Friday, January 17, 2020

Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw, and the Defense Tonight on the Tuolumne River

Nature is wondrous, serene, and spiritually uplifting. And then all of the sudden the "circle of life" thing happens, and we are reminded that nature is also "red in tooth and claw". I've seen some dead animals along the trail of late, some natural, some murdered by humans. It's a jarring reminder that life is hard and often scary, especially for those who occupy the lower parts of the food chain. But sometimes the little ones do okay. Evolution is a competition. When predators evolve new ways of capturing and killing prey, the species who survive are the ones who have evolved new defenses.

And what a defense this little one has! I was wandering as I often do along the Tuolumne River, taking in the beautiful sunset, and feeling peaceful. But the olfactory peace did not last. The last quarter mile of my walk was accompanied by a distinctly terrible odor, the unmistakable scent of a Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis). The odor was somewhat diffuse, so it wasn't entirely awful, but I didn't actually expect to run across the individual responsible for the affront.
I saw movement up on the cliff, and realized that the creature was not one of the many feral cats that live along the trail. The skunk was moving along the rim of the canyon where the creature probably accesses a lot of pet food from the yards beyond. I warned my friends on the bluff about their potential problem, and appreciated the first chance to photograph (however poorly) an interesting (and smelly) new species on my daily trail.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

What Can You Say in 3 Minutes About One of the World's Special Places? Del Puerto Canyon and the Proposed Dam

I was one of a large number of speakers at a forum this evening on the future of a proposed dam at the mouth of Del Puerto Canyon near Patterson, California. I counted roughly 200 people in attendance, and of the 30 or so of the attendees who spoke, none spoke in favor of building the dam (there may have been supporters, but they chose not to speak). What follows is approximately what I said tonight (I had my comments all written out, but I always go off-script!). I've added the pictures to this post (I couldn't use them at the session).
Image may contain: one or more people and people sitting
Statement on the proposed dam and reservoir in Lower Del Puerto Canyon

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to this important issue. My name is Garry Hayes, and I have been a professor of geology at Modesto Junior College for 32 years. I wish to speak to several issues about the canyon and proposed dam.

First, the national significance of Del Puerto Canyon

The Environmental Impact Report is a perfunctory report on the geological resources and hazards at the proposed dam site in Del Puerto Canyon, but fails to communicate the national significance of canyon. Describing Del Puerto as a “typical” canyon of the Coast Ranges is like describing Yosemite as just another glacial valley. If the Diablo Range were under federal ownership, I am convinced that Del Puerto would have warranted consideration as a national monument or national park. Why? It is the only place in Central (and maybe all of) California where one can drive from the earth’s surface into the mantle and do it in an exceedingly scenic manner. One passes through 25,000 feet of marine sediments, through the underlying ocean crust, and into rocks that were once part of the earth’s mantle. At the same time, as others will note, the canyon offers a unique assemblage of endemic plants and animals. It has a rare riparian wetland habitat in an otherwise arid mountain range. I have taken hundreds of students into the canyon for field studies over the last 30 years. The National Association of Geoscience Teachers, the Geological Society of America and other national organizations have conducted tours in the canyon and many geologists have done research there.

It is not widely known, and the EIR fails to mention that the first dinosaur fossils ever found in California were found on a slope just above the inundation zone of the reservoir. I am disturbed that such a significant site would be simply ignored in the planning for this reservoir.
Saurolophus, the species of dinosaur found in Del Puerto Canyon

My other concern about this reservoir involves the instability of the slopes above the proposed reservoir. There are huge and clearly active landslides within the inundation zone. The EIR fails to address the possibilities of large-scale slope failures when the dam is filled. I am concerned about what happens when a slide that formed under arid conditions is subsequently inundated beneath a hundred feet or more of water. I find the statement in the EIR that “the rate of movement of landslides would likely be slow…” to be inadequate and worrisome.

Del Puerto Canyon is a region of national scientific significance, and I am concerned that the EIR does not acknowledge this fact. The backers of the dam have not adequately considered the importance of this important educational locality, and I strongly and sincerely request that the Del Puerto Water District reconsider the Ingram Canyon alternative, given that the Ingram project will not have the detrimental impact that would occur if a dam is built in Del Puerto. We should be increasing educational access to the canyon, not restricting it.

Thank you for your time and attention.
(end of comments)

Del Puerto can use your help! To get involved, there are several things you can do:

If you are on Facebook, check out

Read the Environmental Impact Report at this link. If Del Puerto Canyon has significance to you, please respond and be active in the opposition! If you have expertise in any of the areas that will affected, you need to be heard from.

There are several important meetings and deadlines coming up very soon:

1/21 6:30pm City Council Meeting. 1 Plaza Circle. - request they take a stand, voice concerns
1/27 5:00pm Public Comments DUE. OR Anthea Hansen PO Box 1596 Patterson CA 95363
1/28 9:00am Board of Supervisors Meeting 1010 10th St Modesto CA - voice concerns, they have final decision

Monday, January 13, 2020

What's Wrong With This Picture (Part 2)? The Problem of a Dam in Del Puerto

Actually, nothing is wrong with this picture, or any of the others in this post. Not yet...
These are pictures of the lower portion of Del Puerto Canyon, the parts that will be inundated if plans to build a dam are successful. There are viable options to this dam that will not destroy a popular and scientifically significant canyon in the Diablo Range of California's Coast Ranges. It is the only publicly accessible canyon in the range within Stanislaus County.
The canyon is a treasure for many reasons. Geologically, it is the source of a huge amount of research into the geologic history of Central California. Driving up the canyon is the equivalent of driving from the Earth's surface through 25,000 feet of oceanic sediment, another five miles of oceanic crust, and into the mantle, the Earth's layer that reaches all the way to the outer core. California's first dinosaur discovery was in the lower canyon, and other paleontological discoveries have been made nearby. The canyon has a unique mining history: mercury, chromite, magnesite, and others have been found in the upper canyon.
The canyon is a wonderful outdoor laboratory for botanists and zoologists. More than 160 bird species have been found here, making Del Puerto the third most diverse bird habitat in the entire county, exceeded only by the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge, and the Modesto Water Treatment Plant (!). Canyon explorers will see a huge variety of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects. I've seen badgers, bobcats, coyotes, rattlesnakes, king snakes, and all manner of lizards.
The wildflower displays in the canyon can be stunning. The unique soils in different parts of the canyon allow hundreds of flower species to flourish, including some that are found nowhere else in the world. There were few flowers last weekend, but come spring the slopes will be awash in color.

There are archaeological sites in the canyon of the occupation by the Yokuts and earlier cultures. These have barely begun to be understood or explored.
People of the San Joaquin Valley have few places where they can go in the Coast Ranges for recreation, and the building of a dam will remove yet one more access point. Del Puerto Canyon is a treasure for so many reasons, but not the least of which is that the canyon is a nearby place for spiritual recharge, exercise, and personal exploration. These intangibles are hard to put a price tag on, and that's the problem.

There will be many reasons offered as to why this reservoir is SO necessary, and how there will be SO many benefits. But the question needs to be asked, what is this taking away from all of us?

If you are on Facebook, check out

Read the Environmental Impact Report at this link. If Del Puerto Canyon has significance to you, please respond and be active in the opposition! If you have expertise in any of the areas that will affected, you need to be heard from.

There are several important meetings and deadlines coming up very soon:

1/15 3:30pm Protest. Corner of Ward and Sperry
1/15 4:00pm Public Meeting. Hammon Senior Center 1033 West Las Palmas, Patterson
1/21 6:30pm City Council Meeting. 1 Plaza Circle. - request they take a stand, voice concerns
1/27 5:00pm Public Comments DUE. OR Anthea Hansen PO Box 1596 Patterson CA 95363
1/28 9:00am Board of Supervisors Meeting 1010 10th St Modesto CA - voice concerns, they have final decision

Sunday, January 12, 2020

What's Wrong With This Picture? The Problem of a Dam in Del Puerto

What is wrong with this picture?

This is a map of all the historical sightings of Red-tailed Hawks on eBird in a portion of the Diablo Range between the Bay Area and the Central Valley. The Red-tail is a common bird that lives in a wide variety of habitats, ranging from coastal areas to mountains to savannas. So why, except for a single east-west line across the center of the picture, have they never been sighted in the interior of the Diablo Range? Is there a no-hawk zone in the range interior? It turns out that you could do a similar map for any common (or uncommon) bird species and the pattern would be similar. Are there no birds at all in the Diablo Range?
We raptors want to know...
The answer is that of course there are birds all over range. But there is no public access in the majority of the mountain range. It is largely under private ownership, and the most common sign to be seen anywhere is "No Trespassing". Except for that narrow stripe in the center of map, at Del Puerto Canyon. There is a public route, Del Puerto Canyon Road, that crosses the range and provides a (very slow) connection between Patterson and the Santa Clara Valley.

And that's the problem with the picture. Del Puerto is the only public access to the mountain range in Stanislaus County, and as such is one of very few places where anyone can study the unique geology, biology, botany and archaeology of this intriguing place. And it is the only place that offers year-round recreational opportunities (there are several county parks and a campground in the upper canyon). But now there are plans afoot to eliminate much of that access, and indeed to severely impact the natural environment. There are plans to build a large dam that will inundate five miles of the extraordinarily scenic canyon.

There will be many reasons offered as to why this reservoir is SO necessary, and how there will be SO many benefits. But the question needs to be asked, what is this taking away from all of us? Look to this blog for some answers in coming days. Also, check this blog from several days ago. If you are on Facebook, check out

Read the Environmental Impact Report at this link. If Del Puerto Canyon has significance to you, please respond and be active in the opposition! If you have expertise in any of the areas that will affected, you need to be heard from.

There are several important meetings and deadlines coming up very soon:

1/14 9:00am Board of Supervisors Meeting 1010 10th St Modesto CA
1/15 3:30pm Protest. Corner of Ward and Sperry
1/15 4:00pm Public Meeting. Hammon Senior Center 1033 West Las Palmas, Patterson
1/21 6:30pm City Council Meeting. 1 Plaza Circle. - request they take a stand, voice concerns
1/27 5:00pm Public Comments DUE. OR Anthea Hansen PO Box 1596 Patterson CA 95363
1/28 9:00am Board of Supervisors Meeting 1010 10th St Modesto CA - voice concerns, they have final decision

Friday, January 10, 2020

To the Unprepared, it is the Place of Death; For Scholars of Earth History, it's a Wonderland. Join us, February 13-17, in Death Valley!

Some lands are harsh and lie at the limits of human survival...visiting or inhabiting these lands without preparation would be deadly, and if you are dying of thirst or exposure, you're hardly going to care about the rugged beauty around you.

People have lived in this place in small numbers for at least 10,000 years. Four distinct cultures are known, including the Timbisha Shoshone who still live in the region. They were able to live and thrive within the limits imposed by this extreme desert environment. The first Europeans to arrive during the Gold Rush era were not prepared for the conditions, and it was they who conferred the present-day name of the park: Death Valley.

We are privileged to live in a time and place where technology allows us to visit these lands with our basic needs fulfilled, allowing us to appreciate the landscape and story behind the scenery. This is not to minimize the risks involved when the technology (or basic intelligence) fails us. Death Valley continues to be a dangerous place for the unprepared and people get into serious predicaments every year.
But what a place it is! Death Valley National Park is the largest park in the lower 48 states, and it preserves upwards of 2 billion years of earth history. The story in the rocks is more complete than any other park in the country, including even the Grand Canyon. The Paleozoic sediments alone are 20,000 feet thick, and the late Proterozoic rocks add 15,000 feet more. There are metamorphic rocks that are among the oldest in the American west, and volcanic rocks that are among the youngest (perhaps only a few hundred years).
The landscape is spectacular as well. The floor of Death Valley is the lowest and driest place in North America, and the hottest place in the world. Elevations range from -286 feet to more than 11,000 feet. There are times when one can stand in the broiling sun at Badwater and look at snowbanks on Telescope Peak. There are faults and badlands, alluvial fans and barren salt flats. There are hundreds of plant and animal species, including four species of fish (seriously).

Does this sound intriguing, a kind of place that you might like to visit? You could be there in a few weeks, and learn the details of the geologic story of this unique and precious place. I'll be teaching a 2-unit course on the geology Death Valley through Modesto Junior College on Feb. 13-17, 2020. We'll be camping out and spending our days hiking and exploring this fascinating place. If this all sounds interesting, join us! If you live in the Modesto area, we'll have an informational meeting on Thursday, January 30 at 5:30 PM in Science Community Center Room 326. If you can't make the meeting, all the trip information is available at the class website  at: Information on registration for classes at Modesto Junior College can be found at

Come and join us!

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Since I Have to Miss the Penumbral Wolf Moon Eclipse...

Nothing of great consequence in this post tonight, just a lovely moonrise. I was walking along the Tuolumne River watching the clearing skies from last night's storm (0.41", a bit more than expected). It had been very cloudy all day, but the sun finally started peeking out here and there. And then all of the sudden there was the nearly full moon.
The actual full moon takes place tomorrow at 11:21 AM (PST), and it will be accompanied by a penumbral eclipse, meaning that the moon will pass just along the edge of the Earth's shadow, and will be slightly darkened, but will not go through any kind of total blackness. Unfortunately at the moment of the eclipse, the moon will only be visible from the other side of the world. So I'll have to miss it, but that's okay.
The full moon in January is most often known as the Wolf Moon, based on a cultural memory of wolves howling in the woods outside of settlements in cold winter environments. That's not a memory of most people these days, although I could personally tell stories of coyotes howling in the desert on cold nights in places like Death Valley National Park.

Have you ever seen an actual wolf in the wild? I've had that privilege just once, in Yellowstone National Park in 2011. To this day thank Ryan and Laura for their alertness!

The view to the west wasn't so bad either. We've had a week of gorgeous sunsets.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Getting to Know Special Places: An Invitation to Explore the Tuolumne River (And Birds! Lots of Birds)

Not all of you know that I actually have two blogs. Geotripper has been active since the late Paleozoic of cyberworld (2008), but I've also been producing Geotripper's California Birds since 2014. I came to love birds at first because of some journeys to the Hawaiian Islands where I was introduced to the unique native species there. Then I ended up with a pretty powerful camera lens that allowed me to see our local birds up close, and from then I was hooked.

I started writing (and just posted) a year-end summation of our bird discoveries this year on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail, and by the time I finished, I realized I had written a fairly extensive description of my 'special place', the kind of place I wrote about in the previous post about seeing as much of the world as possible. So here is a description of my place, along with the absolutely fascinating birds that are found there.
The first bird of 2019 near the Tuolumne River

The Tuolumne is one of the most spectacular rivers in North America, with its headwaters in the alpine country of Yosemite National Park. It flows through a gorge as deep as the Grand Canyon, is trapped for a time in Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, and then flows free again for a number of miles before being trapped again in Don Pedro Reservoir. After that, the river flows unimpeded until it joins the San Joaquin River near the Sacramento Delta. The stretch I walk almost daily is a two mile trail (the Tuolumne River Parkway) where the river emerges from the Mother Lode of the Sierra Nevada into the Central Valley.
High water, 2017. At around 15,000 cfs, portions of the trail are underwater.

The river has many moods. Although the flow is controlled by the dams upstream, there are times when the dams have to open their spillways to prevent them being overwhelmed by floodwaters. For much of the year, the flow is artificially kept at around 200-400 cubic feet per second (cfs). During 'normal' years, there will be a few 'surge' flows to help the salmon runs, and the water will reach 2,000-3,000 cfs. But in emergencies, the flows will reach 18,000 cfs or more (the worst ever was 1997 when the flows reached a record 70,000 cfs). At 15,000 cfs, almost the entire floodplain is inundated and portions of the trail end up underwater (see above, from 2017).
The first Bald Eagle to be reported officially on the Parkway Trail
I don't see many mammals on my walks (squirrels of course, and the occasional river otter or fox), but the birds are an ever-changing drama, as you have no doubt noticed if you follow this blog. I have become a familiar sight to the river 'regulars' as the quirky old man who is always looking up and taking pictures of birds. I was astounded to discover the variety of birds who call the river home (or their migration stopover).
Western Tanager, a summer migrant along the river. One our most colorful species.
I have been counting all of the birds I've seen on my excursions. They get reported on e-Bird, which is one of the main citizen science birding organizations. With thousands upon thousands of reports daily, E-bird is able to track the numbers and movements of bird species all over the world, and the data is available online. When you enjoy numbers the way I do, you'll understand how easy it can be to get lost for hours on their website. It might seem overwhelming at first, but e-Bird encourages reports every day, and not just for unusual or exotic species. They also want to know what is happening in backyards and urban parks as well. Over time, we'll be able to see the effects of global warming on bird migration and populations, so the reports, however mundane they might be, are extremely important.
A Hooded Oriole. They nested on the bluffs this year and usually head south in the winter, but two of them remained in late November, the only ones reported in Central California
This was the first year when I have made at least one bird report of each week of the year, and my counts along with those of several other birders have revealed the diversity of bird life on this long abused river environment. In 2019, 116 bird species were reported. That placed the Tuolumne as the sixth most diverse birding "hot spot" in our county, behind only the Modesto Wastewater Treatment Ponds (!), and four sites within the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge (that's for the year; for all time, the river trail is tied for 20th out of more than 100 hot spots in the county).
A Rufous Hummingbird along the river. I saw only a couple this year as they migrated through the region.
Walking along the river, one becomes familiar with many of the individual birds. There are the year-round residents: California Scrub Jays, Northern Mockingbirds, European Starlings, Eurasian Doves, Yellow-billed Magpies, Belted Kingfishers, and Canada Geese. A different group hangs out at the water treatment ponds midway along the trail: Killdeer, Greater Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpipers, Least Sandpipers and Black Phoebes. There are three woodpecker species that can be seen nearly every day, Acorn Woodpeckers, Nuttall's Woodpeckers, and Northern Flickers. A pair of Mute Swans have raised several broods in the quarry lake across from the western trailhead.

A female Phainopepla. The males are entirely black.
Then there are the migrants, those that are resident for only part of the year. The spring and summer brings the colorful tropical birds from Mexico and Central America. They include the Western Tanager, the Black-headed Grosbeak, the Bullock's Oriole, the Hooded Oriole, and the Rufous Hummingbird. I'm a sucker for bright colors, so these are my favorite birds to see. I catch my breath every time I spot one of the them and I'm tense all through March and April waiting for their first arrival (although I had a tremendous shock in November, having two sightings of extremely unseasonable Hooded Orioles). The Phainopepla is another tropical favorite whose range is extending northward, and I've seen them at odd times throughout the year.
A male Bullock's Oriole. Like many birds, the females are less colorful.

The spring also brings the swallows, the Barn Swallow, Tree Swallow, Cliff Swallow, and Northern Rough-winged Swallow. The sky is sometimes filled with hundreds of them.

American White Pelicans occasionally fly over the Tuolumne River
The raptors are always around, including Red-tailed Hawks, Red-shouldered Hawks, Swainson's Hawks, Turkey Vultures (check this link for a 'cute' baby vulture 'smoking' a cigarette), Ospreys, Cooper's Hawks (see photo above), and American Kestrels. I had a single sighting this year of a Northern Harrier, and a Sharp-shinned Hawk.
The shallows of the Tuolumne provide good fishing for the Osprey (also known as the Sea Hawk).
There were the single sightings this year...a flyover of Sandhill Cranes, several kinds of duck passing through, including Ring-necked, and Buffleheads, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, a Red-breasted Sapsucker, and several flycatchers and warblers.
Red-breasted Sapsucker, seen just once this year along the Tuolumne.
What did I miss seeing the most? My most desired sightings are a pair of blue-colored birds: the Lazuli Bunting, and the Blue Grosbeak. I saw a Bunting in 2018, and I saw both birds this year along other parts of the river. But I didn't see any this year on the Parkway Trail. Anyone want to guess what I'll be watching for in a few months?
Lazuli Bunting at Ceres River Bluff Regional Park, downstream of the Parkway Trail

I saw a Blue Grosbeak several times, at the Ceres River Bluff Regional Park downstream from the Parkway Trail, and I was especially surprised to find the bird upstream at Robert's Ferry Bridge. To make the experience even stranger, I saw a bobcat a few moments later. Our region is at the extreme north end of the range of this tropical bird.
Blue Grosbeak at Ceres Bluff Regional Park, downstream of the Tuolumne Parkway Trail
The highlight of the year? I saw a bird seen in Stanislaus County only four times previously: a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. It's a bird whose range is really in the eastern U.S., but a very few wind up in California. I was tracking some Black-headed Grosbeaks, and this individual flew by and landed in a nearby oak long enough for a couple of pictures (which I'm glad I got; I don't think anyone would have believed me without them). It was a thrilling moment for me and the four other birders who made out to Waterford in time to see it.

If you are a glutton for punishment, here is the complete list of all the Tuolumne River's 116 birds seen in 2019 (the all-time list numbers 133 species). If you click on the name, you'll be taken to eBird description of the species. If you want to contribute to the 2020 list, you can find it here: I'm still an amateur at this, and would love the help of sharper-eyed people than myself. Who knows what we can find this year!
1 Canada Goose
2 Mute Swan
3 Wood Duck
4 Common Goldeneye
5 Eurasian Collared-Dove
6 Mourning Dove
7 White-throated Swift
8 Least Sandpiper
9 Greater Yellowlegs
10 California Gull
11 Great Egret
12 Red-tailed Hawk
13 Belted Kingfisher
14 Acorn Woodpecker
15 Nuttall's Woodpecker
16 Northern Flicker
17 American Kestrel
18 Black Phoebe
19 California Scrub-Jay
20 Yellow-billed Magpie
21 Ruby-crowned Kinglet
22 Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
23 European Starling
24 Northern Mockingbird
25 Cedar Waxwing
26 House Finch
27 White-crowned Sparrow
28 Golden-crowned Sparrow
29 Orange-crowned Warbler
30 Yellow-rumped Warbler
31 Ring-necked Duck
32 Wild Turkey
33 Spotted Sandpiper
34 Double-crested Cormorant
35 Great Horned Owl
36 American Crow
37 Lincoln's Sparrow
38 Pied-billed Grebe
39 Rock Pigeon
40 Anna's Hummingbird
41 Bonaparte's Gull
42 Bushtit
43 White-breasted Nuthatch
44 American Robin
45 House Sparrow
46 American Goldfinch
47 Dark-eyed Junco
48 Killdeer
49 Lesser Goldfinch
50 Sharp-shinned Hawk
51 Red-shouldered Hawk
52 Oak Titmouse
53 Downy Woodpecker
54 Northern Pintail
55 California Towhee
56 Spotted Towhee
57 Snowy Egret
58 American Wigeon
59 Cooper's Hawk
60 Hooded Oriole
61 American Coot
62 Western Bluebird
63 Green Heron
64 Northern Shoveler
65 Bufflehead
66 House Wren
67 Turkey Vulture
68 Hermit Thrush
69 Lesser Yellowlegs
70 Northern Harrier
71 Barn Owl
72 Phainopepla
73 Brewer's Blackbird
74 Great Blue Heron
75 American White Pelican
76 Hooded Merganser
77 Greater White-fronted Goose
78 Western Meadowlark
79 Mallard
80 Sandhill Crane
81 California Quail
82 Song Sparrow
83 White-faced Ibis
84 Osprey
85 Red-breasted Sapsucker
86 Western Wood-Pewee
87 Western Tanager
88 Warbling Vireo
89 Black-throated Gray Warbler
90 Wilson's Warbler
91 Barn Swallow
92 Black-chinned Hummingbird
93 Willow Flycatcher
94 Bullock's Oriole
95 Cattle Egret
96 Rufous Hummingbird
97 Cliff Swallow
98 Ash-throated Flycatcher
99 Western Kingbird
100 Black-headed Grosbeak
101 Northern Rough-winged Swallow
102 Tree Swallow
103 Wrentit
104 Swainson's Hawk
105 Forster's Tern
106 Rose-breasted Grosbeak
107 Brown-headed Cowbird
108 Cinnamon Teal
109 Townsend's Warbler
110 Olive-sided Flycatcher
111 Common Merganser
112 Black-necked Stilt
113 Savannah Sparrow
114 Bald Eagle
115 Say's Phoebe
116    Fox Sparrow