge of the pavement.”

A large gap in the seawall developed at the end of last winter, when flotsam in the waves during a storm bashed the front of the wall. “After every winter storm, huge pieces of the bottom of the hill are bitten out by wave action,” Smith said. “This is the first winter where we have a break in the wall, and then beachgoers tore out broken pieces for the bonfire. It’s starting to look like firewood—that’s how bad it is.”

A Terrace Avenue Community Committee was appointed by BCPUD. “We said to the county, ‘Your facilities are failing here. Here’s some data, here’s the observation, here’s what we think can be done.’ They need to take that information and come up with a solution,” said Jennifer Blackman, general manager of the district. “Instead, they issued a memo basically saying that the community is right, the wall is failing, and if the seawall fails, the road will fail. But we’re not gonna do anything.”

In a September memorandum, Bob Beaumont, chief assistant director of the Department of Public Works, recommended that “the County take no measures to attempt to maintain, reinforce or replace the wall.” Beaumont acknowledged that “the existing vertical timbers are only 76% adequate to resist active soil pressure” and “the failure of this wall will ultimately hasten the loss of Terrace Avenue at this location.” Replacing the wall would cost about $500,000 and the permit process could take at least two years, according to the memo.

“It’s becoming an emergency situation due to the county’s decision to not do anything about prolonging the life of that wall,” Smith said. “We’re not ready to accept that decision.”

“We understand and appreciate that the county has competing demands on its resources,” said Blackman. “But we believe that, for our community, it’s hard to get a higher priority issue.”

If the seawall fails this winter, Terrace will be lost, along with the water and sewer mains underneath it.

“The county’s decision is not cost free,” Blackman said. “It immediately shifts the cost onto the community.” Engineers have estimated that it will take $365,000 to move the water line. And relocating the sewer main could be twice as expensive.

Approximately 650 households are supplied by this water district. “That is not very many people to spread the burden,” Smith said. “It doesn’t make any sense to me to just let the seawall go and create all these new problems. A small patch costing $10 to 20,000 can get us through another winter or two.”

Since Terrace is one of two roads that lead to the Bolinas Mesa, which houses hundreds of Bolinas residents, it becomes a public safety concern if Mesa Road is the only access road. Over the last five years, the tree-lined Mesa Road has been closed six or seven times.

“The fire department can’t go downtown and ambulances can’t come up,” said Anita Tyrell-Brown, the fire chief of Bolinas Fire Protection District. “We can generally clear a tree, but if there are powerlines involved, we have to wait for PG&E to come and make sure the power is out. If it’s a widespread outage, PG&E responds to large populations first. These lines service only a few homes, so it’s hard for them to prioritize it.”

“We end up being stymied for hours,” Blackman said.

“The wall definitely buys time to figure out a permanent solution,” Tyrell-Brown said. “At the very minimum, the seawall needs to be looked at and repaired.”

“What especially concerns me is that we’re now in November. We thought we would be doing a repair of the wall basically now,” Blackman said. “We’re losing the window of time we have to repair the seawall before the winter storms are really here.”

One couple’s cliff

Part of the seawall sits 90 feet below Robert and Diana Ekedahl’s house on Terrace Avenue.
After a landslide in January 2006, the Ekedahls, who have lived on the bayside bluff for nearly 40 years, applied for a permit to build piers that would prevent further encroachment.

“We waited until just recently. We thought the county would fix the base, and then we would fix the top. But when they didn’t, I proceeded with my project,” Robert said. “To the extent that my house is endangered, fixing the seawall was not as immediate. More immediate would be the slide area.”

Their request for a coastal permit was approved at the end of September. “When I made the formal request and applied for the permit, the county was very cooperative,” Robert said. Construction lasted just under three weeks.

“Fortunately, it was finished within hours of the storm on Friday night and Saturday,” he said. “It was pretty close,” Diana added.

Twelve piers were lowered into vertical holes 16-feet deep and 18 inches in diameter. Steel reinforcing bars were placed into the holes and then bent at the tops so that the rebars in each hole overlapped. The holes were then filled with concrete, and concrete was poured over the tops of the bent rebars to create a semi-horizontal grade beam to connect all 12 concrete posts. Except for one that leans against the retaining wall at Terrace, the concrete posts aren’t visible above ground.

For erosion control, the Ekedahls have placed waddles—long snakes of rolled-up straw—and plan to plant the native, deep-rooted violet flowered lupine on the slide area.

“The wooden wall can be fixed for a modest amount of money. The 90-foot vertical cliff is the big undertaking,” said Robert, who owns a portion of the cliff. “Fixing the seawall will only buy time for Surfer’s Outlook. I care about at least 25 percent of the county wooden wall, and ultimately, something has to be done about the seawall.”

“We’ve already spent many thousands of dollars protecting ourselves from the sea,” said Robert.

“Seems like we’ve been putting cement into the ocean forever,” Diana added. “Living on the ocean is a constant adventure, but it’s been worth it.”

The future?

If the seawall can keep the ocean from hitting the base of the cliff, it will slow the erosion and preserve the road. “The seawall has been effective in slowing the erosion rate. Had the seawall not been there, the road would have eroded away years ago,” said Ralph Camiccia, a Terrace Avenue Community Committee member with a background in geology. “It’s accelerated over the last few years, since the seawall has been breaking down. The sandstone looks like it’s fine, but it’s crumbling into the sea.”

Beaches replenish themselves by eroding the hill behind them. The particles in this sandstone aren’t that cohesive. When the undercutting starts, the integrity of the cliff is permanently compromised. “It’s gonna go sooner than later,” Camiccia said.

“It’s physically possible to fix the seawall. It requires the will of the county to do it,” Blackman said.

Two other things are needed—a new (or repaired) wall to block the waves at the base of cliff and some sort of armoring for the cliff surface.

One known technique can be seen on Highway 101 in San Rafael. The concrete that holds up the side of the mountain is textured, making it look like stone rather than a cement wall. Along coastal areas of Highway One, cliffs have been beamed and buttressed.

Either one of these projects would require environmental review and coastal permit. “It’s not an immediate solution. The seawall has been quite effective at slowing the rate of erosion from down below,” Blackman said. “We can stabilize the situation, then take a couple years to agree on a solution to preserve the road. Whatever the solution is, we need time to evaluate the options, to go through the permitting process. But we keep losing time.”

“If we have to relocate these lines, we want to do it on our time frame, in other words, not under emergency conditions where the bluff has failed,” Blackman said. “So we are moving forward with that, but it’s a really time consuming process. If we are approved for the loan, the soonest we could do it is next summer.”

“In the end, we all have to save ourselves. We can’t depend on the government as we used to. The federal government has set the example—it’s been an abysmal failure in the past decade, and it’s trickling down to the state, and regrettably, in this situation, to the county as well,” Smith said. “So then the responsibility, the burden of this situation keeps getting pushed down and down, until it ends up with the townspeople.”

“People do stuff when they have to,” Smith said. “I’m kinda hoping someone just patches it up.”

Tide turns at Point Reyes wetlands (Point Reyes Light, 10.30.2008)

•October 30, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Wetlands, restored

Tides flowed into the new wetlands at the base of Tomales Bay this weekend for the first time in over 60 years.

“It’s the end of the Giacomini Project, but the beginning of the Giacomini Wetlands,” said Lorraine Parsons, who managed the eight-year restoration project for the Point Reyes National Seashore.

The 550-acre restoration removed the levees and berms that have hindered natural processes since the 1940s, when half of the marshlands in Tomales Bay were diked to create pastureland for a dairy ranch.

Just before 1:10 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, a bright orange Hitachi excavator was poised atop the last remaining dirt levee, ready to take out the final plug of soil that separated Tomasini Slough from Lagunitas Creek at the northern end of the project area. Dozens of spectators gathered on Tomales Bay Trail.

“It’s one scoop away,” guessed John Dell’Osso, spokesman for the seashore. “I’ll bet you one scoop, and the water will start to trickle in.”

The excavator began to scrape away at the levee, which was about five feet deep and 50 feet wide. It reached its arm over the dirt, curled the bucket inward to scoop it up, and then rotated 180 degrees to drop a dark brown load onto the bank.

No water flowed through. The excavator operator, Dan Rogers, turned the arm around to continue scooping. “Oh, I see. He’s shaving off thin layers,” Dell’Osso said, readjusting his estimate. “He’s like a surgeon.”

The excavator continued to shave layers off the top and southern side of the levee. All the while, a yellow Komatsu bulldozer pushed the fresh dirt into a big hole that was previously dug out.

Fifteen minutes and nearly 30 scoops later, water rushed through the loosened dirt and flowed into the slough. The levee was breached, and a tidal channel was created.

A crowd cheered in the distance and the wind picked up, blowing away the smell of old bay mud that hadn’t been exposed for decades.

In the field

The breach celebration began Saturday morning with a walk led by wildlife biologist Jules Evens, who had conducted a comprehensive survey for the project.

With a telescope over his shoulder and binoculars hanging from his neck, Evens led over a hundred people from the corner of Fifth and C Streets to Lagunitas Creek. During the field seminar, he shared his knowledge on the dynamics and changes in bird use prior to and after restoration.

“We wanted to know what’s been here before and how things have changed,” Parsons said, referring to Evens’ research on the site. “Just last year, there was no more irrigation and no more cows.”

During his survey, Evens found the endangered tidewater goby, red-legged frogs, and many rare or threatened birds. Tidal and transitional marshland is important for the goby and the frog, which cannot survive in a completely saline environment. A red-legged frog habitat was created adjacent to Tomasini Creek, where the tidewater goby was found.

Enhancing the natural hydrology through the restoration increases the habitat and the diversity of animal species, according to Evens. “Nature has a way of doing what it wants.”

This was seen when a seasonal dam was removed, and the reach of Lagunitas Creek became larger. There was an increase in rarer animals—yellowlegs, black crowned night herons, wood ducks, Western pond turtles. Grasslands that were usually mowed in March or April weren’t mowed until May and an increase in grassland songbirds was apparent.

Rails also use these marsh plains. “We left some areas as high tide refugia for black rails, and potentially, clapper rails. At the highest tides they need some where to go,” said Brannon Ketcham, a hydrologist for the park. “So we left those areas above the tidal influence.”

“With the increased amount of forage there was a vole explosion,” Evens said. Although not a literal one, Parsons added. With more to eat, voles were having more young, attracting raptors and predatory mammals. Evens pointed out coyotes in the distance and voles being eaten by white tailed kites—nomadic birds that travel around looking specifically for voles. According to Evens, there are a couple dozen here, preying on the rodent boom.

“Even coyotes are cued in,” Parsons said. “There was a couple sitting next to the equipment. They were later chased off by deer.”

The vegetation has already changed within the last year. “The system performed more as a tidal system than we thought,” Ketcham said. “A lot of grasslands that were here traditionally have transitioned into salt marsh plants. It’s already happening.”

Salt has infiltrated and salt grass and pickleweed have already come in. “We thought the vegetation communities would take about ten or 20 years to convert. Now it’s more like three to five years for a full transition. Eventually, we’ll have a manageable, self-sustaining ecosystem.”

Watching the water

Bucketfuls of native pickleweed plants were handed out to some of the 500 visitors, who tossed them like confetti as they watched the high tide flood the ranch on Sunday. Hundreds of people walked to the edge of a newly created tidal channel off Lagunitas Creek to wait for the tide to rise.

“Watch your feet!” people shouted as the water crept in.

Handfuls of voles and gophers came out of their burrows. Some managed to stay dry and scurried past people’s feet; others swam for their lives. “The animals are having to redistribute themselves and find high ground,” Ketcham said.

Sage Rossman, 7, stood on a narrowing strip of land and scooped up a vole from the water to let it dry in the grass. Nine-year-old Bear Sheff and his cousin Daisy Sheff, 12, warmed it up in their hands and took it away from the waterside.

Egrets, kestrels, and Northern harriers gorged on the animals coming out. A man with binoculars said he saw a seal up the channel, where leopard sharks and rays were spotted earlier this summer.

“I think it’s so cool! Having all the wildlife reoccupying this,” said Russell Meeks of Mill Valley.

“Having wetlands in California is so important for our heritage,” said Bernie Stephan of Point Reyes Station. “It was fun watching the tide come in. It’s usually more subtle.”

The water began to recede shortly after 11:15 a.m., and people started heading back to town.

“For most people, if you say ‘I had a lot of fun watching water find its place,’ they would think ‘This is someone who needs a life,’” said Sarah Wright of Woodacre. “But this is a great life.”

“Joyous,” said Sally Bolger, a board member of the Point Reyes National Seashore Association.

On Sunday afternoon, during an open house at seashore headquarters, Superintendent Don Neubacher toasted a large group of celebrants.

“It’s remarkable we could give something to nature,” he said. “When you think about the scale of this project, it really was a dream. Twelve million dollars is a phenomenal feat. I’m thankful for all of you who believed in the dream. There are lots of negatives in the world. This gives a lot of hope.”

Dennis Rodoni, chair of the seashore association, was next to speak. “Don likes to say people walk on water. I say Don walks on tidal water,” he said, going on to thank the entire community. “We planted the seed, fought the fight, and nourished the idea this could be a wetland.”

New lichen species found on Point Reyes (Point Reyes Light, 10.16.2008)

•October 16, 2008 • Leave a Comment
Lecanora simeonensis

Lecanora simeonensis (photo by J.C. Lendemer)

Kerry Knudsen walked up to an old corral near the visitor center in Bear Valley on a Thursday morning in July. Holding his magnifying hand lens, a 10-power jeweler’s loupe, to his eye, he looked at the wooden fence, and within five minutes knew he was seeing a lichen previously unknown to science.

The new species will be called Lecanora simeonensis, and its story began nearly two years ago on the weathered conifer wood of another abandoned corral in San Simeon. “The minute I saw it, I knew we didn’t have anything described like that,” recalled Knudsen, lichen curator at the Herbarium of University of California, Riverside. “I knew it was something new when I first saw it, and then the process is to find more of it.”

Along with the first specimen found in San Simeon, Knudsen found this lichen in two other locations in San Luis Obispo County. He had already begun a research paper describing this new species when he found the sample in Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS), the only specimen identified in Marin County so far.

The visitor center was the first stop on a northern coastal California field trip that preceded the sixth annual International Association of Lichenology (IAL) symposium, which took place from July 13 to 19 at Asilomar on the Monterey Peninsula.

“Twenty-four lichenologists from all over the world came,” said Lawrence Glacy who—along with Larry St. Clair of Brigham Young University and Tom Nash of Arizona State University—coordinated the IAL field trip from July 9 to 13. “I thought we might be able to add a little bit to the existing knowledge in the park.”

Lichens typically are made up of fungi and algae, which exist symbiotically. A lichen survey done at Point Reyes in 2001-2002 found 88 different species of lichen in the park, according to Ben Becker, director of the Pacific Coast Science and Learning Center at PRNS. However, many of those samples have not been reviewed properly by taxonomists, so the verification by Glacy and his colleagues may change this number.

“There were a lot of species not on the list. There are new species. There are species that have already been named but just haven’t been collected yet. There are also species moving in from the north or south,” Glacy said. “I thought lichenologists with specialties might lead to new discoveries. But finding is one thing, identifying is another.”

Lecanora simeonensis has four characteristics that identify it. It’s this suite of characters—which include its two ways of reproduction, sexually and asexually, its spore size, and its particular chemistry—that makes it distinctly unique. “I was happy to find it at Point Reyes,” Knudsen said. “I immediately recognized it.”

Knudsen has already found 17 species of lichen. “Almost every survey I do, I turn up another species,” he said. “There are 15,000 lichen species worldwide, and that number will probably rise to 25,000. There are still a lot to be found.”

But at a time when new lichens are being discovered, some are becoming rarer. “They’re running out of habitat,” Knudsen said. “Lichens grow very slowly, so they’re usually only on habitats that are undisturbed. When there are old wood fences that aren’t treated, we always check there.”

Of the four locations where Lecanora simeonensis is found, only one was a natural habitat—a rotting oak log in Montana d’Oro in San Simeon County. Elsewhere, this lichen has only been found on wooden fences.

“We should be finding them on logs and trees, but so far we aren’t seeing them. Some substrates they need are simply not growing back. Old wood fences are very important,” Knudsen said. “It shows there’s some disturbance going on—fires, clearing the land, building farms. Right there you have a habitat problem. Lichens just don’t come back if they get really knocked out.”

Several other species of lichen are also only known from a few spots. Old-growth chaparral, for instance, was once common in Southern California, but with increased human-caused fires, this habitat is becoming increasingly hard to find, as are the lichens associated with them. “Part of it is a natural process, but where human impacts affect biodiversity, they also affect lichen,” said Glacy.

These surveys add to the National Park Service’s All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory. Recently, PRNS began looking at the smaller things, such as fungi and lichen. “The main point is to try to discover some of the little things in the park,” Becker said. “There are fewer specialists out there that study them, and I think they haven’t always been a management concern. If we do find species that are rare, we ask: are these things that we need to be conserving?”

Glacy is starting to develop management plans with the park for the fences, barns, and unique cultural spots that are old and important to preserve for the lichen. “Old fences with lichen break down. They could scrape the lichen off or replace it, throw it away, and put a new one up. Their interest is to keep fences in shape. My interest is to keep the lichen on the fence. Now we’re working together to prioritize and protect.”

Lecanora simeonensis will be introduced into scientific literature in the spring, when Knudsen and his colleague James C. Lendemer of the New York Botanical Garden will publish in the journal Opuscula Philolichenum.

“It appears that the recent 2008 surveys will certainly add new species to the [PRNS] list, as well as some new species to science, which is quite exciting,” Becker said.

Crouching Scientist, Hidden Salamander (Berkeley Science Review, Fall 2005)

•October 15, 2008 • Leave a Comment

The Korean salamander that shouldn’t be there…or should it?

Lying in an icy grave of frigid industrial water in a black ice bucket, a salamander waits to have its liver taken out—a small but important step in making herpetological history. The salamander is Karsenia koreana, and its recent discovery is a story of surprises, paradoxes, and new insights into the history of salamanders.

This story began in April two years ago in a rocky, forested habitat in the vicinity of Jangtae-san, Daejeon-si, Chungcheongnam-do, Korea, where Stephen Karsen, a high school biology teacher from Illinois who teaches at the Taejon Christian International School in Korea, came across an unusual salamander. “I knew the moment I picked it up that it had to be at least a new record for South Korea – or possibly completely new,” he recounts.

Karsen, unable to identify the salamander, approached amphibian specialists M. S. Min of Seoul National University, S. Y. Yang of Inha University in Incheon, and a former professor, Ronald A. Brandon of Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, who in turn drew it to the attention of David B. Wake, professor emeritus of integrative biology and Curator of Amphibians at UC Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.

The salamander was clearly different from all known Asian salamanders and was identified as a plethodontid, or lungless salamander. Based on the morphological and molecular data, it was placed in a new genus—Karsenia, named for its original discoverer, Karsen. The common name is Korean crevice salamander, or Ikkee dorongyong in Korean.

Wake, known to some as “Commander Salamander,” and his colleagues published the discovery in Nature last May. They explain that this Asian discovery was initially astonishing because 99% of lungless salamanders are found in the Americas. Prior to the discovery of K. koreana, the only place outside of the Americas that lungless salamanders were found was the western Mediterranean.

But as surprise at this discovery wanes, hindsight is leading researchers to revise their initial assumptions.

“We should have expected to find plethodontid salamanders in Asia. It is actually quite logical,” acknowledges Wake. The fact that the species is found in both the Americas and the Mediterranean strongly suggests that there was a continuous population at some point in the past. This realization has necessitated modifications to the hypotheses of plethodontid historical biogeography.

Another reason the discovery was unexpected was because the amphibian population of Korea was thought to be fully catalogued. Researchers did not expect to discover a new species of any animal in such a seemingly well-understood ecosystem.

How did K. koreana escape notice for so long in such a familiar environment? David Vieites, a post-doctoral fellow in the Wake lab and a co-author of the Nature study, attributes this to the fact that these plethodontids are terrestrial. In Asia and in Europe, there is an understandable bias for exploring aquatic habitats because most salamanders live in water, even as adults. “These are not aquatic at all. So these Korean researchers searched only in aquatic habitats, [which is] one of the reasons why these salamanders are overlooked,” explains Vieites.

Now that researchers know where to look, they are finding that K. koreana is actually very common. Following his group’s initial publication, Vieites traveled to South Korea with two goals in mind: to collect more specimens and tissue samples and to figure out whether there are more plethodontid salamanders in surrounding regions. He spent 10 days in the field hunting for the salamander throughout Taejon, a city near the site of Karsen’s initial discovery, and neighboring areas; in the end, his work paid off, and he reported that K. koreana is relatively prolific.

According to Vieites, this salamander can easily be found in at least three national parks—a fortunate circumstance for researchers interested in studying the new species.

Vieites found around 40 specimens and collected around 80 tissue samples from tail tips. Based on this data he was able to estimate that the salamander has a well-distributed range of 50 by 150 km. Because all of the specimens were morphologically similar, Vieites suspects there is just one species rather than a huge radiation of plethodontid salamanders in Korea, as is the case in the Americas.

Looking forward to future findings of plethodontid salamanders in Asia, Vieites states, “We have plethodontid salamanders in the Americas, the Mediterranean, and now in Korea. Why not in other parts of Asia? China is enormous, huge. If we are lucky, maybe we’ll find more. Why not? We don’t know, but I think it’s worth it to give it a shot in China. It will be fun.”

Last May alone Wake’s group discovered five species of salamanders. Those five species fall into three genera, including Karsenia. In 1985, there were approximately 4,000 species of amphibians and, at last count, there are 5,951 species of amphibians, according to AmphibiaWeb (amphibiaweb.org).

This is especially good news considering that worldwide amphibian populations are in decline. So along with the paradox of being a predictable surprise, the first Asian representative of the plethodontid family presents another welcome paradox: according to Wake, at a time when “amphibians are declining, we are finding new species.”

[pdf version]

On G. ruber, Climate Change and Human Evolution (2008)

•January 22, 2008 • Leave a Comment

ABSTRACT: Important changes in human evolution in Africa during the Pliocene-Pleistocene seem to be mediated by changes in African climate or shifts in climate variability. By reconstructing the development of the tropical Atlantic sea surface temperature (SST) gradient from 3.5 Ma up to the present, we provide another constraint on the paleoenvironment of hominin evolution. Evidence gathered from geochemical analyses of the planktonic foraminifer, Globigerinoides ruber, yield a zonal reconstruction that shows the tropical SST trend and variance to be consistent with paleoclimatic records that indicate African aridification since the Pliocene; this signifies a link between SSTs and African climate. An enhancement of the tropical Atlantic SST gradient and an increase in SST variability occurred around 2.7 Ma. Though gradual, this shift is contained within a narrow range and is coincident with shifts in African dust, soil carbonate δ13C, plant wax biomarkers, and benthic δ18O, and even corresponds with some junctures in the climate-forced evolution of our ancestors.

As the Gyre Widens (2006)

•December 12, 2007 • Leave a Comment

I had never seen so much blood on my hands. I didn’t kill him. I don’t know when he died or how he died, but I know it had something to do with a girl – a female named Bonnie.

Cherokee (US GOVT RW 084977) was hatched in July, 1994 in Vaughn, Montana. Part peregrine, part gyr, all falcon. Cherokee has the dark moustachial stripe and rufous chest of his father and the general gyr gestalt of his mother, the mellow temperament of the cosmopolitan peregrine combined with the heavy build and increased talon-span of the circumpolar gyrfalcon. With a unique genetic makeup created through artificial insemination, Cherokee was literally predesigned for a post-mortem enshrinement within the dark basement of the American Museum of Natural History.

Captive-bred hybridization is itself a hybrid sport, combining the captive-breeding techniques of a raptor biologist with the training skills of a falconer. Like most falcons bred for falconry, Cherokee’s hawking competencies were exhaustively cultivated. In the manning phase, he was acclimated to human situations; in the training phase, he was conditioned to associate a whistle with imminent feeding. In the adjustment period, he was weighed daily to approximate the weight at which he is eager to hunt but not starving. To quantify “eagerness,” his trainer would sound the Pavlovian signal so that Cherokee would fly to his trainer’s hand looking for food; the initial distance between the trainer and the bird was increased, and when Cherokee still came to the outstretched hand from 100 yards away, his trainer took him off his line. Once in the field, Cherokee would fly above his falconer and glide continuously about in a circle, turning and turning. Before engaging with live game, the falconer swung a lure made of feathers and a food reward (such as a piece of raw meat), and Cherokee learned very quickly that his falconer would be the one presenting the prey. When his falconer rattled a bush or sedge, he would flush out a pigeon or duck; from up in the air, Cherokee would fold his wings and stoop down, talons wide open. Descending at up to 200 miles an hour, Cherokee would strike the bird with his feet, while also raking its back, scraping it with his hallux (or hind toe). The prey would fall to the ground, dead or stunned. Cherokee would follow it down and bite its neck with his notched beak, severing its spinal column.

Cherokee was flown for nine years in Suffolk County, Long Island. He was a decent hunter. Hawking was his profession and he earned his keep by marketing death. His brother Montana suddenly fell dead for no apparent reason, and he soon followed.

I met Cherokee on a particularly grisly October afternoon when I returned to immortalize my first AMNH specimen. He was freshly defrosted, having just escaped his frozen seclusion the night before, for the first time in his year-long cryogenic storage. There he was, eyes sunken, wings haphazardly flopped open, lying anti-climatically on a few paper towels in a cafeteria tray. Hardly the vision of a raptor.

After making my medial incision, my first mental note was that, visually and tactilely speaking, he was very dry and really skinny, but not emaciated. Leg by leg, wing by wing, tail, and head, I separated his flesh from his skin. Within two hours, I had his skin on the left side of my tray, and his body on my right. Cherokee will not make for a dermestid meal because his skinless body contains only a partial skeleton, which is not of much scientific use. In order to retain his intact skin, I left bones in the wings, legs, and tail, and I left the front of the skull attached to the bill.

I placed Cherokee’s external façade back into the freezer, to stuff on another day. Then I opened up his body and followed the usual protocol for museum specimens: (1) collect pieces of the heart, liver, and breast muscle, and using a shiny, new razor, pulp the tissue for easier DNA extraction, and then (2) measure the testes, which in his case was L: 11×8 mm, R: 9×6 mm. (Testes of this relatively large size suggest that Cherokee might have been fertile and capable of producing viable young, had his breeder allowed him to mate.) I crammed his tissues into a tiny vial and placed it into a box where the ice cube tray would usually go.

Since the museum would not conduct a professional necropsy, I was then allowed to play pathologist. The vibrant, reddish shades of the fall leaves outside made for a striking juxtaposition to the blood on my hands. Looking down at my hands, I spent a few seconds regretting my choice to skin the bird gloveless. That amount of blood was very unusual, and as the red water swirled its way down the drain, I realized that something must have gone terribly wrong inside this beautiful bird. The observable facts: (1) he has a major tear on the right side of his face, (2) looking at the inside of his skin, he has wounds on the right side of his breast and on his lower left side, and (3) there is an abnormal cavern in his right lung. These wounds could be lesions symptomatic of the common respiratory infection aspergillosis. I opened up his trachea to test this; however, since nothing was obstructing it, I had to rule out my first hypothesis. I threw his remnants into the biological waste bin “chicken food,” all the while wondering what killed him.

For days I wondered. Perhaps those were puncture wounds resulting from some external agent. An impaling tangle of branches perhaps? Or perhaps a barbed wire fence? The answer came in an unceremonious email from the senior scientific assistant of the ornithology department: Cherokee “died a few days after a tussle with another falcon . . . a ‘pure’ peregrine female named Bonnie who died the same day she fought with him.” And there you have it, a dame did him in. Perhaps the wounds went septic and a blood infection set in, causing a systemic infection. Perhaps whatever blow he took in the chest resulted in a punctured lung. I’ll never know.

On the eve of Halloween, I decided to put Cherokee to rest, to let him sleep forever in his aluminum sarcophagus within the rows upon rows of museum stacks. The amount of time it took me to stuff him could be measured through the mounting pile of failed cotton eyeballs and brains. He deserved better than a bloody cotton eyeball peering out through empty orbits and a cotton brain not big enough to stabilize the dowel spine; or too big, so that the cotton eyeballs bugged out of his eyelids. As if he could comprehend the gory frustration of it all, Cherokee left a final permanent stain on a clean, beige shirt when his blood squirted out in a parabolic arc as I tried to clean out his hollow femur. When his brain and eyeballs were satisfactory, Cherokee received a fluffy body and neck, also made of cotton. After I had placed enough cotton in what would have been his body cavity (but not so much that he looked overfed), I sewed him up and made him quasi-whole again. His wings were tucked in, his legs tied up, and each feather meticulously preened. I pinned him down so that he would dry in the optimal position, and the desiccated trace amount of meat left in him will not rot while he lies in a museum tray for the foreseeable eternity.

When Cherokee was ready to be unpinned, I returned to the AMNH for the fourth and possibly final time. I posed for a picture holding Cherokee in my hands like a trophy. I made some final measurements of Cherokee’s culmen, tarsus, cere, and the like, and I laid him down in the fumigation cabinet just outside the prep lab. Soon he will be accessioned and inserted into a shelf on one of the six floors of the bird collection.

And my catalog entry for Cherokee is written in archival pen: JCF 37, male, Falco peregrinus x F. rusticolus, adult, testes developed, no fat, no molt, tissue saved.